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Jewish Portugal: A journey into a sacred past

At the height of Jewish culture in Portugal there were more than 150 Jewish communities throughout the nation. Every major townhad a Judiaria (Jewish quarter) with its own institutions and places of worship. With the banning of Judaism in 1496, these communities ended, as Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave Portugal. Many walls, gates, carvings, and religious sites have vanished in the last five centuries, but in most cases the memory of those once-thriving Judiarias is remembered in place names, historic markers, and subtle signs such as Mezuzot door slots, inscriptions and local tales. Here are the highlights of the Journey to Jewish Portugal.


Lisbon (Lisboa)

Portugal’s capital owes its name to the legend that it was Ulysses himself who founded the city on a series of hills on the estuary of the river Tejo. Jewish life probably began here not long after the city fell to the Moors in the 8th century. It  remained a major port and market up to the time that Portugal’s first king, D. Afonso Henriques, seized it in 1147.  The Alfama quarter, hugging a slope between the river and the castle is one of the city’s oldest areas, and a large Jewish community flourished here in the Middle Ages. Known as the Judiaria Grande, it encompassed the Rua da Judiaria. These narrow streets still evoke the spirit of the generations of Portuguese Jews who lived and flourish here. As the community grew, and more Jewish refugees came to Lisbon, a new Judiaria Pequena formed in the 13th century near what is today the central Praça do Comércio. This entire area was totally destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. The nearby Rossio square, before the earthquake, was the site of the court of the Inquisition. It was here that countless autos-da-fé were held where Jews and other accused heretics were burnt at the stake. Above the square looms the ruined 14th century Carmo church that house the Archaeological Museum. Here, one can view the ancient “Monchique Stone,” unearthed in Porto with Hebrew inscriptions. Lisbon’s main synagogue is found at number 57 Rua Alexandre Herculano. It was built in the early 20th century as Jews of Portuguese descent returned to Portugal from Gibraltar and North Africa. Called Shaare Tikva, or Gates of Hope.


Tomar (Lisbon)

This monumental city of the Templars is a true jewel. Here, the famed Order of the Knights Templar (followed by the Knights of the Order of Christ) built their headquarters in a massive castle, while a prosperous Jewish community grew in the 14th and 15th centuries in the town below. The Judiaria ran along the Rua Dr. Joaquim Jacinto, and the synagogue survived the centuries to become the Abraão Zacuto Museum. The complex ceiling and elegant columns of the synagogue’s worship area give it astounding acoustics. The Museum displays numerous ancient tablets, gravestones, texts, and artifacts from all aspects of Jewish life in old Portugal. Recent excavations have reveled a water heating system and ritual baths. With its Convent of Christ, river parks, and numerous historic monuments Tomar is a wonderful place to learn more about Portugal’s history.



Évora (Alentejo)

This monumental city and capital of the Alentejo prospered in the late middle ages. It had been a major Roman city, and a well-defended Moorish center until its capture by the Portuguese in the late 12th century. It was here that one of the largest Jewish communities existed up to the 15th century. The Judiaria had two synagogues, a hospital, a Midrash, baths, and lively commerce. The building that once housed the synagogue and the surrounding Judiaria runs in the historic quarter on the Teresa de Cimanear to the Convento de Merês. A plaque commemorates the Jewish community, and the Jewish-born of the 16th century humanist, Diogo Pires. The former Place of the Inquisition stands near the city museum, with the coat of arms of the Inquisition clearly visible over the main door.


Castelo de Vide (Alentejo)

Scenic and charming, this small town welcomes the visitor with is white houses cling to a castle on a hill. By the 14th century a large Jewish community existed here, and fascinating remains document its importance today. The Judiaria ran from the castle gate, done to the village fountain (Fonte da Vila) and on to the Rua Nova (a common name for post-1496 areas of New-Christians). An amazing medieval synagogue stands at the corner of the Rua da Judiaria and Rua da Fonte. Restored to its original appearance, the museum today features the original 14th-century stone ark for the Torah, and baths. Many nearby houses have markings or Mezuzot slots on the doors as evidence to their former Jewish owners.  



The impressive fortress town of Marvão served as an entry point to the thousands of Jews who fled Spain in the 15th and 14th centuries.  Alpalhão, today a tiny village has a remarkable Judiaria where the Mezuzots on the doors are next to later crosses, added to demonstrate that the family who lived there had converted to Christianity.


Belmonte (Centro)

This remote and beautiful region of Portugal is rich in the history and traditions of  crypto-Jews, who practiced their religion in secret for centuries. The local Sierra da Estrela tourism office has prepared an excellent tour of the region’s Jewish heritage. It was in towns like Belmonte that Portugal’s Jews practiced their religion in secret after the abolition of Judaism in 1496. The village was already famed for being the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the first Portuguese captain to sight Brazil in 1500. But, in the 20th century a significant community of cryptic Jews, sometimes called Marranos, emerged. Although they had practiced many of the ritual of Judaism for centuries, they were unaware of their true heritage.  Jewish communities around the world came to their aid to help them rediscover their roots, and in 1993 the community welcomed it first rabbi in more that four centuries. Shortly after that Temple Bet Eliahou was built. Amazingly, may of the Jewish families still live in the town’s charming Judiaria, called the Bairro de Marrocos.


Other strong Jewish ties may be found at the near by town of Trancoso, where a Lion of Judea relief is still well preserved on the facade of the Casa do Gato Negro, the Medieval Home of wealthy Jewish merchant, and perhaps the local synagogue. The Jewish quarter is well also reserved in this living museum.



Once a major community of Jewish merchants thrived in this great city of the north. The city’s first Jewish area was along the Rua de Santa Ana. In 1386 king D. João I gave the community land near church of Nossa Senhora da Vitória. The main synagogue stood on the Escadas da Vitória; a place still locally called “Escadas da Esnoga.” A plaque marks the site. Nearby, there is an ancient Jewish cemetery at Passeio das Virtudes. Many Jewish merchants had their offices along the famed Porto riverfront in the Ribeira area along the Rua da Alfândega. Another Jewish community once flourished at the Rua Monte dos Jude’s, where in 1826 an important ancient Hebrew plaque was unearthed.  Recently, the main synagogue for the Jewish quarter was discovered during renovation to an ancient building. Behind a false wall, workers stumbled on to an ark thought to be from the 15th century. This important discovery is being carefully preserved and researched to learn more about he once sizable Jewish population of Porto.


The modern Jewish community worships at the 1929 Mekro Haim, or Fountain of Life Temple, number 340 Rua Guerra Junqueiro.




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Pedro Amaral

These are great Jewish sites in Portugal that is must for history buffs, but I would like to see the Synagogue in the Azores included.

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