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Jaén pays tribute to ibn Shaprut, city's 'Favorite Son'

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

By Daniel Santacruz

Rafael Camara, president of Iuventa-Tarbut Jaen.
Rafael Cámara, right, and mayor Javier Márquez, center, unveil the monument at Plaza Rostro (Courtesy).

There are no Jews in Jaén. The anti-Jewish riots of the summer of 1391, which broke out in Seville, in  southern Spain, marked the beginning of the end of several Jewish communities. Jaen, where Jews had lived for hundreds of years was no exception. Many Jews, like others throughout the country, converted to Christianity.  After the expulsion of the Jews from the country in 1492, a large crypto Jewish community existed in the city for several centuries. 

Jaén, known in Hebrew as medina yayan, is located in the province of Andalucía, in southern Spain. It bills itself as the “most mysterious of the Andalucias” and “the world’s capital of olive oil.” It boasts a judería, or Jewish quarter, of dark, narrow alleys, four large streets, one church (San Andrés) and one convent (Santa 

Clara). It’s believed that a synagogue existed where the church is. Its slogan is onde los sefardim moraban (where Sefardim lived).

Its claim to fame, however, is being the birthplace of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, physician, poet, botanist, linguist and diplomat, born in 915. He died in 968, or, 978 in Cordoba.

With great fanfare, a sculpture of him was inaugurated in the city’s Plaza Rostro, in the heart of the judería, this past September. It was the fourth that a Spanish city erected in a public space to honor a medieval Jewish scholar.

Rafael Cámara, president de Iuventa-Tarbut Jaen, an all-volunteer cultural organization whose goal is to promote and preserve the city’s Jewish history, is one of the pillars behind the idea of the tribute to Shaprut.

In his speech at the inauguration, he said that Shaprut “was one of the most important personalities of Al-Andalus [Andalucía], a universal Andalucian, a model to follow who strove for the benefit of scientific and cultural progress and worked side by side with people of different religions.”

With the sculpture, he added, Shaprut gets the “proper recognition he deserves and Jaen enriches its cultural values, its heritage and its message of harmony.”

The sculpture, made out of iron, is 2,20 mts. tall and 70 cms. wide. Above his profile can be seen a fish, a symbol of Christianity, an Islamic crescent and a menorah, which symbolize his interactions with members of the three religions, according to the website of Jaen’s city hall.

The back has his name in Arabic, Hebrew and Roman characters. “To Jaén, having Hasday ibn Shaprut as one of its most illustrious sons is a source of collective pride,” said Camara in an e-mail. “Last year, IUVENTA-Tarbut organized an event to mark the 1100th anniversary of his birth and this past June he was named "Jaen’s Favorite Son," the highest honor that we could bestow upon him.” Cámara, who is not Jewish, has been at the head of Iuventa-Tarbut Jaen for two decades as a volunteer. In his paying job he’s an officer at the Delegation of Agriculture, Fisheries and Land Development at the Andalucia Regional Government. “As you can see, my professional job has nothing to do with my job as a volunteer,” he said. In 2005, Jaén joined the Red de Juderías de España—Caminos de Sefarad, a non-profit organization created to preserve Spain’s Jewish quarters. Twenty-four towns and cities, big and small, among them Barcelona, Segovia and Tudela, are members. The inauguration of Shaprut’s statue was part of the Jornadas Europeas de la Cultura Judía (JECJ), an annual event held each September in several European celebrate Jewish culture, sponsored in part by the Red. Jaén also hosted a symposium on Jewish languages, samplings of Sefardi gastronomy in several restaurants, concerts and guided tours of the Jewish quarter.

Mysterious object puzzles researchers

Known as Barrio de Santa Cruz, the judería had a population of 1.500 in the 1300s, according to “Arqueología en la judería de Jaén” (Archeology in Jaén's Jewish Quarter), a paper presented at the Congress of Jewish Medieval Archeology in the Iberian Peninsula, held in Murcia, Spain, in 2009. In an archeological dig conducted by the authors of the paper about 10 years ago, a 10 cm-long, 8 mm wide marble object was found in a large basement in a house believed to have been built in the 1300s. The object has a small hole at one end. “Initially, the object was classified as a rolling pin, but other researchers believed it was a pointer to read the Torah,” according to the archeologists. “We have heard different interpretations as to the use of the object, but there is no consensus in the opinions.” What they do know, the authors conclude, is that, according to the place where it was found and the date when it was built, “the object was used by a Jewish person.”

The Jewish quarter of Jaen is know as Barrio de Santa Cruz
The judería is also known as Barrio de Santa Cruz (Courtesy).

Shaprut was a physician and a diplomat, and Latin minister and adviser to caliph Abderraman III and his son Alhaken II. He spoke Hebrew, Arabic and Latin, a language used mostly by the Catholic Church hierarchy, and was also a nasi, prince, leader of Andalucía’s Jewish communities, and supported Jewish scholars. Born also in Jaen were his father, Isaac ibn Ezra, who donated the funds to build a synagogue, and rabbi Zulema Aben Nahamias and author Yaakov Al Yayani. Following are excerpts of an interview via e-mail with Camara: Kolsefardim: Are there families in Jaén that claim to descend from Jews? Rafael Cámara: Yes, according to some; others just suspect it. The surnames of some families seem to strongly indicate a Jewish origin, such in the case of Abolafia. My maternal grandmother’s surname was Abolafia. It’s not so difficult to say you descend from Jews in a city where eight to 10% of the population had converso background in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. KS: Do the schools in Jaen teach about Shaprut and the role of Jews in the history of Spain? RC: That type of teaching is not part of the official curriculum, even though there are teachers that do include it in their lessons; it’s their own initiative. A future goal is to get the schools to make the teaching of Jewish history part of local history. KS: Besides the sculptures of Maimonides, in Córdoba, and now Shaprut, in Jaén, both in public places, are there others of well-known Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages in more Spanish cities? RC: Yes, there are sculptures of [cartographer] Abraham Cresques in Palma de Majorca; [translator] Yehuda Ibn Tibon, in Granada; and [philosopher and poet] Salomom Ibn Gabirol, in Málaga. There is no doubt that Spain has been paying tribute, little by little, to prominent Jews. KS: For a city that has no Jewish community, the activities of Iuventa-Tarbut Jaén and Jaen’s City Hall during the JECJ in September and in the past are remarkable. What motivates them to carry them out?  RC: Jaén is a member of the Red de Juderías de España—Caminos de Sefarad, and, as such, it has an institutional obligation. The councilor for culture and the mayor have shown interest in those activities too. At IUVENTA, on the other hand, the volunteers are committed to reclaiming a part of our past that, up to two decades ago, was completely unknown to everyone in the town. It has been an arduous job at the grassroots level to make the town’s residents aware of our Jewish past. Now it’s matter of collective pride. The job of the volunteers to create a collective awareness has been crucial.

© Daniel Santacruz.

October 2016

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