Exploring the Lisbon Jewish History Past: My Amazing Tour Experience

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Memorial to the Victims of the 1506 Massacre - Lisbon

It’s become somewhat of a travel tradition for me – in every city around the world where there is a connection to Lisbon Jewish history, I make it a point to take a tour or visit local sites to learn more. I find it fascinating to understand the paths crossed and the stories left behind.

From synagogues to museums to neighborhoods, these places provide a lens into a segment of local history that often goes unseen.

I knew Portugal had a rich and complex Jewish history, especially with the Inquisition that began after 1497. Many Jews who were expelled from Spain thought they had found refuge there, only to face renewed persecution, inquisition trials, and ultimately expulsion in 1497. So when I booked my recent trip to Lisbon, a Jewish heritage tour was high on my sightseeing list.

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My Tour in Lisbon Jewish History

I booked a Jewish history tour of Lisbon in advance before my trip. When I arrived for the tour, I was surprised to find that I was the only tour participant and my guide was a young Chinese woman who had been living in Portugal for 10 years. Having a Chinese expat with perfect English as my guide for a Jewish history tour was an unusual experience I wouldn’t have expected.

Getting to Know My Guide

I was a little surprised when my tour guide turned out to be a young Chinese woman who had moved to Portugal from China as a child and had been living here for 10 years. Her name was Amber Zhang and she had come from her home in Cascais specifically to give me this private tour of Jewish Lisbon.

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Amber’s Impressive Knowledge

I was truly amazed by Amber’s extensive knowledge of the history of Lisbon in general and Portugal’s Jewish history. Despite her young age and background in physics, she passionately recounted details spanning centuries of Portugal history and Jewish life in Portugal.

She vividly described the mass forced conversion of Jews to Catholicism in 1497 and the persecution faced by Jewish converts during the Portuguese Inquisition. Amber could name the locations of Jewish quarters from medieval times and synagogues that once dotted the narrow streets of Alfama.

From the reign of King Manuel I who initially welcomed Spanish Jewish refugees, to the Marrano Jews who continued practicing Judaism in secret, Amber’s account illustrated the complex twists and turns of the Jewish experience in Portugal. I was thoroughly impressed at the breadth of knowledge this young woman from China possessed about Portuguese Jewish heritage. It was clear she had extensively researched the subject beyond the standard tour guide script.

What I learned from Amber: The Inquisition in Lisbon, the massacre of the 4000 “New Christians” – the name for Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity,” Persecution and Expulsion.

This golden age, unfortunately, could not withstand the tumultuous shifts in religious power during the 16th century. The establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536 marked a dark turning point in Lisbon’s Jewish history. The Inquisition, driven by religious intolerance and backed by the monarchy, sought to eradicate any trace of Judaism and convert the Jewish population to Christianity.

The Portuguese Jews were faced with a distressing choice: convert or face persecution. Many converted outwardly, becoming “New Christians,” but continued to practice Judaism secretly, maintaining their religious and cultural traditions in hiding. The Inquisition, however, remained vigilant, hunting down those suspected of practicing Judaism in secret, leading to countless trials and executions.

The Tour Route

Our walking tour covered the main sites related to Jewish history and culture in medieval and modern Lisbon. We started in the Praça do Comércio plaza, before heading into the Alfama district. This area was home to Lisbon’s medieval Judiaria, or Jewish quarter. As we walked the winding streets, Amber pointed out places where synagogues and other important Jewish sites once stood in the 15th century before the expulsion of Jews from Portugal.

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Next, we went to the medieval Castle of São Jorge on the hilltop, which was the site of the bloody 1506 Easter Massacre of conversos, or Jewish converts to Catholicism.

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Descending from the castle, we continued into the Baixa district which was completely rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake.

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Amber retold me the story about the massacre, that began in the Church of São Domingos on Sunday, 19 April 1506. Today the interior of this church is painted in red color (memory of the slipped blood) and nearby there is a monument commemorating this event.

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She also pointed out buildings where Jewish refugees stayed while passing through Lisbon during World War II. The tour efficiently covered the major touchpoints of Jewish history and culture dispersed throughout Old Town Lisbon.

My guide also navigated via the narrow Alfama neighborhood streets with very nice murals, I took pictures of the same of them to share with you.

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Overall, Amber’s ability to adapt to the tour on the fly based on my specific questions and interests enhanced my experience and understanding of both Jewish and Lisbon history. The personalized touch made this walking tour feel like so much more than just a recitation of facts or a generic script.

Amber’s Background

Though Amber is currently studying physics at the university in Lisbon, her interest in world history led her to create this Jewish history tour of Lisbon. She shared that her curiosity about the Jewish people and their expulsion and persecution in Portugal motivated her to research in city libraries, and collaborate with local Jewish community members, and history specialists and she designed the tour content herself.

While studying history is not a strong focus in Portuguese public schools and universities, Amber feels passionate about people learning from the past and not repeating the same mistakes. Her impressive knowledge is driven by her interest in this important topic in Portugal’s and world history, not formal studies.

Amber’s Perspective

Amber shared why she created this Jewish history tour herself. She feels that knowledge of history is very important, especially in today’s times, where the study of this subject is not very strong in Portuguese public schools. She believes it’s important for people to learn from the past and not repeat the same mistakes that were made in history.

Specifically, Amber was curious to learn more about the Jewish people and their expulsion and persecution in Portugal during the Inquisition. She wants to educate others on this forgotten history. Amber hopes that by learning about the intolerance and injustices faced by minorities in the past, people today can have more tolerance and not discriminate against marginalized groups. Ultimately, Amber created this tour to spread knowledge and promote understanding between people of different backgrounds.

On my question about how she and her family adjusted to the new lifestyle in Portugal, she responded that her Portugues language is perfect, and she did not feel racism towards her family, her father (former history teacher in China) who became a financial advisor in Portugal and mother (media and PR specialist) went through the many challenges the new immigrants and expats usually going through, they changed their professional direction and build the new life for the whole family in Portugal. I felt a lot in common with Amber’s family struggle and new country adaptation after my multi-immigrational life experience and asked her to take pictures together.



Hi, I am Emily Bron.

After living and working in 4 countries (3 continents), experiencing several immigrations, changing several professional fields and being an avid traveler, I created International Lifestyle Consulting to help you to find the best matching place and to relocate abroad for a better quality of life, work, or retirement.

As a professional Baby Boomer and Remote worker, I am relocating again!

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