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The Sephardic Jews
09 April 2020 @ 13:52

After Granada had fallen, Queen Isabel was flushed with pride at her victory over the Moors, and the Church applauded her, but her finances were stretched after ten years of war. Cristóbal Columbus had been petitioning her to fund his voyage of discovery, as he had with every other European monarch. He was invited to accompany the royal party to witness the final disgrace of Emir Boabdil as he left Granada forever.

The Capitulation of Granada by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz, born in Villanueva de Gállego, in Zaragoza Province.  He studied at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando and, later, the "Academia de Acuarelistas" (Academy of Watercolorists) in Madrid.

Isabel thought Columbus a fool, who would probably get himself and all his crew killed on his insane voyage.  He was summoned to a final meeting in Cordoba with the King and Queen. After a terse exchange, they refused the money he wanted, and he left disconsolate, but had not gone far when King Ferdinand sent for him to return. He had persuaded his wife to give him the money for his voyage, and Christopher Columbus immediately left for Huelga to hire the ships he needed.

Isabel did not give Columbus a second thought, and instead looked to the assets that she had in España. The anti-Semitic fervour had reached a peak, and the Jews were the lowest social group. The Mudéjar were treated better, and had more rights than the Jewish population, but the Jews had more money; and money was what Isabel needed most.

Just ten weeks after the fall of Granada, Isabel issued the Alhambra Decree. It seems to have been all Isabel’s idea, and the theory is that her confessor had changed from the tolerant Hernado de Talavara, to the fanatical Francisco Jiménez de Cisternos. The edict was pinned to synagogue doors and posts in the town plazas all over España. In some areas, the Jews were given just four months to convert or leave, and were not allowed to take gold, silver or minted money. If they did not leave or convert by the deadline, they would be executed, which usually meant being burned alive. 

By now, over half the Jewish population of España had been forced to convert to Christianity by persecution and pogroms led by zealots in the Church. Even before Granada fell, Isabel and Ferdinand had ended the “convivencia” agreement that had allowed the religions to “live and let live” for five hundred years. Those who were expelled from España fled into Portugal, or the coast of North Africa. Those who chose to live in Africa mingled with the Mizrahi Arabic or Berber people. Their descendants became Jewish communities in Morocco, Algeria and Libya.

When he heard of the Spanish expulsions, Sultan Bayzed II of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle-East dispatched the Ottoman Navy to rescue them. He gave them sanctuary in Thessaloniki, and Izmir in Turkey, whilst others were settled in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Serbia. The Sultan was reported to have said that “Those who say that Ferdinand and Isabel are wise are fools, for they give their enemies their national treasure; the Jews.”

There was to be no rest for those who settled in Portugal. Five years after the Alhambra Decree, Portugal issued the same terms to its Jews; flee, convert, or die. In the end, something like 200,000 Jews converted, and between 40,000 and 100,000 left, and all their possessions and lands were confiscated by the crown. The Jews who converted were known as Marranos, meaning swine in modern day Spanish.

Insanely, because of their skills in architecture and construction, many of the Muslim workers were retained as Mudéjar craftsmen, and continued practicing their religion among Catholics and converted Jews.

Those Jews who fled to North Africa suffered at the hands of their hosts and many decided to return to España. To accommodate them, in November 1492, Isabel and Ferdinand issued a new decree which legalised the returnees if they were baptised on arrival or could prove that they had been baptised before arrival. Furthermore, their property could be recovered at the same price it had been sold.

In 1493 in a bizarre u-turn, the Royal Council set harsh sanctions for any who slandered these new Christians or called them Tornadizos. Later in their reign of terror, Isabel and Ferdinand allowed a new phase with the Inquisition, when a paranoia over the validity of forced conversions led to the torture and brutal killing of thousands accused of carrying on practicing their religion as crypto-Islamists or crypto-Judaists.

It was in January 1493, almost exactly a year after the surrender of Granada, the forgotten Christopher Columbus returned with tales of dozens of islands with native populations. He named the island he had first sighted Hispañola; the old name for Spain.

España’s fortunes and those of the world had just changed forever. Columbus made four more voyages, but he never received all that Isabel had promised him. He spent the rest of his life fighting in the courts to claim the rest.

España was not the first country to expel its Jewish populations. England had done the same in 1290, as had many of the kingdoms of Europe during the intervening years. Indeed, between 1015 and 1535, 20 European nations would expel their entire Jewish populations.

 As a result of persecution and pogroms during 1491 and 1492, over 100,000 Spanish Jews had converted to Christianity and around 60,000 had been forced to leave after a thousand years of freedom of worship on the Iberian Peninsula. Some had returned afterwards, and thousands of those suffered torture and brutal execution during the Inquisition.

Many had been scattered to Europe and the Americas. As the centuries passed those who had left formed their own communities, and had become known as the Sephardi Jews, (Hebrew for Iberian Jews.) a distinct ethnic branch of the Jewish faith. Then in 1868, Jews were once again allowed to follow their faith and worship in Synagogues under Spain’s Laws of Religious Freedom.

The regime of Primo de Rivera in 1924 granted Spanish citizenship to the entire Sephardic Jewish diaspora, and in 1968, following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church finally revoked the Alhambra Decree.

As a final atonement to their historic treatment of the Jews, the governments of Spain and Portugal passed a law in 2014 allowing dual citizenship to all Jewish descendants who apply to "compensate for shameful events in the country's past." Thus Sephardi Jews who are descendants of those Jews expelled from Spain due to the Alhambra Decree, and can prove it, can "become Spaniards without leaving home or giving up their present nationality."

Ángel Sanz Briz

In 1942 Ángel Sanz Briz was sent to the Spanish embassy in Budapest as the first secretary of the Spanish legation. He had entered the diplomatic school in Madrid in 1933 after gaining a degree in law at the Central University of Madrid. Briz discovered that the German occupation army in Hungary was rounding up Jews to be sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz. The government of Miguel Primo de Rivera had revoked the Granada Decree of 1492, which ordered all Jews to leave Spain. Rivera's decree of 1924 granted all Sephardic Jews the right to re-claim Spanish citizenship, but unfortunately, the decree had been cancelled in 1930

The Hungarians were unaware that the decree had been overturned, and Briz and the other embassy staff issued 5,200 fake papers to Jews in Hungary giving them free passage to escape to Spain. Briz bought houses with his own money where the Jews could live until they could leave for Spain.

Briz was ordered to go to Switzerland by Madrid when the Russian troops neared Budapest, but his replacement, an Italian called Georgio Periasca, continued issuing Spanish Visas and maintained the safe houses where the Jews could stay.

Sanz Briz tells his own story in the book by Federico Ysart called Los Judíos en España, and was featured in a Spanish television series inspired by the book Un español frente al Holocausto.

The Last Jew, written by Noah Gordon, tells the story of a young boy who lived in Toledo whose family of goldsmiths was expelled by the Church. His travels and description of the hidden Jewish communities worshiping in secret give a chilling insight in to those times. His stay with the gypsies who helped and hid him in Granada leave a sad impression of the last days of the Emir Boabdil. 

After I posted this blog I recieved a comment from Radam about another book on this theme called The Ornament of The World, by Maria Rosa Menocal. When I went to look up the book, I found several more. If you have read them and can reccomend them either post a comment, or email     and I will add them to reccomended reading on my webpage at

Here are the others:    



Like 1


Radam said:
11 April 2020 @ 14:30

A good book on pre-1492 Spain is “The Ornament of World, How Muslims, Y
Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” by the late María Rosa Menocal, who was a Yale University Professor. An excellent book!

Radam said:
11 April 2020 @ 14:30

A good book on pre-1492 Spain is “The Ornament of World, How Muslims, Y
Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” by the late María Rosa Menocal, who was a Yale University Professor. An excellent book!

Gerda Hillers said:
11 April 2020 @ 14:44

Beautiful piece of the Spanish history. Still very exciting to read it. Thank you!

marelison said:
11 April 2020 @ 17:45

Interesting article about this era in Spanish history.

Thank you,
Mar Elison

animate said:
11 April 2020 @ 18:27

Thank you, Radam. I am going to order this book. It's one that I haven't read. I will also put it on my website at for others to read. I believe that people of all religions can live together in peace and have done before, sometimes for centuries.

animate said:
11 April 2020 @ 18:33

Thank you Gerda. As more people send books or artwork that they have seen I will add it to the library.

animate said:
11 April 2020 @ 18:40

Thank you, Mar. History is fascinating, and that of Spain doubly so. I am glad that you enjoyed it.

Feia3 said:
12 April 2020 @ 17:37

It is really an exciting story. Grateful for this opportunity to know these historic facts! However, it is difficult to imagine that People can have documents proving their descendance by now if they would like to use the possibility of citizenship!

animate said:
14 April 2020 @ 13:19

HI, Feia3.
I also believe that it would be hard to prove after all this time, but there are plenty of websites for looking up your family history. Perhaps that is how they do it.
I don't know. I am glad that you enjoyed the article though.

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