David Fintz Altabe, "The Significance of 1492 to the Jews and Muslims of Spain"

in Hispania (September 1992), 728-731.


(The full text of this work is available at Millersville University.)

We are all well aware that the voyage of Columbus is but one of the important events of 1492 that altered the course of Spanish and Portuguese at a time when the emphasis in education is shifting towards a multicultural approach, we have an excellent opportunity to present to our students the many benefits that accrued to Spain and to the world when the three major monotheistic faiths lived in harmony on Spanish soil. The tragic truth of the Inquisition and the Expulsion of first the Jews, and then the Muslims must also be told. with that purpose in mind, the following sample unit with exercises and bibliography for use in the classroom or as a homework assignment has been prepared. it is intended for the high school student with the hope that they will find it interesting as well as informative.

Did you know that there were Jews and Muslims living in Spain when Columbus was making preparations for his historical voyage to discover the Indies? In fact, it wasn't until the fall of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave him permission to go ahead with his plans for the expedition. that was in January of 1492. On August 3rd, when Columbus set sail to cross the ocean, the harbors and waterways of Spain were clogged with ships taking the exiled jews to North Africa, Portugal, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire.

These three major events of 1492, the fall of Granada, the expulsion of the Jews, and Columbus's expedition, were not unrelated. The war against the Muslims was very costly, and there wasn't enough money in the treasury to finance both the war and the voyage across the Atlantic. The funds came from the booty taken from the Moors when Granada fell, and from loans made to the king and queen by financiers who were Jews and converos; that is, Jews who had converted to Christianity.

There had been Jews in Spain since the time of King Solomon, roughly 1000 B.C. according to some chroniclers, but that is in doubt. What is certain is that Jews came to the Iberian Peninsula during the roman times after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Muslims, or Moors as they are called, entered Spain in 711 A.D. and the conquered nearly the entire peninsula. Both Moors and Jews considered Spain their home, having lived there for centuries in peace most of the time with their Christian neighbors. Muslim caliphs and Christian kings often referred to themselves with pride as emperors of the three religions.

When the Muslims first entered Spain, they made no attempt to force Christians and Jews to convert to their religion, Islam. Their holy book, the Koran, grants religious liberty and the protection of person and property to Christians and Jews as long as they pay a special tax and do not blaspheme the name of the prophet Mohammed. Thus, all groups were free to participate int he Arabic culture which was much more advanced in the sciences, literature, and philosophy during the Middle Ages than other European cultures.

Proof of the many important contributions of the Muslims to science and mathematics are the numerous words of Arabic origin that have been passed on to English through Spanish. Among the chemical terms are: alcohol, alkali, camphor, elixir, and tartar. Stars named by Muslim astronomers are: Aldebaran, Altair, Betelgeuse, and Vega, among others. The terms "nadir" and "zenith" are also of Arabic origin.

The Jews, too, were active in scientific research. They compiled astronomical tables that indicated the time that the stars would rise and set in the heavens. These and the perfection of the astrolabe by Jewish astronomers helped navigators at sea know there exact position.

Jewish physicians of the Middle Ages were highly respected and consulted even by the Muslims. One of the most renowned was Maimonides, who was born in Cordoba in 1135 and served as physician tot he Sultan of Egypt. His work on medicine became a classic. Maimonides was also a philosopher and his Guide tot he Perplexed is still read today.

It was in philosophy and literature that Arabic had the greatest impact on Jewish writers of Spain. Using Arabic models, poets composed, in Hebrew, religious and secular poetry of great beauty. They would sometimes add refrains to their poems in Spanish. The oldest Spanish poetry on record is to be found in these refrains called "jarchas."

The Jews were a city people and their principal occupations were the trades associated with urban life. They were carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, weavers, furriers, jewelers, and merchants of all sorts. We know this fact because an act passed in 1412, designed to limit their activities specifically barred them from these trades. Such anti-Jewish measures were decreed long after the Jews settled in Christian Spain.

The kings of Spain were well aware of the important advances made by the Jews and Muslims, and when they conquered areas of the peninsula ruled by the Moors, they followed a policy of religious tolerance so that they could learn and bring the benefits of Muslim culture to Christian Spain. In 1085, a Muslim fundamentalist sect form Morocco known as the Almoravides entered Spain. They began persecuting Christians and Jews and even Spanish Muslims whom they considered to be backsliders in their faith. Many of these fled to Christian lands in the north of Spain where they were welcomed for the culture which they brought with them. Schools of translators were set up, first in Toledo, and then in Seville under King Alfonso X (the Wise) who ruled Castile from 1252 to 1284. The translators would work as a team; a Moor would translate a work from Greek into Arabic, a Jew would then translate it into Spanish, and a monk would finally translate it into Latin, the language in which it would circulate throughout the rest of Europe. Often Jewish rabbis would translate the work into Hebrew, making it accessible to Jews throughout Europe.

Unfortunately, this happy state of affairs came to an end. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, resentment against the Jews increased. Turbulent civil wars brought on economic crisis, embittering the lives of the people. Fanatic priests stirred up hatred and incited the masses to riot. In 1391, one third of the Jewish population of Spain was massacred. Another third converted to Christianity in order to save their lives. The vast majority of such conversions made under duress were insincere, and the converts continued to observe Jewish practices and beliefs in secret. Spanish churchmen urged Queen Isabella to petition the Pope to institute an Inquisition to stamp out the heresy of insincere converts. The deep religious convictions of the Queen made her open to such suggestions. King Ferdinand, on the other hand, was attracted tot he idea because of the wealth that could be taken from the converts. Also, since there was hardly a noble family in Spain that had not intermarried with Jews, the Inquisition would render the nobility too frightened to defy his authority. One of the first things the Inquisition did when someone was accused was to confiscate that person's property. The accused was never told what he was accused of, nor who his accuser was. Under torture, which was commonly used, the accused might mention the name of a member of his family with whom he might have celebrated a Jewish festival. that person would then be brought in and tried. Those who clung steadfastly to their faith were turned over to civil authorities to be burned in an auto-de-fe.

It was revealed during the inquisitional trials that converts would sometimes attend dinners on Jewish holidays with members of their family who had remained Jewish. This was brought to the attention of Ferdinand and isabella with the recommendation that the Jews be expelled. It was believed that while Jews remained in Spain those who had converted might never entirely give up their original faith.

The Edict of Expulsion signed on March 31, 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella gave the Jews four months to convert to Christianity or leave Spain under penalty of death. They had to abandon their homes and any wealth in the form of money, gold, silver, or jewelry. It is estimated that less than twenty five percent chose to convert. They had seen what the Inquisition did to those who converted before them. estimates of the number of Jews who left Spain range from 150,000 to 400,000. Some went to Portugal where Jews were stilled allowed to live until they were massacred and forcibly baptized in 1496. Some jews settled in North Africa or in the Italian city-states that would accept them. the vast majority, however, went to the Ottoman empire where they were welcomed by the Sultan Beyazit II. Knowing the Jews to ba peaceful, hard working people, and aware of the skills that they brought with them, Beyazit is rumored to have said, "How can anyone call Ferdinand wise when he impoverishes his own kingdom to enrich mine." The Ottoman Turks never persecuted the Jews. for five hundred years Jews and Turks have lived side by side in harmony.

The Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire, which at one time included Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Rumania in Europe, and Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in the Near East. They continued to speak the Spanish they had brought with them in 1492. Their language was their identity, just as Armenian, Greek, or Slavic was to other ethnic groups living in the empire. These Spanish Jews, or "Sephardim" as they are called, even preserved ballads that were sung in the Iberian peninsula centuries before the Expulsion. After World War I, many immigrated to the United States and Latin America. Today, the majority live in Israel. Except for the older generation, they no longer speak Ladino, as their Judeo-Spanish is called.

The Muslim inhabitants of Spain suffered a similar fate. Thought the treat of surrender signed when Granada fell, allowed the Muslims to keep their customs, mode of dress, language, and religion, they, too, were forcibly baptised. As Christians, they eventually were subject to the Inquisition. After several riots during the sixteenth century, the moriscos, as they were called, were also expelled in 1605. the majority went to North Africa and resumed their original faith. In time they assimilated into the culture of their Muslim brethren, and history lost track of them....