This town hides one of the most beautiful Jewish quarters in Spain

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In the heart of the Ambroz Valley, at the foot of the Béjar mountain range, the westernmost sector of Gredos, is located one of the most emblematic towns in Extremadura. And to the splendid nature that surrounds it, we must add a medieval historic center in which its Jewish quarter stands out, one of the most important in Spain. We are talking, of course, about Hervasthe jewel of the north of Cáceres.

Walking through this town just a stone’s throw from the border with Salamanca and Ávila is to relive several of the most controversial episodes in our history, in particular the expulsion of the Jews from 1492 that, in places like Hervás, they had established their aljamas, enriching the Christian and Muslim traditions with their particular culture.

Hervás and the history of the Jews in Spain

Hervás hamlet dominated by the church of Santa María de Aguas Vivas – Source: Depositphotos

After the Christian advance towards the south in the Middle Ages, the history of the Jewish community in the Iberian Peninsula is experiencing a new episode marked by a growing difficulty for coexistence. During the Muslim rule, in a large part of the peninsula those known as aljamasautonomous entities in which the Jewish communities were grouped within the localities: it was the origin of the Hispanic Jewish quarters.

The arrival of first the Almoravids and then the Almohads began to complicate the life of these communities: the dominating tribes of Al Andalus They applied a religious rigor that damaged the independence and autonomy of these aljamas. Christian rule, in general, aggravated this situation.

However, in every corner of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile where there was a Jewish presence, the details of the coexistence of the three religions were different. The case of Hervás draws attention to the flowering of a Jewish community which, in principle, was protected by the Zúñiga, the lords of Béjar, under whose guardianship the town of Hervás was for centuries since at the end of the 14th century Diego López de Stúñiga received from King Enrique III of Castile, of whom he was advisor, the town and land of Béjar.

At that time, Hervás was a “young” town of templar origin which had grown since the beginning of the 13th century after the establishment of a hermitage on the bank of the Santihervás river, from which it takes its name.

The first conclusive data on the presence of Jews in Hervás comes to us with documents that speak of 45 families who, under the protection of the Duke, had arrived at the town after the Jewish persecutions of 1391 that began in Seville and spread throughout the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and Navarra, including forced conversions: Behind this anti-Semitism, as has happened on other occasions in history, was a deep economic and social crisis, including the effects of the plague since the middle of the century.

The expulsion of the Jews from Hervás

Hervás - Source: Depositphotos
The Hervás Jewish quarter dyed with colors in the traditional Conversos festival – Source: Depositphotos

But this benign climate of protection in Hervás would not last long. On March 31, 1492, shortly after the Granada War ended successfully, the Catholic Monarchs signed the decree of expulsion of the Jews that came on the advice of Torquemada and the Inquisition: the official reason for this blunt decision was the “bad example” of the Jews towards the Christian converts whom they supposedly encouraged to maintain their old religious customs.

But the Spanish case was not different from that of other European countries: the final objective was to achieve a religious unity which, hypothetically, would achieve a more integrated social fabric, achieving, in turn, greater progress, also economic.

Thus, the prosperous Jewish community of Hervás is broken by the edict of expulsion, but after the journey to Portugal of many of the families who refused to convert to Christianity, several of them returnalready like you converse, although maintaining many of their customs.

To the stake for a boiling host

But the Inquisition did not lose sight of them and in 1506 one of the most bizarre and mournful events indicated by documentary sources took place: the death at the stake of several converts, among them Juan Blasco. His “crime”? Supposedly introducing a consecrated host into a boiling cauldron.

Be that as it may, regardless of particular events like this, the Jewish heritage was maintained in Hervás for centuries: the structure of its Jewish neighborhood, maintained by a good part of its inhabitants, many of them converted Jews, survived, becoming one of the Jewish quarters best preserved in Spain. We go through it below.

A walk through the Hervás Jewish quarter

Hervás - Source: Depositphotos
The Rabilero de Hervás journey – Source: Depositphotos

Our tour of the Jewish quarter of the town of Cáceres begins in the place that, historically, served as access to the town from the Silver Waythe traditional route that connected the two ends of the peninsula and that also served as a Jacobean pilgrimage route.

And there is no better place than Fuente Chiquita bridge to begin to appreciate the rural beauty of this town in which nature and villages are perfectly integrated. The 16th century bridge with a single span spans the Ambroz River, which nourishes the entire valley with life.

But this bridge is not only one of the most picturesque corners of Hervás, it is also the scene of a legend, that of Maruxa, the wandering Jew, a young Jewish woman who fell in love with a Christian young man. And you can imagine the rest. The tragedy did not take long to arrive. Some men sent by the girl’s father stabbed the young man, also killing Maruxa who tried to prevent the murder. The scene would have taken place on this bridge where, according to legend, you can still hear Maruxa’s cries and even meet her ghost.

Hervás - Source: Depositphotos
Fuente Chiquita Bridge in Hervás – Source: Depositphotos

Next to the Chiquita Fountain is the Ford Street which gives access to Brotherhood Alley, already in the middle of the Jewish quarter. This street remembers the creation of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Assumption in 1522 in which a good part of the new Christians of Jewish heritage were integrated.

In it, a space was reserved for the elaboration of kosher wine, prepared following Jewish dietary standards. Its use was especially associated with the Sabbat, the weekly Jewish day of rest, and for other celebrations of the Jewish calendar such as Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) or for the end of the Yom Kippur fast.

The Cofrades alley also connects through a narrow passageway—one of the many that you will find in the historic center of Hervás, including one of the narrowest streets in Spain—with the Judeo-Christian Friendship Streetwhich pays tribute to this coexistence that, of course, was not always friendly, as we know.

Hervás - Source: Depositphotos
Streets of Hervás – Source: Depositphotos

At the southwest end of the Jewish quarter we must walk through the Rabilero streetone of the most typical of the Hebrew aljama in which the adobe, brick and chestnut wood houses draw attention, some of which still preserve their medieval structure: a first body on the stones of the Ambroz river and two or three floors with cantilevered roofs to which are added staggered wood formed by planking or walls covered with inverted Arab tiles.

Furthermore, we must stop at the number 19 on this street where the Jewish quarter synagogue was built in adobe and chestnut, behind which there was an extensive orchard that bordered the bank of the Ambroz. This synagogue and the Talmudic School associated was for decades an important cultural center, being the most important in the province along with Cáceres and Plasencia. The neighboring Synagogue street, which runs parallel to the river, reminds us of the presence of this building in the area.

Going up the little hill We arrive at the Plaza del Convento that marks one of the southern limits of the neighborhood. If we continue along Pizarro Street we would reach the Corredera squareone of the nerve centers of Hervás, where the important Pérez Comendador-Leroux museumbut we returned to the north to finish our route through the Hervasense Jewish quarter.

Hervás - Source: Depositphotos
Hervás and the Béjar mountain range from the top of the church – Source: Depositphotos

Convento Street leads towards Square, simply, where Abajo Street also begins and descends towards the Fuente Chiquita bridge. This square served as a connection between the two medieval neighborhoods of Hervás: the upper one where the houses of the wealthiest classes were located and the lower one where the Jewish quarter was located.

Outside of it, on a hill that dominates the town, we finish our visit to Hervás admiring the church of Saint Mary of the Living Waters of Templar origin since it is built on the remains of a watchtower installed by warrior monks to control the territory.

This fortress was built around the original Templar hermitage, which was replaced in the 13th century by the current church, which was completed with a bell tower in the 17th century: it is the best place to admire the beauty of the Hervás surroundings marked by the presence of the valley. del Ambroz and the Béjar mountain range in which the Pinajarro peak to the east with its more than 2,000 meters high.

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