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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Coimbra Jews: Tolerance to Persecution in Portugal

Updated: Nov 19, 2022


Two steps lead up to an unpartitioned cell. Behind draped white gauzy material and lit by a footlight, two ropes hang from the ceiling three times the height of a person.

The image is powerful and awful. It is as chilling as the stone building permeated by the smell of must.

Each prison cell held four, five or more. Each prisoner received a pitcher of water for eight days and another for urine along with a chamber pot. Rats ran amuck. The prison treatment etched itself on everyone’s face as released prisoners were unrecognizable.

“Transformed into a house of torture filled with sorrowful memories” from 1566 to 1821, the expansive vaulted rooms of the refectory of the Real Colegio das Artes, a 470-year-old building, at Patio de Inquisiçao in Coimbra, became the site of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

Today, the building invites visitors as a museum with free admission, open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. There are informative panels in Portuguese and English. An introductory panel says:

“Coimbra City Council has lent (the building) new life and is showing how its memories are linked to history that must not be repeated. Healing the scars of the past, which can still be seen, will be an ongoing task in preserving and enhancing this heritage.”

The Jews of Coimbra: From Tolerance to Persecution: Memories and Materiality, a permanent exhibit, comprises 13 subject areas, set up chronologically. It begins with Jews in Coimbra and the Presence of Jews in Portugal and continues to the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.


In 2020, Coimbra City Council acquired the building at Rua Visconde da Luz, nos. 19 and 21, where there is a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath for purification. A ruptured pipe led to this location discovered by municipal technicians in 2013. Since then, the municipality had sought to buy the building to create a museum space.


Maps of the city’s commercial area show the site of he Judaria Velha (Old Jewry); the site of a mikveh for ritual washing/purification; the Jewish cemetery, which was razed, but later bought by in 1497 by brothers, Joao Lopes and Afonso Lopes, who were probably New Christians, and the possible site of the synagogue. There are also maps of Coimbra District, showing sites of archaeological finds and agricultural areas. In addition, There are diagrams of the building.

Because one must not forget the past, a visitor easily could spend hours in the former prison, while wrestling with the horror of its history.

In July 2021, Manuel Machado, the mayor of Coimbra, inaugurated the museum, reported The Portuguese Jewish News (February 23). According to RUC (July 2, 2021), Machado said that it important to preserve the memory of the city and the people who contributed to the city’s multicultural identity.


Coimbra was one of three main tribunals in the country. The others were at Lisbon and Evora. For a short time (1541- c. 1547), there were also courts of the Inquisition in Porto, Tomar and Lamego.

According to the exhibit: “Coimbra played a crucial role in this long and painful process, given the prominent actions of the Tribunal. The Coimbra Inquisition exercised its dominance ferociously and extended its persecution to a vast territory.”

“The Tribunal Office of Coimbra had jurisdiction over the entire north and center of Portugal. Its power and authority exceeded all bounds, leading to arrest warrants, torture, death and confiscation of property. A deviation without any kind of evidence was enough to order an arrest. The court had various forms of torture that usually led to confession.

“The Coimbra Inquisition logged more than 11,000 cases. About 200 New Christians are said to have been burned to death.”

Many others were sentenced to confiscation of property; or they were pilloried (a wooden frame with holes in which the heads and hands could be locked); quartered (chopped into four pieces); garotted (strangulation with an implement); submitted to the rack (a torture device consisting of a rectangular frame, slightly raised from the ground, with a roller at one or both ends. The victim’s ankles are fastened to one roller and the wrists to the other. A handle and ratchet mechanism gradually retract the chains, increasing the strain on the prisoner’s body and causing excruciating pain.); impalement (to torture or kill by fixing on a sharp stake); life imprisonment, or hanging.

In the Portuguese Empire between 1536 and 1794, an estimated 40,000 were victims, according to The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians 1536-1765. There were 1,183 executions, 663 executions in effigy and 29,611 who received penances of self-abasement.

The major target of the Portuguese Inquisition (1536-1821) was New Christians (Jewish converts), predominantly women, who were suspected of secretly practicing Judaism. Some were descendants of Jews who had lived in Portugal for centuries. Others were descendants of Spanish Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834).

Anyone who was believed to challenge the power structure was at risk. There was a belief, for example, that Jews and Muslims were in league to overthrow the Catholic church.

To a lesser extent, homosexuals, bigamists, and people of other ethnicities and faiths, such as Protestants, Moors and practitioners of African religions and Vodun, were also put on trial for heresy and witchcraft, according to the exhibit and Paper, Ink, Vodun, and the Inquisition: Tracing Power, Slavery, and Witchcraft in the Early Modern Portuguese Atlantic (June 2020), Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

According to the exhibit:

“It is impossible to determine exactly when the Jews reached Portuguese territory. However, their presence dates back to ancient time. Archaeological remains in southern Portugal, including a marble tombstone from Silves and a headstone with a depicted menorah from Mertola, confirm that Jews had been established since at least the lower Roman Empire.

“Initially, the Jews lived among the Christians. However, in some Portuguese cities, as was the case in Coimbra, Jewish quarters have been documented since ancient times. There were spaces where the followers of Moses organized their community around the synagogue.

“The Jewries were closed, often fenced areas, under lock and key and guard of the sovereign, who imposed restrictions on Jews leaving their quarters after sunset and preventing Christian women from entering. The Jewries were usually inside walled perimeters and, in addition to a synagogue, they had their own cemetery (located outside the neighborhood), their own businesses and, in some cases, shelters and provisions to support the sick and needy. They were self-sufficient and had their own legal statutes and administration entrusted to the rabbi, who answered to the chief rabbi, the community’s liaison with the king. A minimum of 10 adult men (a minyan) was required to form a Jewry and practice worship in the synagogue.”

“As it is with the king’s prerogative to grant permission to live on Portuguese territory, carry out worship and rituals of the Torah (Jewish scripture and other sacred literature and oral tradition), have a home and raise a family, hold a profession and be judged in accordance with Hebrew law, the Talmud, and also to perform funerary rites. The Jews belonged to the king!

“The king protected the communities and benefitted from their fortunes whenever extra taxes had to be allocated to finance a war or even for his children’s weddings. He surrounded himself with an intellectual elite that enabled him to have access to the best physicians, men of finance and scientists. King Dinis, (the Poet King, a devotee of the arts and sciences,) referred to them as ‘my Jews’.”

During Dinis’ reign (1279-1325), Lisbon became one of Europe’s centers of culture and learning, according to the History of Portugal: From Lusitania to Empire: vol. 2, From Empire to Corporate State (1972).

According to the exhibit: “The chief rabbi was a courtier in the confidence of the king. He lived at the court and was the representative of the communities with the monarch for the various requests presented to him.”

“The oldest documentary accreditation of Coimbra Jewry (documents from 1130 and 1139) identified an important community heritage – a synagogue, a cemetery, a butcher and a hostel – a good indication of the continuity and importance of the Coimbra community. The Judaria Velha (Old Jewry) occupied an area of between 2 and 2.5 hectares, about 4.5 percent of the urban area of medieval Coimbra, which makes it the largest in Portugal in the 14th century.

“It was certainly a very diverse community from a socioeconomic point of view, including Jews who were the wealthiest and most influential in financial operations, such as collecting royal taxes and collecting taxes and fees for municipal and ecclesiastical entities. There were also doctors and other professions, constituting a power elite.

“Some families worked in handicraft and devoted themselves to local commerce, predominantly footwear and leather goods.”


Auto da Fe (Sentencing) of the Inquisition (1808-1812) (Oil painting by Francisco de Goya)


The following narrative of propaganda from the 1360s was recorded in Agiologio Lusitano by Jorge Cardoso in 1666. It is part of the context of persecution of the Jews, which was encouraged by the Catholic church:

“It came to pass that a young Catholic boy named Joao was persuaded by a Jew called Josef to steal from the Cathedral with diabolical daring the silver chalice with five sacred hosts (the symbol of the body of the martyr, Jesus Christ). The Jew then went to the synagogue to desecrate the heavenly Bread, and hurling blasphemy, threw the hosts into a pan of boiling oil.

“But the Lord commanded the Sacred Hosts to leap from the pan, miraculously unblemished. Astounded by what he saw, angry and enraged, the impious blasphemer compounded his evil and broke them into tiny shards and buried them in a filthy place, near the synagogue.

“When news of this reached the Bishop’s ears, he sent for the clergy and they went to this place whereupon the shards were purified and brought back to the See (cathedral) in a formal procession. And after the accomplice was punished, as he deserved for such a strong offense, a devout woman, named Anna Afonso, in honor of Christ in the Beloved Sacrament, there erected a Temple, which is commonly called the Corpo de Deus (Body of Christ) to venerate the faithful, with blessings of Bishop D. Pedro Tenorio.”

In the late 14th century in Coimbra, the Jews abandoned the neighborhood by order of King Fernando I (1367-1383), thus clearing the walls to enable the city to be defended from the military onslaught of Henry II of Castile, according to the exhibit.

The ban on worship in the neighboring kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, which came with the Alhambra Decree (Granada, March 31, 1492), by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, led to the flight of thousands of Spanish Jews to Portugal. An estimated 10 percent of the population was Jewish by the end of the 15th century, according to the exhibit:

“This huge population increase had a major impact on society and changed the already fragile balance between Christian and Hebrew communities, contributing to an increasingly intolerant social environment.

“Portugal came to be known as a nation of Jews!”

According to King Joao II of Portugal: O Principe Perfeito and the Jews (1481-1495) (2009):

“In Jewish historiography, Joao II has become infamous for his persecution of the Jews who came to Portugal after their expulsion from Castile in 1492 as well as his order to seize Jewish children from their parents so that they could be converted to Christianity and sent to colonize the island of Sao Tome.”

King Manuel I, who reigned from 1495-1521, initially maintained a policy of tolerance toward Jews. He freed the Jews who had been imprisoned by King Joao II. However, he was engaged to Maria of Aragon and one of the conditions of marriage was to rid the country of heretics. In 1496, he signed the Edict of Expulsion, whose objective was to force Jews and Moors to leave Portugal within 10 months under penalty of death and confiscation of property.

It was decreed that all Jews either convert to Christianity or leave the country without their children, according to The Jewish Cultural Tapestry: International Jewish Folk Traditions (2001).

According to the exhibit: “This royal statute dictated the future of a population that had resided in Portugal for many centuries. Its consequences were devastating for many of these Portuguese people and for the nation that lost many of its best!

“The Jews ceased to have their own jurisdiction and, once Judaism had failed to constitute an accepted religious minority, it became regarded as heresy.

“Fearing abandonment of the Portuguese kingdom by the Jews, before the end of the 10-month period of departure, King Manuel issued a decree forcing them to be baptized and integrated into a society that was increasingly hostile to it.

“The monarch had no intention of allowing the Jews to leave the kingdom as he was aware of the possible consequences caused by losing an intellectual and wealthy elite. . . . To minimize the consequences, he gave the Jews 30 years to convert completely to Christianity. However, the diaspora that immediately started forced him to ban them from leaving as early as 1499.

“Baptism did not imply abandoning the teachings of the Torah (the five books of Moses) nor forgetting the centuries-old rituals. In the absence of rabbis and the sacred Torah, the passing down of the legacy began to be made within great secrecy and was chiefly the responsibility of women.”

New Christians engraved cruciforms (crucifix arrangements) in the portals of their homes.


The sentence, the auto-da-fe, was pronounced in public session, cloaked in solemnity, in places where a great number of the public could be present, such as town squares. A sermon preceded the reading of the sentence, followed by a procession of great circumstance, leading to the place of execution of the sentence. (Auto de fe, oil painting by Francisco Rizi, Madrid, 1683)


In 1536, after the death of King Manuel I, who had requested the Inquisition, and at the request of King Joao III, Pope Paul III granted the installation of the General Council of the Holy Office of the Inquisition of Portugal.

The Portuguese Inquisition expanded its scope of operations from Portugal to the Portugal’s colonial possessions, including Brazil, Cape Verde and Goa in India, where it investigated and tried cases based on breaches of Roman Catholicism.

Jewish communities tried hard to survive. Customs were maintained by families, who secretly observed the Shabbat, or Sabbath, Judaism’s day of rest beginning at sunset on Friday, ushered in by the lighting of candles, a blessing called kiddush, and a festive meal as well as Yom Kippur, a High Holy Day, which consists of fasting, ascetic behavior and prayer to atone for misdeeds and become cleansed and purified from them.

People married among relatives and maintained old practices, which often would carry them to the Inquisition jails.

Sometimes, large sums of money could be exchanged for freedom. Most times, no.

In Coimbra, high-ranking academics, members of the Cabido de Se, and an elite of merchants even created a clandestine organization, the Brotherhood of Sao Diogo, which numbered more than 60 regular attendees in a home rented by New Christian Miguel Gomes, at the end of Rua da Moeda.

Antonio Homen was the most prominent figure of the brotherhood. An illustrious academic of canon law and an influential member of Coimbra society, he was arrested and detained in the Inquisition prison. He was later transferred to Lisbon and the seat of the court at the Palacio das Estaus. He was sentenced to death by garotte in 1624.

Who are Sephardic Jews?

“Jerusalem was laid to waste by the conquest and destruction of the Second Temple by Roman Emperor Titus in 70 AD. Jews were forbidden to stay and thus were forced into a long diaspora that was to lead them to the Iberian Peninsula, Sepharad, around the 2nd or 3rd century. The peninsular Jews are therefore called Sephardic Jews, distinguishing them from those who settled in central Europe, the Ashkenazi Jews.”

As a way of making reparations, a 2013 amendment to Portugal’s Law on Nationality allowed descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews to become citizens without a residence requirement.

After some notorious cases, where it was reported that people had been granted citizenship through false documents and other misdeeds, a regulation in March that went into effect in September decreed that candidates have to prove an “effective connection with Portugal” through ownership of real estate or companies, or through regular trips in an applicant’s life to Portugal. Among cases being investigated was that of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who became a citizen in April 2021.

“Strictly speaking, most of the possible/potential applicants for naturalization in this way do not fulfill any of these criteria of effective and lasting connection to Portugal,” said lawyer, Sara Minhalma, of Rede de Serviços de Advocacia, or Legal Services Network (April 8).


“Coimbra City Council has lent (the building) new life and is showing how its memories are linked to history that must not be repeated. Healing the scars of the past, which can still be seen, will be an ongoing task in preserving and enhancing this heritage.”


Many of the Jews expelled from Portugal fled to Amsterdam, where the Portuguese Synagogue was completed on August 2, 1675, according to the exhibit. They were influential in the cultural and economic development of the Netherlands.

Also, the first organized Jewish emigration to North America occurred in September 1654. It comprised 23 Sephardi Jews, refugees fleeing persecution by the Portuguese Inquisition after the conquest of Dutch Brazil, to New Amsterdam (renamed New York by the British), according to Early American Jewry: The Jews of New York, New England, and Canada, 1549-1794 (1951).

Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of New Netherland and a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, opposed religious pluralism: He came into conflict with Lutherans, Jews, Roman Catholics and Quakers as they attempted to build places of worship in the city. Stuyvesant, particularly, loathed Jews.

Initially, Stuyvesant refused to allow the permanent settlement of the Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil (without passports) and join the handful of existing Jewish traders (with passports from Amsterdam). He attempted to have the refugees “in a friendly way to depart” the colony.

As Stuyvesant wrote to the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch West India Company in 1654, he hoped that “the deceitful race – such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ, -- be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony”, according to Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (1999). He referred to Jews as a “repugnant race” and usurers”, and was concerned that “Jewish settlers should not be granted the same liberties enjoyed by Jews in Holland, lest members of other persecuted minority groups, such as Roman Catholics, be attracted to the colony,” according to Jews Permitted to Stay in New Amsterdam, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.

Stuyvesant’s decision was rescinded after pressure from the directors of the Dutch West India Company. In 1655, in the year after their arrival, the Jewish immigrants were allowed to stay in the colony as long as their community was self-supporting.

The year marks the founding of Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.

However, Stuyvesant and the company would not allow them to build a synagogue, forcing them to worship in a private house. It was not until 1730 that the Congregation was allowed to build a synagogue. It was built on Mill Street, now William Street, in lower Manhattan.

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