Portuguese Jewish heritage exists beyond Lisbon

The main square in Evora, Portugal (Toby Saltzman photo)

Leaving Lisbon on a southeast route to Alentejo, our guide Ruben Obadia explained that centuries ago this vast region extending to the Algarve – renowned for wine, olive oil, agriculture, cork and its gastronomy – served Jews as havens from the Inquisition.

Obadia, whose Jewish ancestors fled to Morocco in the 1600s, then settled in the Algarve in 1910, works as communications manager for Alentejo to develop an awareness of the region’s Jewish history. He recounted stories from locals of how crypto-Jews (Jewish converts to Christianity who secretly practised Judaism) camouflaged efforts to secretly pass traditions from mother to daughter. Friday nights they lit candles inside pottery jars pierced with tiny holes to hide the flames, Saturdays they hung carpets on balconies to fake working. Many changed first names to Jesus or surnames to names of fruits or flowers.

Driving through landscapes shifting from parched farms scattered with remote farmhouses, through bucolic fields dotted with grazing animals, past groves of cork trees, and little villages clustered around hills crowned by ancient fortified castles, Obadia echoed the words we’d heard earlier from Filipe Silva of Portugal’s Tourism Board. “There are places throughout Portugal where people are certain Jews existed, and archeologists are searching for physical remnants of synagogues.”

A building believed to have been a synagogue has an interior niche for an Aron Kodesh. (Toby Saltzman photo)

While navigating the 224-kilometre route, often up steep, hairpin turns into the Serra de Sao Mamede mountain range en route to Castelo de Vide – strategically built by Romans into a high mountain slope and later developed by medieval era Portuguese – Obadia explained that Castelo de Vide’s location, just 17 kilometres from Spain, attracted over 5,000 Jews in 1492. It has Portugal’s greatest evidence of former Jews.

Meeting in Castelo de Vide’s Dom Pedro V square, guide Patricia Martins led us past elegant homes embellished with Portugal’s quintessential azulejo tiles, through a maze of sloping alleys to the “suburbs” built to confine Jews. She pointing out signs of their existence: stone dwellings with two doors, the larger for merchants, the smaller leading to upstairs residences; and door frames carved with a groove for a mezuzah. Jewish legacies etched in the stones of time.

A building believed to have been a synagogue – with an interior niche for an aron hakodesh – is dedicated as the Jewish Museum. Ritual artifacts include a clay pot used to hide Sabbath candles. A black wall with names of local Jews executed during the Inquisition lists, among them, Garcia d’Orta, notable doctor to Portugal’s monarchs. Born in Castelo de Vide in 1501, d’Orta was a true renaissance scientist who researched herbal medicines in Goa, India – then a Portuguese colony – where he died. For all his renown, he could not escape the Inquisition. A year after his death in 1569, he was posthumously sentenced, his body exhumed and burned, and his family assets confiscated.

Following a cobbled incline to an ancient fountain that was likely connected to a mikveh – but that archeologists have yet to find – I couldn’t fathom how the crypto-Jews survived hiding their burden of culture.


Back in the lovely square – once the site of autos da fé, or burnings at the stake – Castelo de Vide’s Mayor Antonia Pita graciously greeted us at the 18th century town hall. A veritable ambassador for Portugal’s Jewish heritage, he noted that  the Inquisition House, opening this month, will outline the plight of some 300 local Jewish families who perished during the Inquisition.

A museum dedicated to Garcia d’Orta’s legacy opens in the fall. Two Orthodox lawyers are creating a kosher restaurant and luxury tourist accommodations. Pita showed two volumes, soon to be translated to English, that detail the genealogy of the town’s crypto-Jews and where their descendants settled around the globe. This year Alentejo expects 30,000 visitors keen to explore their heritage while relishing the region’s food, wine, biking and hiking activities.

Down the mountain, we arrived in Marvao and the sublimely beautiful scene of the Old Portagem Bridge straddling the Sever River. This medieval stone bridge aroused heart-wrenching visions of thousands of Jews streaming over rushing water, only to pay a tax to enter Portugal. A memorial plaque dedicated in 1996 marks 500 years since the Edict of Expulsion.

Elvas – located just 12 kilometres from the Spanish border – was a shortcut between Madrid and Lisbon for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Originally ruled by Romans, then Moors, today Elvas is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the medieval era’s most fortified city, its Roman/Moorish castle dating to 1226. Although Jews lived here since the 13th century – authenticated by remnants of two Jewish cemeteries – of Elvas’ two areas that burgeoned in 1492 with the influx of 10,000 Jews, one was demolished in 1511 to build a church at the main square, Praca da Republica. Leading us through a warren of tight alleys, archeologist Margarida Ribeiro pointed to walls etched with signs of a cross, denoting New Christians (Jewish converts).

As we passed a former animal slaughterhouse under renovation, Ribeiro said, “Maybe this was a synagogue…a house nearby has a cistern, maybe for a mikveh.” She unlocked the hoarding to expose an elaborately arched medieval interior. In 2017 it was inaugurated as the Casa da Historia Judaica de Elvas, to open as a Jewish museum later this year.

In Elvas, a former animal slaughterhouse under renovation has an elaborately arched medieval interior. It will soon become a museum. (Toby Saltzman photo)

On to Evora. Founded by Romans in the first century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a precious trove of history with ruins of a Roman temple, two fortified walls, a Moorish gateway, massive arches of a 16th century aqueduct, and centuries of significant architecture including arcaded streets, the Cathedral and Public Library.

Jews inhabited Evora since Roman times. It thrived as a centre of learning and arts and by the late 1400s it had one of Portugal’s largest Jewish communities.

It’s poignant to imagine that Praca do Giraldo – the beautiful main square – is where the Inquisition court conducted autos da fé. Guide Melanie Wolfram – who holds a doctorate in history and archeology – led us to the former Jewish quarter that once housed two synagogues as well as a mikveh, school, hospital and treatment home for lepers. Showing the steel posts of gates that enclosed the Jews, she said, “These weren’t to keep Jews in, but to keep Christians out.”

Along the way, she pointed out grooves on doorposts that may have held mezuzot and explained, “Evora’s blackest history is that Jews were forced to convert when all Jewish children under 14 were baptized and sent by boat to Cape Verde, where many died.” The Evora Museum has a stone with Hebrew inscriptions dating from around 1378.

Literally thrilling was a visit to the public library where we had the rare privilege to see a 1496 first edition of Almanac Perpetuum and Nautical Guide written by Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto. Born in Salamanca, Spain in 1450, Zacuto fled to Lisbon where he served as astronomer for King Joao II, creating most of the marine charts used by navigators including Pedro Alvares Cabral and Vasco de Gama. He fled Portugal’s Inquisition for Constantinople, and likely died in Damascus or Jerusalem.

Back in Lisbon – after hearing Filipe Silva say: “It’s in our Portuguese DNA to respect our Jewish heritage,”  I sensed that the beauty of Portugal today is its genuine welcome to Jews, among all people. Yet to search for Jewish history in Porto, Belmonte, Tomar, Trancoso, Guarda, I’m determined to return.


Visit www.visitportugal.com for details of Portugal’s “Jewish Legacy” trail featuring 30 sites. TAP Portugal offers a Toronto-to-Lisbon route with connections to Tel Aviv and a “free air stopover” in Lisbon up to 5 nights www.flytap.com.