Under the protection of the castles of Zalatambor and Belmecher, forgotten for centuries as an archaeological treasure yet to be discovered, the Estella Jewish quarter played a major role in the great period of commercial and cultural splendour which the city experienced from its foundation in the 11th century until the late 13th century. In addition to passing through the historic, populous Rúa de las Tiendas, right in the heart of St. James' Way, a promenade upwards through the historical places where the old Jewish quarter of Elgacena was located, today affords the chance to discover the city from its very roots as the frontier stronghold in an environment packed with beauty defined by the curves of River Ega and the heights of Montejurra, Peñaguda, Santa Bárbara, Belástegui and Cruz de los Castillos.

What became the third most important aljama in Navarre after Pamplona and Tudela stood out for its commercial splendour and brought to the kingdom illustrious men and people who enjoyed the trust of the monarchs, which did not prevent it from experiencing painful episodes too which cast a cloud over the peaceful cohabitation of Christians and Jews. In Estella, a strategic point between the mountain and stream of Navarre, the memory of its Jewish settlers remains as a magnificent complement to the mark left by its medieval palaces and churches.

Located on the former Basque settlement de Lizarrara, and after the conquest in 907-908 of the Moslem fortress of Monjardín by Sancho Garcés I, facilitating the creation of Christian population nuclei in the area, the city of Estella was founded by the King of Navarre Sancho Ramírez in 1090 with a view to protecting pilgrims on St. James' Way and establishing a secure frontier here in view of the Moslem threat. Initially solely inhabited by franks with the exclusion of nobles, clerics and peasants from Navarre, Estella was developed alongside the narrow corridor which the River Ega leaves between its waters and mountain. San Nicolás street on the way to Logroño when it goes through the settlement constitutes, along with Rúa, the main thoroughfare of medieval Estella which would later become a strategic population for the interests of the kingdom of Navarre.

Since the last third of the 11th century there is evidence of Jewish settlers in the area of Estella under royal protection. Very early on, in the late 11th century, it is likely that the Jewish population grouped together in the Elgacena district, situated between the nascent town of San Martín and the fortress or castle of Zalatambor. This incipient community, the seed of the future Jewish quarter, was surrounded by the towers of the set of castles and the stretch of wall.

For decades the Jews lived in the Elgacena district, the first and oldest Jewish quarter in the kingdom of Navarre whose gestation and subsequent growth coincide with the age of the dynastic union with Aragon (1076-1134). In the last few year of this dynasty, already under the reign of Alfonso I the Battler, the development achieved by the Jewish community made it advisable for it to shift eastwards, up the mountain, until inserted between Elgacena street - at the back of the Santo Sepulcro (Holy Sepulchre) church and the steep slope facing South.

The participation of the Jewish minority in the configuration of the Frankish boroughs was decisive. In the middle of 1188, for instance, in a quarrel between the inhabitants of Lizarra and those of Bearin, a witness appears - alongside the Provost, the mayor of the town and ten good men and true - Rabbi Elías, a prominent member of the Jewish community. Shortly into the second half of the 13th century, the number of residents in the Jewish quarter may have been around 150, equivalent to ten per cent of the residents of Estella. The members of the Jewish community of Estella increased over time until reaching their height in around 1290 with around 180 homes. Although no documentary references have been kept, it is easy to imagine that for a population of this size there could be more than one synagogue, but no trace has been kept thereof. In its expansion stage, the Jewish quarter reached the bricked up limits of St. Dominic´s convent, erected by Teobaldo II in 1258 and situated on the slope of Roca de los Castillos. Shortly afterwards on March 29th 1265, this same King donated to two brothers, friars of the Grandmont order, a vineyard alongside the castle and some outbuildings of Santa María church of the Jewish quarter so that they could have their house or chapel there.

This power of the royalty always took care to grant its protection to these unique vassals. Protection which was also exercised by the monarchs of House of Champagne when they came to the throne of Navarre in 1234 after the death without leaving a successor of Sancho VII the Strong, the last in the line of the Jimena dynasty. Despite their origin –Count Palatines of Champagne and Brie– and their proximity to the court of Paris - the new «king-counts» maintained a prudent policy aimed at containing the growing Christian hostility against the Jews. As far as proved possible, they contributed to the development of this flourishing community. In the middle of 1237, shortly after taking the crown, Teobaldo I handed to Master Abraham Alfaquín the houses and press which had belonged to Juce, the son of Ezquerra for an annual income of 50 sueldos sanchetes (currency) or any other currency in force in the kingdom.

These properties, located in the Jewish quarter area, adjoined those of Jussua Euenvilla, the brother of Salomón and that of Samuel Calabaza; transfers (encumbered by an annual censos, for «judevencos» real estate and located on plots of the Jewish quarter) obey inheritance successions when the transmitting party (already dead) does not have any legitimate heirs and, consequently, the sovereign is the beneficiary. This is why, as will be seen later, the royal fisc received censos which it levied on some houses of the Jewish quarter. In any case, these illustrious names represent families residing in the Estella Jewish quarter from the early days of settlement almost one and half centuries before.

At the start of the second third of the 13th century, the internal organisation of the community was already up and running. This is the impression gained when analysing the treasury book for 1266, the first complete one which has survived. In this year, the Estella aljama contributed over 1,600 pounds, a by no means modest sum and which illustrates a community which is wholly organised, active and prosperous, capable of granting the King loans and making extraordinary contributions. This climate of understanding and collaboration was endorsed in the succession crisis which followed the death 0f Enrique I of Navarre. His daughter and heiress, Queen Juana –a girl of tender who was born on January 14th 1273 in Bar-sur Seine– was under the guardianship of the King of France, Philip III the Bold. In view of this situation, the mayor and jurors of the aljama of Jews of Estella, on behalf of the whole Community, swore on oath on the Torah and the Law of Moses to the Queen's representative that she (May 1276) was betroth with the heir to the throne of France, the future Philip IV the Handsome. After the attack on Navarrería de Pamplona between 1277 and 1289, the King of France sent the governor a series of orders pertaining to the safeguarding of the people and interests of the Jewish communities of Estella and its Merindad.

Between the 13th and 14th centuries, families like the Levis, Ezquerra and Calahorra, inter alia, made the Estella market into an active money lending centre. In the last quarter of the 13th century though, royal proclamations like the extension for eight years of the interest contracted with Jews by Christians or the penalisation of usury, which, in some cases, actually trebled the debtors' interest, indicated a break with the system maintained up to that point In actual fact, the great pressure exerted on the Estella aljama by the Christians and their authorities forced the Jews to claim the royal protection of Pamplona in the early 14th century, a century in which the Navarre monarchy would reveal it was incapable of defending Jews' rights despite the fact that the latter were regarded as the property of the king.

With the death of Charles I The Bald in 1328, Navarre experienced a power vacuum which the masses took advantage of to attack the Jewish quarter of Estella and destroy the credit documents which committed many Christians to pay. Contrary to that which happened elsewhere, the Jews, aided by Jews from outside the city who happened to be there, decided to face up to their attackers which caused the latter to ring the bells of the city to call upon the help of peasants from the outskirts. In his book Zedah-laderek, the scholar and historian Menahem ben-Zéraj¸son of Rabbi Abraham and a survivor of the massacre, recounts how they cut the throat of his father, mother and his four siblings.

After the attack of 1328, the Jewish quarter would never be the same again. Many houses in the Jewish quarter were sacked and some of its settlers ended up dead. In 1329 Queen Juana II imposed a fine of 10,000 pounds on the city as punishment for the aforementioned events, decreeing the death penalty for the main ringleaders and the imprisonment of other parties responsible such as the friar Pedro de Ollogoyen, regarded as guilty of stoking up the masses with his antisemitic sermons. Despite the goodwill of the royalty, these measures were generally not implemented.

However, the effective governance of the first Evreux heals the wounds and ensured a speedy recovery. The censos on houses were already being charged in 1333 and the pecha (tax) of one thousand one hundred pounds from before the attack was lowered to 300 and shortly afterwards in 1336 it was raised to 500. These and other updates were the subject to negotiation with the treasurer and put into practice by the bailiff and his deputy and even the aljama, faced by the new situation, drew up new ordinances (taqqanot) which entailed hefty costs for the «Honourable member». Thirty years after the attack in around 1360, the Jewish population of Estella regained its previous demographic level. The new inhabitants of the Jewish quarter were Jews from Lower Navarre (France, England), because the inhabitants of Estella which had taken flight to the westernmost Jewish quarters of the kingdom, despite being asked to do so by the crown, were never to return.

During the course of the 14th century with Charles II the Bad and Charles III the Noble, the Jews were still closely bound to the crown through families like the Leví and the Orabuena. León Orabuena, the doctor and chief rabbi of Estella, practised as a doctor of Charles III, a king as famous for his travels as for the pomposity of his court in which the Jewish doctors and astrologists shone. The existence of illustrious Jews like Sento Saprut, Abraham ben Isaac, David ben Samuel (author of Kiryat Sefer) or Judah ben Joseph ibn Bulat or the residence in Estella of the great writer from Tudela Abraham ibn Ezrá, make clear that the Jewish quarter in Estella - which numbered 85 families in 1366 - was star which slowly went out during the course of the century, coinciding with the start of a general decadence of the city which would not recover until the 18th century.

The expulsion of Spanish Jews as from the Decree by the Catholic Monarchs on March 31st 1492 had no impact in Navarre. In actual fact, it was here where many Castilian Jews expelled as a result of said decree took refuge in line with the policy promoted by the Monarchs of Navarre, Juan II of Albret and Catalina de Foix. Nevertheless, in view of the constant pressure exerted by the Castilian monarchs, the Monarchs of Navarre were forced to expel the Jews from Navarre in 1498. The majority of the latter preferred to convert to Christianity and remain in their homes running their businesses though some did go into exile.

Ancient St. Dominic´s convent

St. Dominic´s convent

Behind Santa María Jus del Castillo church there lies the St. Dominic´s convent, founded by Teobaldo II in 1259, a building packed with historic references (at which Courts were actually celebrated) and closely linked to the royal power; it was a Dominican monastery until 1839 and it currently serves as an old folks' home. In addition to the church, which is Gothic with just one nave, a large part of the monastery has been conserved after major restoration work though it is not open to the public.

Slightly more than a century after the Estella synagogue became Todos los Santos (All Saints) church, King Teobaldo II granted it in 1265 to two brother monks Pero Miguel and Fortunio, as well as a vineyard, so they could turn it into a small convent assigned to the order of Grandmont, providing it with some martyrial relics and becoming a place of pilgrimage for those walking to Santiago. The Order of Grandmont, founded in the 12th century in line with the teachings of the hermit Esteban de Thiers in Limoges, was based on the observance of strict poverty and total isolation from the world.

Ancient synagogue

The Santa María Jus del Castillo church built on the former synagogue

The old synagogue of the Elgacena district was located where the church of Santa María Jus del Castillo is situated today. After the abandonment of the Jewish quarter in 1135, King García Rámirez donated the synagogue in 1145 to the Bishop of Pamplona Don Lope de Artajona so he could build a church there and making the synagogue disappears.

During the restoration work on Santa María de Jus del Castillo church, the archaeological intervention provided valuable information about the old synagogue. Thanks to these works it was possible to identify three of the four walls of the old synagogue at the base of the current Santa María Jus del Castillo church opposite what must have been the gate of Santa María on the old medieval wall. We know that the synagogue was built with rough limestone worked and plaster with a mortar layer where traces of forms can be seen. It was around 18 metres long and 10 metres wide. The gable end or eastern façade was knocked down and replaced by a semicircular apse for its conversion into a Christian church after 1145.

To the south of the church the remains of several dwellings have been restored though it was not possible to recover the plans of any of them. They were raised with irregular adobe bricks on a stone plinth and subsequently lined in lime mortar painted with red ochre or lime mortar using the slipform technique and the roof was made of Arabic style roof ceramic tiles.

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.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Aerial view of the church of the Holy Sepulchre

The first document to mention the Olgacena Jewish quarter dated 1135 specially refers to the donation to the barons of Estella by King García Ramírez of a plot located at the place where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is currently located at the end of Curtidores street; this could mean that at that time the Elgacena Jewish quarter had already moved and that the Jewish collective lived in a new Jewish quarter situated further south until 1498. Integrated in the grasslands of the river park which spread alongside the banks of the Ega, the church started to be built in the late 12th century and was not finished until the 14th century, immediately becoming one of the landmarks of St. James' Way which runs right past it.

Elgacena District

Aerial view of the Elgacena district area with the St. Dominic´s convent in the foreground

Elgacena street recalls the name of the original Jewish district of Estella. Although the first document which mentions the OlgacenaJewish quarter stems from 1135, the Charter of 1090, inspired by that of Jaca and granted by Sancho V, already refers to Moslems and Jews being settled in the area. At that time, the Jewish quarter was only linked to the San Pedro nucleus and the castles' defences as the districts on the other side of the river did not merge with the latter into a single municipality until 1266.

That first settlement of Jews was increased in the second half of the 12th century with the arrival in Estella of new residents essentially dedicated to commerce and in the service of receiving the pilgrims who were going from France to Santiago, boosting the growth of the city in which the Jewish collective started to gain increasing importance. And until the 13th century it was regarded as enjoying the greatest prosperity both of Estella and its Jewish quarter.

Historic documentation tells us that in 1135 the Jewish quarterhad already been abandoned and the space it had previously occupied was donated to the barons of Estella by the King of Navarre García Ramírez the Restorer and in 1145 the crown donated the former synagogue to the bishop of Pamplona so he could build a church devoted to St. Mary and All Saints (today Jus del Castillo).

Funeral stele of Rabbi Noah

Picture of the stele in 1912 published by Fidel Fita in the Bulletin of the Royal Academy of History

Interesting information about the Jews is provided on a funeral inscription, undoubtedly deriving from the Jewish cemetery found in 1912 alongside the ruins of Belmecher castle. The find can be put down to Mateo Morante who held the post of military Commander of Estella as Commander-in-chief of the garrison.

The stela, inscribed on a hard grained, yellowish stone, has dimensions of 35 cm wide by 30 cm high. The type of writing allows us to date the stele in the 12th century after a comparison with other similar funerary inscriptions found in León and Monzón.

The text of the stele was dedicated to Rabbi Noé, the son of Naamá, son of Noé, born in Novar. Fidel Fita dated his death as between October and November 1127.

Buried in this tomb was Rabbi Noah, son of Naaman, son of Noah from Novar. He died in the month of marheshwán, in the year 4888 from Creation.

Jews at the gateway of the church of the Holy Sepulchre

Left-hand bracket with the image of a Jew

The church of the Holy Sepulchre boasts a beautiful Gothic gateway with rich iconography of the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Last Supper, in some cases interpreted as the final imposition of the Christian faith in a traditionally Jewish environment.

On the brackets of the gate though two prophets symbolising the Old Testament - as a base on which the New Testament of Jesus rests - are portrayed by clearly Jewish features.

New Jewish Quarter of Estella

Panoramic view of New Jewish quarter from the Firehouse

The Jews abandoned the old Jewish quarter of Elgacena in the first half of the 12th century and settled on the Northern slope of a terrace of the River Ega situated to the south of the city on one of the bends of the river and under the hill where Belmecher castle was to be built in the last quarter of the 13th century.

The New Jewish Quarter occupied an approximate extension of around 35,000 m2. It was delimited by a wall on its East, South and West where it met the walls of Belmecher castle. On the northern side, the Jewish Quarter neighboured the St. Dominic´s convent gardens from which it was separated in 1307 with the constructon of an adobe wall by order of King Luis Hutin.

The Jewish Quarter included, in addition to the dwellings of the settlement, the communal installations common to all the Jewish Quarters: the oven, butcher's, baths, water mill, a dyeing plant and wine press. As with any Jewish community, it must also have had a synagogue and its annexed installations. None of these buildings has been located at present.

Today the buildings which went to make up the new Estella Jewish Quarter are no longer visible and what remains of them may is concealed under the site and crops. The only visible part of the Jewish Quarter is the wall which delimited and defended it. It is a 300 m long stretch built from white limestone. The remains of a tower are conserved, endowed with two defensive walls alongside which a gate opens providing access to the Jewish quarter.

The archaeological excavations in progress recently undertaken inside this district have allowed the recovery of construction testimonies and material culture to be recovered from said aljama. From the latter it would seem that their urban layout was adapted to the slope with the dwellings situated on parallel lines and on terraces.

Palace of the Kings of Navarre

Palace of the Kings of Navarre

The Palace of the Monarchs of Navarre in St. Martín´s Square is a building from the second half of the 12th centiry with a beautiful porticoed façade with the added extra of the towers and the brick gallery from the 17th century.

In addition to the grace of its Gothic style windows, the chapters stand out for their curious features: On the left-hand column, Roldán's struggle against the Moslem giant Ferragut; on the right-hand one, portrayals of the haughtiness, avarice and lust, with its donkey, its misers and its lewd woman, doomed to the flames of hell.

Today it houses the Gustavo de Maeztu Museum.

Prison Bridge

Panoramic view of Estella with the Prison bridge in the foreground

The puente de la Cárcel on the left crosses the River Ega and connects the Jewish quarter with the San Miguel district; the current bridge replaced the original Romesque one in 1973 which had been blown up by the liberals during the blockade of the city in the 3rd Carlist War.

Rúa de las Tiendas

Rúa de las Tiendas

The Rúa, popularly known as Rúa de las Tiendas (shop street), starts around St. James' Way and along with that of San Nicolás, forms the original city centre. The very commercial nickname of this road where the tanneries and different Jewish businesses were located, recalls one of the main activities of this collective in Estella: commerce.

At the start of the street, very near the square, is the Friar Diego de Estella Culture House, a platereque palace from the 16th century built by the family of this illustrious Franciscan, the author of treatises on aesthetics and mysticism and identified by some authors as a descendant of converts. Documented along with other Christian dwellings, the house of a Jew called Juan Lucas, silversmith and wine maker was also situated on this street.

Towards the end of the street, in addition to the current pilgrim's hostel, whose presence continues to strongly press Estella's claim to be a stopping point and inn on St. James' Way as they passed through Navarra, there lies the Echávarri palace from the 17th century, also known as the Governor's palace and tucked inside there is a Renaissance courtyard which is set to be into the Carlism History Museum. The coats-of-arms of the gateway are accompanied by the construction date of the façade which are made of ashlar and brick in the style of the constructions of Madrid of the Austrias: 1613.

San Pedro de la Rúa

San Pedro de la Rúa Church

The San Pedro de la Rúa church accommodates the shrine of S.Andrew, the patron saint of the city. Its imposing staircase leads to the main door from the 13th century which has an interesting iconographic programme where Romanesque faucets, Sagittarius and mermaids are reproduced. Two wings of its splendid cloister were destroyed in 1572 because not the demolition of Zalatambor castle which is situated on the mountain overlooking the set and which fell on it.

Santa María Jus del Castillo

Church of Santa María Jus del Castillo

Santa María de Jus del Castillo street starts at the confluence of the street with Curtidores street and begins the ascents to Zalatambor castle passing under Fortunato Aguirre street which forms part of the Estella variant. As if it was a time tunnel, the ascent to the fortress is also an incursion into the first Jewish settlement in Estella in a district where the majority of the houses remain concealed under the ground after having suffered centuries of abandonment.

The current church of Santa María de Jus del Castillo is Romanesque, endowed with just one nave and a tambour-shaped apze, though its façade and tower are Baroque. Alongside the church the remains of the walls can be appreciated which fortified the city's castle.

St. Martín´s Square

St. Martín´s Square

The fuente de los Chorros (Los Chorros fountain) from the 16th century, one of the few Renaissance fountains conserved in Navarre, is the main focus of St. Martín´s Square, around which there is the old town hall (currently occupied by the Estella Courts and located on the plot where the San Martín church used to be), with a beautiful Baroque façade from the 18th century in which the balconies and two large coats-of-arms of the city stand out; alongside, there is a unique building which shows a beautiful door and pointed arch window deriving from a former convent and reused in the 20th century.

Wall of the New Jewish quarter

Stretch of wall of the Jewish quarter in the eastern area

The wall is the only visible remains of the New Jewish quarter of Estella. Archaeologically excavated in 2009, the stretch of wall delimiting the New Jewish quarter of Estella starts at the header de la Church of the Holy Sepulchre and continues Southwards until it involves a long hill where the Jewish quarter was located, after turning North, culminating at the Belmecher fortress.

The aljama wall and the aljama itself are part of a wider space enclosing a series of elements of historical interest which are a vital part of the city's history, something which has led to their declaration as an Asset of Cultural Interest with the category of «Historic Site».

The conservation of these walls make Estella the only one of the major medieval Navarre towns as seldom are the walls conserved, allowing is to gain a complete vision of what its defensive system was like.

Zalatambor Castle

Estella from the remains of Zalatambor castle

A dirt track connects the church of Santa María de Jus to Zalatambor castle, one of the two which Estella possessed in the Middle Ages, joined to each other and to Atalaya tower by walls and forming a great defensive system.

Currently undergoing archaeological excavation work, Zalatambor castle was raised in the late 12th century on the so-called Peña Mayor, complementing the fortress of the neighbouring castle of Lizarrara set up at Peña Menor on which the Navarre governor Eustaquio de Beaumarchais later raised in the last quarter of the 13th century Belmecher castle. The fortified unit suffered various attacks between the 13th and 15th centuries by the troops of Castile and Aragón, though they all ended in failure.

Not only a castle, Zalatambor also served as a royal residence at which Teobaldo II, Charles II the Bad and Charles III the Noble stayed when in Estella. When the castle fell into the hands of Fernando the Catholicin 1512, the King ordered its demolition as well as the knocking down of the towers of San Pedro and San Miguel. However, the fortress was not demolished until a new order by Felipe II when the king decided switch the traditional defensive position of Estella towards Castile and Aragón for a new more advanced position in Pamplona in view of the threat from France between 1572 and 1576.

At present, the ascent to the castle up the hilly path gives you the chance to take a privileged vantage point over the city of Estella and its environs, imagining down below the houses where the Jews lived for three centuries.