The Convento de Cristo, the fortified headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal, might be the main reason for a visit to the lovely town of Tomar, but wandering the historic streets is endlessly rewarding. The narrow lanes and old buildings offer a glimpse into Portugal past and present, small outdoor cafes and restaurants serve up delicious food and (on a Sunday) families gather for church and a hearty lunch. The faint hum of traditional Portugal can be heard everywhere.
We stopped in a small cafe next to the river for a reviving coffee and pastel de nata before following our noses and finding ourselves in Tomar’s main plaza, the Praca da Republica. This relaxed square is home to the Church of São João Baptista and dominated by the statue of 12th Century Master of the Knights Templar, Gualdim de Pais.
Gualdim de Pais was the architect of Tomar’s early history, following the defeat of Moorish forces in the region in the 1150s. The town formed part of Portugal’s defences against the Moorish Caliphate which continued to control the south of Portugal and Spain. Although now considered a latter-day invention of convenience, the Reconquista, the seven-hundred-year-long demise of Islamic power on the Iberian Peninsular, must have felt pretty real when Tomar was defending itself from Moorish forces in 1190.
When the Knights Templar were disbanded Europe-wide in 1312, in Portugal it transformed into the Order of Christ and offered sanctuary to the Knights Templar from other countries. Under the rule of the Portuguese monarchy it became enormously powerful throughout the country. Tomar was their headquarters, and from here the former Templars planned and financed Portugal’s overseas expansion throughout the 15th and 16th Centuries.
The Age of Discoveries, Portugal’s Golden Age, wouldn’t have been possible but for the vast Templar wealth held by the Order of Christ. Vasco de Gama, Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan were just some of the early maritime explorers to receive training and support from the Order. Portuguese ships sailed with the Templar red Cross of Christ emblazoned on their sails. At this defining moment in Portugal’s history the Templars, and Tomar, were the country’s beating heart.
This rich history, however, has a more sinister side. The Reconquista was an unmitigated disaster for Jews across the Iberian Peninsular. In our own turbulent times, it should be remembered that Jews (and Christians) enjoyed full rights under Islamic rule, allowing Jewish culture to flourish. Christian rule was far less tolerant.
Tomar’s tiny synagogue is the best preserved medieval synagogue in Portugal. Tucked away down a narrow street it is an evocative place housing the Museo Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacato – named after the Jewish mathematician and royal astrologer who assisted Vasco de Gama in planning his voyages to the New World.
Zacato’s astronomical tables and astrolabe would help Portugal discover both India and Brazil. A man who fled the Jewish expulsions from Spain helped start Portugal’s Golden Age. In our own period of European history where immigration and asylum are under attack from retrograde and reactionary forces, this is something upon which to ponder.
Built between 1430-60, the synagogue and Tomar’s Jewish community flourished for a few years following the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain. This cataclysmic event uprooted thousands of families who fled Spain upon pain of death as the Spanish Inquisition brought its full ferocity to bear against Jews and others. Many migrated to neighbouring Portugal where, recognising the economic value of the Jewish community, a more tolerant society awaited – at least for a time.
Jews who reestablished their lives in places like Tomar under the reign of King John II found little peace. In 1496, under pressure from the Catholic Church and the zealotry of the Spanish Monarchy, King Manuel I of Portugal issued a decree that all Jews must convert or leave the country without their children. Most Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity rather than allowed to leave, but the Chief Rabbi met a brutal death and there were forced deportations of Jews to Portuguese colonies.
A few decades later a much more frenzied bout of religious persecution, organised by the Portuguese Inquisition, led to severe repression and violence against the Jews. Jewish properties and wealth were confiscated and given to the Inquisition itself. A basic land grab disguised as national interest and in Holy garb.