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Virtual Jewish World:
Planícies, Portugal


Virtual Jewish World: Table of Contents | Europe | Portugal


In the southern plains of Portugal, the landscape is dotted with white houses. The region is full of mediaeval walled towns, within which are be found many interesting remains of Jewish communities.

- Santarém
- Castelo de Vide
- Marvão
- Evora
- Monsaraz

Santarém

A city that was once under the dominion of the Romans, Santarém became part of the kingdom of Portugal in 1147, the date of its conquest by Dom Afonso Henriques (who reigned from 1139-1185).

From the belvedere of the garden of Portas do Sol laid out in the ruins of the ancient castle of this city standing on the right bank of the river Tagus, there is a stunning view of the vast sprawling meadowland of the Ribatejo plain, to which the typical campinos (horsemen who tend the cattle) lend a touch of elegant colour and where the bulls and horses that take part in the famous Portuguese "Touradas" (Bullfights) can be seen grazing.

The Jewish quarter of Santarém, one of the seven regions established by Dom Dinis (1279-1325) and later confirmed by Dom Joao I (1385 1433), was located close to the Rua Direita inside the city gates, where, mainly in the middle ages, it served as a stimulus for trade and the holding of the local fair. After the order was given for their expulsion in 1496, many Jews remained in Santarem as New Christians.

Amongst the many beautiful and diverse monuments of the city, particular attention is drawn to the Romanesque-Gothic Igreja de Sao Joao de Alporao and the Flamboyant Gothic Igreja da Graca.

Castelo de Vide

Spreading over the hillside around the town's mediaeval castle is an intricate network of picturesque narrow streets that once housed a large community of Portuguese Jews, traces of which have been carefully preserved until the present day. Despite a number of references to earlier times, it was really in the 14th century that this Jewish quarter began to consolidate itself', stretching from the Castle to the Fonte da Vila (the town's granite fountain) and as far as the Rua Nova. The building which is generally considered to be the old synagogue is located oil the corner of Rua da Judiaria and Rua da Fonte and has recently been completely restored In addition to the space set aside for worship and the special compartment reserved for women, archaeological studies have permitted the discovery of three silos on the lower level, dug out of granite and used for the storage of grain. Next to this stood the school, with its entrance through a pointed arch, similar to the two that afford access to the entrance to the synagogue. Other buildings, in the same street, formed part of the complex that housed the civil and religious services of the local Jews.

After the order was given for the expulsion in 1496, many Jewish families remained in Castelo de Vide, converting to Christianity, and, because of their high intellectual standing, distinguishing themselves in different activities. It was here that Garcia da Orta was born, the author of "Colóquio dos Simples e Drogas da India," one of the most important works of medical and botanical science published in the 16th century.

Marvão

Not far away is Marvão a walled town with well preserved, traditional houses, which was once a frontier post through which many Jews passed as they fled from the former Iberian kingdoms in the 14th and 15th centuries On the road to Castelo de Vide, and before arriving at Portalegre, a brief stop is recommended at Alpalhao a small Alentejo town where a number of Mezuzot can be seen attached to the doorposts of a number of mediaeval houses in the old Jewish quarter, some with a Cross engraved next to them, as if to indicate that the owners had recently converted.

Evora

A city which is itself a living museum, Evora has a historical center that has been classified by UNESCO as World Heritage. The city was conquered from the Moors in 1165 by Gerald the Fearless (Giraldo o Sem Pavor, a Christian knight in the service of the first king of Portugal) and, by the end of the 15th century, it had one of the largest Jewish quarters in the country. Situated inside the city's mediaeval walls, this Jewish quarter formed a uniform group of streets and alleyways, containing two synagogues, the "midrash," the baths, a hospital and a leper colony. Certain remains of this Jewish quarter can still be seen in the immediate surroundings of the present-day Convento das Mercas and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Rua de Raimundo and close to Rua dos Mercadores. A commemorative plaque has been put up in memory of this earlier presence at Travessa de Cima, at the site where the gates that led to the Jewish quarter once stood, and where the humanist and New Christian Diogo Pires (1517-1559) lived. Other legacies have also been revealed in this city: at the Evora Museum, there is a stone with a Hebraic inscription, dated 1378, as well as the Inquisition's money-box and bench. The Court of the Inquisition and the Inquisitor's Palace stand opposite the Museum building, still displaying over the doors the coat of arms of the Holy Office: the Cross flanked by the Sword and Olive Branch. In Evora Public Library, there is a rare copy of the 1st Edition (1496) of the Alinanach Perpetuum" by Jewish scholar Abraoo Zacuto.

In the old Jewish quarter, several houses can be seen bearing the remains of "mezuzot," some of them still with the "shema" carved into them.

Not far from the beautiful Praca do Giraldo, with its 16th century arcade, there are several other important monuments- the RomanesqueGothic Cathedral and its Museum of Sacred Art; the churches of Sao Francisco and Sdojodo Evangelista (both built in the Gothic-Manueline style); the churches of Nossa Senhora da Grap, Santo Antdo and Sao Vicente (all built in the Mannerist style); the Archbishop's Palace and the Palaces of Dom Manuel and the Counts of' Bastos; and the old university (16th-17th centuries). Absolutely not to be missed are the Roman Temple (second century), which has become tile very symbol of the city and stands next to the Palace of the Dukes of Cadaval and the Convento dos Loios, which has been converted into a Pousada. Ili the surrounding area of Evora, visitors can allow themselves the pleasure of going back in time and admiring some important megalithic remains (the cromlechs of Almendres).

Monsaraz

Monsaraz is one of the best preserved mediaeval Portuguese towns, with its castle and pentagonal keep. The imposing stone walls of the castle contrast with the white of the houses contained within them, dominating the top of the hill and affording a commanding view over the surrounding landscape for several miles around. The Jewish quarter was in the immediate vicinity of the Rua Direita, close to the Igreja de Santiago original layout of' this historical center still remains perfectly intact and is dominated by the parish church (Renaissance and Baroque, of Gothic origin) in Largo do Pelourinho. Other impressive sights are the Pacos da Audiencia (the former mediaeval tribunal with its 14th century frescoes, depicting an allegorical scene of true and false justice), the former Town Hall and the chapel of Santa Catarina.


Sources: Journey to Jewish Portugal courtesy of the Portuguese National Tourist Office

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