In the foothills of the Centro de Portugal Region lies an ancient secret. The town of Belmonte there was the center of community life for “crypto” Jews a people who, for centuries, practiced their religion in secret after it had been banned by the Inquisition. Judaism was abolished in 1496 in Belmonte and other Portuguese towns, but the Jewish people kept their rituals and faith alive in secret for centuries. As generations died away, the origins of these rituals were lost to memory. In the late 20th century, however, everything changed. When the connection was made between the traditions practiced in Belmonte and Judaism, Jewish communities around the world helped the Jews of Belmonte rediscover their roots. In 1993, the community welcomed its first rabbi in more that four centuries and, soon thereafter, Temple Bet Eliahou was built. Amazingly, many of the Jewish families still live in the town’s charming Judiaria, or Jewish Quarter, called the Bairro de Marrocos. Today, there are more than 180 Jews living in Belmonte. The local Sierra da Estrela tourism office has prepared a detailed tour of the region’s Jewish heritage. The town produces a kosher wine, and a small Jewish Museum that tells the story of this centuries-old community.
Belmonte is dominated by its 13th century castle that also served as a fortified manor in the 15th century to the family of Pedro Alvares Cabral, the discoverer of Brazil.
Northeast of town is a strange Roman tower known as Centum Cellas, a mysterious square, three-storied structure. Archeologists are unable to explain what its function may have been, with some believing it was a watch tower.
About half a mile from the center of the town is a former convent that has been renovated into a Pousada. It preserves its historical architecture, mixing it with stylish modern design, and the rooms, instead of numbers, have the names of the friars who once lived in the building.
As hard as this story is to imagine, some 500 years after the dark days of the Inquisition, Belmont’s Jewish community is thriving again, and openly practicing the faith they held onto for centuries.