The history of Portuguese Jewry is one of both glory and tragedy. While Jews lived and remained active under Visigoth and Muslim rule from the fifth to the eight century, it wasn’t until the 12th century that they were acknowledged as a distinct legal entity, under King Alfonso Henriques. The king entrusted Yahia ben Yahi III, a Jew, with the role of royal tax collector and supervisor, and appointed him the first chief rabbi of the Portuguese Jewish community.
During Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery in the 13th and the 14th centuries, more than 200,000 Jews lived in the country and represented 20 percent of the population. While Jews lived separately from Christians, they had freedom of movement and maintained their own synagogues, slaughter-houses, hospitals, jails and mikves.
With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, it wasn’t long before the Portuguese crown and the Inquisition were applying the same drastic fate to their Jewish citizens, despite the economic benefits they had brought to the country. While King Manuel I recognized the intrinsic worth of the Portuguese Jews, under pressure from his spouse and the Church, he forced Jews to convert, and become “New Christians.” While many accepted their new religion, others continued to observe Judaism behind closed doors, so that they become known as “Marranos” or crypto-Jews.
To evade the wrath of the Inquisition, many Portuguese Marrano families fled to Amsterdam, Salonika and other places across the New and Old Worlds. In 1654, 23 Portuguese Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (New York). This stream of refugees did not stop until the Inquisition was disbanded in 1821.
Around 1800, Portugal invited Jews immigrant to reverse the country’s economic decline. The first to arrive were British, followed by Jews from Morocco, Tangiers and Gibraltar. By World War II, only 380 Jews were living in Portugal and an additional 650 Jewish refugees were given “resident” status. After France fell to the Germans, Portugal adopted a liberal visa policy allowing thousands of refugees to enter the country. However, these refugees could only use Portugal as a transit point. More than 100,000 Jews and refugees were able to flee Nazi Germany into freedom via Lisbon, and all of Portugal’s Jews and refugees survived the war.
Following Portugal’s left-wing Revolution in 1974, and the ensuing unrest, about half of Portugal’s Jewish population left and emigrated to Israel, Brazil, Canada and the United States. Today there are fewer than 1,000 Jews in the entire country—even as Portugal has made significant efforts to maintain and restore Jewish synagogues and historic sites.
European Jewish Heritage Tours’ expert local guides, take you on a tour that starts at the Alfama quarter, and which includes the Judiaria Grande, where a large Jewish community flourished in the Middle Ages. You will visit the synagogue Shaare Tiekwa (Gates of Hope), built by donations from the Lisbon Jewish colony in 1904. You will then visit Rossio Square, the Holy Office headquarters, where Jews who were condemned by the Inquisition were burned alive.
If you wish to prolong the day, our guide will show you the Nacional Museum of Ancient Art, where you will find a primitive Portuguese masterpiece, representing all the Portuguese, including Jews wearing Stars of David on their clothing and a Rabbi opening the Talmud, as well as other paintings with Jewish themes. You will then tour the Belém district, dedicated to the Portuguese navigators who led the voyages to the New World, including the Tomb of Vasco da Gama–the well-known navigator who first discovered the route to India.
We can also arrange an optional tour to the Gulbekian Museum, which boasts one of the finest art and decorative art collections in Europe. Whether it’s ancient Egyptian or Roman artifacts or René Lalique jewelry, there is something for everyone at this stunning institution.
The Sintra District
If you are interested, European Jewish Heritage Tours can also arrange a tour with a chauffeured vehicle and guide to the splendid World Heritage site of Sintra, the former summer resort of Portugal’s monarchy. Here you will visit the Moorish castle, before proceeding to Cabo de Roca, the most western point of continental Europe, as well as Cascais, a famous seaside resort outside of Lisbon.
Located in the most fertile region of Portugal, on the outskirts of Lisbon, Tomar was founded inside the walls of the Convento de Cristo, constructed under the orders of Gualdim de Pais, the fourth grand master of the Knights Templar in the late 12th century. Tomar was especially important in the 15th century when it was a center of Portuguese overseas expansion under Henry the Navigator, the Grand Master of the Order of Christ, successor organization to the Templars in Portugal.
The Guardian newspaper elected The Convento de Cristo in Tomar as the most spectacular place to visit in Portugal, “…Founded by the Knights Templar, it’s a beautiful, mysterious and magical place, wonderful to discover and enjoy.”
It was here that a prosperous Jewish community grew in the 14th and 15th centuries in the town below. Our local guide will show you the former Judiaria and the synagogue that survived destruction and was converted into become the Abraham Zacuto Museum. The Museum displays numerous ancient tablets, gravestones, texts, and artifacts showing all aspects of Jewish life in ancient Portugal. Recent excavations have revealed a water heating system and ritual baths.
Once a major Roman city, Alentejo remained 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, as well as lively commerce. With European Jewish Heritage Tours, you can still visit the building that once housed the synagogue and the surrounding Judiaria that runs in the historic quarter from the Teresa de Cimanear to the Convento de Mer. A plaque commemorates the Jewish community, and the Jewish-born of the 16th-century humanist, Diogo Pires.
In Alentejo, you will discover the scenic and charming Castelo de Vide known for its white houses surrounding a castle on a hill. By the 14th century, a large Jewish community existed here, and fascinating remains document its former importance. The Judiaria ran from the castle gate, down to the village fountain (Fonte da Vila) and on to the Rua Nova (a common name for post-1496 areas of New-Christians). An exceptional medieval synagogue stands at the corner of the Rua da Judiaria and Rua da Fonte. Restored to its original appearance, the synagogue-museum features the original 14th century stone ark for the Torah.
Don’t miss out on seeing the impressive fortress town of Marvão, that once served as an entry point to the thousands of Jews who fled Spain in the 15th and 14th centuries. Also on the tour is Alpalhão, a tiny village that boasts a remarkable Judiaria where the Mezuzahs on the doors are posted next to crosses.
This remote and beautiful region of Portugal is rich in the history and traditions of Marranos or crypto-Jews, who practiced their religion in secret for centuries. Our local guides in Serra da Estrela have 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 Alvares 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 rituals 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 its first rabbi in more than four centuries. In 1996 the synagogue “Beit Eliahu” (Son of Elijah) was inaugurated in the old Jewish quarter. The Jewish cemetery was opened in 2001. Since 2005, the Jewish Museum is also open to the public, presenting the history of Sephardic traditions and customs in Portugal. Other strong Jewish ties may be found at the nearby 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 a wealthy Jewish merchant, and perhaps the local synagogue. The Jewish quarter is well worth a detour.
Porto was once a major community of thriving Jewish merchants. Many Jewish merchants had their offices along the famed Porto riverfront in the Ribeira area along the Rua da Alfandega. Another Jewish community once flourished at the Rua Monte dos Judes, where in 1826 an important ancient Hebrew plaque was unearthed. Recently, the main synagogue for the Jewish quarter was discovered during renovations on an ancient building. Behind a false wall, workers stumbled onto an ark thought to be from the 15th century. The current Jewish community worships at the 1929 Mekro Haim, or Fountain of Life Temple.
In Porto, you will also have a chance to visit the Baroque Mateus Palace–“the most fantastic country house in Portugal,” and which gave the name to the celebrated Mateus wine. You will stroll its magnificent gardens, visit the quaint local synagogue and enjoy a kosher wine tasting.