Jews were one of the most important communities in the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. This tour will lead you to the most remarkable places of the Jewish heritage, such as: Belmonte, Trancoso, Guarda, Coimbra and Tomar. This will also be the place to remember the timeless legacy of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, who saved 30.000 persons from the horror of the Holocaust. A simple man with a heart as big as mankind!
Iberian Jews were called Sephardic –this designation came from Sefarad, the Hebrew name for Iberian Peninsula – and settled in Portugal prior to the rise of the Roman Empire, living a period of great economic and social growth during the Muslim era. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Sons of Zion who lived within the Portuguese kingdom engaged in manual and financial activities and were recognized as cultured men. The Kings of the First Dynasty integrated members of the Jewish population into their courts as senior officials and they would often borrow money from the Jewish community.
In 1497, when King Manuel followed the policy of the Catholic Kings and ordered the Portuguese Jews who didn’t want to convert to Catholicism to be expelled, there were many who tried to leave the country so they wouldn’t have to give up on their religion. However, a great part of them decided to hide themselves in the lands close to the Spanish border. Because they had been forced to be baptized but were still Jews, these men and women lived in closed communities which continued to conduct Jewish cult in secret and they didn’t have any contact with the outside world. Thus, the first Portuguese crypto-Jews first appeared.
Apart from cities which still keep the memory from old Jewries alive, like Guarda, Castelo Branco and Covilhã, there are many other border towns which preserve traces from crypto-Judaic groups. Trancoso, Penamacor and especially Belmonte are towns where Judaism has survived for the last 500 years thanks to the secrecy with which their religion was kept alive.
Mediaeval Jewish Quarters
In mediaeval cities and towns, Jews used to live in their own housing nucleus which was given to them by the Crown. This was called the Jewry. In some cases, the community would organize itself around a synagogue and the land where Jewries stood would often belong to Kings who rented houses and spaces to Portuguese Sephardi Jews. Many of the houses within these nucleuses are still marked with signs in their thresholds and windows, indicating that there were Jews living in them.
The most well-known Jewries in the border line are in Guarda, Trancoso, Castelo Rodrigo, Celorico da Beira, Almeida, Foz Côa, Pinhel, Linhares and Belmonte. Their members were always associated with arts and crafts and they worked in professions such as tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, traders, farmers and doctors and many would even go on to serve the Portuguese court in administrative and financial activities until the late 15th century. Come and discover Portuguese Jewish History and tradition in central Portugal!