Jerusalem Post: 2008: The lost Jews of Goa

“On the ruins of an ancient church in the Old city of Goa, 400 miles south of Mumbai on the west cost of India, a carving of a double-headed eagle looks oddly out of place. Among its many intriguing details, the eagle is carrying what appears to be a Torah scroll”.


The full page of Jerusalem Post, Christian edition.

The Jerusalem Post, Christian Edition, July 2008.
By Mr. Ivar Fjeld.

The ruins are located on Rua dos Judeus, or The street of the jews.  In this city that before the inquisition was called “The Rome of the East”. Jewish scholars have not been able to agree what happened to a “notable settlement of Jews in Goa”, as one traveller once described it. In 1956, Walter Fisher, a recognized expert on the Jewish community in India, concluded that the history of Jews in Goa “remains still to be investigated. References to some individual Jews, it is true, indicate a connection between Goa and Jewish life even before the Portuguese conquest”.

Portuguese adventures first colonized the costal province of Goa in 1498, brining along their Catholic faith and in time its dreaded Inquisition. Indian and foreign scholars maintain that the Portuguese converted many Indians and Jews by force, and burned ancient Jewish settlement along the Malabar coast. Old Goa was at first speared, as the newcomers likely turned it into the hub of their expending Asian possessions.
Old Goa prospered as a key trading pot in the fiesta half of the 16th century, with the population brewing to rival the size of London of that day. Local Jewish merchants undoubtedly took part in the building this marvelous city. But in 1560 the Portuguese established an inquisition tribunal. Among the victims of this dark period were the Jews of Goa, who had built a synagogue in the Old city. The town was eventually destroyed, and by 1775 after more than 200 years of Inquisition, Old Goa had been reduced to a couple of thousand soils living in a pile of rubble.

The double-headed eagle and other markings of the church in Old Goa suggest they predate the Portuguese arrival and might be of Hittite origin. At many locations in Goa, the Catholic Church destroyed temples and built Churches on the same sites. In her book Faces of Goa, Karin Larsen writes that when the Portuguese captured Goa in 1510, “the majority of Turkish and Egyptian residents left Goa to escape the clutches of Albuquerque”.

The Jews who lived in Goa prior to this are believed to have roots back to the Sejuk Empire (1037-1309 CE), in todays Turkey, where such double headed eagles can be found in places like Lagash. They had likely come along as a part of the Muslim expansion eastward. When the Portuguese showed up, they deposed the Ottoman figure Adil Shah, the Sultan of Bijapur, who was the ruler of Goa.

The writer is the Goa representative for the Norway-India Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

About ivarfjeld

Born in Bergen, Norway in 1965
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