Cáceres (the name of the city is pronounced káθeres) is the capital of the autonomous community of Extremadura in Western Spain. It is a beautiful medieval city and has always been an important regional commercial center. The present residents of the city are proud of their history and are doing their best to preserve it, including the history of the Jewish residents prior to the Alhambra Decree and the expulsion of 1492.
The city’s origins date back to prehistoric times; there were Paleolithic and Neolithic communities in the area but as a city, it originated as a Roman-built market town called Norba Caesarina. The current name of the city is derived from the Arabic al-qaṣr which means “the citadel.” When the Moors conquered the area, during the 9th century, the town became known as Alkazares because of its formidable fortifications.
It is interesting to note that a city with no current Jewish population is now highlighting the residency of that ethnic community until they were expelled from the country at the end of the 15th century!
In 1479, Cáceres had a prosperous Jewish population of about 120 families (650 individuals) that were mostly doctors, tax collectors, bankers, merchants, or shoemakers — a significant percentage of the town’s inhabitants at the time of approximately 3,500 residents. Many of the buildings of the town’s Jewish sections were near the Plaza Mayor i.e. the central square.
This square was, and still is, the social and political center of Cáceres and that was where the most prominent Jewish businessmen had their shops. At a corner building of a street starting in the square was the residence of the local rabbi. The part of the town adjacent to the Plaza Mayor is now known as the New Jewish Quarter, a small area of narrow streets between the Plaza Mayor and Plaza de la Concepción. The New Jewish Quarter was not a ghetto, as Jews could move freely throughout the city and would gather daily in the markets in and around the Plaza.
One of the main streets leading to the central square currently named Street of the Shoemakers, the part that is within the walls of the Old Town was known as the Old Jewish Quarter where the synagogue’s cantor and other prominent Jewish individuals and scholars lived.
Most of the city buildings with Jewish residents in both the Old and New Quarters are nowadays marked with plaques on the building’s wall, showing a menorah and the name of the family or individuals that resided there. In front of the main entrance of all the Jewish houses, among the cobblestones, there are brass “stumbling” markers sculpted with Hebrew lettering signifying “Sefardim”.
The Jewish Quarters of Cáceres were one of the gems of the Sepharad, the name the Jewish residents gave to their Spanish homeland. Records of the Jewish presence in the pre-expulsion period can still be found in the city’s and the local diocese’s historical archives.
The Ermita de San Antonio on Calle Barrio Judio was the location where the early synagogue built by the Jewish community was; but it was torn down and the Ermita Chapel was built over the site, some 20 odd years prior to the expulsion. The “Old Shul” was the epicenter of Jewish life in Cáceres.
In 1470 the Christian governor took over the synagogue building forcing the community to build a second, new house of worship. Thankfully some elements of the original shul still survive such as the patio and the altar; these are worth seeing today. When I was in Cáceres a few years ago, they were excavating the area under the chapel’s garden and they had unearthed the entrance to the mikvah and the mikvah’s cistern.
The second, New Shul’s exact location is still in question, but it is thought that it could be the building known as the Palacio del Marqués de la Isla.
Today, the local residents of Cáceres preserve the memory of this once-thriving society by taking care of the Jewish neighborhoods and marking, as mentioned above, the residences of the members of that community.
The city was named a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of humanity city in 1986 because it still preserves a spectacular blend of Roman, Moorish, Northern Gothic, and Italian Renaissance architecture.
Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
New York Jewish Travel Guide