Early in July this year, I returned to a part of Portugal from where my mother’s family originated – a rugged landscape in the north east that was once a battle ground between Islam and Christianity as well as between rival crusader armies.
The region is called Tras-os-Montes – behind the mountains – and I’ve always joked to cousins there that it’s a land of “Templars and Jews”. What I mean by that is that is the presence of the Knights Templar can be seen everywhere as can the cultural footprint left behind by Jews fleeing the Inquisition in neighbouring Spain.
In the town of Mogadouro, you can still see an impressive Templar fortress built in the first decades after the foundation of the order. What you have to remember is that a crusade was being fought on the Iberian peninsula at this time as half the land mass was under the control of a Muslim caliphate.
Mogadouro was also in the front line against neighbouring Spanish Christian kingdoms like Leon and Castile. They didn’t much welcome the emergence of a new kingdom called Portugal and its impetuous ruler Dom Afonso Henriques. He was connected by ties of blood to the Templar’s founders in Burgundy, France. It’s often speculated whether the creation of Portugal was indeed a Templar project to hit the Islamic world in its western flank.
The fort still looks impressive, as I hope my photos suggest. And it was lit up for a local festival to Saint Anne – the mother of Mary. Nearby is an ancient stone pillory with four strange protrusions at the top. I once asked a local farmer what they were for and he remarked blandly: “Oh, we used to hang the Jews from there”.
It is true that the Inquisition eventually caught up with the Jewish population after the Templars themselves had been crushed. They then faced forced conversion or the flames of execution. But there is still a dialect in that region, Mirandense, which some claim contains Hebrew references.
Here are some photos from my recent visit to the Templar fortress at Mogadouro. You can get there by taking the Douro train from Porto to Pocinho and then a coach from there.