(Conference of the Society of Portuguese Architects, January 15, 2007, Lisbon, Portugal)

Lisbon, Portugal
m lopes azevedo

On a balmy winter day in Lisbon, a group of architects, historians, archaeologists, researchers, and invited guests gather in the auditorium of the Society of Portuguese Architects to discuss the impact of Judaism on the architecture and urban form of the interior of the Beira province of Portugal. Situated on a north-south axis near the Portuguese-Spanish border, the area bore the major brunt of the mass migration of approximately 120,000 Jews to Portugal in 1492. Joining communities that existed since time immemorial, the Jewish neighbourhoods of Portugal (Judiarias) were greatly expanded. The area under study includes cities and towns such as, Belmonte, Meda, Penamacor, Castelo Branco, Celorico da Beira, Covilha, Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, Fundao, Gouveia, Guarda, Idanha-a-Nova, and Trancoso.
The Israeli ambassador, Mr. Aaron Ram opened the conference with a short story about how he and his wife were one day enjoying the Portuguese sunshine at a cafe in Trancoso when they looked up and saw a Star of David on the window of a house. They smiled. Then the ambassador noted the age-old Hebrew adage, "a people who do not know their past have no future". He was warmly applauded.
The main presentation followed. The organizer of the conference, Architect Jose da Conceição Afonso, president of the district branch of the Society of Portuguese Architects in Castelo Branco reviewed the principles of Jewish architecture according to Italian Jewish architect Bruno Zevi, prolific author and founder of a school of architecture known as organic architecture. Mr. Afonso then proposed to apply the principles to the area studied.
Jewish architecture and urbanism according to Mr. Afonso`s interpretation of Zevi is organic, labyrinthine, even chaotic and anarchic. In contrast to classical (i.e. Greek or Roman), Jewish principles abhor order, symmetry, alignment, or perspective. Jewish architecture is alive, adding or subtracting as needed, conforming to the needs of the user. It adapts to the environment and context.
Using a power point presentation, Architect Afonso showed a great number of pictures of sixteenth century houses and streets of the Judiarias in the studied area. The pictures revealed narrow sinewy streets bursting with compact houses often interconnected by interior passageways, sometimes leading to hidden patios. Often of trapezoid design, the design of each house is unique. No design is ever repeated; no design is ever a perfect square or rectangle. Door and window openings are never aligned, each opening is of a different size and style, from Gothic to Manueline.
The houses are smaller in volume than in adjoining areas and do not have any garden space, not even a square metre to plant a lemon tree. To this day, there is a tradition at Easter time of emptying the houses of their contents and whitewashing the frames of windows and doors. Unlike their neighbours, the ground floor was not used to keep animals; rather many still have half doors, which is though to conform to the king`s edict that Jews could conduct business from their private residences.
The pictures showed long undulating walls of groups of houses. Some of the houses took on odd shapes, even seemingly futuristic, by adapting to the natural environment whether it was the use of a natural rock formation as a wall or taking advantage of a crevice in a mound. In one of the rooms of many houses there was often the stone of the Holy Spirit, a carved stone jutting out from the wall on which some object could be placed. Stone cupboards were also found in some of the houses, especially in houses considered to have been synagogues which were often larger and more ornate with carvings of stone animals (i.e. a lion) or more intricate window frames, often bevelled Gothic. Practically all of the houses had bevelled door frames and about 75% had cruciforms on the door frames. The significance of the cruciforms (carved variations of the Christian cross) is unknown, but it may have indicated the purification of houses where heretics lived (i.e. Jews forcibly converted-Marranos/New Christians). A few mezuzah cavities and carved menorahs were also found (see postings below).
Following architect Afonso, other presenters reported their findings: architect Vasco Morais Soares on the recuperation of Rua da Judiaria of Medelim/Idanha-a-Nova, architect Pedro Flavio Duarte Lopes Martins on the history and rehabilitation of the Judiaria of Covilha, architect Ana Isabel Aranda e Cunha, and historian Pedro Salvador on the Jewish presence in Fundao, Aldeia Nova do Cabo and Capinha, professor and archaeologist Carmen Ballesteros on Paths of Portuguese Jewish archaeology in a Peninsular Context, historian Carla Alexandra dos Santos on the cruciforms of the district of Trancoso, architect Antonio Jose de Sousa Caria Mendes on medieval synagogues in Portugal and liturgical law, and professor Maria Antonieta Garcia, director of the Centre for Jewish Studies of the University of Beira Interior on the Jews of Beira Interior.
Invited guests apart from the ambassador included, Jose Oulman Carp, Esther Mucznik president and vice-president respectively of the Israeli Community of Lisbon, Robert Bachman and D. Mery Drozdzinki Ruah from the Portuguese Association of Judaic Studies, Antonio Augusto Marques de Almeida and Paulo Pinto from the Chair of Sephardic Studies at the University of Lisbon, Abilio Mourao Henriques, president of the Belmonte Jewish community, Jorge Patrao, president of the Tourism Board of the Serra da Estrela, Aida Rechena, director of the Museum of Castelo Branco, Dulce Helena Pires Borges, director of the Museum of Guarda, David Augusto Canelo, director of the Jewish Museum of Belmonte, Jorge de Araujo, Ananias Quintano, rector and president of the executive council of the University of Evora, Monique Benveniste, Ricardo Bak Gordon, Richard Zimmler, Jose Domingos, and Manuel da Silva Castelo Branco. A number of politicians from the studied area also attended.
It was announced by various parties that at least three new Jewish museums would be opening in 2008/9. The politicians who spoke acknowledged the value of dignifying Jewish memory in their cities and towns. Town planners reported positive developments in urban renewal in city centres prompted by the rehabilitation of the former Judiarias. The panellists and participants left from this conference with a renewed vigour in the quest to dignify the Jewish presence in Portugal. (for pictures and topics of the panellists, cruciforms, see below.


A people that do not know their past have no future