Coimbra University

A paper trail of Jewish life remains in Portugal, and is preserved in the libraries of Coimbra University. It is the oldest university in Portugal, dating back to the 13th century. I was warmly greeted by the university staff, including its extremely friendly rector (president), João Gabriel Silva. He welcomed me in their historic greeting room, which was a great honor.

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The university library contains an amazing collection of 15th century Judaica, including the Abravanel family Bible (I was subsequently told that it was probably not owned by the Abravanel family, during my visit to Lisbon University). They also hold documents of the Coimbra Inquisition (the other Portuguese Inquisitions were in Lisbon and in Evora). While all trial records are now kept in Lisbon, Inquisition regulations, and records of the local auto de fe, remain in Coimbra. (As we were rushing before Shabbat, I did not have time to visit the public Square where the terrible ceremonies occurred). I was also shown a collection of Jewish books, published by Jews who had come from Portugal, as indicated in their cover pages. Finally, they showed me important works written by New Christians, including the navigation charts likely used by Vasco da Gama to sail to India.

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In another archive, I was shown university records (like faculty lists and diplomas) relating to important New Christians, including to those that ultimately had to flee Portugal, or were burnt at the stake.

I must admit, that I was overwhelmed by the scale of the effort put into my visit. The university ensured that my visit would be of special significance. The treatment I received was extremely welcoming. The selection of materials shown to me was done with great care, and I imagine with significant investment of time. It was a pleasure to meet with several members of the staff, including those of the libraries and the teaching faculty. Overall, the university seems eager to incorporate Jewish studies into their offerings, as they currently lack the Jewish context essential for many of their Portuguese studies. The rector made the point, that he wishes for Portugal to return to an earlier time, when Jews, Christians and Muslims shared and discussed ideas with each other, in open and respectful exchanges, regardless of religious beliefs.

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I look forward to continuing these academic relations with the university. To succeed in my studies, I will certainly need to learn Portuguese, and the university invited me to do so with them. Perhaps I will!

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4 responses to “Coimbra University

  1. Rabbi Morris, I’m thoroughly enjoying your Portuguese adventure and your articles! Your trip has a special significance for me in that my Portuguese converso ancestor began his odyssey here. He was born in Coimbra in 1558 and left Seville in 1579 on the Santa Catarina with Luis de Carvajal and sailed for New Spain (Mexico) with a boatload of mostly conversos. He was a soldier/officer for Carvajal and then joined the expedition to settle New Mexico in 1598 under the leadership of another converso, Juan de Onate. Thanks for the articles and look forward to attending a lecture on your trip when you return to NY. All the best, Carl Montoya (Mikveh Israel-Philadelphia)

  2. i picked up your page from your comment on an article about the coimbra mikveh discovery. i lived 2.5yrs in Portugal and now live in Brazil. I am South African, having some Litvak and Dutch Jewish ancestry. I am now fluent in Portuguese.

    My interest in my Jewish heritage was piqued when I was living in Portugal and Spain. It was amazing to read back about the history, and to see the Jewish (and Arab) genetics on the faces of modern Portuguese. Make no mistake there is a dark cloud over Portugal spiritually until today – it was as if I could feel the difficult history in the air when I was living there. It is interesting to see that in the midst of their present dark economic times, some have begun to voice their remorse over the treatment of the Jews, and your reception may very well have been part of that.

    But it is a fascinating subject – to read about the lives of the Jews, however tragic – their great contributions and adventures. I remember reading how the wealthy Jews dressed differently, splendidly, compared with the gentiles. I wonder how they dressed, what was so distinctive…

    Now I get to see it from the Brazilian side of the ocean. The book “O Portugues que nos Pariu” written in an easygoing style by a Brazilian historian, describes very well the influence of the marranos and mouriscos on the founding of Brazil. It might be a nice read when your Portuguese gets up and running.

    Also the possibility that Columbus was an anussim. The book “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” captures alot of the feeling of this time. I have heard as well that Bibi’s father wrote a watershed book on the Inquisition. I recently noticed that in Belo Horizonte, in Brazil, that there is a museum of the Inquisition looking at it from a jewish perspective.

    Brazil incorporates so many cultural influences, but it is hard to imagine that some its light does not come from its somewhat clandestine Jewish heritage. Certainly much darkness has come, not least thru the Catholic/Babylonian religion and political structure and Arabian heritages of Southern Europe.

    But there is new light as evangelical churches send hundreds of thousands to Israel each year (with many repeating their journey) and new knowledge is gradually disseminated.

  3. Pingback: The Portuguese Inquisition – Coimbra, Portugal | Shalom Says Hello·

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