Touring Through Portugal's Jewish Sephardic History
Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) in Belem, Portugal Photo by Ruth Shenkman
Did you know that sunny, quiet Portugal once incubated one of the great Jewish intellectual traditions? For ten centuries, the streets and ports of the cities and the vineyards and the hills of the countryside echoed with Ladino, a Judeo-Portuguese creole that would serve the community as a crucial bond during its subsequent dispersal. By that time, Jews in Portugal and in northern Spain had occupied high positions in royal and diplomatic life for centuries, and were particularly protected by Portuguese and Spanish monarchs against outbreaks of anti-Semitism among the populace.
Meanwhile, in the Islamic-ruled parts of Southern Spain, Jewish Sephardic culture was living through the golden age that produced Maimonides and that would produce Baruch Spinoza much later. All of this rich life came to an end in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain – and, soon after, Portugal as well – and the great Sephardic diaspora began.
Yet today, beautiful Portugal offers a sumptuous itinerary of well-preserved Jewish heritage sites that allow the modern visitor to revisit this once-thriving culture while enjoying the wines and foods loved by the Sephardim.
Here are some essential stops to make in Portugal to understand some of the back story that lends poignancy to Portugal’s more famous architectural and historical treasures.
Gil Travel recommends that the traveler starts in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, where major Jewish communities thrived in the 15th century. People believe that Jewish life began in Lisbon not long before it fell to the Moors in the 8th Century. We recommend making your way to the top of Castelo São Jorge, where one would see a beautiful view of Lisbon, it is especially beautiful right before the sun sets bathing the city in a golden glow. A few other highlights include the Teatro Nacional D. Maria II in Rossio Square which was the site of the court of the Inquisition and Lisbon’s main Synagogue Shaare Tikva, which was built in the early 20th century as Jews of Portuguese descent returned to Portugal from Gibraltar and North Africa.
The Sintra landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its artistic, botanical and historic richness. One should also stop by the Jewish Quarter of Sintra, where the Jews lived and mixed at Court before the forced conversions of 1497.
Visitors cannot go to Belém without touring the Belém Tower which was commissioned in the 15th century by King John II to be both part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus River and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon or tasting the Portuguese pastry, Pastéis de Belém or Pastel de nata, which is an egg tart.
Then we recommend one proceed to Évora, a UNESCO World Heritage site still within its medieval walls. Once, it was second only to Lisbon for the size of its Jewish community, Évora has now become a thriving smaller town with a marketplace full of delicious fresh produce to sample. One of the largest Jewish communities existed here up to the 15th century. The building that once housed the synagogue and the surrounding Judiaria is in the historic quarter.
We highly recommend visitors to take a walking tour of Marvão, an impressive fortress town that served as an entry point to the thousands of Jews who fled Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries. At Castelo de Vide, one can explore the remains of a large Jewish community that existed here in the 14th century. The Archaeological Museum of Castelo de Vide holds the original 14th-century stone ark for the Torah. The museum will also show how Jewish and Christian cultures coexisted even after the Edict of Expulsion.
Then, head to Belmonte with its unique crypto-Judaic tradition, to which the fairly new Belmonte Jewish Museum is an eloquent testament. The crypto-Judaism practiced by this community after the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal was so secretive – and their discipline so strict – that they were not rediscovered by other Jews until 1917. Encounters such as these mark one of the most poignant and beautiful living traditions among the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, and is not to be missed.
The Abraão Zacuto Museum used to be a Synagogue in the 15th century and offers guided tours. It is a significant reminder of one of the greatest Sephardic Jewish communities classified as a National monument. This ancient Synagogue turned Museum houses Jewish gravestones, and the cornerstones of the 13th Century Synagogue of Belmonte, the 14th Century Lisbon Synagogue and various remains of Tomar´s medieval Jewish community.
We’d recommend ending your tour in Lisbon as well, with its many small but convivial Jewish quarters where the ancient Sephardic tradition continues, particularly after Portugal, having seemingly learned from its medieval cruelty, became a noted haven for Jews in the Second World War. Taking heart from the tenacity and beauty of this ancient country’s Jewish heritage is sure to make this more than just a tour through a beautiful and unique country.