In 1987, the medievalist Jaume Riera and Sans gave the initial steps that allowed to predict the exact situation of what was the Greater Synagogue of Barcelona until 1391.

It publishes a work titled "Catalonia and the Jews", in which, based on the reconstruction of the route that a tax collector carried out in the year 1396 by the Old Jewish Quarter and that ended in front of the Old Synagogue corroborated its first suspicions about its location.

This study led Mr. Miguel Iaffa to investigate the visible exterior of the site of the current building and found that it still complied with the demand of the "Tosefta" that one of the fronts was facing Jesuralén with two windows that let light pass through the Holy City.

These relevant indicators will go unnoticed and will not arouse the interest that was supposed to be produced by the work of the respected historian. At the end of 1995 the former owner put on sale the property that was originally intended for Bar. In the face of this deplorable situation Mr. Miguel Iaffa made the decision to acquire it to try to bring to light its historical past and preserve it from a use little worthy of its previous long history.

Thus began a collaboration between the two people mentioned above, Riera and Iaffa, to achieve a common goal: rescue from oblivion a long period of the history of Catalonia through the rehabilitation of the old synagogue space.

The precarious state of conservation and the hiding of the stones by thick layers of stucco produced a generalized skepticism that we were in the desired place. In 1997 Mr. Jaume Riera and Sans published a work in the bulletin of the Official Col.legi of Doctors and Llicenciats in Philosophy and Lletres and in Ciències de Catalunya...

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The Jewish medieval Call

The oldest Call precinct - the Call Major - was located between the streets of l'Arc de Sant Ramon, Call, Bisbe and Sant Sever. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the geographical space destined for the community had to be expanded, and prospered in the surroundings of what is now the Church of Sant Jaume - the Call Menor.

Outside the city, on the slopes of Monjuïc, was the cemetery, and we know the names of some Jewish owners of vineyards, who would use to make kosher wine. Thanks to the most recent studies, based on notarial documents, we know that in the second half of the 14th century one of the portals of the Call Major was at the beginning of the current street of Sant Domènec, which at that time was the main artery, corner with the street of the Call. In front of the portal, outside the neighborhood, was the bakery. Already in the interior, we locate some vital elements for the community: the carnage was next to the portal of entrance, in the street of Sant Domènec (then of Carnisseria); the fish store was in the today street of the Fruita; the source that supplied the Call was located in the street of Sant Honorat (then de la Font); in the present street of the Arc of Sant Ramon (then School of the French or dels Banys Freds)

We also know where some important people lived: the doctors lived in the place that today occupies the Palau de la Generalitat at the confluence with Plaça Sant Jaume; David de Bellcaire was the owner of a series of premises next to the portal, including the doorman's apartment and the butcher's. The Castell Nou, where the inhabitants of the Call went to take refuge after the assault of August 5, 1391, was located in the current street of Banys Nous, corner with the Call. And finally, the Greater Synagogue was in the extension of the street of the Carnicería, well-known also like the one of the Major School.

Building exterior of the Major Synagogue

We believe that the original building was freestanding. To the north, it adjoined with what was then Escola Mayor Street and to the east with Marlet Street. The building ran southerly along “de les Dones” Street, where in the 19th century a narrow edifice was built. To the west there was probably an atrium, the site where later, around the 17th century, the stairs to the present-day building were erected. In the northern exterior wall, there is an effigy of Santo Domingo. Emblematic buildings in the Jewish Quarters were christianized with the effigy of a saint. The bloodiest day in the history of Barcelona’s Jewish community was August 5, 1391. On that day, the day celebrated as Santo Domingo, the Call was attacked.

After the uprising, the street name was changed to Sant Doménec. The building, along with all of the community’s belongings, passed into the hands of the king.

We find ourselves before a building whose foundations date back to Roman times. In addition, there are superimposed high-medieval constructions and a central structure from the 13th century. Also visible are 17th century modifications made when the upper level apartments were built.

We’ll enter through a tiny door on Marlet Street. We must bow our heads. In this way, we honor the memory of a devastated community.

Wall orientated toward Jerusalem and 13th century exterior wall.

First Room

We are now in the foyer of the synagogue. We have crossed the threshold and descended a small flight of stairs. Street level in Roman times was six feet lower than that of today. Turning around, we see just below the stairs an example of (1) Opus africanus, a building style used in the construction of public edifices dating back to the first centuries of the city’s foundation. Resting on top of the Opus africanus are (2) medieval walls from the 13th century. Below the glass panel floor, we find a (3) wall from the same period as the Opus. The wall forms a vertex with the Opus and serves to demarcate the ancient building. Further on, we find a (4) construction from the late-Roman period. Atop it are (5) dying vats dating back to 1477, once used by the d’Arguens family. When the family’s condition as crypto-Jews was discovered, the d’Arguens’ fled to France. The Inquisition burned the family in effigy.

Stepping through an opening in the wall, down a stair, we find ourselves the Second Room.

Second Room

We are now in the heart of the medieval synagogue. By modern standards the space is small, though its measurements (12 x 6 m or 40 x 20 ft) conform with those permitted at that time.

This was the only synagogue that permitted the possession of seats –a prized item tied to all sorts of transactions (leanings, donations, inheritances), as many documents attest.

The status of the owner determined the particular place that the seats occupied. Community dignitaries, for instance, had better seats than individuals less favored by fortune.

The (6) original entrance, now missing, was located in the northwest part of the building. Upon entering, one found (7) two large open windows in the southeast wall that invited and still invite the visitor to direct his or her gaze toward the eternal city of Jerusalem. The ark, where the scrolls of the Torah are kept, has been placed between the windows because it is here where the original ark would have been. At the back of the room, there is a (8) menorah of forged iron donated to the synagogue by the Majorcan artist Ferrán Aguiló (1957) in memory of his ancestors. The (9) walls surrounding the room date back to the 13th and 17th centuries. The vault also is from the 17th century. In the room’s lowest corner, below a window once giving way to the old “de les Dones” Street, we find the remains of (10) late-Roman walls. Given their orientation toward Jerusalem, it is reasonable to suppose that the walls formed part of a synagogue from the late-Roman period.

This extremely old synagogue has just experienced a rebirth. While we still lack some details we have what we feel is even more important: your presence which carries on the tradition.

Segunda sala antes y después de la restauración




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).

Roman Era

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.

Medieval Era

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.

Muros de la Época Medieval


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.