Revisiting the past in Cartagena, Colombia

Revisiting the past in Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena’s quaint, narrow streets are home to open-air cafes and beautiful 
stucco buildings. (Photo by Simone Shapiro)
Cartagena’s quaint, narrow streets are home to open-air cafes and beautiful stucco buildings. (Photo by Simone Shapiro)

Stop a random person on the streets of Pittsburgh for a little word-association game and Cartagena may invoke res-ponses along the lines of “drugs and crime” or perhaps the name of the mid-1980s film, “Romancing the Stone,” set in Colombia. An individual with a more literary bent might reference Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize- winning Colombian novelist who died last year: He set many of his novels and short stories in Cartagena.

My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Cartagena this month, a lovely place, especially when it is fierce winter here and gentle summer there. Cartagena has a surprisingly modern face, a sea coast ringed with mile after mile of high-rises filled with offices of international trade and commerce. However, for the average tourist it is the old walled city, 70 square blocks, that holds the charm and appeal.

The walls of the medieval city face the Caribbean Sea, and you can walk along the top of the thick, stone ramparts and imagine soldiers crouching in the battlements, defending the city from the British. Set into one wall, what used to be a dungeon has been converted into small stores, where artisans sell their handmade crafts. Horse-drawn carriages slowly clop through the narrow streets carrying tourists admiring the open-air cafes, tree-lined plazas and large outdoor sculpture. The tiny streets are lined with two-story stucco buildings painted warm shades of orange and yellow, or bright blue tones, topped by balconies cascading with fragrant, colorful flowers. Indian women dressed in native costume carry large trays of fruit on their heads, calling out, vending their wares. Enterprising outdoor merchants walk along holding up arms full of colorful beads, leather purses and Panama hats, vying for your attention. It is like stepping into a city in Spain, full of energy, life and color.

But for Jews visiting Cartagena, there is another, more compelling attraction: The Palace of the Inquisition. In 1492, Jews living in Spain were given an ultimatum: Convert or die, or flee the country. Compelled by this Edict of Expulsion, tens of thousands converted under duress and, hoping the situation would be short-lived, continued practicing Judaism secretly. They were called, variously, New Christians, Conversos or Marranos (a derogatory term). Some of them sought an escape route from Spain to Portugal, and then to the Spanish/Portuguese colonies in the new world. The Church attempted to root out these secret Jews through torture. That was the Spanish Inquisition, and it followed the Conversos from Spain and Portugal to Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.

In the early 17th century, Cartagena was the capital of a vast fiefdom under Spanish control including what is present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico and part of Ecuador. Many Jews lived in these areas, and the Cartagena Tribunal of the Inquisition had jurisdiction over all of it.

The Church’s policy established that once a person converted to Catholicism, even under duress, they were forbidden to leave the Church. They nailed to church doors a list of Jewish customs, enlisting the public in recognizing if a neighbor was “Judaizing.” The accuser did not need to bring evidence or confront the accused.

After a person had been denounced, the tribunal would question and torture the accused to extract a confession. The punishment was almost always death. The person’s property would be confiscated and transferred to the court or to the person’s accuser.

Today the building that served as the seat of the Holy Office of the Inquisition for more than 200 years (1610-1811) is a museum. A graceful example of Spanish colonial architecture, it faces the lovely Plaza de Simon Bolivar and houses the Room of Tortures, a display on determining ”who is a witch” and rooms on the history of Cartagena, as well as several art exhibits. An inner courtyard and an outdoor patio complete the museum complex. The patio was used to house those prisoners waiting to be interrogated by the Inquisitors, and, later, to hold the prisoners prior to execution.

The Room of Tortures holds replicas of torture devices used against accused Conversos. Cards describe how each was used: the head crusher, the knee splitter, the Spanish tickler, the strappedo (pulley), the witch’s scale, the rack and the guillotine. The rooms are sparse with nothing but the devices and the explanations, except for one painting depicting the tortured souls, hands beseeching through bars, pleading for help. More than 800 people were burned alive in the large inner courtyard of this building during the years that the tribunal was in session. Today, it is used for elegant receptions.

Visitors walk silently through these rooms, reflecting on the horrors and injustices perpetrated cen-turies ago. An English speaking guide asks his group: “Do you know why people were tortured?” Most, if not all, of the group is not Jewish. I speak up: “They were tortured because of anti-Semitism, greed, lust for power and plain old cruelty, human traits that unfortunately don’t go away.”

Leaving the Palace of the Inquisition, you can see little girls laughing and posing in front of a display of photos of Miss Colombia winners over the years, young couples sipping a cup of coffee at an outdoor café and families strolling around the statue of Simon Bolivar, liberator of Colombia, in the center of the shady plaza. Perhaps some of these people are descendants of the Conversos of old who assimilated into their Latin American society.

Simone Shapiro can be reached at