Toledo, synagogues

By the late Middle Ages, there were at least eleven synagogues in the city of Toledo, now only two are currently preserved.

The oldest, the Ibn Shoshan synagogue, now called Santa María la Blanca, was built in the late 12th century in the Jewish quarter.

The other synagogue, the Samuel Halevi Abulafia, Transit Synagogue, dates back to the 14th century and houses inside the Sephardic Museum.

Both synagogues display a style inspired by the Islamic buildings that surrounded them, called Mudéjar. This style was used by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish patrons and builders living in parts of Spain formerly governed by Muslims.

The earlier Muslim builders had themselves borrowed from the cultures that preceded their arrival by including details that had been popular with Romans and Late Antique Christians in Spain, such as reused columns, Corinthian capitals and horseshoe arches.

The Ibn Shoshan Synagogue was likely first built around 1180, and was probably renovated by a member of the Spanish royal court in the thirteenth century before it was converted into a church (renamed Santa María la Blanca) in 1411. The bimah, Torah ark, and seats for the congregation were destroyed when the building was converted into a church. All that remains from the synagogue is the architecture.

The interior is divided into five aisles by four rows of stout octagonal piers. The piers carry rows of capitals decorated with stucco pinecones and volutes, surmounted by giant horseshoe arches.

Above the arches are layers of low-relief stucco tendrils and roundels, scallop shells, geometric interlacing, and rows of blind arches with multiple lobes, a wealth of surface decoration that recalls the type found in earlier Spanish buildings like the Great Mosque at Cordoba.

Around 1360, a new synagogue (Transit) was built in a different but related style by Samuel Halevi Abulafia, treasurer and advisor to the Spanish King Pedro I of Castile. Unlike the Ibn Shoshan synagogue, this one was private, and attached to Halevi’s palace, although it would have been a significant monument in the neighborhood given its height.

Instead of being divided into aisles by rows of arches, the Samuel Halevi Abulafia synagogue is dominated by a soaring, open hall that is oriented towards a triple-arched Torah niche. The upper parts of the interior walls and the wall surrounding the Torah niche are blanketed with low-relief stucco decoration.  Right underneath the decorative wooden ceiling are ranks of colonnettes supporting poly-lobed arches that hug the wall. Below these are geometrically organized patterns of leaves, flowers, scallop shells, and interlacing tendrils.

The transformation of the building into the Sephardi Museum, as it is now officially called, started around 1910.  Exhibits provide an insight into the history of Jewish culture in Spain, and include archaeological finds, a memorial garden, costumes and ceremonial artefacts.

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