Friday, 1 Dec 2023 - 18 of Kislev, 5784

The golden age of the Jews of Alandalus

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Several centuries before the expulsion decree by the Catholic Monarchs, the Jews suffered their first exodus due to the fanaticism of the Almohads.

The Centro Sefarad in Madrid has inaugurated a unique exhibition, which rescues not a few gaps of a period of our history,  reports Pedro Gonzalez in Atalayar.

Under the title “La Edad de Oro de los Judíos de Alandalús” (The Golden Age of the Jews of Alandalus), thus with this spelling that equates it to other Spanish place names such as Alcún, Albacete or Alcalá, facsimiles of the manuscripts found in the guenizah (storehouse) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) are exhibited.

It was in 1896 that two English twins, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, returned home to Cambridge from an expedition to Egypt and Palestine. Experts in the study of manuscripts, they returned with a bundle of fragments of paper and parchment which they claimed to have bought from antiquities dealers. When they showed such acquisitions to their friend Solomon Schechter, professor of Rabbinism at Cambridge University, he discovered something fascinating: a loose page with the original lost Hebrew text of the Book of Ben Sirach, called “Ecclesiasticus” by Christians. Schechter immediately traveled to Cairo, where the Chief Rabbi of Egypt gave him access to the guenizah (storehouse) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue and gave him permission to take whatever he wanted. Schechter took practically everything, 200,000 fragmentary pieces of documents, which would be deposited in the library of the University of Cambridge.

Those responsible for the Cairo guenizah forgot to empty and classify it. Thus, all of it had been sleeping and gathering dust for 900 years, carried by the Jews who traded throughout the Mediterranean and by those who had to flee with the arrival of the fanatical Almohads. With them ended the tolerance and the economic and cultural splendor of the first centuries of the second millennium.

The documents do not narrate great events or heroic deeds but the daily life of the Jewish community in a territory of Hispania in which they had probably settled from the seventh century. They are letters that cross merchants, marriage contracts, wills, promises of donations, judicial reports, a compendium that perfectly explains the customs and the way of life of an economically powerful and culturally rich and influential community. In Umayyad Cordoba, the greatest prosperity of the Jews developed in Granada, Almeria and Lucena, as can be deduced from the analysis of many of the rescued documents.

Moreover, Egypt was at the center of a powerful Islamic empire and its vast international trade network stretched across the Mediterranean, from Alandalus in the west to India and Indonesia in the east. Travel within the empire was easy for Muslim, Christian and Jewish citizens, and there was a flourishing trade across faith boundaries. The followers of the different religions cooperated, traveled and traded with each other.

The exhibition, which can be seen until March 2024, is curated by University of Granada professor José Martínez Delgado, who argues that Spain should stop talking about the three cultures, “because in Al-Andalus there was only one: the Muslim culture; what others had were simply fiscal options that were more or less respected”.

The Almohad invasion provoked the first great exodus of the Andalusian Jews, who settled in the north of the Iberian Peninsula and French Provence, while others crossed part of the Mediterranean to settle in Italy or even Egypt. The Sephardim ended that golden age of their world. The Jews who did not leave were integrated into the Castilian Jewish communities, which would finally embark on their great exodus in 1492 with the decree of the Catholic Monarchs, which was not new either, since the Jews had already been expelled from other European countries.


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