In the Middle Ages, the entrance to Barcelona’s ghetto (El Call, from the Hebrew qahqal or ‘meeting place’) was on the western edge of Plaça Sant Jaume, by the Generalitat on C/ del Call.
There have been Jews in Barcelona since Roman times, although the Visigoths bear the ignominy of passing Spain’s first anti-Semitic law, in 694, which made all Jews slaves. By the 11th century, the Call was a well-organized community that was also the intellectual centre of Catalonia, home to its finest schools, hospitals, baths, translators, poets, astronomers and philosophers.
The Universitat Judía was its only institution of higher learning for centuries. It was here, in the ancient synagogue that the mystic Moshe ben Nahman debated the divinity of Christ with Dominican monks at the famous ‘Disputation of Barcelona’ in 1263, so impressing Jaume I the Conqueror that he gave the rabbi a handsome reward.
In 1243, however, the same count-king had ordered that the Call be walled off and so set apart from the rest of the city, and that Christians not be allowed to enter except when goods were displayed for sale in the streets; Jews were also compelled to wear long, hooded cloaks with red or yellow bands.
Much of this segregation was actually to protect Jews from increasing persecution by rustic Christian fanatics. Jews expelled from other territories in Spain, especially Navarre and Castile, were made welcome here by the count-kings. They depended on the community as the bankers to the Crown, ambassadors and interpreters (especially to Arab courts), and offered royal protection and favours in exchange.
El Call began to incite a dangerous amount of envy. In 1391, a group of Castilians in Barcelona spread rumours that the Black Death had been brought by Jews from Navarre, inciting riots and looting of the Call. The Consell de Cent had 10 of the Castilians arrested and condemned to death; when the news hit the streets, the mob raised a militia in the countryside to liberate the men and attack the Call, brutally wiping out most of the community. King Joan I had the 22 instigators put to death, but could not halt the growing tide of anti-Semitism.
In 1424, with the Castilians on the throne of Aragón, the Jews were expelled from the Call; the stones of their synagogues and cemeteries were quarried to build the Generalitat. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabel compelled all the Jews in Spain to convert or leave.
Five centuries later, in 1925, Primo de Rivera granted the Sephardim around the world citizenship and protection under Spanish consulates. Not long after, Barcelona rediscovered its role as a haven, as 7,000 Jewish refugees moved into the city in the 1930s; a synagogue was opened in C/ de l’Avenir. Franco, for all his faults, never persecuted Jews. And recently the 2nd-century AD Sinagoga Major Shlomo Ben Adret was discovered as well; a house nearby at C/ del Call 6 is from the 11th century, the oldest still standing in Barcelona.
A new Centre d’Interpretació del Call is run by MUHBA and looks at how the neighbourhood evolved from Roman times to the present, hosts special exhibitions and has a small bookshop.
Placeta de Manuel Ribé
Hours Mon, Wed, Fri 11am-2pm, Sat & Sun 11am-7pm
Adm €2.20; €1.90 for under 29s and over 65s
+34 93 256 21 22
Images by: fnogues