Barcelona’s Medieval Synagogue of Many Names

13/01/2021

Did you know that the Ancient Synagogue of Barcelona is considered to be one of the oldest synagogues in Europe?

The outside of the Ancient Synagogue, in the Medieval Jewish Quarter of Barcelona

There are different criteria used to describe the "oldest" synagogues. Some synagogues have been discovered through archaeological digs. Some synagogues may have been destroyed and then rebuilt a number of times on the same site, meaning the sites may be very old, but the buildings quite modern. Then, there is the question of use: some old synagogue buildings exist, but have been used for years for other purposes, or as a museum, while other old synagogues have been in continuous use as actual synagogues for a very long time.

The Ancient Synagogue of Barcelona fits into one of the latter categories, having been used for other purposes for centuries, until it's reopening as a synagogue and museum in 2002.

During the Middle Ages, Jews of Barcelona were confined to living in a small area inside the city walls called El Call. In the 14th century, the Jewish population of the city grew quite quickly when Jews who had been expelled from France made their way to Barcelona.

In order to fit all the new residents, a second, smaller Jewish Quarter, called El Call Menor, was built just outside the city walls. The only way to get between El Call Major (what the first El Call became known as) and El Call Menor, was through Castell Nou (New Castle), a medieval fortress built over the Roman gate and providing access to the city.

A map in the Jewish Quarter showing the location of the El Call Major and El Call Menor

In this period there were four synagogues in Barcelona-three in El Call Major, and one in El Call Menor. While many people think of the Spanish Inquisition as the end of Spanish Jewry, the Jewish community of Barcelona actually disappeared over 100 years earlier, in 1391, after a series of local revolts which forced the Jews who were not killed, to convert to Christianity or leave the city. The synagogues ceased to be used as synagogues and instead, became property of the king.

Carrer De Marlet, believed to be the street where the Ancient Synagogue sits, and a sign pointing towards the Synagogue

Until 1987, the exact location of three out of four of the synagogues, including the Ancient Synagogue, was unknown. Then, research based on the reconstruction of a route followed by a Jewish tax collector, led to a rubble filled basement at number five on the street Carrer de Marlet. This was believed to be the Ancient Synagogue.

Today, you will find references to the Ancient Synagogue by many names: the Shlomo Ben Adret Synagogue, the Sinagoga Mayor (the Greater Synagogue in Spanish) the Sinagoga Major (the Greater Synagogue in Catalan), the Great Synagogue, and of course, the Ancient Synagogue. The synagogue was restored and opened to the public as a museum, and although not used for prayers on a regular basis, occasional religious ceremonies do take place in the synagogue building also.


By Madison Jackson