The history of Lisbon’s Jewish community traces itself back to Nebuchadnezzar’s reign in the sixth century BCE and if the legends are true perhaps as far back as King Solomon’s rule four centuries earlier. Over the next millennium the community would thrive as it became active in both social and commercial life, even managing to ride out both the Visigoth and Muslim occupations of the Iberian Peninsula between the fifth and eighth centuries CE, and by the founding of the kingdom of Portugal several important Jewish communities had taken root. Under King Afonso Henriques (1139-85) they enjoyed relative protection having earned recognition as a distinct legal entity with their quarters becoming self-governed communes run by their rabbi, whose chief Rabbi Yahia ben Yahi Ill was even made the royal tax collector, and whose grandson would go on to become appointed High Steward of the Realm under the Afonso’s successor King Sancho I (1185-1211). Even as tension rose seventy years later when the Catholic Church attempted to invoke the restrictions of the Lateran Council against the Portuguese Jewish communities King Dinis (1279-1325) intervened ensuring they would not have to pay the tithes being demanded.
And as the country underwent its golden Age of Discovery the Jewish community flourished with over 200,000 coming to call Portugal home, which by some estimates accounted for almost twenty percent of the community’s overall world population and held many important positions throughout the country. Unfortunately this success spawned resentment amongst the peasantry and middleclass culminating at the end of the fourteenth century with their general expulsion if they wound not otherwise convert. However this choice would not be available to their children who would instead be taken from their parents to be raised by “proper” Catholic families. Some choosing conversion continued to practice Judaism behind closed doors becoming known as the Marranos and lead to the institution of a Portuguese Inquisition. By the middle of the sixteenth century Portugal would see another mass exodus as many Portuguese Marrano families fled as far away as New Amsterdam (present day New York) in the New World to escape further religious persecution. The stream of refugees in fact continued through to the early eighteenth century when the Inquisition was finally formally disbanded after the Liberal Revolt and saw a return to a more general acceptance of the Jewish community’s worship of Judaism. However it would take the establishment of the new Portuguese Republic in 1912 for the community’s rights to be reaffirmed.