January 25, 2019

What was the importance of Jews in the Portuguese discoveries?


Legend says that in the reign of King Solomon, around 900 b.C., the first jews settled in the Iberian Peninsula. In the 12th century, when the Kingdom of Portugal was established, the Jewish community was granted tolerance and protection of the kings. This led to important contributions, in many areas, during the golden age of the Discoveries of the 13th to 15th centuries, such as scientific, commercial and financial support.

The Jewish community had an important role in the Northern region of Portugal, specially in the Porto City Centre. For the strong investment the Jews performed in our country, it was given authorization to the Jewish community to build new quarters in cities such as Porto. The expansion of the Jewish community along the Douro Valley, for instance, may be directly linked to the production and commercialization of wine. The main settlements were in the city of Lamego, where by the 14th century a Jewish quarter was firmly established, located where the Church of Santa Maria is today.

Meanwhile, the settlements grew and expanded to other places where today we find the most important traces, Penedono, Freixo de Espada à Cinta and Vila Nova de Foz Côa.

Wild Douro has created programs based on the Jewish Heritage theme, mainly in the story of the folks, the Jews that lived in Portugal until the appearance of the Holy Inquisition, brought by the Spanish Kings and that expelled the Sephardic Jews from Portugal or “converted” them into New Christians. We back track the footsteps of these people, we tell their experiences, what they left in our country and what they created around the world. We cannot forget that were the Jews of Portuguese origin that founded the first Jewish community in the United States and that the oldest Synagogue in Amsterdam is the Portuguese.

With an important maritime port and commercial city, Porto was one of the cities in Portugal where the Sephardic Jews established themselves. The heart of the city centre, Unesco World Heritage, is where some of the most important sites for the community still remain. It is from the tiny, narrow streets that descend towards the Ribeira that we can see where the first synagogue was built, a noble part of the city, where the merchant Jews built their first homes and where today are located the Ferreira Borges Market and the Porto´s Palácio da Bolsa. The most prominent or wealthier Jews, such as jewellers, physicists and merchants lived near the river where today if the famous Ribeira Square. It is still possible to see many of the legacy left behind, like inscriptions on walls, the secret markings that were used to identify the community and those that continued to follow their faith during the troubling times. Finally, and because the main centre of the Jewish life was transferred to the new part of the city, today known as Boavista, a new Synagogue was built between 1929 and 1937, the Kadoorie Mekor Haim (“Spring of Life”), the current seat to the Israeli Community of Porto and the biggest Synagogue of the Iberian Peninsula.

Also important and highly featured in our tours are the cities located in the border with Spain where we can find traces of the colonization by the “new christians”, the way the Jews were known for at the time. Many of the symbols still visible today in stone, house doors in the city centers, generally near the castle. The stone doors, the crucifixes carved in stone and the many accounts, legends and documents of Jewish History. A History that, for example, in Vila Nova de Foz Côa dates back millions of years to the time and where was declared by Unesco two World Heritage Sites. The Douro Landscape itself and the thousand of prehistoric rock carvings scattered throughout the valley.