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Portugal: a Melting Pot of Jewish History

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At the height of Jewish culture in Portugal there were more than 150 Jewish communities throughout the nation. Every major town, village and port had a Judiaria (Jewish quarter) with its own institutions and places of worship. With the banning of Judaism in 1496, these communities ended, as Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave Portugal. Many walls, gates, carvings, and religious sites have vanished in the last five centuries, but in most cases the memory of those once-thriving Judiarias is remembered in place names, historic markers, and subtle signs such as Mezuzot door slots, inscriptions and local tales. Here are the highlights of the Journey to Jewish Portugal.

Lisbon (Lisboa) Portugal’s capital owes its name to the legend that it was Ulysses himself who founded the city on a series of hills on the estuary of the river Tejo. Jewish life probably began here not long after the city fell to the Moors in the 8th century. It remained a major port and market up to the time that Portugal’s first king, D. Afonso Henriques, seized it in 1147. The Alfama quarter, hugging a slope between the river and the castle is one of the city’s oldest areas, and a large Jewish community flourished here in the Middle Ages. Known as the Judiaria Grande, it encompassed the Rua da Judiaria. These narrow streets still evoke the spirit of the generations of Portuguese Jews who lived and flourish here. As the community grew, and more Jewish refugees came to Lisbon, a new Judiaria Pequena formed in the 13th century near what is today the central Praca do Comercio. This entire area was totally destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. The nearby Rossio square, before the earthquake, was the site of the court of the Inquisition. It was here that Jews and other accused heretics were burnt at the stake. Above the square looms the ruined 14th century Carmo church that house the Archaeological Museum. Here, one can view the ancient “Monchique Stone,” unearthed in Porto with Hebrew inscriptions. Lisbon’s main synagogue is found at number 57 Rua Alexandre Herculano. It was built in the early 20th century as Jews of Portuguese descent returned to Portugal from Gibraltar and North Africa. Called Shaare Tikva, or Gates of Hope.

Porto (Oporto) Once a major community of Jewish merchants thrived in this great city of the north. The city’s first Jewish area was along the Rua de Santa Ana. In 1386 King D. John I gave the community land near church of Nossa Senhora da Vitûria. The main synagogue stood on the Escadas da Vitûria; a place still locally called “Escadas da Esnoga.” A plaque marks the site. Nearby, there is an ancient Jewish cemetery at Passeio das Virtudes. Many Jewish merchants had their offices along the famed Porto riverfront in the Ribeira area along the Rua da Alfandega. Another Jewish community once flourished at the Rua Monte dos Jude’s, where in 1826 an important ancient Hebrew plaque was unearthed. Recently, the main synagogue for the Jewish quarter was discovered during renovation to an ancient building. Behind a false wall, workers stumbled on to an ark thought to be from the 15th century. This important discovery is being carefully preserved and researched to learn more about he once sizable Jewish population of Porto. The modern Jewish community worships at the 1929 Mekro Haim, or Fountain of Life Temple, number 340 Rua Guerra Junqueiro.

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