For a view from above climb up to the Women’s Gallery, from where women were allowed to watch ceremonies - but not take part.
It was unusual to build synagogues in 14th century Spain: so unusual, in fact, that El Tránsito was the only one built during the period. King Peter of Castile probably allowed its construction - vociferously opposed by the Catholic Church - to compensate the Jews of Toledo for the anti-Jewish riots suffered in 1348.
The Synagogue was founded as the private family place of worship of Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, Treasurer to the King, in about 1356. Peter, constantly criticized for his permissive attitude towards Jews, had him tortured and executed only four years later. Ha-Levi's vulnerable position was characteristic of the status of Jews in society at the time, preceding their expulsion from Spain in 1492.
After 1492, the building was converted into a Christian church; during the Napoleonic wars it was used as a military headquarters; it became a museum in 1910, and interesting exhibits about the Jewish presence in Spain are now housed in adjoining rooms. The Synagogue has survived remarkably well, and its exquisite architecture can still be enjoyed today.
Ha-Levi defied laws at the time that decreed that synagogues must be smaller than churches and plainly decorated; apparently with Peter’s approval, he embellished the building with gorgeous polychrome stucco panels featuring Arabic script and floral motifs, perforated multifoil arches, inscriptions praising himself and the king, quotations from the Psalms, and a huge Mudéjar panelled ceiling. As with much of Toledo’s uniquely multicultural architecture, it is a wonderful blend of Gothic and Moorish styles.
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