An Online Resource Centre



There have probably been Jews in what is now Portugal since Roman times. From the 5th century onwards the Jews reinforced their position, remaining active during the Visigoth and Muslim periods. They were present during the Reconquista, when Christian rule was established throughout the Iberian Peninsula.

The second Portuguese dynasty (from 1385) initiated an era of relative prosperity for the Jewish community, creating what is generally considered a 'golden age' for the Jewish community in Portugal. Anti-Jewish riots and persecutions spread throughout Spain in 1391, driving large numbers of Jews across the border. Jews during this period made important contributions to Portugal's economic, cultural and scientific life; yet it was also at this time that the first major social tensions developed between Jews and Christians in the country.

In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain signed a decree expelling from the country any Jew who refused conversion to Christianity. Again, many fled to Portugal, where King João declared them slaves shortly after their arrival. Following King João's death in 1494, Manuel I restored the Jews' freedom. However, on drawing up his marriage contract with the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the king yielded to the demands of Spain, agreeing to completely expel Jews from the kingdom.

But Manuel realized that the Jewish community was an asset to the Portuguese economy. He delayed the Jews' departure and forcibly converted as many of them to Christianity as possible. His efforts culminated in the creation of thousands of 'New Christians', when crowds of Jews waiting to leave the country were baptised in Lisbon.

Many of these New Christians publicly followed Catholic rituals but maintained some Jewish religious and cultural practices in the privacy of their own homes. These 'Conversos' or crypto-Jews were also known as Marranos, a pejorative term meaning 'pigs'; the Court of the Holy Office often accused them of apostasy. Their punishment ranged from the public forswearing of their alleged sins to the obligatory wearing of a special penitential habit, a sanbenito, prior to being burnt at the stake. Only in the 18th century was the power of the Inquisition curtailed, by the Marquis of Pombal, principal minister to King Jose I (1750-1777). The last public 'auto-da-fé', at which Jews who professed their religion were condemned, took place in 1765. The Inquisition was only formally disbanded in 1821.

The Jewish community was slowly accepted back into the country from around 1800. A series of statutes and decrees granted them specific rights, such as the maintenance of places of worship and cemeteries, and the keeping of registers of births, deaths and marriages. During the Second World War, Portugal established a fairly liberal visa policy: thousands of Jewish refugees were allowed entrance, and Lisbon served as a base for the operations of Jewish organizations in and beyond the Iberian Peninsula. The country thus developed a small but significant new element to its Jewish populace, one with roots across Europe. Following the revolution in Portugal in 1974 and the ensuing political unrest, about half of Portugal's Jewish population migrated to Israel, Brazil, Canada and the USA.

In 1997, Portugal's National Assembly commemorated the 15th-century expulsion of Portuguese Jews and the resulting development of exiled Portuguese Jewish communities across the world. A special session attended by dignitaries was held in the capital.

Today the Jewish population of Portugal numbers about nine hundred, some two-thirds of whom live in Lisbon. The last Converso community can be found in the mountain village of Belmonte. Many of them have reconverted to the Masorti or conservative form of Judaism.

Despite the country's small Jewish population, Portugal has a rich Jewish heritage. The current excavation of possible 15th century synagogues in Evora and in the village of Castelo de Vide are but one example; the creation of new exhibitions, publications and public events linked to Jewish history and culture is another.

Lisbon's Jewish community is the largest in Portugal. There is a Jewish cultural centre, a kosher butcher, a special abattoir, and a home for the elderly. See the CONTACTS section for further details.

An earthquake destroyed much of Lisbon in 1755, wiping out, among other things, the street pattern that might have made it possible to locate old Jewish quarters. In the centuries before mass conversions, Jews lived near the present-day Church of São Nicolau and along the Rua da Madelena. On the Rua da Alfândega, an historical marker in front of the Church of Conceição Velha makes reference to the synagogue that is believed to have stood on the site.

The Alfama is the area of old narrow streets that survived the 1755 earthquake. Jewish refugees from Spain settled here in the fifteenth century. The entrance to the neighbourhood's Jewish quarter, or Judiaría, was through the Arco de Rosario. Just inside the arch is a brick wall with a pair of decorative arched windows near the top - all that remains of what is believed to have been the quarter's synagogue.

Up the winding stairway just inside the arch is the Rua da Judiaría, the central artery of the former Jewish quarter. The typical medieval houses have a narrow door that was the family entrance and a wider one that often housed the place of business, such as a shop or workshop.


Sha'are Tikva (Gates of Hope)
In 1871 the Jews of Lisbon were granted permission to build a synagogue, a dream not fully realized until the dedication of the Shaare Tikva in 1904. The synagogue served as the centre of Jewish life in Lisbon thereafter; it was a sanctuary for the thousands of Jewish refugees who passed through Portugal during World War II. Architect Miguel Ventura Terra designed the building and in 1949 it was renovated under the direction of Carlos Ramos. Joaquim Bensaúde aided in both the original design and the first renovation.

The building incorporates both Romanesque and Byzantine elements and important artists of the period contributed to its interior decoration. The sanctuary is dominated by a marble Aron Kodesh inscribed with the Ten Commandments and encrusted with gold leaf.

In preparation for its centenary, a major renovation project was begun in 2003. Shaare Tikva is also the home of a collection of historic documents dating from the 17th to the 20th century, and an effort to establish a museum in the synagogue is currently underway.
Alexandre Herculano 59

The Rossio is Lisbon's central square. The stately nineteenth-century theatre at its north end is on the site of the old Ministry of Justice, where forced mass baptisms of Jews were carried out in 1497 and from which the Inquisition was later administered. Just off the square is São Domingos church, where the sentences of the Inquisition were passed. A collection of Jewish tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions can be seen at the Archaeological Museum.

A farming and wine-making area in the northern province of Beira Alta, Belmonte is the spiritual centre of Crypto-Jewry, a place where an entire community of Conversos kept large parts of their faith intact and, after 500 years, returned to it en masse.

In recent years, Jewish culture has been revived in Belmonte. A new synagogue, a striking building of white stone with a red-tiled roof, stands at the edge of the old Jewish quarter. Services take place every night in summer and there are Shabbat and holiday services throughout the year. The community is trying to raise money for a new rabbi. Meanwhile, its members lead services. There is also a mikveh in Belmonte.

Located among olive groves and chestnut trees in the mountain region of São Mamede, northeast of Lisbon and not far from Tomar, Castelo de Vide is a beautiful place. The ruins of the Roman settlement Miróbriga stand nearby, but Castelo de Vide is best known today for the remnants of its medieval Jewish quarter, which stand on the east side of the town. The area has a medieval atmosphere - narrow cobbled streets and old houses - but there is little specifically Jewish about the district. A small, whitewashed 14th-century building here is reputed to be the oldest extant synagogue in Portugal.

In the Evora Museum there is a gravestone with a Hebrew inscription dating from 1378, and a cornerstone said to come from the town's medieval synagogue. The museum also houses a moneybox and bench reputed to have been used in the Inquisition. Across the street from the Museum is the public library, which contains a rare 1st edition of the Almanac Perpetuum by Abraham Zacuto (1452 - c. 1515).

This city was a famous centre of Hebrew printing in the fifteenth century. Samuel Porteira published the first printed book in Portugal, a Hebrew edition of the Pentateuch, here in 1487. Faro is the capital city of the Algarve province of Southern Portugal, from which Jews were expelled in 1497. Many continued to live there as Conversos and resettlement began in the early 19th century.

Today, the only trace left of a once-thriving Sephardi community, once known as 'Little Jerusalem', is the Faro cemetery, opened in 1820. The entire cemetery is paved with traditional Portuguese calçada; two large shady trees provide a serene atmosphere.

The cemetery was purchased in 1851 by three community leaders: Joseph Sicsu, the chazan (cantor), Moses Sequerra, and Samuel Amram. The Jewish calendar date 5638 (1878) above the entrance gates is thought to be when the cemetery wall was constructed.

In the 1860s, Jews from Morocco and Tangiers settled in Faro and just before the First World War the first Russian and Polish Jews arrived. Yet the cemetery had fallen into neglect by the 1980s, following the dispersal of Faro's Jewish community. Isaac 'lke' Bitton, a native of Lisbon, founded the Faro Cemetery Restoration Fund in 1984. He saw the danger of the cemetery, now on prime land, being destroyed by developers. His fundraising efforts provided the money for a restoration, arranged by Ralf Pinto of the Jewish Community of the Algarve in 1992-3. As part of the restoration project, a small Jewish museum was established in the former Bet Tahara, which visitors pass through to get to the cemetery. The new museum, the Isaac Bitton Living Museum, has as its centrepiece a display of furniture from former Faro synagogues.

Located about 80 kilometres north of Lisbon, the seaside village of Obidos lies in the Costa de Prata region. A Jewish community lived there during the 5th-7th centuries, when the city was occupied by the Visigoths. Another Jewish community lived there between the 8th-12th centuries, when Obidos was under Arab rule. A building in the Jewish quarter is reputed to have been a synagogue in the Middle Ages.

Porto is Portugal's second largest city. Spared by the earthquake that destroyed much of medieval Lisbon, Porto's old city is intact, and with it the streets of the former Jewish quarter. It was in northern Portugal that the largest numbers of Conversos lived, and in the 1920s Porto was the centre of a modest cultural revival, under the leadership of an army captain, Arturo Carlos de Barros Bastos. Bastos left behind a small community almost entirely descended from Conversos, and the magnificent Kadoorie Synagogue.

This synagogue was built by Lord Kadoorie of Hong Kong in honour of his wife, and was intended as a home for Portuguese Conversos. Set in a large garden dominated by towering palms, it is a square stone building with an entrance made up of a series of arches. The grand interior, under a large cupola, is marked by azulejos - the tiles for which Portugal is famous. Blue tiles line the side walls, and the eastern wall features gold tiles in arabesque patterns above an Ark with wooden doors. Just above the Ark is a large Star of David. Given the small size of the community (only about 35 Jews live in Porto), there is rarely a minyan, but the synagogue often hosts classes from the area's schools.
Rua de Guerra Junqueiro 340

Tomar is a small, historic town in central Portugal, about 145 kilometres north east of Lisbon, best known for the remnants of an impressive Templar fortress and a superb monastery that attract many visitors. Less well known is the synagogue of Tomar:
This is the oldest existing synagogue in Portugal, built in 1438. The synagogue was vacated in 1496; it was used as a prison, and then as a church. In the late 19th century it became a hay loft and then a grocery warehouse. In 1921 the building was declared a national monument and in 1939 the owner donated it to the state for use as a museum. A mikveh was discovered during excavation of the outbuilding in 1985. The Abraham Zacuto Luso - Museo Hebraico, a Jewish museum, is now housed in the synagogue. Abraham Zacuto was a Jew who became court astronomer in Portugal after fleeing Spain in 1492. His astronomical tables were used by Columbus on his voyages of discovery.

The museum holds Judaica, fine art, several medieval Jewish gravestones, important architectural fragments from other buildings, including an inscribed stone from 1307 believed to have come from the Lisbon Great Synagogue (destroyed in the earthquake of 1755) and a 13th-century inscribed stone from the medieval synagogue in Belmonte.

Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa (Jewish Community of Lisbon):

Rua Alexandre Herculano, 59
1250 Lisbon
+351 13 858 604
+351 13 884 304


contact us: editor@jewish-heritage-europe.eu

Entire website © Jewish Heritage Europe 2004 - 2008     All rights reserved