Zaragoza (Saragossa)

Zaragoza (Saragossa), Palacio de la Aljafería
Zaragoza (Saragossa), Palacio de la Aljafería, detaing from the medieval Muslim period.

Zaragoza, a city in the region of Aragon in northeastern Spain, is commonly known as Saragossa in English, סרקרסטה or סרקסטה in medieval Hebrew. It had a notable Jewish community in the medieval period, both under Muslim and Christian rule. A Roman city in antiquity, Zaragoza was conquered by Muslims in the seventh century and by Christian forces in 1118. Though a 1294 blood libel disturbed the community, and it was heavily affected by the 1348-49 outbreak of Black Plague, the Jews of Zaragoza were among the only communities to be shielded from the violence of the anti-Jewish riots of 1391-92 by royal presence in the city.

The many attested medieval synagogues of Zaragoza are no longer extant, and traces of Jewish life in the city are almost entirely gone. There were once two Jewish quarters (juderías or calls) or areas of Jewish settlement in the city, an older quarter within the old Roman precincts, and a newer one. (Settlement in Iberia’s juderías were customary but voluntary, i.e., not mandatory and enforced as in the early modern Italian ghettos.)

Notable Jewish residents of Zaragoza include, in the Islamic period, the grammarian R. Yonah Ibn Janach, the poet and philosopher R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol and the ethicist R. Bachya Ibn Pakuda; in the Christian period, the Talmudic scholars Rabbenu Bachya ben Asher, Ritva, and Rivash, the philosopher and statesment R. Chasdai Crescas, and the prominent Alconstantini and de la Cavallería families (the latter of which largely converted to Christianity after 1492).

Megillat Saragossa, 17th cen., Columbia University Libraries Ms. General 160.

In the tradition of recording individual “Purims,” occasions on which a Jewish community was threatened but survived, there is a Megillat Saragossa. Scholars debate whether it refers to Zaragoza in Spain or Siracusa (Syracuse) in Italy. The text can be read here, in Hebrew with English translation.

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