The Golden Age Of Judaism In Al-Andalus (Part II) – Analysis


The Jews in Toledo

In 1085, Alfonso VI recaptured Toledo and thus marked the limit of the cross and the crescent. The Christian monarchs protected the Jews, who were very useful in administering the new territories, collecting taxes and ensuring contacts in Arabic. The Jews became rich as ministers of finance in Castile and Aragon and they advanced taxes to the kings. (Read: The Golden Age Of Judaism In Al-Andalus (Part I) – Analysis)

By the 12th century, all of Spain was Christian, except for Granada. A new golden age of Spanish Judaism in Christian lands began, especially under the reigns of Alfonso X the Wise in Castile, and James I in Aragon. As the new Jerusalem, Toledo became the capital of Jewish life. There were scholars, Talmudists, great rabbis and financiers. Catalonia also experienced a period of splendor, with Nahmanides in Gerona and Salomon ben Adret in Barcelona. The Jews did not interfere in political life and did not endanger relations between Christianity and Islam. Legally, they were the property of the king, who protected them while placing them at his mercy.

With the success of the Reconquista, the power of the Church became more and more important, as in the rest of Europe. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) decided on anti-Jewish measures, which were, however, applied with some flexibility because of political necessities, economic priorities and the urgency of the struggle against the last Moorish kingdoms. In Aragon, Jews were excluded from public office. In Castile, the Cortes made numerous proposals to limit the freedom of the Jews.

Toledo, Spain
Toledo, Spain

During the painful period of Black Death (1346-1353), (1) a certain amount of anti-Jewish polemical literature, and the participation of Jews in the civil war between Peter the Cruel and his bastard brother, Henry of Trastamare, encouraged the rejection of Judaism and the persecution of Sephardic Jews.

In addition, there was a decline in faith and a relaxation of morals and religious practice among the more privileged Jewish classes. The Jewish-Christian dialogue took a new turn and the Christian world considered conversion as a solution to the presence of this minority. This was the time of the famous Barcelona controversy (1256), in which Nahmanides triumphed only in part over the converted Jew Pau Cristiani.

Thus, all the elements were in place for the explosion of violence orchestrated by the archdeacon of Ecija, Ferran Martinez, who launched a campaign against the Jews in 1378. This movement intensified when he was appointed archbishop in 1390. Taking advantage of the death of John I on June 4, 1391, he instigated a riot that led to the destruction of the judería of Seville. A large number of Jews were forced to convert to escape death. The movement spread to all the juderías of Andalusia and Castile; those of Toledo and Cordoba, the most flourishing, suffered greatly. In July 1391, the wave reached Valencia, Majorca, Barcelona and Girona, where Jewish life disappeared completely.

Following these massacres, the Jewish community took on a new face with the appearance of the converso (“convert”), whose motivations and hopes were very diverse. On the one hand, the conversos of force practiced in secret. On the other hand, some of the conversos took advantage of the opportunity to become fully integrated into Christian society and to gain access to all the offices that were forbidden to them. Finally, some of them had a sincere desire to become Christians as a result of their forced baptism. The Tortosa “dispute” of 1413-1414, in which Zerahia Halevi and Joseph Albo debated the new Christian, Jeronimo de Santa Fé (José Halorqui), on the usual themes of Jewish-Christian polemic, may have been one of the last attempts to convince the Jews through reason. 

The Christian society wondered what attitude to adopt towards the Jews and the conversos. (2) It decided to separate the Jews from the converts, in order to make the latter good and sincere Christians and to prevent them from returning to Judaism. This was the mission that was entrusted to the Inquisition (3) in 1480. Thomas Torquemada, appointed Inquisitor General, made it a terribly effective institution, relentlessly hunting down “sympathizers” of Judaism and converts, in Spain as well as in Latin America, dragging them before the courts, punishing them by death, or condemning them in many different ways.

Coat of arms of the Spanish Inquisition: on either side of the cross symbolizing the spiritual character of the Inquisition, are represented the olive branch symbolizing grace and the sword symbolizing punishment

Judah ben Joseph ibn Ezra (Nasi) (4) enjoyed considerable influence with the king. After the conquest of Calatrava (1147), the king placed Judah in command of the fortress, later making him his chamberlain at court. Judah ben Joseph was so favored by the king that, at his request, the king not only admitted to Toledo the Jews who had fled the persecutions of the Almohads, but also assigned many fugitives to Flascala (near Toledo), Fromista, Carrion, Palencia and other places, where new communities were soon established. In recognition of his faithful service, a year after Alfonso’s death (1157), Judah received from his son Sancho five yoke of land in Azaña (Illescas) for himself and his children.

Toledo, the city of the Jewish Golden Age

The Muslim period from the tenth to the eleventh century was the golden age,” says Anna Maria Lopez Alvarez, curator of the Sephardic Museum in Toledo. (5) “In Al-Andalus (the Arabic name for Spain), the Jews had an easier relationship with power than in Christian lands. They pay a tax, but worship freely and go about their business.” Their influence extended from the economy to culture, via trade and poetry. 

The city of Tulaytula was taken over by the Christian army of King Alfonso VI in 1085. It became Toledo again. The majority of the Jews residing in the area known as the “madinat al-Yahud” decided to accept the Catholic domination. (6) To leave? Most of them did not consider it, because Toledo was their city, Spain their country, and had been, for a long time, at least since the beginning of the Christian era. To answer the accusations of “deicides”, (7) they argued that they have been in this land for a long time. A legendary justification will cross the ages, and Théophile Gautier  (8) echoed it in the middle of the nineteenth century in his Voyage en Espagne.  The French writer recounts that the Tolerant Jews claimed that they had nothing to do with the death of Christ. When they were consulted by the council of priests about the fate of the Son of God, they were in favor of acquittal. 

During the reign of Alfonso VI and his successors, the Jews of Toledo managed to keep their society alive amidst sometimes hostile outbreaks of fever. “In 1108, the city experienced its first anti-Jewish riot. They were nevertheless tolerated because they belonged to the religions of the Book,” explains Adeline Rucquoi, historian at the CNRS. “Even if the idea remains that they will have to be converted in the end, ” she goes on to say.

Traders, artisans, moneylenders, participated in local life, and their neighborhood was not cut off from the rest of the city. Some of them held prominent positions in the court: they were financiers or diplomats, or even advisors to the king, under the name of almojarifes. (9) In 1212, after the decisive victory of the Christians at Las Navas de Tolosa, the Jews mingled with other Toledans to acclaim Alfonso VIII. 

During the late Middle Ages the post of almojarife was usually occupied by Jews, who acquired great social and political importance, and used the title of don. Its origin seems to be in the 12th century. In that century Yehuda ibn Ezra was almojarife of Alfonso VII, while Ruy Capon would have been almojarife of Queen Urraca (and achieved a remarkable social ascent, after converting to Christianity, and being the origin of the alleged Jewish blood of most of the Spanish aristocracy, as denounced in the provocative book Tizón de la Nobleza). In the 13th century, among them were Abraham the Barchilon and two who belonged to Alfonso X the Wise: Çulema (Zulema or Salomon, died in 1273) and his son Yishaq de la Maleha (enriched especially by the leasing of taxes and royal salt mines, and condemned to the gallows in 1278 for embezzlement -from everywhere rained gifts, numerous bribes, uncountable bribes-). In the 14th century, the name was changed to treasurer major. In the second half of the century it was Samuel ha Levi (of Peter the Cruel, to whom he fell into disgrace in 1360), Mayr Abenamias and Abraham ibn Çarça. After the anti-Jewish revolt of 1391 (preceded in 1379 by the scandal and death of Yuzaf Pichón, almojarife and chief accountant of Enrique II and Juan I), the great number of conversions to Christianity made Judeo-converts take charge of the royal treasury. The case that marks the transition was Samuel Abravanel, who converted to Christianity under the name of Juan Sánchez de Sevilla.

In the eleventh century, under the leadership of Archbishop Don Raimundo, Toledo became a meeting place for European scholars, a center for the study of secular and sacred texts without equal, and the place where, for the first time, between 1126 and 1151, the Koran was translated into Latin. The Sephardic scholars were well versed in Arabic and sometimes in Greek, in addition to Hebrew. Religion, philosophy, science, and the most varied subjects were on their agenda. In the thirteenth century, the astronomer Isaac ben Sid translated works in his field for King Alfonso X the Wise. These men of science received the support of co-religionists from al-Andalus. For, since 1147, a wind of fear blew in the south of the Peninsula. The tolerance of the Almoravid dynasty was succeeded by the radicalism of the Almohads, the new masters of Muslim Spain. Faced with the choice of conversion or death, many Jews found refuge in the Christian kingdoms. 

At the end of the 14th century, a new turning point and new torments in this Spain that the Reconquista was making more and more Catholic: the era of sol y sombra (sun and shade), a mixture of tolerance and conflicts, was over. Dominican and Franciscan monks imposed the idea that Jews had no place in Catholic society. 

In 1391, one of these fanatics, Martinez de Ecija, unleashed, by fiery preaching to the little people of the cities, a fury of massacres and forced conversions in Seville, Valencia or Toledo. He ordered the priests “to raze the synagogues where the enemies of God and the Church indulged in idolatry“. 

The troubled history of Spain and the Jews does not end there. The conversos became the target of the Inquisition created in 1478 to fight against bad Christians. In Toledo, between 1485 and 1500, 90% of the victims of the monks of the inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada were of Jewish origin. The country was won over by the obsession with “blood purity” (limpieza de sangre). In the seventeenth century, the poet Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) wrote a text evoking the Jewish plot. These are the first “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” [an anti-Semitic pamphlet produced by the Czar’s police at the end of the 19th century], explains historian of ideas Henry Méchoulan. Quevedo tells us that the Jews meet in Istanbul to plot evil deeds against Christianity! It was not until the 19th century that Jews returned to Spain. Today, there are only about 15,000 Jews in Spain and the decree of expulsion was not officially repealed until 1967. 

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the wandering philosopher over the centuries whose philosophical reputation never waned. His extensive work, of which The Guide for the Preplexed  is the most famous, remains at the center of contemporary Jewish thought. It has been studied at length by Leo Strauss (1899-1973) whose personal story is also edifying, as it evokes the fate of many Spanish Jews in the Middle Ages. 

Born in Cordoba in the Al-Andalus of the Arabs, Maimonides had to leave his native country at a very young age, following the takeover of the Almohads. These radical Muslims forced the Jews to convert or go into exile. This was the beginning of a long wandering that led him to Morocco, to the land of Israel, and then to Egypt, where he died while being a doctor at the court of the Sultan. As a witness to the violence done to his co-religionists by Christians and Muslims, he explains, in his Epistle to the Jews of Yemen, that there is no shame or disgrace in converting under duress, and that it is better for a converted Jew who is still alive and practicing in secret than for a dead Jew. 

In 1492, by the decree of March 31, 1492, taken in Granada, (“May they never return“) the Catholic Monarchs expelled the Jews from Spain, in order to “put an end to this offense” to the “Catholic faith” which, according to them, their presence among the Christians constituted. “After careful deliberation,” it says, “we order all Jews to be expelled from our kingdoms and never to return. “The document states that they must be gone by the end of July, with no hope of return, not even for a simple visit.In case of contravention of the present edict,” the decree states, “they will incur the penalty of death and the confiscation of all their property.”

Little by little, the Jewish districts of the cities were emptied of their inhabitants. Some left Spain. Those who remained encountered more and more hostility. In 1412, an ordinance forbade them to hold public office, to cut their hair and beards, and they were forced to wear long black coats that reached down to their feet. 

Their situation continued to deteriorate, despite an attempt to give them legal status in 1432. This led to the expulsion decree of March 31, 1492, issued by the Catholic Monarchs. Judaism was described as a “serious and detestable crime“. Its followers had three months to accept baptism or sell their property at a loss and leave. The exile of a hundred thousand people, men, women and children, began, to Portugal, Italy and especially the Ottoman Empire, to cities like Istanbul and Salonika and to North Africa. 

Moses Maimonides (1138 – 1204): The man who transformed Judaism

Some say that he was the greatest Jewish thinker of all time, after Moses of course. There is even a saying: “From Moses (of the Bible) to Moses (of the time of Saladin), there has been none like Moses.“ In any case, Moses son of Rabbi Maimon, born in 1135 in Cordoba, Andalusia, had a considerable influence on Judaism.

However, he remains a mysterious figure, since the Jewish world, as well as the world of philosophy, continue to wonder more than 800 years after his death about the ins and outs of his complex and still relevant thinking.

At the beginning of the twelfth century, the golden age of Spain of the three religions is already only a memory. One can only speak of a “silver age” during which, although relations between intellectuals, poets and philosophers remained open, day-to-day relations between the populations had already deteriorated, following the expansion of the Reconquista and the withdrawal of the Arab kingdoms from Andalusia. Jewish communities were thus dispersed between the lands of the Christian kingdoms and Muslim Spain. This was the case in Cordoba where the young Moses, who would later become known as Maimonides, grew up.

His father was a judge in the rabbinical court and enjoyed a reputation that extended beyond the city. His father quickly recognized his son’s intellectual gifts and surrounded him with renowned Jewish and Muslim masters and teachers who taught him traditional knowledge, mathematics and philosophy. At the age of 16, Moses wrote his first book on theological terms and, for almost three decades, his father and brother arranged for his intellectual training to be completed without worrying about material matters.

Statue of Sephardic philosopher, Maimonides, in Córdoba, Spain. Photo Credit: Howard Lifshitz, Wikipedia Commons
Statue of Sephardic philosopher, Maimonides, in Córdoba, Spain. Photo Credit: Howard Lifshitz, Wikipedia Commons

The war disrupted what could have been a peaceful life in “El Andalusia”. In 1147, Muslim Spain was invaded by fundamentalist warriors from the Moroccan High Atlas, south of Marrakech. The Almohads, in Arabic “al-Mowaidoun” (those who proclaim the divine unity) had for program to return to the purity of the sources of Islam, to revitalize the kingdoms of the south of Spain and to oppose the Christian Reconquista. They did not recognize the right of the People of the Book, Christians and Jews, to live in their beliefs and tried to impose Islam on them.

As a result of this invasion, the family of the judge Maimon was forced to wander in the south of Spain, from refuge to refuge. They lost track of him for about ten years before being found in 1160 in Fez, Morocco, in the middle of the Almohad Maghreb. However, it seems that in Fez, the living conditions for the Jews were better, and we know that a Mozarabic community (Christians originating from Al Andalusia) was also located there. The presence of the famous al-Quaraouiyine University was undoubtedly also a factor of tolerance and openness, and it was in this setting that the young Maimonides studied medicine.

According to some sources, Maimonides’ family superficially converted to Islam, and in any case, Maimonides himself later wrote an epistle devoted to forced conversions to Islam in which, because of the closeness of the two religions, he allowed Jews who had been forced to do so to return to Judaism. Maimonides thus began to have a certain authority in matters of law at the age of thirty. Nevertheless, in 1165, following the assassination by the mob of one of the leaders of the Jewish community of Fez, Rabbi Yehuda Hacohen, the family of Rabbi Maimonides fled from Morocco to Saint-Jean-d’Acre, then the main port of the Frankish states in Palestine.

To evoke Maimonides, the great theologian of the Middle Ages, is for many to address only eminent scholars. Yet through his thought of perplexity, revolt, and contradictions, the scholar reaches us all. “We all have contradictions,” observes Géraldine Roux, “Maimonides showed that we could work through them without having to choose.” The fact remains that in order to read his work, some keys to reading are essential. This is what Géraldine Roux’s book, Maïmonide ou la nostalgie de la sagesse (Maimonides or the Nostalgia of Wisdom), offers us. (11)

Doctor, theologian, rabbi, astronomer, Moshe ben Maimon (Maïmonide) is the inventor of new theological and philosophical concepts. In a context of persecutions against Jews and Christians, from Cordoba to Egypt, he had an essential preoccupation, that of reading the Torah and the revealed texts in the light of Greek philosophy and the Arab-Muslim philosophers. “The great specificity of Maimonides is to practice an intertextuality“, explains Géraldine Roux. His great work, “The Guide for the Preplexed“, written around 1190, proposes a path of wisdom.

Maimonides, set forth thirteen articles of faith of Judaism, which are: 

1. God is the Creator and Provider of the world; 

2. He is one and only; 

3. He is spirit and cannot be represented in any form; 

4. He is eternal; 

5. To him alone we must address our prayers; 

6. All the words of the prophets of Israel are true; 

7. Moses was the greatest of all the prophets; 

8. The Law, as the Jews possess it, was given by God to Moses; 

9. No man has the right to replace or change it; 

10. God knows all the actions and thoughts of men; 

11. He rewards those who fulfill his commandments and punishes those who transgress them; 

12. He will send the Messiah, announced by the prophets; and

13. He will raise the dead to life.

The statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

Salomon Ibn Gavirol (1022-1054) 

This great poet, a protégé of the Naguid and his son, is the author of the 400 verses of The Crown of the Kingdom, a contemplative hymn dedicated to God and his creation, which was integrated into the Yom Kippur liturgy by the Sephardic communities. He also wrote in Arabic The Source of Life, a philosophical work in which he examined the principles of Neoplatonism, which were then being reintroduced by Muslims.

He is also credited with the prayer Adon Olam, which is recited several times in the daily weekday and Sabbath services in all Jewish communities around the world: 

“Master of the universe, who reigned before anything was created. When, by His will, all things were accomplished, He was proclaimed King. And when all has ceased to be, He alone will reign in glory. He was, He is, He will always be with majesty. He is unique and without a second that can be compared or added to Him. Without beginning, without end, to Him belongs the strength and the power. He is my God, my living deliverer, and the rock of my refuge in the hour of adversity. He is my standard and my recourse. He hands me the cup on the day I call upon Him. Into His hand I commit my soul, when I fall asleep and when I awake. And, with my soul, my body, God is with me, I am without fear.”

Judah Halevi (1070-1141)

Hebrew poetry in Spain, emerged in Cordoba in the 10th century under the caliphate of Abd ar-Rahman III. It is the combined product of two extremely strong cultural sources: classical Arabic poetry on the one hand, and on the other, the language of the Bible. Biblical Hebrew is the raw material used by the Jewish poet in Andalusia who draws from it, in all conscience, the linguistic tools of his poems.

From its first appearances, the Hebrew poetry in Andalusia used all the variety of thematic and prosodic frameworks of the poetry, first of all that of the pre-Islamic period, then that of the Abbasid period and finally that, characteristic, of al-Andalus.

On what concerns Sepahardic poetry, Zachary Hampel, Anjelica Lyman, Jonathon Moss, and Eliana Schreier, write: (12)

“Sephardic poetry was incredibly significant during the Golden Era in Spain. One of the most popular types of poetry during this time was wine poetry. These poems weren’t limited to the topic of wine, but have religious significance and are also able to depict the freedom that the Jewish people so yearned for. The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience states “poetry of the convivial Golden Age was enmeshed in a materialistic, hedonistic way of life that allowed for the coexistence of worldly and religious impulses” which truly depicts what Sephardic poetry was able to display (Gerber 1992). Jews are shown as a complicated community with joy, pain, and spirituality. Life is not simple, but it is evident that not only Sephardic Jews, but Jews in general, are eager for survival. “

Judah Halevi is presented by a whole historiographical tradition as the last of the line of Andalusian poets of the Golden Age. Their refinement, their philosophical experience and their social success incarnate the myth of al-Andalus, perceived as a place of “symbiosis between the Judaism and the Arab culture “, of “meeting of the three of the three cultures “or of “culture of tolerance “. The flashes of this golden age would have been related to a kind of redemption of the Hebrew in contact with the language and the culture. The Andalusians would have absorbed the genius of the Arabic language to resuscitate Hebrew as in the time of the songs of David and Solomon. 

This Andalusian lineage, which began with Samuel Ha Nagid (Cordoba, 993-Grenada, 1055), would symbolically end at the gates of Jerusalem with the journey of no return of Judah Halevi. This historiographical construction is the work of German Jewish scholars of the 19th century, who saw it as a model of integration into the surrounding society and of openness to philosophy, and of Spanish liberals, who used it to develop the myth of a Spain of tolerance and of three religions. It continues as evidenced by María Rosa Menocal’s recent work, (13) which makes Judah Halevi as a figure of the “culture of tolerance” proper to “Arab Andalusia.“ (14)

During his stays in the courts of the Taifa kingdoms, Judah Halevi frequented the banquets (mağlis), an institution that was the crucible of secular poetry in both Arabic and Hebrew. Judah Halevi is in the line of Jewish poets who, like Dunash Ben Labrat (920- 970) or Samuel Ha Nagid, introduced the standards of Arabic poetry into Hebrew poetry, which led to an upheaval of forms and content. (15)

The language used was henceforth exclusively biblical and the principles of Arabic prosody were adopted. As for the content, whereas almost all of the Hebrew poetry had hitherto been dedicated to the sacred and to the nation, it was interspersed with new themes: songs in honor of wine, love poems and poems of wisdom, funeral songs and panegyrics, etc. In these banquets (mağlis), the poet had to show at the same time a perfect control of the topics and the various kinds of the poetics of his time and an originality consisting essentially in improvisations and innovations in the field of the figurative language. Behind motives always more shimmering and inventive was to be found, invariably, the framework of the qaīda, the most ancient form of Arabic Arab poetry: (16) that of the hopeless desire of an unhappy suitor, in love with a beautiful, indifferent and cruel woman, who repels him. (17)

Annoyed by the attraction of Christianity, Islam and philosophy to the Jewish people, he wrote around 1140, at the end of his life, his great work, in Arabic Kitab alhuyya wa-l-dalil fi nusr al-din al-dhalil (The Book of Arguments in Defense of the Despised Religion,) better known by the name given to it by his translator Judah ibn Tibbon, the Kuzari  (18) in response to the questions of a Karaites, he said, inspired by the conversion to Judaism of the king of the Khazars and his people four centuries earlier.

He is also the author of elegies, grouped under the name of “Sionides” (or Songs of Zion), based on poems of nostalgia for the country or the beloved city, in this case Zion, some of which are taken up in the traditional liturgy of the 9th of April, which commemorates the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem. (19) One of these odes, Tsion halo tishali (Zion, what do you not wonder), although not originally composed for liturgical purposes, has nevertheless become part of the ritual of all Jewish congregations. It has also been set to music in a variety of melodies and belongs to the repertoire of popular songs.

The life-work of Judah Halevi was devoted to poetry and philosophy. (20) The scholar Jose de la Fuente Salvat elevates him as the “most important poet in Judaism of all times“. (21)

Manuscripts give some grounds for believing that Halevi himself divided his oeuvre into sacred (shirei hakodesh) and profane (shirei hahol) poetry. The poetry can be divided as follows (following the 1895-1904 edition by Hayyim Brody):

  1. Poems about friendship and laudatory poems (shirei yedidut veshirei hakavod): 138 poems.
  2. Pieces of correspondence in rhymed prose (mikhtavim): 7 pieces.
  3. Love poems (shirei ahavah): 66 poems, including homoerotic poems such as: That Day While I Had Him and To Ibn Al-Mu’allim.
  4. Elegies (kol bokim; kinot vehespedim): 43 pieces.
  5. Elevation of the soul to Zion; travelling poems (massa nefesh tziyonahshirei tziyon veshirei massa): 23 poems.
  6. Riddle poems (ḥidot): 49 poems.
  7. Other poems, various poems (she’erit Yehudahshirim shonim): 120 poems. 


The Muslim period from the tenth to the eleventh century was the golden age,” says Anna Maria Lopez Alvarez, curator of the Sephardic Museum in Toledo. “In Al-Andalus (the Arabic name for Spain), the Jews had an easier relationship with power than in Christian lands. They pay a tax, but worship freely and go about their business.” Their influence extends from the economy to culture, via trade and poetry where a little Judeo-Spanish music can be heard in the Arabic verses.

In 1492, by the decree of March 31, 1492, taken in Granada, the Catholic Monarchs expelled the Jews from Spain “May they never return“, in order to “put an end to this offense” to the “Catholic faith” which, according to them, their presence among Christians constituted. “After careful deliberation,” they wrote, “we order all Jews to be expelled from our kingdoms and never to return.

This royal document states that they must be gone by the end of July, with no hope of return, not even for a simple visit. “In case of contravention of the present edict,” the decree states, “they will incur the penalty of death and the confiscation of all their property.

The Jews, both during the period of al-Andalus and during the long period of Christian conquest Reconquista that extended until 1492, played an essential role in the transmission and circulation of the cultural and literary heritage constituted during the centuries of Muslim presence in Spain. They were also responsible for the re-elaboration of this multisecular and multicultural heritage in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Castilian and Catalan languages in different forms. They have bequeathed to posterity a rich cultural heritage that continues to feed the paralegal literature of the Hispanic communities in the broadest sense. 

The presence of numerous sapiential books, translated or not from Arabic and written in Hebrew, Catalan and Spanish in the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages by Jewish authors, compilers or translators attests to the great vigor of this genre. The Judeo-Spanish proverb, on the other hand, in its two areas of extension (Morocco and the former Ottoman Empire) and in its two linguistic modalities (haketiya and djudyó, djidyó, djudezmo or ladino) testifies to a great vitality. Yet, apart from numerous compilations and a few too few articles, the links of these contemporary proverbs with Jewish sources and medieval Jewish sapiential sources have been studied very little. It is rare for scholars working on medieval Jewish sapiential literature to exchange knowledge with Judeo-Spanish scholars (West and East).

The seven centuries of Muslim presence in Spain, from 711 to 1492, had a profound impact on the historical and cultural reality of the Iberian Peninsula, making possible the emergence of a civilization, that of al-Andalus – the term used by medieval Arab authors to designate Muslim Spain. The great architectural achievements, such as the mosque of Cordoba and the Alhambra of Granada, but also the Mudejar art and, in the intellectual field, the thought of Averroes and that of Maimonides, constitute essential works of the heritage of al-Andalus. The Christian Reconquista, culminating in the capture of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, opened a dark period of political and religious unification that tended to erase the evidence and contributions of this heritage and to subjugate, through violence and forced conversion, the communities (of Jewish converts and Moriscos) that were an integral part of what has been called since the middle of the twentieth century the Spain of the “three cultures “.

The limited coexistence between Moors, Jews and Christians during the medieval period, marked by fruitful collaborations and reciprocal influences, was followed, from the end of the 14th century, by a long phase of persecution of minorities (expulsion of the Jews from 1492 and of the Moriscos in 1609) and the deliberate sidelining of the culture and identity legacy of the Spain of the three religions. Since the rediscovery by Romantics in the 19th century of the vestiges and symbols of this often idealized medieval Spain, and the lively historiographical debates from the middle of that same century among Arabists and medievalists who later put forward the “orientalization” or, depending on their position, the “occidentality” of al-Andalus, the question of the heritage of the “three cultures” in Spain has never ceased to be inscribed, to varying degrees, within ideological and political strategies and issues. The latter are present in the discussions generated by the restoration of the architecture of this period, but also in the different uses of archaeological research that sometimes support the work of historians to establish certain facts by opposing the erasure of this past.


  • 711 Tarik ibn Ziyad, lieutenant of the governor of the Maghreb, Musa ibn Nusayr, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar with his troops and crushed the army of the Visigoth king Rodrigue. In a few years the Muslims conquered the whole peninsula, except for the mountainous areas in the north.
  • 722 In Covadonga, in Asturias, Don Pelayo won the first decisive battle against the Moors. This was the beginning of the Christian Reconquista.
  • 732 The Moors were defeated at Poitiers by Charles Martel. They retreated below the Pyrenees.
  • 755 The Umayyad prince Abd ar-Rahman disembarked from Damascus and proclaimed the indepen-dent emirate of al-Andalus, whose capital was Cordoba, in 756, subject only to the Caliphate of Baghdad in the religious domain.
  • 929 Abd ar-Rahman III proclaims himself “Prince of the Believers”. He breaks the ties with Baghdad and founds the Caliphate of Cordoba.
  • 1031 The Caliphate of Cordoba is dismembered into a multitude of independent kingdoms called Taifas.
  • 1086 Arrival of the Almoravids Berbers.
  • 1146 The Almohad troops, Berbers, land in Spain.
  • 1212 The Christian armies won the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, on the edge of present-day Andalusia. The Arabs were driven south.
  • 1236 The Christians took Cordoba. The Almohads abandoned Spain.
  • 1238 Birth of the Kingdom of Granada.
  • 1492 The Catholic Kings take Granada. The last Moorish king Boabdil leaves Spain. This is the end of the Reconquista
  • 1492 The Jews are kicked out of Spain.
  • 1469 Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon – the “Catholic Kings” – marry and unite their kingdoms.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu


  1.  The Black Death was a bubonic plague pandemic occurring in Afro-Eurasia from 1346 to 1353. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the death of 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa.
  2. Some, like Isaac (Fernando) Cardoso, managed to escape the Inquisition. Born in 1604 in Portugal, he was a doctor at the court of Philip IV. A respected intellectual, he knew the greatest figures of his time, including Lope de Vega, who considered him one of their own. A descendant of forced converts, Cardoso led an openly Christian and clandestinely Jewish existence. In 1648, at the height of his fame, he suddenly left Spain and took refuge in Italy. In Venice and Verona, he publicly professed his Judaism. He published, under the signature of Isaac Cardoso, one of the most beautiful texts of Jewish apologetics: Las Excelencias de los hebreos. Cf. Isaac Cardoso. Las excelencias de los hebreos (Amsterdam 1679). Translated from Spanish with Introduction and Notes by Yosef Kaplan, Bialik Institute, Dorot Library, Jerusalem. 1971.
  3. The Inquisition (from the Latin word inquisitio, meaning inquiry, investigation) was a specialized jurisdiction (i.e., tribunal), created in the thirteenth century by the Catholic Church and governed by canon law, whose purpose was to combat heresy by imposing penalties on those who did not respect the dogma, ranging from simple spiritual penalties (prayers, penances) to fines when the heresy was not established, and from confiscation of all property to the death penalty for apostates. Fighting heresies, the Inquisition could only condemn Catholics – including those who had made the free choice of baptism. Although the death penalty could be pronounced, it was only very rarely. Anne Brenon, a specialist in Catharism, estimates that 3,000 death sentences were pronounced by the Inquisition during its five centuries of existence throughout Europe. It replaced the ordination by introducing the notion of a court, a defender and minutes of the trial. Cf. Jesús Martínez de Bujanda. Index de l’Inquisition espagnole. Sherbrooke, Canada: Librairie Droz, 1984.
  4. Judah ben Joseph ibn Ezra was a Jew of Granada, Spain who lived in the twelfth century and rose to favor under Alfonso VII of Leon and Castile, eventually becoming the kings court chamberlain. Judah, a relative of renowned Grenadian poet and philosopher Moses ibn Ezra, was made commander of the fortress at Calatrava by Alfonso after its conquest in 1147. He enjoyed such a close relationship with the Spanish monarch that the latter, at his request, not only allowed the Jews who fled from the persecution of the Almohads into Toledo, but even gave many persons, fugitives dwellings in carrion, the Central part hortapronta, Flascala, Palencia and several other places where Jewish communities were soon established. Judah Ben Joseph used his influence over Alonso in the struggle for the cause of the exiled Spanish Jews to the death of the king in August, 1157.  With the permission of Alfonso, Judas also vigorously fought Karaism, which is gaining in Castile, and wrote a refutation of their arguments.
  5.  Pascal Ceaux. “ De l’âge d’or à l’exil, “L’Express dated December 19, 2007.
  6.  Théophile Gautier. Voyage en Espagne. Paris: Charpentier, Librarie-Editeur, 1845.
  7.  Jewish deicide is a historic belief, originally formalized as a theological position in early Christian times, which claimed that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. The charge was made as early as Justin Martyr and Melito of Sardis. In time, the anti-Judaic accusation that the Jews were Christ-killers fed into Christian antisemitism, and the slur proliferated inciting mobs to use it as a pretext for violence against Jews, contributing to many centuries of pogroms, the murder of Jews during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. (
  8.  Jules Pierre Théophile Gautier, born in Tarbes on August 30, 18111 and died in Neuilly-sur-Seine on October 23, 1872, was a French poet, novelist and art critic. He met the future Nerval at the Charlemagne College, then Victor Hugo, in 1829, whom he recognized as his master. He actively participated in the Romantic movement and took sides in the battle of Hernani, February 25, 1830, a period he evoked with humor in Les Jeunes-France (1833). His first poems, published in 1831-1832, went unnoticed but he distinguished himself from his romantic friends by his formalist preoccupations, castigating moralist or utilitarian visions of literature in the famous preface to his epistolary novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). He also wrote his first short stories such as La Cafetière (1831), in a fantastic vein that he will deepen in other works (Avatar in 1856, Le Roman de la momie in 1858).
  9.  Almojarife is a Castilian word of Arabic origin (from the Hispanic Arabic al-mušríf, and this from the classical Arabic mušrif) meaning the Spanish Middle Ages, especially in the Crown of Castile, the high officials of the royal bureaucracy in charge of the public treasury, or treasurer major, received the name of almojarifes. Almojarifazgo was the name of a customs tax, and those in charge of collecting it were also called almojarifes.
  10. Moses Maimonides. A Guide for the Perplexed, translated from the original Arabic text by M. Friedlaender, 4th revised ed. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1904. The Guide for the Perplexed (Arabic: دلالة الحائرين‎, Dalālat al-ḥā’irīn, דלאל̈ת אלחאירין‎; Hebrew translation, Moreh Nevukhim Hebrew: מורה נבוכים‎) is a work of theology by Maimonides. It seeks to reconcile Aristotelianism with Rabbinical Jewish theology by finding rational explanations for many events in the text.
  11.  Geraldine Roux. Maïmonide ou la nostalgie de la sagesse. Paris : Editions Points, Collection Sagesse, 2017.
  12.  Zachary Hampel, Anjelica Lyman, Jonathon Moss, and Eliana Schreier. “Sepharidic Art and the Ways it Keeps Sephardic Culture Alive, “op. cit.
  13. María Rosa Menocal. L’Andalousie arabe. Une culture de la tolérance (VIIIe –XVe siècle). Paris: Autrement, 2003: 134–146. It is a story of cultural mixing, tolerance and fratricidal wars that Maria Rosa Menocal undertakes to tell us. The surprising story of a brilliant civilization that flourished in Spain, then at the gates of Europe, and that the Reconquista (Christian reconquest initiated in the seventh century) finally abrogated in 1492, a symbolic date if ever there was one: Christopher Columbus discovered the New World; the Spaniards seized Granada, the last refuge of Arab-Andalusian civilization, and Isabel I the Catholic expelled the Jews from Spain, renouncing the terms of the Granada surrender treaty that required, in response to the city’s submission, the cohabitation of different religions. In spite of this conflictual relationship, the universities and scholars of Andalusia were transmitters of civilization: they bequeathed to us medicine and algebra, alchemy and philosophy, whose material they had drawn from the Greeks before enriching it. But the rise of religious fanaticism, punctuated by autodafés, put an end to what the literature of the time describes as a paradise of libraries, gardens and palaces haunted by poets and men of science. “Tolerance,” writes M. R. Menocal, “rarely meant the recognition of religious freedoms […]. It was manifested in the belief, probably tacit, that contradictions, in themselves and within a culture, could be positive and productive. “It was in al-Andalus that the Jews, deeply Arabized, rediscovered Hebrew; that the Christians made Arab culture their own, from philosophy to architecture, including and especially after the moment when they took power. Without falling into the trap of nostalgia, the author describes with ease and erudition one of the greatest cultural adventures of the Middle Ages.
  14.  Esperanza Alfonso. Islamic Culture Through Jewish Eyes: Al-Andalus from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century. London, New York: Routledge, 2010: 3–5. Islamic Culture Through Jewish Eyes analyzes the attitude towards Muslims, Islam, and Islamic culture as presented in sources written by Jewish authors in the Iberian Peninsula between the tenth and the twelfth centuries. By bringing the Jewish attitude towards the “other” into sharper focus, this book sets out to explore a largely overlooked and neglected question – the shifting ways in which Jewish authors constructed 
  15.  There is some debate among scholars as to the city of origin of Judah Halevi, the confusion stemming from the similarity of the Hebrew spellings of Tudela and Toledo. See Masha Itzhaki. Judah Halévi: D’Espagne à Jérusalem (1075-1141). Paris: Albin Michel, 1997, p. 15. However, a poem by his friend Abraham Ibn Ezra, who is more firmly known to have come from Tudela, states that they both came from the same city. See José María Millas Vallicrosa. Yěhudá Ha-Léví como poeta y apologist. Madrid: Consejo superior de investigaciones científicas. Instituto Arias Montano. 1947: 10. See, also, Itzhaki, Juda Halévi p. 23–35 given here above.
  16.  This poetry, the matrix of all Arab literature, has given rise to an abundant bibliography. From the perspective of the culture of travel, see the remarkable study by Salam Al-Kindy, Le voyageur sans Orient. Poésie et philosophie des Arabes de l’ère préislamique. Paris: Sindibad/Actes Sud. 2004.
  17.  On the importance of ante-Islamic poetry in the Taifa kingdoms, especially for legitimization purposes, see José Ramirez Del Rio. La orientalización de al-Andalus. Los días de los árabes en la Península Ibérica. Sevilla : Universidad de Sevilla, Secretariado de Publicaciones, 2002 : 207-227.
  18.  A translation of the first part can be found on the Jewish Virtual Library,  Jewish Virtual Library.
  19.  Richard Gottheil, Max Schloessinger and Isaac Broydé. “Judah Ha-Levi, “in Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
  21. De la Fuente Salvat, Jose. Yehudá Ha-Leví: el poeta judío más grande de todos los tiempos. Independently published, 2017. Who is the greatest Jewish poet? Few know that he was born in Spain, very few would suspect that he lived many centuries ago, almost no one would imagine that he was fluent in Arabic, and probably no one is fully aware of the immense legacy he left for Judaism, for world poetry, for Spanish literature, for literary studies and for the knowledge of the vibrant Spain of the Middle Ages, the one where Moors, Jews and Christians had their own history. Yehudá Ha-Leví knew how to trace his own history and although many Jews, medievalists and Hispanists have heard his name, only a handful will know that this intriguing character is the best Jewish poet of all times and will know where his passionate and mysterious verses live today. This book shares and unveils today that valuable and exclusive knowledge.
  22.  Arie Schippers. “Spanish Hebrew Poetry and the Arabic Literary Tradition: Arabic Themes in Hebrew Andalusian Poetry, “Medieval Iberian Peninsula Texts and Studies, 7, Leiden: Brill, 1994: 89–90.

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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