Portugal - Israel friendship plaque in the ancient Jewish district, the Judiaria
Guarda (name refers to its ‘guarding role’) is the highest town in Portugal at over 1000 metres above sea level. Near Belmonte it is close to the Spanish border in a region dotted with fortifications and hilltop villages. Its 12th century defence walls built by Sancho I can still be seen.
One house belonged to a Jewish shoemaker Barbadão (literally ‘heavily bearded’). Folklore claims this was a nickname from his decision never to shave again after his daughter Inês bore Sancho an illegitimate son, Alfonso. Later he became the Duque de Bragança whose descendents ruled Portugal.
Located within the city walls, the Old Jewish quarter still exists nowadays, very close to Porta D’El Rei. The Jewish community in Guarda was for a long period one of the country’s most important Jewish communities, and also one of the oldest. There is evidence that it dates back to the 13th century, when King D. Dinis gave the Royal charter (“foro”) to the Jewish communities of S. Vicente parish. One of those families was housed in the synagogue. The Jewish quarter started near Porta d’El Rei, covering the churchyard of S. Vicente Church, in the border with the city wall and Rua Direita, which led to that entry. This was the new Jewish quarter, which was a continuation of the older, mentioned in the charter of 1199.
In 1465 this access was closed due to protests by Christians.
By the end of the 14th century around 200 people lived here and approximately 50 years later, the number of inhabitants of Jewish creed was already around 600 to 850.
The families had names like Ergas, Castro, Falilho, Baruch, Mocatel, Marcos, Querido, Alva, Cáceres, Castelão, among others.
The dynamic Jewish community of the Guarda offered a whole range of services to the population: tailors, shoemakers, tanners, blacksmiths, weavers, groomers, physicists, surgeons, goldsmiths and carpenters.
The historical centre of the city of Guarda retains even today traces of the old Jewish Quarter. The houses in the early days were low and single-storey. From the 14th century onwards the merchants’ houses had two doors: the door opened wider to the store and the closest to the upper deck where the residence stood. The Synagogue had initially worked in a rented building, but later it was housed in a building built from scratch.
The main entrance was located in Quatro Quinas (4 corners), the point where three streets converge to intersect and form four street corners. The longest of the three leads to Porta D’El Rei, one of the entries of the city. In the ancient Rua Nova da Judiaria, today Rua do Amparo, we still find the door – nowadays a confined door – of the guard’s house, where the night watchman controlled the access to the city by opening or closing the door. The Jewish quarter was thus isolated from the rest of the city, a fact that explains the protection of privacy demanded by the Jewish people itself.
The Inquisition and religious persecution misrepresented the traditional tolerance that Guarda, like other cities, lived in since the settlement. However, in the urban area that comprised the old Jewish Quarter and attached areas, inhabited by Jews, and later by New Christians, there are still marks of crosses in the doors – usually on the right side, the crosses were a symbol of the Christianization of the houses, but they are also the testimonies of the “mezuzah” that every Jew must touch with the right hand, while murmuring a prayer before entering the house.