Covilhã – This pretty city, home of the Fifteenth Century Explorers, land of the wool industry, is in the southeast flank of the Serra da Estrela.
From the 12th century the Jewish community of Covilhã was until its dissolution, one of the strongest in Portugal. At the end of the 15th century there were more than 400 Jews whose activities were as artisans, merchants or doctors. The Jews and Christian Converts were closely linked to the development of the wool industry and some members of the community played a large part in the Discoveries, namely Master José Vizinho (astronomer to King João II) and Rui Faleiro (organiser of Fernão de Magalhães’ circumnavigation), among the great personalities in the history of the country.
Jewish Quarter of Covilhã – Building of the Jewish district began inside the Christian wall but due to the increased population at the end of the 14th century it expanded outside the wall. There were at least three Jewish cores.
The Jewish Quarter of Covilhã is currently located in the urban area of the city outside the walls as is the former synagogue.
Church of Santa Maria – The denunciations against secret Jews or Judaists were made in the Churches of Santa Maria and Santa Madalena; only the former can visited. This church is known as the Chapel of Santa Maria do Castelo and it was built in the middle of the 16th century.
Belmonte – The history of this small town begins in the 12th century when the municipal council received its charter from D. Sancho I in 1199. It is the birthplace of the navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral, discoverer of Brazil in the 15th century. The Jewish community has been established in this town since the middle ages and there have been remains of Hebrew culture and traditions from the 16th century to present day.
With around 3600 inhabitants, 300 are descendants of Jews who survived the Inquisition and were practising their religion for centuries in secret. They developed a closed community – the largest surviving community in the Iberian Peninsula – which was kept secret until 1990.
The Jews of Belmonte are the last community in the Peninsula of Crypto Judaic origin to survive and they remain united today with a synagogue, rabbi and their own cemetery.
Belmonte Castle – is located on a rocky mountain at an altitude or about 650 metres. It is not certain when it was built but it is believed to be in the 13th century. It was famous for being the residence of the Cabral family and Pedro Álvares Cabral lived there. It has an unusual mixture of architectural styles, Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Eighteenth century.
Bet Eliahu Synagogue – It was inaugurated in 1996, 500 years after the edict of D. Manuel which imposed the sanction of expulsion or conversion on the Jews in Portugal. The architect was Neves Dias.
The secret community – In 1920 Samuel Schwarz, an engineer of Polish-Jewish extraction who was working in Belmonte, discovered the existence of Jews. He wrote in this book that they were “a separate community from the Catholic community, retaining the very characteristic practices, customs and costumes which they were fearful of maintaining”.
The traditions, organisation and religious structure of the last secret Jews in Portugal were found to be alive. They had continued to marry only among themselves for centuries and anyone who broke this rule was expelled from the community. In 1925, with the intention of making the world aware of the existence of this secret community, Samuel Schwarz wrote the book “ Christian Converts in Portugal in the
20th Century” published separately from the journal “Archaeology and History“, of the Society of Architects. Samuel Schwarz truly made every effort for the Crypto Judaists of Belmonte to return officially to Judaism.
Jewish Museum – The only Jewish museum in the country was inaugurated on
17 April 2005. It describes the history of the community of this region who took refuge and resisted centuries of religious persecution. It is located in the last stronghold of the Crypto Judaic community which was established there in the 15th century. It has numerous religious artefacts and day to day items used by Hebrew families.
Overnight in Belmonte