A guide to Maimonides's Cordoba

A walk through the streets of the Spanish town where Rambam was born yields traces of medieval grandeur.

maimonides rambam statue coroba 224 88 (photo credit: Cordoba Tourist Board)
maimonides rambam statue coroba 224 88
(photo credit: Cordoba Tourist Board)
Luxury hotels named after rabbis are pretty rare wherever you are in the world. But what makes Hotel Maimonides even more unusual is the fact that it is located in Cordoba, a city without a modern Jewish community. This Andalusian city was the birthplace of Moses Maimonides, the great rabbi and philosopher whose works included the Mishne Torah and Guide for the Perplexed. Ironically, modern Cordoba is a perplexing place and one could use a good guide. At first glance Cordoba's old Jewish Quarter (Juderia) is a pretty unimpressive sight. Its narrow alleyways, lined with simple whitewashed townhouses and souvenir shops, blend in with the rest of the Old City. Yet, this small and unassuming district is of great historical importance. The Juderia is home to one of only three medieval synagogues left in all of Spain (the other two are in Toledo). Located on Judios Street, the exterior of the synagogue looks like little more than a dimly-lit doorway. The interior of this modest building is no bigger than a living room, but its high walls are covered with Hebrew inscriptions dating from 1350. Amazingly, this was the only synagogue in Cordoba that survived the centuries of Jewish persecution because it was converted into the Hospital de Santa Quiteria and later a Catholic chapel in 1588. Today it is a museum, two blocks from the UNESCO-protected Mezquita, a unique mosque built in the Jewish Quarter that was later consecrated as a Christian cathedral. The Mezquita is the size of two soccer stadiums and was once a momentous place of worship. Thousands of people entered its gates every day. Blending Moorish and Christian architectural styles, it has almost become a symbol of coexistence and a major global tourist attraction. In recent years, as increasing numbers of visitors head inland to cities like Cordoba, tour operators have noticed a rise in interest in Spain's Jewish history. "From our side there is a lot of interest in the Sephardic Jews program," says Josu Camacho, of Ole Spain Tours, which organizes Jewish heritage trips around the country. "Our tours include stops in Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Cordoba and Barcelona. All of our tours have been fully booked and this summer is our busiest yet." The guardian of Spain's Jewish heritage is a non-profit public association called the Red de Juderías de España. "We promote cultural, tourist and academic projects," Rafael Pérez, the network's representative in Cordoba, says. "For example, on Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, we held a ceremony in memory and homage to José Ruiz Santaella and Carmen Schroeder, citizens from Cordoba who had saved the lives of several Jewish women during the Holocaust. We also arrange concerts of Sephardic music at Casa de Sefarad." Casa de Sefarad is a small house, opposite the old synagogue, comprising a library and shop specializing in Sephardic handicrafts, books and music. Sephardic songs can be sung in Hebrew or Ladino, an old Jewish language heavily influenced by Aramaic. Like other aspects of Sephardic culture, Ladino is experiencing a slight revival - singers such as Yasmin Levy have had moderate success in the "world music" genre. But in general, Ladino is a dying dialect. Most Ladino speakers are elderly people living in Greece, Turkey and Israel. Interestingly, Ladino was widely spoken in Cordoba around the time of Maimonides, although he wrote in Hebrew and Arabic. There is a saying in Hebrew that "from Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses." Indeed, Maimonides (often known as the Rambam) is still highly revered and many rabbis are self-confessed Maimonides "groupies." The teachings of Maimonides have put Cordoba on the map and today there is a statue of the Rambam sitting with a book in his hand on Tiberiades Square. Born in 1138, Maimonides left Cordoba after the Almohad invasion and settled in Fez and later Cairo. During his life, the Rambam was respected by Jews and non-Jews alike. He received letters from people from all over Europe and he answered them in Hebrew. His masterpiece, Guide for the Perplexed, was written in Arabic and tried to do the impossible - explain Judaism in a rational way. The eighth to 11th centuries are sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, as Judaism was able to flourish for a brief period. "Many Jews were craftsmen, traders, advisers of Christians and Muslims, but they also developed their own science, literature, religious studies and habits," says Pérez. "It is not known exactly when the first Jews arrived on the Iberian Peninsula, but possibly it was before the imposition of the Roman Empire. But what is certain is that Jewish culture found itself at home and with an important numerical presence." During the Golden Age, Cordoba was one of the most populous cities in Europe with more than 150,000 inhabitants. Paris and London were small villages in comparison. It is estimated that 5,000-10,000 Jews lived in Cordoba at its peak. "There are all kinds of research based on the taxes paid by houses and per family," explains Haim Ghiuzeli, director of databases at Beth Hatefutsoth. "But the accepted figure for the number of Jews in Spain before the expulsion is 200,000. Now, that is a huge number for its time. There were far fewer Jews in Eastern European countries." So just how was this sizable Jewish community wiped out in Spain? As the children's poem goes, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" and in the same year Spain also banished its Jews. When the Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, conquered Granada, all Jews were expelled from Spain on Tisha Be'av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. "It's a bit of a controversy how many Jews left Spain," says Ghiuzeli. "Half of them remained in Spain and converted to Christianity; some became assimilated in two or three generations and never to return to Judaism. The other half left Spain for Portugal, Italy and North Africa. Later they moved to the Balkan Peninsula, Greece and Istanbul, but that's another story." Years of persecution had taught Jews that they could be baptized and still practice Judaism in the secrecy of their cellars. These "Conversos" or "New Christians" were also called "marranos" (swine) by the non-Jewish population. To purify Christian Spain, the Inquisition was introduced in 1481 and was not completely abolished until 1834. By the end of the Spanish Inquisition the original Sephardic population almost completely disappeared. Thousands of people (Jews and Protestants) were discovered and burned at the stake. "There is a legend that when the Jews left, they cursed Spain," says Ghiuzeli. "They vowed that no Jew would enter again and the Inquisition made sure of that. Only in modern times have Jews returned to Spain. There was a large immigration during the 1930s and some Jews even went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Then there was a wave of immigration from Morocco and Gibraltar, which had been under British rule." Spain ended World War II with less than 1,000 Jews, nearly all Ashkenazim. In 1965 the first public Jewish prayer service since the Inquisition was held on the island of Mallorca. Only in 1968, when a new synagogue was opened in Madrid, did the government officially repeal the 1492 expulsion edict. Since the dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Jews have been arriving from Argentina, Chile and Israel, as the population continues its steady growth. Today, there are more than 15,000 registered Jews in Spain, although the unofficial figure is approaching 50,000 (according to research by Tel Aviv University). The Federacion de Comunidades Israelitas de España unites the communities from different parts of the country and represents Jewish interests to the government. The two major centers of Jewish life are now Madrid and Barcelona, followed by Marbella on the Costa del Sol. Other small communities are found in Alicante, Benidorm, Cadiz, Granada, Mallorca, Torremolinos and Valencia. But for some reason the Jews have never returned to Cordoba. There is no rabbi, no functioning synagogue and no signs of an active Jewish community. It is almost as if the Jews of Cordoba were transported to another time and place. There is an obvious link to Argentina's second largest city, Cordoba, which is 640 kilometers from Buenos Aires and home to more than 10,000 Jews. But that's where the comparison ends. Cordoba in Argentina is still recovering from an economic crisis, whereas Cordoba in Spain is one of the most affluent cities in the country. Cordoba is home to the headquarters of some of Spain's most prestigious companies, including Noriega, which designs and constructs enormous high-class developments. In some ways, the new Cordoba looks a lot like the outskirts of Tel Aviv, with its abundance of cranes building ultra-modern apartment blocks. Although inland Spain is often affected by drought, in Cordoba there are numerous outdoor swimming pools and squares adorned with beautiful, but wasteful, fountains. Almost everything about the city shows that it is on the way up. As outside interest in Cordoba continues to grow, perhaps the city will once again become a multicultural center for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Nevertheless, Spaniards are renowned for their slow and easy mañana approach, so any cultural revival will take a long time. Another barrier to progress is prejudice, and anti-Semitic incidents continue to occur in Spain. In August 2007, neo-Nazi graffiti appeared on the Cordoba synagogue and Casa de Sefarad. Slogans included threats in German such as "Jews out" and "Achtung, there are Jews here." When Jaime Sanchez, head of the Sefarad House, lodged a complaint with the national police, they refused to deal with it and sent him to the local police, which had it removed. Sanchez recalled that in early 2007 graffiti painted on the statue of Maimonides remained for three months before being erased. A number of groups could have been responsible for the graffiti. Far-right parties in Spain such as Democracia Nacional and Alianza Nacional hold demonstrations targeting immigrants (especially Moroccans), and there are also a variety of smaller far-left groups that openly support anti-Zionism. Last year, Susana Gordillo, Socialist mayor of Ciempozuelos, a province of Madrid, decided to dedicate January 27, the UN-sanctioned Holocaust Remembrance Day, to the "Palestinian genocide." This move was widely criticized after a complaint from Israeli Ambassador Victor Harel. However, there are signs of improvement. In July 2007, 120 young Jews, Muslims and Christians from all over Spain took part in a coexistence meeting called Hacedores de Paz (Call to the Peacemakers) held at the Cordoba synagogue. People sat on the floor (there are no seats in the synagogue) and discussed issues relating to religious hatred. Like parts of Eastern Europe, it seems many young people in Spain are discovering their cultural roots, whatever they may be. After a day spent walking around the Jewish Quarter, I stop in a café near the Mezquita, where I meet a lady named Monica Martinez, who asks why I am interested in Cordoba. At one point in our conversation, Monica says, "I think my family was Jewish. I can't explain why, but I feel a connection to the Jewish culture." It seems that even today, the traces of Conversos, those Christian Spaniards who are descendants of Jews, can still be found in the mystical city of Cordoba. Yes, Cordoba is indeed a perplexing place, but it is well worth making the journey.