In a secluded valley in the Serra da Sao Mamede, Alto Alentejo, Portugal.

Castelo de Vide Synagogue.

Castelo de Vide Synagogue.

The Jewish synagogue at Castelo de Vide is the oldest in Portugal. In the middle of the XV century the surrounding Jewish community had administrative and judicial autonomy.

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Synagogue History and Design

The Jewish synagogue at Castelo de Vide is the oldest in Portugal. There are few documents of the history of the synagogue but it was thought to exist in the middle of the XV century with the surrounding Jewish community having administrative and judicial autonomy and the freedom of teaching and religion given by royal consent.

The Jewish names that can be traced suggest trades like tailors, shoemakers and weavers and the proximity of the Spanish border probably helped with trade. It also helped the Spanish Jews escape Spain via Marvao in times of persecution and upheaval with a definitive expulsion in 1492. An example being the family of the notable naturist Garcia D'Orta who was born in Castelo de Vide of parents from Valencia de Alcantara and Albuquerque.

The synagogue construction

The Jewish community was fully integrated into the society of the town and there is nothing in the architecture of the Jewish Quarter to distinguish the building from other houses occupied by Christians.

The synagogue construction is the same as a house and it is built from stone and cut granite blocks. The door in the picture above is to the lower room with an earth floor. In most houses here it is called the Loja (shop) as was used for animals or as an artisan workshop. In such a house the living quarters would be on the upper floors.

It has been said that having a large lower door to the basement and a smaller main door on the side was a Jewish design trait but that is mistaken. It is really a design for allowing shoppers to enter an artisan workshop from the main street and it is likely the building became a synagogue after it was an ordinary dwelling.

The Jewish Quarter

Dom Pedro I restricted the area that Jews could occupy and thus created the Jewish Quarter which in Castelo de Vide had the priviledge of being in a thriving commercial area and social hub. In a town like this a Jewish Quarter would usually be within the town walls but near to a main gate and it is thought that Castelo de Vide's Jewish Quarter extended to the Porta da Vila (town door) nearby. It certainly included Rua da Judiaria and probably extended to Rua do Mercado (Market Street).

The Jewish Quarter was extended after the expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492. An expulsion from Portugal occurred in 1496 with some forced baptisms and conversion to New-Christians who introduced some of their own traditions into the community. The Easter celebrations of Castelo de Vide show these influences.

The renovation of the Synagogue

These pictures pre-date the renovation of the synagogue which took place around 2006/07. At the time you would not want too many visitors in the room above the loja since the ancient floor felt very frail. There were only two rooms opened to visitors and the place had an ambience which allowed you to imagine a connection to the inhabitants.

After the synagogue was renovated the initial impression when entering was of a UK TV makeover with no ambience. However the building became safe and many other rooms were opened up to reveal a labyrinth of rooms and a secret silo store for the provisions of the Jewish community.

Take a look at the other Synagogue photos