Judaism Triumphant: The Curious Case of One of Europe’s Oldest Synagogues

The revived 1,600-year-old Sinagoga Major in Barcelona stands as a tiny yet stoic monument to Jewish resilience.

Deep in the belly of Barcelona, amid cobblestone streets, guitar shops and pork stores, the revived 1,600-year-old Sinagoga Major stands as a tiny yet stoic monument to Jewish resilience.

A chorus of drilling, sawing and clunking announces your arrival in Barcelona’s Gothic wonderland, the anthem of gentrification pierced by the chatter and camera snapping of tourist hordes. Catalan flags hang proudly over balconies and in windows, and the grand Cathedral rises like an otherworldly thumb into the blue sky.

Close to Plaça Sant Jaume, with its famous palace and government buildings, you enter what is left of the Call, also known as the Juderia, Barcelona’s ancient Jewish quarter. And sandwiched under and between apartments on a little street, Carrer de Marlet, is the Sinagoga Major, Spain’s oldest synagogue and, along with another on the mouth of Italy’s River Tiber, said to be Europe’s oldest.

A hole in history’s wall

The entrance is nondescript save for an embroidered ‘Shalom’ welcome sign and a couple of printed pages that seem queerly modern against the weathered, if-only-I-could-speak walls. Fitting through the squat door and dropping down to Roman-era street level, you enter the foyer of the two-room structure.

Looking up, you see the handsome medieval interior walls, and looking down, glass floors expose the synagogue’s Roman-era foundations that date back to Emperor Caracalla, also known as Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus, who ruled from the year 188 to 217 and granted full Roman citizenship to all the empire’s freemen – including its Jews - in the year 212.

Knitted kippahs and other Judaica items sit neatly on shelves for sale, as do glossy books documenting both the synagogue’s labyrinthine history and triumphant recovery.

From millennia-old synagogue to dyehouse

First built in the third or fourth century CE and significantly expanded in the fourteenth century, the Sinagoga Major - Catalan for ‘Great Synagogue’ - served the residents of the ancient Jewish quarter for approximately 1,000 years.

Glass cabinets exhibit fascinating historical artifacts such as a map of Roman Barcelona and a document dating to 1267 from King James I of Aragon, authorizing the raising of the synagogue’s height – which had been mandated to be built lower than churches as a sign of Judaism’s subservience to its younger Abrahamic brother.

Relics from the protracted Jewish presence in Barcelona.

Moving into the adjoining prayer sanctuary, rows of red stackable chairs face the Holy Ark, placed poetically where the original stood. A handsome iron menorah sits in the southern corner, next to a cabinet full of ornate Kiddush cups, Passover plates and pretty-footed spice boxes.

Facing the Holy Ark is a glass Star of David made of different colored shards, symbolizing, according to the guide, the eternal unity of the Jewish people, despite the age-old patterns of dispersion and persecution.

True to form, times were to turn crimson.

After the defeat of Spain’s Muslim rulers during the Reconquista and the passing of relatively enlightened rulers like King James, reversion to Christian rule culminated in the obliteration of Iberian Jewry. The Sinagoga Major ceased to function around the time of the 1391 massacre of Barcelona’s Jews, with survivors fleeing, converting, or hiding deep in the spiritual closet.

The modest entrance to Sinagoga Major from Carrer de Marlet.

And so began centuries of profane use of the Sinagoga Major as a storehouse, a fabric dying facility and other decidedly non-religious functions. Levels were added on top, and eventually, the whereabouts of the synagogue’s actual location was lost.

The eternal source: Tax records

Though all was indeed not lost. In 1987, Jaume Riera y Sans, who was researching Barcelona’s Jewish quarter, utilized records of a medieval tax collector’s route to locate the synagogue’s immediate vicinity. Enter an Argentinean businessman immigrant to Spain, Miguel Iaffa, who had a Eureka moment, identifying the synagogue’s exact location by two telltale characteristics.

The men's section of the Sinagoga Major.

Whereas most buildings in the vicinity faced northwest or southeast, this one faced east, toward Jerusalem. Secondly, the structure had two small windows – another Jewish legal requirement for the proper construction of synagogues as to allow light originating from Judaism’s holy city to penetrate inside.

Determined not to let the landmark be demolished or converted like many surrounding places into trendy bars and cafes, Iaffa bought the building in 1995, and, together with Riera and the Call Association of Barcelona, an organization dedicated to preserving the medieval Jewish quarter, oversaw the painstaking excavation and restoration process.

And while the exhibits, tourist groups and mounted flat screen make it feel more museum than functioning synagogue, the Sinagoga Major – after well over a 700-year hiatus – is again hosting Jewish simchas, including weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Opened to the public in 2002, it was dedicated in the name of Shlomo Ben Aderet, or the Rashba, a revered medieval rabbi who led the Sinagoga for half a century.

Judaica on sale at the 1,600-year-old Sinagoga Major.

Jewish revival in Barcelona

Exiting the synagogue, you’re left with a feeling of wanting to see more, or at least hear millennia-old hymns bounce around the stone walls or the crunch of a matrimonial glass under a groom’s forceful foot. Yet once you remerge on street level, the dense beauty of the surrounding Gothic quarter swiftly recaptures your senses – that, and the fact that your Jewish Barcelona trail is far from over.

Nearby on throbbing Las Rambla, amid a sea of pork-heavy tapas and prawn paella, sits Maccabi, a kosher restaurant opened in 2013, catering to the 4,000-strong local community and the growing throngs of Jewish tourists. Then there are three synagogues – one Sephardic, one Chabad and another Reform – a kosher supermarket, a mikvah, an annual Jewish Film Festival, and even an ancient Jewish cemetery on the wooded Montjuïc (‘Jew Mountain’).

Now, with a new Spanish law granting citizenship to the descendants of expelled Sephardic Jews, will Barcelona’s revived Jewish presence continue to grow? Or will rising anti-Semitism in Europe keep the revival tokenistic compared to the glory of yesteryear? Only time will tell.

A Catalan flag proudly displayed in a house window near the Sinagoga.
The entrance with glass floor showing the Roman-era foundations of the synagogue.
Map of the Call, Barcelona.