Jewish Heritage in Spain and Portugal

Sintra (SP)


A beautiful town at the foot of the mountain range of the same name, Sintra’s unique characteristics have led UNESCO to classify it as a World Heritage site. It was even necessary to create a special category for the purpose--that of “cultural landscape”--taking into account its natural riches as well as the historic buildings in the town and mountains. Endowed with lush vegetation, the mountains are part of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. 

The Moors built two castles in Sintra in the 8th-9th centuries:  one atop a promontory near the town, and the other, located downhill, which was the residence of the Moorish rulers of the region.  This castle was conquered for the Christians by Dom Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, in 1147.  In the 15th century construction began on the present Sintra National Palace, located on the same site, which was used as a royal residence until the late 19th century.   Its two enormous conical chimneys make it Sintra’s most well-known landmark.

Another important building is the Pena National Palace, a 19th-century palace which stands on the top of a hill above Sintra. On a clear day it can be easily seen from Lisbon and much of its metropolitan area. It is a national monument and constitutes one of the major expressions of 19th century Romanticism in the world. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.

In 1809 Lord Byron wrote to his friend Francis Hodgson, "I must just observe that the village of Cintra in Estremadura is the most beautiful in the world."


Jewish Sintra

The first reference to the Jewish quarter of Sintra dates from the 12th century. It was a small community, with a rabbi, notary, gatekeeper, and a single street. The synagogue first appears in a letter of tenure in 1407. The Jewish population grew along with the increased economic activity of the town. At the end of the 15th century, this community had an income of about 600 reais, which was relatively modest compared to other Jewish quarters, such as those in Lisbon, Santarém, Évora, Coimbra and Porto.

In the 15th century, King Afonso V began to receive complaints from Christians because of an attempt by the Jews to expand trade to broader sectors of the city. This led the king to decree that Jews could only use the gateway to the Jewish quarter as a place of trade.

In the late 15th century and beginning of the 16th century,  “Old Christians” denounced to the authorities that “New Christian” children were playing near the church of St. Peter of Canaferrim, a clear "disrespect for sacred ground," even though the church had been abandoned since 1493.  In 1501, there were complaints of Judaizing made against the community of New Christians in Sintra, and the last document referring to the synagogue in Sintra dates from 1503.

The Jewish quarter is located in the present-day Rua das Padarias, (Rua Nova).

It is interesting to note that even as recently as the early 20th century, innkeepers, tailors and shoemakers with typically New-Christian names such as David Gabriel Cardoso lived or worked in this area.