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Portugal’s Secret Jews

High in the mountains of Centro de Portugal the quaint village of Belmonte has kept a secret for over five-hundred years.

On the fateful day of December 5th 1496, King Manuel I of Portugal passed a decree stating that all Jews in the land must either convert to Christianity or leave the country immediately. Apparently, the King’s malicious edict was passed to fulfil a clause in the marriage contract between his Highness and Princess Isabella of Asturias.

Having borne witness to continuous persecution through the preceding centuries many of Portugal’s Jewish community submitted voluntarily and left for far-flung lands. Others were forcibly deported, their homes and possessions seized, their fates unsure. One year later, in 1497,  those who hadn’t complied with the King’s orders were forcibly converted to Christianity. Those who refused were imprisoned and executed.

The Jews who had converted to Christianity were known as conversos and were scattered throughout the land. In order to live a more peaceful, less tormented life many of the conversosopted for a life in small, hidden villages high in the mountains.

One such place of refuge, tucked neatly on the eastern slopes of the Serra da Estrala mountain range, is the small but intriguing hamlet of Belmonte. For centuries the sizeable Jewish community in this pretty mountain village lived a double life; on the outside they were seen as Christian, attending church services, sharing the culture and lifestyle of those around them, however, beneath that veil of subterfuge the Jews of Belmonte carried on the practices and religious values of Judaism in the privacy and secrecy of their homes.

Also referred to as Crypto-Jewish or ‘Marranos‘ the conversos of Belmonte have survived as one of the largest and least known Crypto-Jewish communities anywhere in the world.

A stroll through the cobbled lanes and alleys of the villages ‘Jewish quarter’ reveals glimpses into the duality of the lives of these Crypto-Jewish. With Christian crosses carved into the granite lintels of the doorways the community gave the outward appearance of being good Christians, while behind the sealed doors and windows the Jewish community still carried on their religious practices as they had done for centuries.

In order to keep their ways secret the Belmonte Jews forsake the tradition of male circumcision and even modified their kosher food practices to deflect from their Jewish identity. As pork is forbidden in kosher eating traditions the Crypto-Jewish used chicken and rabbit, instead of pig meat, in their diet; including and influencing the local delicacy of Alheira, a delicious well-seasoned sausage distinct to the area. The Crypto-Jewish also took non-Jewish sounding names and relinquished the use of written Hebrew in further efforts to conceal their true identities.

 

Despite the secrecy of the Belmonte Jews – many still refuse to speak in public about their past – times are changing. In 1996 a new synagogue (Bet Eliahu) was opened to the community, a rabbi was appointed and the lives and fortunes of the Crypto-Jews changed dramatically. Together with the opening of the synagogue the first dedicated Jewish Museum in Portugal was opened in Belmonte in 2005 attracting visitors from the world over and creating much-needed employment to the community and the region.

There are also other reasons to visit Belmonte, many in fact. The village is also the birthplace of one Pedro Álvares Cabral, the man cited as claiming the new territory of Brazil for the Portuguese monarchs. Cabral, born in 1467, into a noble family who have left their mark in Belmonte to this day through churches, palaces and a castle bearing the family name and coat of arms. A statue of Cabral stands in the village’s main square and the recently restored family church, which includes the tombs of the Cabral family and what is alleged to be the original crucifix which traveled with Cabral on his journeys to the New World.

There is also an highly educational interpretive centre (Centro de Interpretativo de Belmonte) worth visiting which explains in detail – the indigenous peoples, ecology, nature, foods and drinks, the link to slavery and many other interesting topics – the opening of Brazil and the New World to the first Portuguese explorers and continues the story right up to the present-day connection between the two nations.

Belmonte, once a sleepy backwater high in the mountains, has been offered a renaissance through its new found tourism opportunities forged from centuries of secrecy and resilience. You won’t find the narrow cobbles of Belmonte thronged with tourists and sightseers, but, like the other ancient Historical Villages – each with their own individual story to tell – scattered throughout this little-explored region of Portugal; Almeida, Castelo Rodridgo, Marialva, Trancoso and others, it won’t be long before the secret it out.

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