The Portuguese Synagogue is a stunning testament to the Jewish culture of Amsterdam. Completed in 1675, this place of worship was constructed after Jews from Spain and Portugal fled from religious persecution in the 1500 and 1600s. During this time the Netherlands and Spain were in conflict, so the Jewish community decided to name the synagogue after the neutral territory of Portugal.
The Portuguese Synagogue is located on the Mr. Visserplein intersection between the Weesperstraat and the IJ-tunnel, which used to be the heart of the Jewish Quarter. This massive structure serviced three Sephardic communities of Amsterdam;:Beth Jacob, Neve Shalom and Beth Israel. At the time it was built, the Portuguese Synagogue, also called the Esnoga, was the largest synagogue in the world. Architect Elias Bouwman designed the structure and was said to have been inspired by the Temple of Solomon.
Outside, three tiers of bay windows line the walls centered on an unassuming white entranceway. As you approach, your path it lit by two simple lamp posts on either side of the door. Carved over the doorway is a Hebrew inscription from Psalm 5:8, which translates to, “In the abundance of thy loving kindness will I come into thy house.” The inscription also includes a date, 1672, which is when the construction of the building was supposed to be completed.
Inside, large brass chandeliers holding over 1,000 candles hang from the ceiling and light up the room along with thick brass candle holders that sprout from the dark wooden banisters and benches. Several rows of benches are split into two sides so that genders may sit separately. Each half of the benches faces a central arc. There is also a long balcony around the perimeter that faces the arc as well. In total, there is seating for 900 people. Though the interior may be simple, it wows guests when all of the candles are lit, as the candlelight illuminates the dark wood up to the incredibly tall ceilings.
During a visit in January 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed the Portuguese Synagogue was “one the most beautiful synagogues I have ever seen.” Minor restorations have been made, such as strengthening the foundation, but other than that the décor and structure still resembles its original design. It was also a miracle that the synagogue was not destroyed during Nazi occupation of Holland, as many of the others in the area were demolished.
Since the main synagogue is too large to heat, a winter synagogue was added equipped with a heating system for the cold winter months. It would be extremely difficult to heat the entire Portuguese Synagogue due to its massive size, especially as it was built during a time when heating systems and electricity were not an option. The winter synagogue also includes an updated mikveh.
The most recent renovation in March 2012 restored the massive Ets Haim-Livraria Montezinos library inside of the synagogue. The extensive name is in regards to David Montesinos, a former librarian who donated his personal literary collection to the library in 1889. For the first time, the general public has access to 30,000 printed works and 560 ancient manuscripts that only Jewish scholars had access to, with the addition of a new staircase from the courtyard.
Though the synagogue survived World War II, the written collection was confiscated by Nazis and taken to Germany, but returned unharmed after the war. In the 1970s, the library loaned the collection to the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem due to lack of funds to keep it in good condition. The collection was returned to the Ets Haim library in the Portuguese Synagogue in 2000 after they installed a modern climate control feature in order to properly preserve the collection.
This project won a 2012 Europa Nostra prize for conservation awarded by the European Union. The EU states that the prize is “awarded each year to outstanding projects in the field of cultural heritage.” The committee praised the renovation, saying, “The Portuguese Synagogue is now much better suited to public viewing, while maintaining its original character. The jury is very much impressed by the modest restoration of the large hall, avoiding adapting it to the twentieth century amenities but rather keeping it as it has been throughout the centuries: candle lit and without heating.”
The narrow cellars in the hallways have been widened allowing more people to enter. Now tourists can walk down the hallways and view a museum of over 800 ritual objects. Glass walls separate viewers from textiles, silver and gold pieces, ancient prints and rare manuscripts. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was there on re-opening day.
The Portuguese Synagogue is a must see when traveling through Amsterdam. A structure that has lasted the test of time and multiple wars is worth discovering and celebrating. Stand in awe of the great brass chandeliers, peruse the ancient manuscripts and find out what Jewish life was like hundreds of years ago in the great city of Amsterdam.