From the castle to the town fountain, the Jewish quarter of Castelo de Vide is one of the best preserved in the country. The streets with ogival doors deserve a calm walk with a mandatory stop at the synagogue.
The Jewish presence in Castelo de Vide must be as old as the town itself, but it was in 1492 that they arrived en masse, pushed by the edict of the Catholic Kings who expelled them from Spain. It is estimated that 4,000 settled in the beautiful town in the Alto Alentejo.
The arrival of such a large community shaped the land. They were allowed to live near the castle gate and so was born the most characteristic district of Castelo de Vide, which spreads along the eastern slope, going down from the castle to Fonte da Vila.
The medieval synagogue is an obligatory stop on a tour of the Jewish quarter of Castelo de Vide. Now transformed into a museum, it helps us to understand the impact of this community on the town, to understand the traces it left behind and to learn about the persecution it suffered, as well as the strategies it used in its defence.
Castelo de Vide – it must be said – is one of the towns in the north of Alentejo with the greatest personality, alongside, for example, Belver. In the foothills of the Serra de São Mamede, its houses stretch over two hills, with beautiful buildings from disparate eras forming a cohesive and harmonious whole.
The judiaria of Castelo de Vide contributes greatly to this character. Many of the houses in the alleyways of the Jewish quarter keep symbols of faith next to the medieval ogival doors, vases of flowers colour the whitewashed façades and the uneven pavement of the streets takes us back to a time when they were trodden by merchants.
We already know that no two looks are alike and that we all experience things differently. For us, knowing the context is fundamental. The Jews arrived in 1492, expelled from Spain, and just four years later King Manuel published the edict that forced them to convert to Christianity or leave the country.
You can’t change religion by decree, as is well known, and the vast majority continued to practise Jewish services secretly. Some have survived to our days and Easter in Castelo de Vide is an example of this, with the Blessing of the Lambs and the Chocalhada, which make it unique in the country..
You can learn about the Chocalhada in the old medieval synagogue of Castelo de Vide, now a museum. A space where we can learn more about Jewish worship and the importance of the community in Castelo de Vide.
The date of its construction is not known, but it is known that there was already a Jewish quarter in the town in the 14th century, although it is not known if it was already functioning in this location. What is known is that in the 18th century it underwent major alterations to be used as a dwelling. When the house was being rebuilt, a tabernacle and a tabernacle was found on one wall, used respectively to store manuscripts and holy oils, and to rest the Holy Scriptures. Once the discovery was made, the city council bought the building, restored its original features and opened the museum. You can visit it at the junction of Rua da Judiaria and Rua da Fonte, simply by following the signs.
Garcia da Orta
Garcia da Orta is the most distinguished son of Castelo de Vide. He is one of the Renaissance men and author of “Colóquios dos Simples e Drogas he Cousas Medicinais da Índia”, the first European scientific record of oriental plants.
A New Christian, he was born in 1501, the son of the Jews Fernando Isaac de Orta and Leonor Gomes who came to this land after being expelled. .
He graduated in Medicine and Natural Philosophy, was a teacher in Lisbon and travelled to Goa in order to experiment and increase his knowledge. Here he met Camões and his book contains the first poem by the greatest poet.
He died of syphilis in Goa in 1568. The Inquisition was tightening its siege and his sister was burned for being Jewish. Garcia da Orta’s mortal remains were exhumed and burnt at Auto de Fé together with the copies of his book.
It is worth lingering in the Synagogue, reading the short and simple texts and observing the objects on display. The exhibition space is well designed and in it stands out the room dedicated to all those from Castelo de Vide who were persecuted and killed by the Inquisition. It is an all black room, with the names in white of many dozens of people.