Medieval Portugal IV : Tomar

K. Lau

Tomar stretches along the banks of the Nabao, at the foot of a hill dominated by a fortified castle built in 1160 by Gualdim Pais, first Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templars of Portugal. Though the border between Christian and Moorish territories passed through Tomar, the city had taken more of a Christian characteristic.

A note on the Knights and Tomar

The Order of the Knights Templar was founded in Jerusalem in 1119, a military force with powerful religious overtones. Tomar was created on land donated by Afonso Henriques in return for the Knights’ help in the Reconquest of Portugal from the Moors. Tomar subsequently became the Knights’ base. The order was deemed too powerful and in 1314 was suppressed by Pope Clement V.  But because of the lack of a regular army and a conscription system, the order provided the main source of military power for the Portuguese crown, to suppress the Moors and to fend off the neighbours from Castile.

In 1320 King Dinis reconstituted a new order, the Knights of Christ, which took over the Knights Templars. At the beginning of the 15th century Henry the Navigator became the Grand Master, and he tapped the order’s vast fortune to fund his expeditions.

Places to check out in Tomar:


The Synagogue of Tomar

Tugged into one of the side streets near the center of Tomar is the oldest surviving Synagogue in Portugal, still well maintained by one of two remaining Jewish families in the city. Built around 1430, and abandoned after the expulsion of the Jews in 1497, it has been used a chapel, prison, hayloft and cellar, and is now a museum containing 13-14th century tombstones as well as sacred items donated by Jewish communities across the world.

This is the only Jewish place of worship, though in the past sense, that we have come across in Portugal. We are not aware of any Jewish establishments, if any, that still exist today in the country. It reflects on us how thorough the expulsion of the Jews and their religion had been executed over five centuries ago. It also suggests how much of the knowledge, expertise, and culture had been lost for good, just as Portugal ascended to the world stage at its prime at the end of the 15th century, with the great discoveries. Whether this has much to do with the continuous decline of the empire ever since is harder to ascertain.

The existence of the Synagogue as it is is a rather unusual result of circumstances. The Jewish link in Tomar would have started with the Order of the Knights Templar, though later transformed into the Order of the Knights of Christ. The power and wealth of the Order might have explained the survival at least of the building up to this day. As our Jewish host reflected with a light sense of humour, the synagogue offered the Jews protection even when it was used as a prison. When the state locked up the Jews in the Synagogue during the expulsion, at least they were safe inside.


The Convento de Cristo

The Convento de Cristo sits on the slopes overlooking the city of Tomar. The Castle was founded in 1160 by Gauldim Pais, as headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar. The site absorbed part of a Muslim settlement dating back to the 9-12th centuries.

The fortified structure shows Middle East influences new to Portugal at the time, such as the Keep and the Alambor, a reinforced incline built at the base of the wall to keep siege engines at bay and cause projectiles to bounce. When the Order of Knights Templar was disbanded in 1319, the castle was transferred to the Portuguese Order of Christ, and became its headquarters in 1357.
The impressive aqueduct that runs for over four miles and spans over the Valley of Pegoes was only an 16th century addition, started by Italian architect Filippo Terzi and finally reached the convent closure in 1614.

The most colourful part of the castle is the Charola dos Templarios (The Templar’s Rotunda), the original 12th century construction of an early Templar Romanesque fortified Oratory modeled on the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.  It now forms the end of a Manueline church, built under the reign of Manuel I.

Also a major attraction of art cum architecture is the famous western window built by the architect Diogo de Arruda and sculpted between 1510 and 1513. It is regarded as the most representative of Manueline art in Portugal.

The Calefactory in the main dormitory is worth mentioning. This is a room with chimney and side bench from where hot air was channeled into the Friar’s cells, through air ducts dug through the external walls. It is probably one of the first examples of central heating in a building.