In the footsteps of Portugal’s Jewish history

The Shaare Tikva Synagogue (Toby Saltzman photo)

Truths, legends and visions of history tumbled through my mind as I explored Portugal, treading through narrow alleys and steep paths on a quest to see authentic remnants of the Jewish civilization that had thrived prior to its Inquisition.

Evolution and current splendours aside in this country alluring with pleasures, my mission was inspired by an undeniable truth: some 500 years ago, an entire people – 200,000, then 20 per cent of the population – was eradicated from the western Iberian Peninsula, leaving sparse evidence of the intrinsic culture that distinguished their existence. Legends hold that a romance precipitated the Jews’ forced conversion to Christianity, and a joke instigated executions and their ultimate expulsion.

That was then, this is now. History cannot change, but that it can be transcended by changes in attitude was palpable on the final night of my week-long journey when I heard Ana Mendes Godinho, Portugal’s secretary of state for tourism, validate the Jews’ pre-Inquisition existence, noting – among many details – that navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral, who discovered Brazil, was a highly esteemed Jewish Portuguese nobleman.

Addressing our rapt audience of seven Canadians and Americans – the first writers and agents to trace part of Portugal’s new “Jewish Legacy” trail – Godinho’s tone was genuinely, sincerely apologetic for the indelible past, yet vivaciously welcoming to Jews now: “Our history is completely bonded to Jewish history. Now is the moment to take down walls [of anti-Semitism built by the Inquisition]. Today we say ‘every Portuguese has a Jewish bone in their body.’”

Godinho was referencing that all Portuguese in the country and Diaspora may be descendants of Jews forcibly converted to Christianity. Today many Portuguese feel quite the opposite of “anti-Semitic” and classify themselves as “philo-Semitic” for interest in their possible Jewish heritage.


Our introduction to the Jewish experience in Portugal began with Gabriel Steinhardt, president of Lisbon’s Jewish community, officially known as Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa. Dining on cod at Aura, an elegant restaurant bordering the historic, harbourside Praça do Comércio square where Jews once scrambled to ships bound for freedom, Steinhardt – an Ashkenazic Jew whose parents fled to Portugal from eastern Europe in the 1930s – explained: “The Inquisition was not against Jews, but against the New Christians who had converted from Judaism, but secretly practiced Jewish rituals.” These “secret Jews” (conversos) were denounced as heretics of the church and threats to the social order.

Jews had inhabited Iberia for some 3,000 years. By the 1400s, Jews were thriving in Portugal’s prime trading, commercial and intellectual centres. As Lisbon developed, Jews were shuffled to three, less desirable areas, including the stone dwellings sloping down the steep, rocky pocket of Alfama that remains today. When Spain’s Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand decreed the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, some 100,000 Jews fled to Portugal. When Portugal’s King Manuel I begged to marry King Ferdinand’s daughter, the Spanish monarch allowed it providing Portugal expels its Jews.

In 1496, King Manuel ordered Jews to convert or leave on specified ships which never arrived. Lucky Jews escaped to Amsterdam, Germany, Italy, France, Constantinople, Morocco, Brazil and Peru.

Legends go that tensions exploded in 1506 – a year of drought and deadly epidemics – when a worshipper at Lisbon’s Sao Domingos Church called a glowing aura “a miraculous light from Christ” and a New Christian joked, “Instead of light, Christ should give us rain.” On April 19, 1506, over 2,000 Jews were massacred on the church square. Ending the madness, King Manuel gave New Christians a grace period of 30 years without persecution to stop Jewish practices or leave. By May 23, 1536 when Pope Paul II’s edict officially initiated Portugal’s Inquisition, all Jews had converted and assimilated. All elements of their culture, including synagogues, signs and architectural details had vanished.    

A monument to the massacre of Jews in Lisbon in 1506. (Toby Saltzman photo)

Years later, New Christians were blamed for the wrath of nature when  on Nov. 1, 1755, an earthquake decimated Lisbon, just as worshippers were lighting candles for All Saints Day. The flaming candles created a fiery apocalypse, burning nearby Christians’ wood-built homes while the New Christians’ homes – embedded in Alfama’s rocky threshold – survived.

After the earthquake, the Marques de Pombal rebuilt Lisbon on a geometric grid into the architecturally significant, neo-Classical city core it is today. By then, the Enlightenment era was stimulating change. Although the Inquisition quit interrogations in the mid-1700s, the Vatican officially abolished it in1821.

By the mid-1800s, descendants of Jews who had fled from Portugal or Spain began settling in Portugal’s Azores Islands and southern Algarve region. Gibraltar Jews arrived with British passports. Those who gravitated to Lisbon created cemeteries and community charities, one dating to 1830. In 1904, they inaugurated Shaare Tikva, the first synagogue built since the Inquisition. Today it is a Portuguese National Monument. “Lisbon’s Jewish community officially became legal in 1912,” Steinhardt noted.

The Discoveries monument in Lisbon commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. (Toby Saltzman photo)

Portugal’s population increased between the two world wars with central European Jews fleeing pogroms, economic hardships, and Nazis. Portugal maintained its neutrality in the Second World War. Spain required all Jews leaving France to have visas to Portugal. In 1940, Portugal’s Consul General Aristide de Sousa Mendes, based in Bordeaux, ignored government orders and issued thousands of visas to Jews. In 1966 he was named Righteous Among the Nations. Jews arriving in Portugal were placed in gated areas and the concrete-set gate poles are still visible in some villages.

In Lisbon, Shaare Tikva Synagogue’s inconspicuous entrance belies its grand, wood-embellished interior. Steinhardt explained that although the congregation is half Ashkenazic, rituals are Moroccan Sephardic Orthodox and there is a mikveh. Friday night and Saturday morning services typically attract only 20, so they welcome visitors’ camaraderie.

In 2017 Shaare Tikva received over 12,000 Jewish and Christian visitors, many tracking family roots. It recently added a kosher kitchen and plans to host glatt kosher affairs and prepare sealed meals for hotel delivery.

Lisbon’s second synagogue, Ohel Jacob, founded in 1934 originally focused on integrating the crypto-Jews or b’nei anousim whose ancestors had been forced to convert.

Today Portugal has one of Europe’s smallest Jewish communities, including about 1,000 in Lisbon and 300 in Porto. A cluster of about 35 to 40 crypto-Jews living in Belmonte all hail from original survivors of the Inquisition who converted outwardly yet maintained Jewish rituals.

For all of Lisbon’s beauty and majesty of its treed Avenida da Liberdade, Rossio Square (a.k.a. Praça de D. Pedro IV) and tiled Rua Augusta leading to the triumphal arch and harbour, it was worth the uphill climb and cable ride to Castelo de Sao Jorge, the ancient Moors’ citadel, captured by Christians in 1147, that became home to successive Portuguese kings.

Its ramparts gave geographic perspective of Lisbon’s seven hills, the Tagus River harbour, the circa 1521 Belem Tower still standing as symbol of Portugal’s maritime prowess, and context to the tiny pockets once inhabited by Jews.

Descending past the castle moat, we entered a recently excavated archeological site, its stony borders historic evidence of a 7th-century BCE Moorish civilization. From here, steep paths sloped down to Alfama, a labyrinth of alleys where Rua da Judiaria – its sign being Lisbon’s sole historic evidence of past Jews – is now clustered by small museums, tavernas and bars boasting soulful Fado singers.  An empty lot is designated for a Jewish museum and cultural centre.

At the corner of Rossio Square, outside San Domingos Church, stands a poignant memorial to the past, a monument to the massacre of Jews in 1506.


To visit Shaare Tikva email [email protected] or [email protected]