Walking Burgos

Author Marcia Fine stands in front of the Santa Maria Arch, in Burgos, Spain. The arch, actually a massive town gate, dates to the 14th century.

Driven by a passion to do authentic research for a historical novel, my husband and I spent a week in Burgos, Spain, the capital of Castillo, located in the north of the country. We found more than enough to keep us busy. 

Our hotel, Palacio de Merced, located in a 16th-century monastery at the heart of the city center, allowed us to walk to most sites of interest. As usual, I wanted to learn about the Jewish history.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to explore. The Jewish section is long gone except for a few excavated artifacts – a hanukkiah, pottery and some silver plates on display with prominent six-pointed stars at the Burgos Museum. Where did the Jews go? What was life like when they were here?  

For that, I had to go back in time.

Founded in 884, Burgos was home to El Cid, a Castillian noble leader, as well as two Moorish quarters and one Jewish one, all under the protection of the Castillo, a castle that overlooks the present city. During the 13th century, Burgos had a flourishing Jewish community known for its scholars – Rabbi Meir Halevi Abulafia and the poet Todros Halevi Abulafia as well as others – and illuminated Hebrew manuscripts. Important kabbalists thrived here.

With a rich cultural life, the Jews became merchants, tax farmers and physicians, some serving in the royal court. They were allowed to own real estate, vineyards and required to pay taxes. 

During a civil war (1366-68) for the crown, Burgos was captured. A demand was made on the Jewish citizens for 1 million gold maravedis. To meet this requirement, the Jewish community was forced to surrender the ornaments and crowns on their Torah scrolls. A moratorium was imposed on loans to Christians, essentially ruining the creditors and merchants. Eventually, the Jewish quarter inhabitants and others in the fortress attacked their foe, only yielding when their walls were destroyed. By 1379, Jewish trading was prohibited outside the small community.

Indeed, it is a sad story that leads to the destruction of the entire Jewish Sephardic culture on the Iberian coast. The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry ended with the massacre of Jews that began in June of 1391 in Seville and spread throughout Spain, including Burgos. Paul of Burgos, its most famous inhabitant, converted in July of 1391. 

Who was he? Paul of Burgos was a rabbi, Talmudic scholar and the most influential Jewish person in the community. Known for his piety and scholarship, he, his brothers and children were baptized without his wife, Joanna, who remained faithful to Judaism until her death in 1420. Unfortunately, he took an active role in persecuting Spanish Jewry. Did he convert for economic and social reasons or religious ones?

Some think it was the former. In his later life, he was appointed keeper of the royal seal and Archbishop of Burgos in 1415. His writings later influenced Martin Luther in Germany.

It’s not a long stretch to 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Even with this knowledge, I set out to explore our bittersweet history. I began at The Castillo, a massive castle and fortress that protected the Jews when they lived there. 

According to Richard Freund, a rabbi, professor, archaeologist and author of “Digging Through History,” he participated in the excavation of a synagogue underneath a church on the site. Part of it was a 70-meter well constructed with stairs and skylights, a magnificent feat of engineering built in 1475, and the chief source of fresh water for the whole town.

Once inside and wearing necessary hard hats, we trekked down the 335 steps to the bottom. We learned about the possible mikvah and tunnels that allowed Jews to exit through the Jewish cemetery outside the gates, a plan of safety. I found it fascinating to observe our history. 

Next we toured the Burgos Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, started in 1221 and completed in 1795 in the French Gothic style. As I stood before the Chapel of Conception, the sculptures  depicted an admiration of the Church with images from Catholicism on the right side and, on the left side, images of a synagogue with broken staff and tablets of law. I felt a sense of loss for our rich culture. I observed in the 17 gilded altars, chapels and monuments, that many were built within 25 years of the 1492 Expulsion and the beginning of the Inquisition. Where did the wealth come from?

It was time to move past the haunting memories and observe what else Burgos had to offer. We were delighted to experience the Museum of Human Evolution built in 2010, unique in all the world and one of Spain’s top 10 most-visited sites. Designed by award-winning architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg, it tells a great story and sits a mere 10 miles from the Sierra de Atapuernca, the location of some of the most important human fossils ever found. 

We visited many other sites – including the Burgos Museum, the Book Museum and the Museum of Marcelino Santamaria, which is built into a monastery – but the grand finale was a bus ride to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Designed by Frank Gehry, it is a contemporary gem. It was also a showcase for a remarkably complete Braque exhibit.

Named as Spain’s gastronomy capital of 2013, Burgos was a culinary delight as well as a treat for all the senses. This is a place well worth spending time, especially if you enjoy the flavor of history.

Award-winning author Marcia Fine of Scottsdale, travels to research Jewish history for her historical novels. Visit marciafine.com.