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.

circa 1000
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.

1003
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.

circa 1150
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.

October 4th, 1264
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.

1300 - 1342
Besalu incorporated into the Girona tax system

The Jewish community of Besalú was bound between 1300 and 1342 to the Girona collect.

1342 - 1391
The heyday of the Besalu Call

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.

1362
Astruc David sells his house to Bernat Cavallé

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.

circa 1369
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.

1391 - 1436
The decline of the Besalu Call

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.

1964
The Mikveh of Besalu is discovered

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. .

Glossary