One of the greatest charms of Barcelona lies in the fact that so many areas of the old town of the city have remained almost intact, despite the passage of so many centuries. This enables us to wander through the same streets as our ancestors did 700 or 800 years ago, as well as finding a wealth of historical buildings from different eras, one of which is the Sinagoga Major o Antiga Sinagoga, in English the Ancient Synagogue.
History of the Ancient Synagogue
Originating in the 6th century, the Ancient Synagogue of the old Jewish Quarter of Barcelona is the oldest synagogue in Spain and one of only 5 medieval synagogues that remains today. The foundations of the building in which it is located are Roman, and you can even see some remains of the original Roman walls. The synagogue has been through many renovations, one of which was in 1267 when King Jaume I authorised the enlargement of its height, which had been limited until then due to a law which stated that no synagogue could be higher than the city’s smallest church.
On 5th August 1391, one of the bloodiest events in Barcelona’s history occurred – the looting of the city’s Jewish Quarter. Over 300 members of Barcelona’s Jewish community were killed during the massacre, leaving the survivors the choice of fleeing the city or converting to Christianity. At that time, all the Jews’ possessions, including the synagogue, were to be handed over to the King.
During the centuries that followed, further adjustments were made to the synagogue, including the addition of more floors which had many uses including a laundry and a storage space for electrical materials. It wasn’t until 1996 when, thanks to the investigative work carried out by the historian Jaume Riera i Sans, the original building that had housed the synagogue was discovered, at 5, Carrer Marlet (Marlet Street), in the Gothic Quarter.
The Ancient Synagogue today
Once the ‘Associació Call de Barcelona’ took over the building of the Ancient Synagogue, some subsequent much-needed restorative work was carried out, and it re-opened its doors at last in 2002, as a museum and cultural centre, so that anyone who wished to could discover one of the city’s most important historical sites.
To access the synagogue you will need to go down a set of stairs, since the ground level at the time was a few metres lower than the current street level. The most surprising thing about the synagogue is its limited dimensions – it is just 60m2, because of the restrictions at the time. These restrictions are also noticeable in its height; as we’ve already mentioned above, a synagogue at the time wasn’t allowed to be taller than the lowest church of the city.
The medieval Jewish quarter tour and visit to Palau Requesens
The ‘Associació Call de Barcelona’ organises several activities that complement the visit to the museum of the Ancient Synagogue, for example the guided tour of ‘Call Jueu’, the medieval Jewish quarter of the city. Depending on the time and day of the tour, it might include a visit to the ‘Micvé’, the bath that was used for the purification of people through various Jewish rituals in the 13th century
The synagogue has two rooms; in the first you can see many archaeological remains that have been uncovered in the recent restoration, such as those of the Roman wall and the laundry that existed after the Jewish expulsion from Barcelona. There is a guided tour in the second room, in Spanish, English and Hebrew, and at weekends in French, Catalan and Russian too. Religious ceremonies are still held in this area; the walls date from between the 13th and 17th centuries, and they formed the first part of this medieval synagogue.
On the same road as the synagogue, at No 1 Carrer Marlet, there’s a commemorative plaque engraved in Hebrew, which reads as follows: “Merciful Foundation of Samuel ha-Sardí; his light shines permanently” (“Foundation Pía de Samuel ha-Sardí; su luz luzca de forma permanente” in Spanish). You’ll see that the text next to the tombstone is translated slightly differently, as there were some errors made in the translation at the time. The plaque that you see is replica of the original, which stood in the same place until 1820, and which can now be seen in the MUHBA, the ‘History Museum of Barcelona’.
carrer (street) de Marlet, 5, Barcelona
Summer: Monday to Friday, from 10:30 to 18:30. Saturdays and Sundays, from 10:30 to 14:30.
Winter: Monday to Friday, from 11:00 to 17:30. Saturdays and Sundays, from 11:00 to 15:00.
General admission: 2.50€ (includes brief explanation about the Ancient Synagogue).
How to get there
Metro: Jaume I (lines 4) and Liceu (line 3).
Buses: lines 45, 59, 91, 120, V13, V15, V17 and tourist bus.
By foot: you can arrive by foot, by taking a short walk from any of the most central points of the city, but you’d be advised to be armed with a map, as the narrow streets near the synagogue can be a bit hard to navigate!