In the alleys of the old town of Cáceres, Spain, we by chance became aware of the town’s Jewish past. Stars of David adorn Jewish houses, including those specially marked as such for Airbnb clients. When strolling through the cobbled streets, you feel like you have been transported back in time. Surrounded by villas, watchtowers, walls, Renaissance palaces and church towers inhabited by storks, Cáceres is a place where Roman, Christian and Jewish history can be experienced.
This also explains why Cáceres was chosen as the filming location for the TV series Game of Thrones. The well-preserved old town with its narrow and cobbled alleys, houses and medieval palaces protected by Moorish castle walls. Cáceres is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it looks the same as it did hundreds of years ago. The entire region is rich in castles from past empires and untouched natural landscapes with lakes, fields, rocks and mountains. Conquests and battles between neighboring kingdoms are also not uncommon in the Cáceres region. Arguably the most notable look at Cáceres in Game of Thrones is the scene at the Arco de la Estrella and Plaza de Santa María in Season 7 Episode 3.
Not far from where the American fantasy series was filmed, Jewish life that was not fantasy once took place. Just a few meters south-east of the Plaza de Santa María is one of the most charming and least known neighborhoods in the city, the old Jewish Quarter. This quaint neighborhood is characterized by narrow streets opening onto beautiful whitewashed squares with pretty gardens, and palatial and humble houses alike. During its zenith, the Jewish Quarter of Cáceres was one of the jewels of the Sepharad, as the Jewish people called their Spanish homeland.
However, this sense of peace was not always a feature of the Jewish Quarter. Before 1492, this quarter was bustling with family and business life. The Jewish population of Cáceres established their community when the Iberian Peninsula was being ruled by the Muslim Moors. When the Christians conquered the city in 1229, King Fernando III decreed that the Jews could continue the way of life they had established under Moorish rule. This meant a degree of religious autonomy in the city, allowing Jews to run their own administration and Jewish courts to make judgments according to the Torah, or 10 Commandments. One of the main reasons why Fernando III made this concession was the need to resettle the city after the bloody reconquest. Jewish presence was therefore important to him in this city.
A keeper of a museum told us about the old synagogue that once stood a few meters away on the right, where a chapel now stands. Emirate de San Antonio was the center of Jewish life in the city of Cáceres. Today a shield with Hebrew letters spelling out “Sepharad” is displayed in memory of the Spanish Jews. It was hot and in our imagination we painted the Jewish life in these streets. It reminded us a bit of the design of the narrow streets of Nachlaot in Jerusalem, a residential neighborhood built by Spanish Jews in Israel’s pioneering years. A similar style.
In 1470, the Christian governors snatched this building from the Jews and forced them to hold their services elsewhere. The governors had the synagogue demolished and built the chapel in its place. Fortunately, some elements of the original building have been preserved, such as the courtyard and the altar, which are still worth seeing today. Eight years later, in 1478, after many more Church victories, the Jewish population was expelled from his neighborhood and settled near the Plaza Mayor in Cáceres. The magnificent Palacio del Marqués de la Isla, with its vaulted ceilings and interior gardens, still bears the marks of its past as a new synagogue built by the Jews when they were first driven from their homes, before being exiled a few years later.
Few locals in Cáceres are aware of their town’s Jewish past, but everyone knows where Game of Thrones was filmed. In the cafés we talked to the waiters, none of whom knew about the Jewish residents of Cáceres. I asked two locals if they knew what religion the man on the cross on the wall next to the church is from, they all told me he was Christos. Nobody knew that Jesus was a Jew.
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