The county town of Besalú conserves a unique set of Jewish heritage in Catalonia: a Mikveh from the 12th century and traces of a synagogue closed in the 13th century. In 1966 Besalú was declared a national historic-artistic site. Since that time many finds have been made and amazing recovery of heritage has been developed. Its medieval, irregular laid out streets adapted to the city's orography, the arches, the steps, the stone houses, the shops that open all the year round to offer the traveller the craft products of the district, the superb Romanesque bridge providing access to the urban core, passing over the waters of the Fluvià..., everything in Besalú retains the charm of a time when this now small settlement of the Girona Garrotxa was a major market and the head of a prosperous, powerful county whose Jewish doctors enjoyed international fame and whose aljama, in the service of the counts, possibly accounted for between ten and fifteen per cent of its population.

Located at the top of a mountain at the confluence of the rivers Fluvià and Capellades (its name in Latin, Bisuldunum, indicates its position as a stronghold between two river flows), Besalú has been a strategic site since the times of the Celts and Iberians with signs of inhabitation since the 6th century BC. For over a century since the death of Wilfredo el Velloso (Wilfred the Hairy) in 902 until the death of Bernardo III in 1111, when it was transferred to Casa de Barcelona, Besalú constituted the head of a highly prosperous independent county as are recalled by the beautiful Romanesque buildings which have survived until today.

It is commonly accepted that the Jews arrived in Catalonia in the Early Middle Ages with the first contingent comprising between ten and twelve thousand people, in other words, between four and seven per cent of the Catalan population at that time. Alongside the large aljamas of Catalonia, like those of Barcelona (with over four thousand people) and Girona (with around a thousand), Besalú constitutes a small community of around one hundred to one hundred and fifty people but this didn't stop its Jewish quarter from becoming one of the major ones in the Middle Ages.

The Jews set up in the county of Besalú as from the 9th century but we are unable to find any written documentation of their presence until the 13th century. The oldest documents date back to 1229 when King Jaime I the Conqueror informed the Jews of Besalú and Girona that at the behest of the papal legate of Gregory IX and at the requests of the Bishop of Girona Guillem de Cabanelles, notaries were forbidden from issuing loan contracts with interest at twenty per cent, failing which they would be subject to a fine of twice the contractual sum whilst simultaneously forbidding Jews from cohabiting with Christians. From that juncture, we can find continuous references to the Jews of Besalú, the synagogue, the mayors and the Jewish functionaries. The Jews held official posts in the city and in the Jewish quarter in particular such as bailiffs and secretaries of the aljama: in 1274 this was held by Cresques Perfet and ten years later by Belshom Leví, Benveniste Zabarra and Vidal Tauler.

Until the 14th century the Jewish quarter of Besalú was represented by the secretaries of the Girona aljama, though sometimes a specific secretary would represent them such as in 1326 when the secretaries of the aljama of Besalú are mentioned without giving out their names, although many of the names of members of their community were stated such as Caravita de Porta, Caracuasa Mair, Isjaq Astruc, Vidal de Moneéis, Vertzelay Benvenist, Salomó Graciaà, Astruc Zarc, Bonjuha Cavaller, the son of Astruc Maimó and Biona Bonjuha who undertake before the porter of Prince don Alfonso to pay the aljama of Besalú whatever they were due to settle.

The names of the Jews of Besalú are so characteristic that they seem to have their own identity: its Jewish quarter was made up of families with a long trajectory and tradition in the neighbouring counties since the 13th century. Jewish surnames in Besalú can still be traced today in Israel: Balmanya, Moses Besalú, Carcassona, Vides Durán... In the first half of the 14th century the surnames Benet, Alatzar, Pairusa, Salomó Abraham, Piera and Goer were frequent and in particular Benvenist and Bonastruc Vital, Bonastruch Mercadell or Bonsenyor and Bonfill Bondía.

On October 4th 1264, Jaime I the Conqueror granted a privilege to the Jewish community of Besalú to build the synagogue. In the documents found, the Besalú synagogue is continuously related with the plaça dels jueus or Jews' square and it is situated there or somewhere nearby. The synagogue was discovered in 2005 alongside the Mikvehin the current Pla dels Jueus.

The Jewish community of Besalú underwent major growth until the mid-14th century, a process further boosted by the immigration of Jews from Al Ándalus and France from where they were expelled in 1306. The population of the Jewish quarters was estimated at around 300 people. It was a well-structured community with ordinances and privileges similar to those of the Jews of Girona. This situation finally led Besalú to create its own collection in 1342. In this year King Pedro IV ordered that:

La aljama dels jueus de Bisulda e los singulars daquella sien tots temps separats dela cullita dela dita aljama dels juheus de Girona.

In other words, the king granted the Jews of Besalú the right to unit as a specific independent entity of the Girona aljama. Before this date all matters in Girona impacted in Besalú. From this time, the cullita of Besalú would extend its influence to the Jewish population nuclei in the environs which, as they were small in number, did not have their own legal status. This was the time of greatest splendour and religious and civil dynamism in the city. The Jewish quarters of Besalú was in contact with all the Jews of Catalonia and even with aljamas in the rest of Europe. The city came to fame with the prestige of its Jewish doctors known not only as good physicians but also as people who were astute in their business dealings and in the lending activity. In actual fact, in Besalú medicine was a characteristic profession as can be gleaned from a list of Jews who practised it during the 14th century and whose reputation went beyond national frontiers.

This age of well-being and progress only lasted for fifty years. The persecutions of 1391 marked the beginning of the end for the Jews in Catalonia. Some communities survived the slaughters and destructions of the Jewish quarters, but they were never to regain their former status. In Besalú there are no traces of the slaughter of 1391. However, an age of unrest began which reduced the number of Jews living in Besalú.

The Jews of Besalú did not live separately from the rest of the population until 1415. In this year the bull Etsi doctores gentium by the antipope Benedict XIII completely set the Jews apart as it forced them to live in the Jewish quarters. October of this year saw the creation of the call around the synagogue in the area where the majority of the Jews had traditionally settled, but not necessarily all of them. Hence, before said date there were Jews residing in different streets of the Besalú old town, at Portal de Bell·lloc, Puente Street, Forn Street, Plaza Major (Main Square), Rocafort street etc. After the arrival of the papal bull they were given a week to move to the new site, a period which was subsequently extended by a further eight days. As from 1436 the Jewish presence dwindled until finally disappearance. This was the mercy blow as the Jewish community completely disappeared two decades later. Only a few families remained until the end such as Des Catllar, Carcassona or Belshom Ceravita. Other began to emigrate to other Jewish quarters like Granollers, Caldes de Montbui or Castelló d´Empúries.

Besalú Call

Aerial view of the Besalú Call area

The Jews set up in the county of Besalú as from the 9th century , but we are unable to find any written documentation until the 13th century . The oldest documentary evidence dated back to 1229 when King Jaime I the Conqueror restricted their lending activities. From that juncture, we can find continuous references to the Jews of Besalú, the synagogue, the mayors and the Jewish functionaries.

The Jewish community of Besalú was bound between 1300 and 1342 to the Girona collect.After becoming an independent collect thanks to the privilege of King Pedro IV, the Jewish quarter of Besalú experienced its most successful period between 1342 and 1391 when it formed its own collect along with Banyoles, Figueres, Camprodón, Olot and Sant Llorenç de la Muga.Although there are no references here to the slaughters of 1391, what is for sure is that as from this date the city's Jewish quarter went into free-fall with a string of conversions or exile, firstly to other Catalan settlements like Granollers or Castelló dʼEmpúries and then to France. The famous papal bull of Benedict XIII of 1415 which laid down the requirement to segregate the Jews in closed districts helped to exacerbate the situation further. In no time the decree of expulsion was issued by the Catholic Monarchs as in 1436 there were officially no Jews in Besalú. Only a few families remained until the end such as Des Catllar, Carcassona or Belshom Ceravita.

Jewish doctors

The Jews were forbidden to practice medicine on Christian patients, but the list of Jews qualified as doctors, physicians or alfaquis is interminable in the documents of the medieval era: During the period 1350-1391 141 names are mentioned. By contrast, very little is known about their activity.

In the early 14th century, the doctor Jafudá ben Astrug Bonsenyor charged for the translation of a surgical treatise which has not been conserved and in Besalú there lived Abraham des Castlar or Caslarí (1325-1249), the author of various medical treatises in Hebrew about fevers, the plague and bloodletting. Maimonides (1135–1204), born in Córdoba, the representative of the highest level of Sephardi thought in the Middle Ages, also wrote ten medical works.

There were many Jewish doctors in the service of the monarchs of Aragón, Castile, Navarre and Portugal to the nobles and the high clergy. In 1279 Semmuel Abenmenessé was appointed the doctor of Pedro III of Aragón; León Mosconi was in the service of Pedro IV the Ceremonious. Rabbi Nissim Guerondi (Nissim of Gerona) cured Prince Juan, the future Juan I of Aragón; and Cresques Abnarrabí to Juan II of Aragón.

Cresques Abnarrabí, an eye doctor, addressed a letter to Juan II of Aragón reminding him of the successful operation to remove a cataract from his right eye. He writes to tell him he is unable to set a date for the operation on the left eye because twelve years would need to go by for the combination of the stars to be as favourable as in the previous case. Nevertheless, he informs him that:

Jo he mirat en aquest minvant axi com me mana vostra senyoria e lo millor es dimecres XIII de octubre, tres hores a miga apres mitg jorn, e aquesta es la millor de aquesta minva.

Church and Prat de Sant Pere

Medieval Feast at Prat de Sant Pere with the Sant Pere Church in the background

In an area already falling outside the scope of Jewish influence there lies the former Benedictine hospital of Sant Julià from the 12th century with a beautiful Romanesque gateway, now reconverted into a cultural centre and, in particular, the splendid Sant Pere Church which formed part of the former Benedictine monastery founded in 977 by the count-bishop Miró.

Consecrated in 1003 by Bernat I, the church is a real gem which is essentially Romanesque with its ambulatory, its abbey graves from the 16th to the 18th centuries and its Baroque belt-tower, watched over by two wonderful lions, a symbol of the fortitude of the Church above its main door.

On the same Prat de Sant Pere square is the Cornellà house, a beautiful civil Romanesque building from the end of the 12th century which conserves the stables and outbuildings of the service on the ground floor and on the main floor around a magnificent gallery with half-pointed arches, the house the Cornellàs which later belonged to the Llaudes family and is currently owned by the Solà-Morales.

Força Gate

Força Gate

From Plaza de la Llibertat, Compte Tallaferro street, recalling Bernardo I's nickname, regarded as the most relevant holder of the county of Besalú in its history, forks with the change in level. The main route on the left goes up to the Força gate or fortress, which connected the city with the fortified palace of the counts where the archaeological remains can be viewed of different constructions raised in this environment and characterise the new Call limits.

Jewish cemetery

Sant Miquel de Capellada from the Romanesque bridge

In the Les Arrals or Les Forques area, on the left of the Banyoles road in the direction of Besalú, to be precise, in the wooded area known as the Campanar, a very spacious area can be documentally determined where the Jewish cemetery may have been located.

Manuel Montserrat i Grau initially believed there to be two Jewish cemeteries in Besalú, one on the outskirts of the parish of Sant Vicenç called Montjuïc and used in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the other located in Campanyà alongside the parish of Sant Martí de Capellada, documented in around 1369. Later, he revised his opinion when he realised that the topographic denominations used in the documentation to refer to the fossar of the Jews (Campanyà, Reial, Montjuïc) were referring to the same place.

The Jewish cemetery area has not yet been subject to any archaeological intervention.

The cemetery

The cemetery was located outside the walls at a certain distance from the Jewish district. The chosen site:

  • Must be on virgin soil
  • Must be on a slope
  • Be oriented towards Jerusalem

The Jewish quarter had to have a direct access to the cemetery to prevent the burials from having to pass through the interior of the city.

After 1492 the monarchs authorised (in Barcelona in 1391) the reuse of stones from Jewish cemeteriesas construction material. It is thus not unusual to find fragments of Hebrew inscriptions in several subsequent constructions.

Despite the pillaging they suffered from the late 14th century, the memory of these cemeteries has remained in the name in certain places, for instance, Montjuïc in Barcelona or Girona. We are aware of the existence of more than twenty medieval Jewish cemeteries. Others are only known of thanks to the documentation or the headstones conserved. The one in Barcelona at Montjuïc was excavated in 1945 and 2000, the one in Seville in 2004, the one in Toledo in 2009 and the one in Ávila in 2012.

Mezuzah at 5 Pont Vell street

Detail of the mezuzah at the entrance to number 5 of Pont Vell street

That this entry area to Besalú via Pont Vell was where the Jews of Besalú lived is borne out by number 5 on Pont Vell street (marked on the tile with a 9) with a hole of the mezuzah conserved on the jamb of the door providing access to the property.

The mezuzah

The Bible twice orders the Jews (Deuteronomy. 6:9 and 11:20):

And you shall write them (the words of God) upon the doorposts of your house and upon your cities´ gates.

The Hebrew word for doorpost, mezuzah, has become the name of the object itself, the mezuzah, a rectangle of parchment on which the relevant biblical passages of Deuteronomy are written, 6:4-9 and 11:13-21.

On its back appears the word SHADDAI, one of the Names of God and the acronym of Shomer Dlatot Israel (protector of the gates of Israel).

The parchment is rolled up and placed diagonally on the lintels of the houses to always bear in mind the divine Word and Law. To protect the parchment, it is placed in a groove, rectangular and rounded, arranged vertically on the right doorpost and it is covered in glass or placed in a box with different forms and materials.

Mezuzah at Portalet street

The mezuzah

Portalet street is an evocative paved street with an arch and some steps where another mezuzah can be found on one of the doors of the street.

The mezuzah

The Bible twice orders the Jews (Deuteronomy. 6:9 and 11:20):

And you shall write them (the words of God) upon the doorposts of your house and upon your cities´ gates.

The Hebrew word for doorpost, mezuzah, has become the name of the object itself, the mezuzah, a rectangle of parchment on which the relevant biblical passages of Deuteronomy are written, 6:4-9 and 11:13-21.

On its back appears the word SHADDAI, one of the Names of God and the acronym of Shomer Dlatot Israel (protector of the gates of Israel).

The parchment is rolled up and placed diagonally on the lintels of the houses to always bear in mind the divine Word and Law. To protect the parchment, it is placed in a groove, rectangular and rounded, arranged vertically on the right doorpost and it is covered in glass or placed in a box with different forms and materials.

Mezuzah of the house of Astruc David/Cúria Reial

The gate where the mezuzah is situated

In Portalet an evocative paved street emerges on the right with an arch and some steps and on the left the Portalet street opens out which leads to the Cúria Reial, a magnificent medieval building which was the house of the powerful Jew Astruc David who sold it in 1362 to the King's prosecutor Bernat Cavallé. At one of the major gates of this property which was the head offices of Veguería, the Palace of Justice and the Royal Court, the hole of the mezuzah can still be seen, attesting to the Jewish origin of the house.

Inside the great Gothic all of the palace is worthy of note, revealing some beautiful pointed arches. On the ground floor a room has been made available where an audio-visual film is usually projected to help to explain the rich history of Besalú and its county.

The mezuzah

The Bible twice orders the Jews (Deuteronomy. 6:9 and 11:20):

And you shall write them (the words of God) upon the doorposts of your house and upon your cities´ gates.

The Hebrew word for doorpost, mezuzah, has become the name of the object itself, the mezuzah, a rectangle of parchment on which the relevant biblical passages of Deuteronomy are written, 6:4-9 and 11:13-21.

On its back appears the word SHADDAI, one of the Names of God and the acronym of Shomer Dlatot Israel (protector of the gates of Israel).

The parchment is rolled up and placed diagonally on the lintels of the houses to always bear in mind the divine Word and Law. To protect the parchment, it is placed in a groove, rectangular and rounded, arranged vertically on the right doorpost and it is covered in glass or placed in a box with different forms and materials.

Mikveh

The Besalú mikveh

Related with the synagogue, the Mikveh is the real jewel in the crown of the city. However, it was found purely by chance: during some well drilling works to collect water here in 1964, a resident of Besalú, Esteve Arboix, found the stone vault and then came across the rest of a construction packed with earth from different river flooding over time.

Studies by Father Nolasc del Molar and the subsequent view of the Rabbis of Paris and Perpinán, advised by that of Marseilles, determined the cataloguing of the mikvehas one of the most important in Europe.

The Mikveh in Besalú is a 12th century Romanesque construction annexed to the synagogue with 36 steps going down from the public square to the running water collection site and its state of repair is excellent thanks to the qualities of the sands from the river which covered it for years; on the third of the access steps to the swimming pool, the hole can still be seen which served to control the water level as the filtration was produced naturally. At different times of the year it is full of water and lit up, lending at even more impressive appearance.

Although the most frequent users of the ritual bath were married women, after the period the also resorted to the purification of the Mikveh the newly enlightened, the very religious men every Friday before celebrating the shabbat, those who had had to get in touch with a dead person during a funeral ceremony or those who wished to convert to Judaism. In some cases immersion in the Mikveh of food-related objects was recommended (some cutlery or crockery) which had been manufactured by a non-Jew and, in general, everything regarded as impure and which it was wished to pass on via the holy water.

The mikveh, the Jewish bath of purification

The Mikveh, the Jewish bath of purification, is an essential building in any Jewish community. Its functionality is the spiritual purification through total immersion of the body in the water and this is why it accompanies all the most important acts in the life of a Jew. The Jewish woman purifies herself after menstruation when she has to have a child and when she has already had one and both the bride and the groom right before the wedding. Converts to Judaism must be immersed in the bath and also anyone who has been in contact with contagious illnesses or impurities.

The person must be prepared for the act of purification. He/she must have washed and combed first so that the water totally impregnates them. The immersion is carried out three times to ensure this is the case. Men are usually purified on Fridays before sunset before the start of the Shabbat or day dedicated to God.

Plaza de la Llibertat (Freedom Square)

Porticoed colonnade in Plaza de la Llibertat

From the square, Canó street, flanked by magnificent palace-like houses, leads to Plaza Mayor (Main Square) or the plaza de la Llibertat in a historic setting where the documents state that they would settle conflicts between Jews and Christians in Besalú. Having adopted its current porticoed structure in the 16th century, from well before the square there has been a real crossing of paths on the routes uniting Olot, Figueres and Girona.

Pont Vell Street

The Romanesque bridge and fortified access gate to Pont Vell street

A large fortified gate marked the access from the bridge to the city as well as the start of Pont Vell street and it was right in this low area near the river where the Jews of Besalú resided. Next, on the left, the path down to the Mikvehbegins, leading to plaza dels Jueus where the remains of the former synagogue and the Mikveh or ritual bath of the Jews are located. Small souvenir and crafts shops have today taken the place of the hustle and bustle of said Jewish district where its residents practised many of those duties which were vital for developing the daily life of the city in an environment of carefully tended houses rife with popular flavour.

Portal dels Jueus (Jewish gate)

The portal dels Jueus, recently restored

From the platform where the synagogue and the access door to the mikvehare located, some steps go down to the reconstructed portal dels Jueus which connects the river promenade of Besalú to the Jewish quarter. The promenade runs outside the wall, always right below the city wall as far as Portalet where the existence of a gate in the 14th century is recalled, also known as the Portal dʼen Closes and Portal de los Cortadores.

Remains of the synagogue

The remains of the synagogue at Pla dels Jueus

The Besalú synagogue, of which only part of the wall and the doors of the prayer rooms for men and women remain, emerges as from the Royal privilege of Jaime I the Conqueror so that the aljama has in the city its schola judeorum in 1264. This 13th century building was raised alongside the wall in an area with a special Jewish settlement as the call did not exist as such until the segregation of 1415; until that time the houses of Jews were spread around different parts of the city.

It also forms part of the recovered Plaza dels Jueus and for centuries it lay abandoned. At present, after the consolidation of the remains, it has been transformed into a new space used as a Call interpretation centre.

Different medieval documents between the 13th and 15th centuries mention various donations to this synagogue as it had already fallen into disuse before the departure in 1436 of the last remaining Jews in Besalú.

According to Jewish tradition, Moses received the five books of the Pentateuch going to make up the Torah or Law from the hand of God at Mount Sinai and from this time its study not only became the duty of every Jew, with more than an intellectual exercise, it was a truly religious experience. The Jews read the Torah at the synagogue at least four times a week: every Saturday (shabbat) in the morning and afternoon and on Monday and Thursday mornings - it was also read intensely during fasting or at the feasts of Hanukkah, Purim and Yom Kippur.

In the square alongside the Besalú synagogue with amazing views over the river and the Romanesque bridge a plaque, placed in 1992, recalls the work carried out to recover the Jewish past in the city by Doctor Manuel Grau i Montserrat.

The synagogue

The synagogue (place of congregation, in Greek) is a Jewish temple. It faces Jerusalem, the Holy City, and it is a place for religious ceremonies, communal prayer, studying and meeting.

The Torahis read at the ceremonies. This task is conducted by the Rabbis aided by the cohen or singing child. The synagogue is not only a house of prayer but also an instruction centre as it is there where the Talmudic schools are usually run.

Men and women sit in separate sections.

The synagogue interior contains:

  1. The Hejal closet located in the east wall, facing Jerusalem, stored inside the Sefer Torah, the scrolls of the Torah, the Jewish sacred law.
  2. The Ner Tamid, the everlasting flame always lit before the Ark.
  3. The menorah, a seven-armed candelabrum, a habitual symbol in worship.
  4. The Bimah, place from where the Torah is read.

Rocafort Street

Rocafort gate at the end of the Jewish quarter and the walled city

Rocafort street opens out along the wall which separated the county castle from the Jewish quarters, protected at its feet. Between the houses and the wall there is a narrow stone alley packed with medieval references, giving out onto the Rocafort gate at the end of the Jewish quarters and the walled city.

From here you can enjoy new views of the Romanesque bridge from a totally different angle to that of the synagogue and clearly appreciate the watchtower and the monument structure where the bridge changes direction, taking advantage of the large stones of the river.

On the way back to the Besalú entrance via Pont Vell, the steep streets which cross each other like that of Abraham des Castllar, enrich the walk around a Jewish quarter where the urbanistic transformations have not lessened its evocation of history.

Romanesque bridge

Romanesque bridge

Dated in the 11th century, with constant restorations over the centuries, the Romanesque bridge of Besalú constitutes real reception to the city with ample parking space at its beginning, a reception centre and the possibility of walking inside a nucleus which amazingly still retains its main medieval features.

In order to pass the bridge it was necessary to pay the price of passage or toll to the other side of the tower marking the angle of the bridge and controlling the entry to the city.

The bridge has seven spans forming an angle according to the support possibilities by the large river stones.

A symbol of the city, during the Spanish civil war it was blown up with dynamite and later rebuilt by the architect Pons Sorolla.

Glossary