One of the most intriguing questions surrounding the history of Iberian Jews concerns the date the children of Israel first settled and established a community on the Iberian Peninsula.
With the aim of ruling out any assertion too much resembling legend, along with the need to base our claims in archeological or epigraphic documents, we call to attention St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, dated A.D. 54. In the letter the apostle reveals his interest in coming to the Peninsula to preach. This would seem to confirm the presence of organized Jewish communities on the Peninsula, given the fact that Christianity was still at that time a small sect struggling to gain a foothold among Jews and Jewish proselytes.
The coin collection provides facts and traces to substantiate the claim of a Jewish presence in Catalonia well before the destruction, in 70 A.D, of the Temple in Jerusalem. Moreover, a fruitful excavation in ancient Ampurias has uncovered Judean coins dating from the first fifty years of the Common Era. In addition, in Lluro (now Mataró) objects pertaining to Judean lawyers and dating from the same period as the coins have also been unearthed (1).
The epigraphic sources that we know of—a scarce amount of which have been located—refer us to the first century A.D., especially an engraved amphora housed in the Ibiza Museum. (2).
The scarce archeological remains point to the Synagogue of Elche, dating back to the fourth century. At this time early Christian forms of worship had yet to break from Jewish traditions forbidding figurative or fresco representations. Thus, it is possible that the Synagogue of Elche represents a transitional edifice between Judaism and Christianity. This may have been one of the causes that led experts such as the German Schlunk to vacillate at different moments as to whether the edifice had served as a synagogue or as a basilica.
This is all we possess of Jewish archaeology.
Only a religious building with distinctive features could induce us to suppose that we find ourselves before what we have called “Jewish archeology”. These features would, moreover, meet the demands set by the Tosefta which require synagogues to have a façade oriented toward Jerusalem, with two windows allowing for the passage of light that had already passed through the Sacred City.
In 1996, an investigation began in a building with precisely these characteristics, located in Barcelona at the corner of Marlet and Sant Domenech Streets in the old Jewish Quarter. This building not only meets the requirements laid out by the Tosefta, but it also coincides with a book kept by tax collector Jaume Colom, whose collection route terminated right in front of the Old Synagogue in the “Call Jueu” (Jewish Call).
After two archeological digs, findings were submitted to the architect Joan Albert Adell I Gisbert. In an erudite work about the building façade´s topographical orientation towards Jerusalem, Dr. Adell writes:
“This wall breaks with the orientation of the “Insulae” and has an oblique trace which seeks a clear N-S alignment. It is as if it corresponded to a building seeking orientation between the four cardinal points, absolutely rejecting the topographic urban alignment of Barcino of N.W-S-E”. (3).
A detailed structural analysis of the wall reveals serious deformations with indications of crushing due to excessive loads and an inside rotation of the foundations. This deformation totally modifies the qualitative characteristics of the construction, giving the wall the aspect of having been raised in a hurry without technological mastery of the construction process.
These structural deformations deface the structure of the wall, which strictly conforms to the opus africanum constructive technique. Possibly, the large stone blocks of the pillars were reused not in the medieval era but in Roman times, most likely in the third century, judging from ceramic materials attached to the wall. Yet, an even earlier date cannot be ruled out, as we’ve indicated elsewhere regarding the ceramic materials.
Given that the opus africanum construction was executed with such technological precision, we are led to believe that the building possessed a certain degree of importance. While we cannot affirm with absolute certainty that the building was a public or official edifice, it is reasonable to assume that the structure was not simply a domus or house.
Unfortunately, we know of very few elements (just the northeastern angle of the city) to assist in evaluating the phenomenon of urban transformation which took place in Barcino between the fourth and the sixth centuries. This is especially true of the Forum, the structural character of which we are unaware. Yet it seems illogical to assume that the construction of the walls, and later the construction of the palatine complex and the northeastern episcopal angle, were isolated incidents. In fact, we are compelled to accept the hypothesis which holds that incidents of similar character occurred in other parts of the city. The invasion of Decumanus Minor, the Forum, and the buildings on Marlet and San Honorato Streets support this claim.
The Structure of the Wall Surface.
The archeological excavation does not contribute any new knowledge to the existent building in the medieval era. It does document much later building activity such as the construction of the well and the balsa of the tub, yet this is beyond the scope of the present report.
Surface analysis of the existing walls, which may be considered as the lower or ground floor level, seems irrelevant due to the huge material mix that forms the walls. The mix is of very diverse origin and is arranged in an anarchical manner. Moreover, these types of construction—the vaults and some of the windows—are typical of the 17th century.
The wall faces of the most westerly-situated room do not present the sort of constructive elements that would admit the claim that its walls date back to before the 17th century. However, it is clear that the wall on Marlet Street (to the south) follows the line of the M3 and M4 walls which, as we have seen, do pertain to the ancient construction.
On the other hand, the east wing room presents clear indications that the M4 wall was raised and extended to the east, forming an angle that recovers the old Roman alignments. The result is a new wall—the M6 wall—formed by well-cut stones in the shape and size of paving stones arranged in very uniform lines. This kind of surface was very common in 16th century Barcelona. Buildings such as the Palacio Real Mayor (Main Royal Palace) in the Arcs of Tinell, the churches Santa Maria de Pedralbes and Santa Maria del Mar, and the chapels of the Royal Chapel of Santa Agata were constructed using this technique.
This constructive model already appears in monuments from 13th century Barcelona. Examples are the church at the Sant Pau del Camp Monastery, the Comanda Templera de Palau, and some parts of the Palacio Episcopal.
The kind of surface that we find in Marlet Street resembles 13th century building forms more than 14th century models in which this type of wall face is never the sole constructive feature. We therefore can admit the claim that the late-Roman building underwent significant renovation in the 13th century.
It was then that the building definitively acquired its current alignment on Marlet Street. The façade on this street has a clearly defined base with untouched parameters. In typical 17th century fashion, the upper part of the façade the surface is a mix of reused elements such as some voussoirs, possibly from doors, which due to their small size leads us to believe they pertain to the 13th century. In the wall forming the façade on San Domingo del Call Street, the same kind of surface can be observed though in a very altered state. More likely than not, it is a 17th wall from built predominantly with materials appropriated from the 13th century construction.
In short, we may conclude that neither the archeological structures nor the archeological data contribute anything which would allow us to confer a precise function to the subterranean and ground floor spaces of the building situated at Marlet Street No. 5. While we are unable to attribute a specific function to the building with walls dating from before the 13th and 14th centuries, this in no way contradicts the published works of Dr. Jaume Riera or the doctoral thesis by architect Paolo Genova which situate the expansion of the Major Synagogue of Barcelona, authorized in 1267 by King Jaime I, in this space.
Analysis of the surfaces and structures permits us to hypothesize the chronological succession, prior to 1400, of the different constructive phases of the building.
1- In an undetermined moment in Roman times, somewhere between the third and fourth centuries, a building is constructed in the opus africanum style. This structure breaks completely with the system of alignment of the insulae, seeks a North-South orientation, a direct East-West alignment, and intrudes on public spaces corresponding to the Decumanus Minor and the “Forum”. This and the highly realized constructive technique, despite the decadent state- of the Roman-era remains, merit the claim that the building had a public or communal character.
2- Until the 13th century the building underwent relatively insignificant structural change. At that time the structure was significantly renovated and enlarged, maintaining nonetheless the previous orientation and alignment. The changes resulting from the construction activity performed in the 17th century impede further speculation regarding the structure. It may have had two levels, judging from scant vestiges of the façade, yet no definitive proof is available to corroborate this hypothesis.