Portugal’s Uncommon History

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    On our recent Viking River Cruise on Portugal’s Douro River, we visited one of the historical mountain villages called Castelo Rodrigo. Much to my surprise, it had been a sanctuary city for Jews during the Spanish expulsion. Many of the houses in Synagogue Street still carry markings from the 15th century and the still standing “cistern” is the reason for the street’s name. Originally it was a synagogue and mikveh with two doorways, one Gothic, the other Arabic. The tour director from our ship, the Viking Hemming, told us that the area was inhabited before the Common Era due to its secure position high over the valley. His research led him to believe that Jews pre-dated occupation by the Romans, and the Moors who came later; but they all lived in relative harmony. In fact according to him, the mikveh was used by Christians for baptisms while the Arabs and Jews used it for ritual cleansing.

    Anxious to know more, I questioned him further and he related many stories to me of the Jews of Portugal in general and this medieval walled city in particular.

    In 1492 when Isabella and Ferdinand expelled all Jews, many fled for their lives to Castelo Rodrigo due to its location very near the border with Spain; there they found a receptive safe-haven. Castelo Rodrigo was one of six gateway cities where Jews could enter Portugal; of course there was a price to pay, a full 1/3 of their holdings bought them refuge. Many more Jews escaped to Morocco where they were welcomed for their education and business acumen. Some found haven in Turkey where they were warmly embraced by Sultan Bajazet.  He was fond of asking “How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king who impoverished his own land (by expelling the Jews) and enriched ours?”

    One of the stories explaining why the Spanish Inquisition was so horribly harsh began with Spain’s envy of Portugal’s success in reaching India and Brazil. Portugal was growing rich from the spices, gold and gems pouring into the country from these discoveries. Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella were anxious to tap into the seemingly unlimited resources but did not have the funds to mount expeditions. Since the Catholic Church deemed lending money unclean, they turned to the Jewish Community. In order to secure the loan, Isabella gave a treasured family heirloom, a large emerald, to be held as collateral, sure that Columbus would be successful and that she could repay the loan and regain her emerald. Well we all know that did not happen and she was forced to forfeit the stone. Furious she conspired with the church to expel all Jews and confiscate their property. Did she get her emerald back? Was there an emerald to begin with? Is this a true tale of what really happened? Not sure, but what is sure is that of all the many betrayals of the Jews this was one of the worst since Spain was one of the few countries where Jews were well regarded and considered part of the community for hundreds of years.

    Castelo Rodrigo Arabic Doorway to Mikveh

    By the 1500’s Portugal and Spain were allies and Spain demanded Portugal expel its Jews and allow the Inquisition. King Manuel I had many Jews in high places and did not want to lose their expertise in matters of finance, trade and negotiation. He allowed the inquisition after forcibly converting tens of thousands of Jews to Christianity on pain of death. Called Conversos or Cryto-Jews, they were permitted to remain, change their family-name to despicable names like “pig” or “cockroach” — if they had money they could “buy” a more acceptable name — and hide their true beliefs and practices. In the end, only eight Portuguese Jews were actually expelled, although some lost their lives, most notably the chief rabbi, Simon Maimi. Some of the ways in which Jews hid their true practices; they built houses with no windows on the street so no one could see the light from the Sabbath candles; rabbis became priests and hid the torah scrolls inside the stem of the wine chalice used during mass; they found a way to make ersatz chorizo (pork sausage) with poultry, bread, heavily spiced and wrapped in lamb’s intestines before smoking over fire. The resulting sausage looked and smelled like pork and fooled the inquisitors into believing the family had truly converted.  If neighbors believed the conversion was false they would etch a cross on the side of the door for the inquisition to question the inhabitants. Those marks are visible today on many of the homes of Castelo Rodrigo’s Jewish Quarter, between Rua da Cadeia and Rua da Sinagoga.

    Over one of the doorways there is inscribed what was thought to be Arabic but recently a Jewish scholar on a Viking Cruise determined that the writing was either cursive Hebrew or Aramaic and translated it as Old Testament Psalm 34:23 “The Lord is the redeemer of the souls of his servants; and none are condemned who take refuge in him”.

    Castelo Rodrigo Hilltop Village


    Today, Castelo Rodrigo is renowned for its almond production. The almonds are covered by chocolate, powdered sugar, cinnamon, or coffee, for those that prefer their nuts with a sweet tang, or flavored with salt or spices for those that don’t. Of course all versions are available for sale which probably supports the remaining 50 people that still call Castelo Rodrigo home.

    Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
    Additional photos by Manos Angelakis

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