Jewish Heritage in Spain and Portugal

Lisbon (SP)


Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world;  according to legend, it was founded by Ulysses. The name comes from “Olissipo”, which has its origins in the Phoenician words “Allis Ubbo”, meaning “enchanting port”.

Archaeologists have found evidence of Phoenician influences dating back to the 1200 BCE, leading some historians to believe that the Phoenicians had a trading post there.  It was later occupied by the Romans, and conquered by Muslim forces in 711.   In the 12th century the Christians reconquered the city, but it was not until the mid 13th century that Lisbon became the country’s capital.

With the beginning of the Portuguese Age of Discoveries, Lisboa enriched as a spice and jewelry trade center.  The city center was almost completely destroyed by the earthquake of 1755, and rebuilt by Marquis de Pombal, who created the Baixa Pombalina, a commercial area that still retains much of its original layout.

During World War II Lisbon was one of the very few neutral, open European Atlantic ports, a major gateway for refugees to the U.S. and a haven for spies. More than 100,000 refugees were able to flee Nazi Germany via Lisbon.

The city of Lisbon is rich in architecture; Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Baroque, Modern and Post-Modern constructions can be found all over the city. The Alfama, the oldest district is the city, was originally inhabited by fishermen and the poor; its fame as a poor neighbourhood continues to this day. While the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake caused considerable damage throughout the capital, the Alfama survived with little damage, due to its compact labyrinth of narrow streets and small squares. The old Jewish quarter is here, and there are also many small shops and bars and restaurants where you can hear traditional Fado music.

Jewish Lisbon

Lisbon Sinagogue

There have been Jews in Lisbon at least since the Middle Ages. In 1497, when an edict by King Manuel I ordered Jews either to convert to Christianity or to leave the country, all Lisbon’s synagogues were confiscated and given to Christian religious orders. In 1506, Lisbon was the scene of a massacre of 5000 of these converted Jews, or New Christians.  The best-selling novel “The Last Kabbalist,” by American writer Richard Zimler (who lives in Portugal), is set in Lisbon’s Alhama district during the Massacre of 1506.  When the Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1536, Lisbon was the site of one of its three Courts.

At the beginning of the 19th century, when the Inquisition was finally abolished in Portugal, Sephardi Jews from Morocco and Gibraltar, mostly merchants, started to migrate to Lisbon and other parts of the country. During the 19th century, however, the small Lisbon Jewish community had no formal synagogue and had to celebrate their religious services in private houses.

Finally, in 1897 a commission was established with the mission of building a central synagogue in Lisbon. Inaugurated in 1904, the Lisbon synagogue (called Shaaré Tikvah--Gates of Hope) was the first synagogue to be built in Portugal since the late 15th century. The main façade of the synagogue faces an inner courtyard, since Portuguese law at the time forbade non-Catholic religious temples from facing the street.

In 2006 a small group of retornadosdescendents of forced converts (marranos) who wanted to return to normative Judaism—founded Kehilat Beit Israel, a Masorti (Conservative) congregation, with the help of  Rabbi Jules Harlow.

On April 22, 2008, a monument was inaugurated in Lisbon’s main square, the Rossio, commemorating the Lisbon Massacre of 1506.  ’’In memory of the thousands of Jews victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism assassinated in this square during the massacre initiated on the 19th of April 1506’’ is written inside the Star of David.


Jewish Lisbon

Orthodox community