Jewish Signs

Portuguese researchers have catalogued hundreds of secret markings in Seia

Portuguese researchers have catalogued hundreds of secret markings that Jews left on structures in Seia in North-eastern Portugal in the 16th century following their forced conversion to Christianity.

A three-member team, Alberto Martinho, Jose Levy Domingos and Luiza Metzker Lyra, said it found 500 Jewish signs or markings in Seia, a north Portugal municipality, including coded Hebrew letters and words carved into walls of homes, where converted Jews used to live. They also found distinctive indentations in stone doorframes where the residents would have placed mezuzahs. Alone in the village of Santa Marinha they found 42 marked houses.

The new findings correspond to the more well-known remains found in the town of Trancoso, home to the famous Casa do Gate Negro, the former Rabbi’s house. This was decorated with emblems that have been interpreted as representations of the Lion of Judah and the Gates of Jerusalem. The house itself used to belong to a wealthy member of the Jewish community, and was probably also used as a synagogue.

Martinho told Portugal’s Lusa news agency that the findings “elucidate the Jewish presence” in the region. His hope is to “create an Eco-Museum of Jewish Heritage in Seia”. The result will be made available in the form of a gps-guide to the many markers and signs plus – hopefully – the development of a cultural route.

At the Inauguration of the new centre 2013

New Jewish Centre
At the same time a new Jewish cultural and religious center – the first of its kind in Portugal in more than 500 years – has opened in the city of Trancoso. This – the Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation will include an exhibition about the Jewish history of Portugal and the renewal of Jewish life in the region in recent years. It will also contain a new synagogue called Beit Mayim Hayim – “the House of Living Waters” plus a garden. Visitors to the Isaac Cardoso Interpretation Centre can access the archives of the 700 Jews, who were born and lived in Trancoso and who were persecuted by the Inquisition.

The establishment of the center marks the first time a Portuguese municipality has taken full responsibility, at its own expense, to construct a Jewish center. The center is expected to begin operating shortly, and will focus on outreach work to the many Bnei Anousim, descendants of Iberian Jews who were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries and who still reside in the area. It is hoped the new cultural center will play an integral role in assisting those Bnei Anousim who wish to return to the Jewish faith. For centuries, Trancoso was home to a large number of Bnei Anousim and it has a riveting history.

Isaac Cardoso, after whom the center is named, was a Jewish physician and philosopher born in Trancoso in 1603 to a family of Bnei Anousim. He later moved to Spain with his family and then fled to Venice to escape the Inquisition. Here he and his brother Miguel publicly embraced Judaism. He went on to publish a number of important works on philosophy, medicine and theology, including an important treatise defending Judaism and the Jewish people from various medieval stereotypes such as ritual murder accusations and the blood libel.

According to Jose Oulman Carp, the president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, Portugal had a Jewish population of about 400,000 Jews in 1536, when the Portuguese Inquisition officially began. Many of the Jews in Portugal were refugees from neighboring Spain, where the Inquisition – an organized campaign of persecution led by the Catholic Church – began somewhat earlier in the late 1400s. Although persecution in Portugal forced many Jews into exile some stayed behind and became known as “New Christians”  or “marranos” (a derogatory term meaning “filthy pig”). However, many of them continued to practice Judaism in secret and developed special customs to set themselves apart in discrete ways from the rest of the population; customs which lived on until very recently.

New Law
Mid April the Portuguese parliament passed a law entitling the descendants of Jews who left to citizenship. A similar bill is being prepared in Spain. The law is passed in order to make amends for the terror of the 16th century and the inquisition.

It allows descendants of Jews who were expelled in the 16th century to become citizens if they “belong to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin with ties to Portugal”. Applicants must be able to show “Sephardic names.” Another factor is “the language spoken at home”. The amendment also says applicants need not reside in Portugal, an exception to the requirement of six years of consecutive residency in Portugal for any applicant for citizenship.

“The next step is the creation of a bureaucratic framework for reviewing applications, which will probably involve the Jewish community of Lisbon and government officials,” said Carp, who has lobbied for several years for the amendment. Jose Oulman Carp called it “a huge development.” He is hoping the measure will help attract new members to the country’s Jewish community of 1,000 to 1,500. “I expect the amendment will attract some interest from members of the Jewish community of Turkey, a country which absorbed many Portuguese immigrants”.

Carp called the motion “a huge development” and told JTA it proposes to give Portuguese citizenship to descendants of the Portuguese Inquisition, which began in 1536 and resulted in the expulsion of tens of thousands of people and the forced conversion into Christianity of countless others. Portugal had a Jewish population of about 400,000, many of them refugees from neighboring Spain, where the Inquisition started in 1492. Spanish lawmakers are said to be drafting a similar motion on their country’s Jewish refugees.

“There is no way of knowing for certain how many people would become eligible for Portuguese citizenship now the law has passed and there is no bureaucratic system yet for vetting applications – all of that will have to come later,” said Carp, who has lobbied for the bill for several years. However, he hopes it will help attract new members to the country’s Jewish community of 1,000-1,500 people. The community would be involved in reviewing applications, he said.

Popular support for the motion stems from a desire to “make amends” for a dark historic chapter in Portugal”, a country Carp describes as being “virtually free of anti-Semitism.” Some also hope the law would attract investments by Jews seeking to settle in Portugal, one of the European Union’s most vulnerable economies. Thus it is hoped any new Jewish influx might help to balance the demographic outflow from Portugal to the former African colonies, now experiencing a marked economic boom.


The Serra da Estrela has seen a growing number of tour operators bringing Jewish visitors to the region to see its Sephardic heritage. Portugal and Israel and now discussing a direct air link.  More than 1,000 Israelis visit Portugal each year, and 3,000 Portuguese visit Israel (about 20 percent of Israelis are of Sephardic origin). Last year 17,840 visitors went to see the Serra da Estrela’s Belmonte Jewish Museum.


Hundreds of Jewish markings catalogued in Portuguese town

Photos of Jewish markers from Trancoso

Descendants of 16th century Jewish refugees may claim Portuguese citizenship

Jewish Cultural Center to open in Portugal

Rede de Judarias de Portugal




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