About walls

Different from old China (and different from the contemporary United States), the Portuguese in their heyday never built a wall to protect their country against savage invaders or to keep other, more peaceful foreigners out. Their only border (not counting the Atlantic Ocean) being the one with Spain, and this border no more than 734 miles long, a wall would have been feasible even if the terrain in some places is rough. What they did build was especially meant to keep greedy invaders from neighboring Spain at a distance: castles and fortresses, a chain of sturdy strongholds numbering 103 (if I am counting correctly) with 83 watchtowers in between.

When traveling along the border it is not easy to disregard these structures; many can be seen from afar in their fabulous positions high on hilltops and mesas or dominating river crossings, and their architecture, influenced by different cultures and architectural periods, is often inviting a closer look. I myself decided shortly after arriving in Portugal that I had to set limits: I would restrict myself to “do” one castle a month, to prevent OD. Yet I don’t find it easy to stay off the “castle drug” – too many of these structures are too inviting. The problem is, there are even more than these 103 defensive castles and fortresses in Portugal. I cannot drive into a central province town without hitting one just as intriguing as most ones on the border. I count another 91 inland castles and fortresses. Mind you, Portugal, only 35,000 square miles, measures less than one-third of the state of New Mexico. Being much smaller than half the size of Kansas, I bet it has more castles than Kansas has large grain silos.

734 miles, the total length of the borderline between Portugal and Spain, is about 4/10 of the border between the US and Mexico (1954 miles). The land differs from La Frontera insofar there is no real deep and impenetrable desert to keep the two countries apart. A few areas are high plains and a few are mountainous; with most of the borderline formed by rivers and ranges, only short stretches had to be artificially drawn by someone’s pencil. The oldest border of the European continent, and the longest uninterrupted border within the European Union, it had its lines first drawn in 1143 and confirmed in 1267. The borderline is called “La Raya” in Spain and “A Raia” in Portugal. Both mean to say: The Strip. There are territorial disputes about this strip that go back throughout time, for the Spanish and the Portuguese have never really, decisively, agreed about the border, and even in the past century it formed the subject of many a public dispute and of recurring diplomatic talks.

One area, the one surrounding Olivenza some fifteen miles south of Elvas (Portugal) and Badajoz (Spain), has dominated the dispute since the early 1300s. The borderline there, a stretch of eleven miles between the Rio Caia and the Ribera de Cuncos and including a total of 290 square miles, is one of the two areas the two nations never reached a final agreement on. The ownership went back and forth, from Spain to Portugal and vice versa. Today, it is administered de facto by Spain as part of the autonomous community of Extremadura, but Portugal still holds a claim on the town and its surrounding territory. Over time, many treaties mentioned previous treaties and shared common clauses; they are frequently referred to as just the Treaty of Badajoz. Under one of the terms of this treaty, Spain gives back all previously occupied towns except those on the left bank of the Rio Guadiana (the territory of Olivenza), which are, including their residents, ceded by Portugal to Spain, but on a “perpetual” basis only.

The main treaty, one of these ten-score of similar “agreements” between the two nations, also stipulates that the breach of any of its articles leads to its cancellation. And cancelled it was. Many times. Armed forces of one country occupied the territory and within years they would have to make place for the legions of the other one. School books had to be changed more than once; the whole population (never more than 10,000) at one time abolished the Portuguese language and at a different time kicked all Spanish language books into the fire. At one time, Olivenza’s school children were not allowed to vacation on a beach in Portugal — they were Spanish, weren’t they? In short, this border area is a mess that will never be solved. In 2018, there are still traces of Portuguese culture and language in the people, although the younger generation now mostly speaks Spanish. But no one is really missing a good night’s sleep over the unsolved border issue.

There is one rather similar dispute keeping the Spanish and the Portuguese apart (other than soccer). This one is about the ownership of the Ilhas Selvagens, the tiny Savage Islands halfway between Portuguese island of Madeira and the Spanish Canary Islands in the North Atlantic. They are occupied by two families and a few naval officers minding the weather station. On one day a Spanish naval vessel may drop its anchor in the bay and diplomatic action will be requested in the Portuguese parliament. And vice versa: too much show of ownership by the Portuguese may “force” the Spanish government to deliver “serious warnings.” Again, no one of the public really cares, although rumors of pirate treasures buried on the islands or still under water close to their cliffs are always good to bring a new dispute about ownership to a boiling point. As nature reserves, which they truly are, the islands are safe: they have been given the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, I don’t expect the two Iberian nations will exchange naval gunfire over them soon.

Notwithstanding the many territorial disputes, and their in-bred distrust of their bullfighting neighbors, the Portuguese never came to erect a wall. They already refrained from doing so after they had finally got rid of the Moorish occupation, which in parts of the country lasted some 700 years. They didn’t build a wall during the times of serious hostilities with Spain, which eventually led to a Spanish occupation that lasted from 1580 to 1640; and they were neither tempted to do so in the period after they had managed to kick the Spanish troops out, nor after routing French occupying forces under Napoleon in the beginning of the 19th century. The Portuguese also kept their borders open to refugees (whether Jewish, Protestant or non-believers) during the long years of the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, if one of their kings, the not so lovable Dom João III, had not lusted after the rich possessions of the Jewish population and the Cristãos Novas refugees, Portugal would have remained a safe haven. The king made a dirty deal with a Church of Rome that itself wasn’t all too eager to extend the Inquisition to Portugal – he paid the Church big money just for its permission to use religion as a motif to go after the wealth of the “heretics,” and he spurred on the masses to make life hell for the Jews, Protestants and atheists. Many intellectuals and wealthy families escaped from being burned on the stake by trekking to the welcoming Netherlands or Brazil; eventually, quite a few ended up in the United States. They had to leave all their possessions behind.

In 2015, the Portuguese parliament and its government came to a remarkable decision, the conclusion of an initiative taken already in 1989 by the country’s then president, Mário Soares: they said “sorry” for what the Portuguese had done to the Jews, even if that happened 500 years earlier – sorry for the evictions, the theft of properties, the imprisonments, the tortures, the burnings on the stake, the lynching. They granted the descendants of the victims of the Inquisition who had landed in the US (mainly in what then still was New Amsterdam, and also in Newport, Rhode Island) and the offspring of later generations the Portuguese citizenship as a form of Wiedergutmachung. Imagine, Trump was not yet on the horizon – and suddenly these Americans were offered a Portuguese passport (dual with their US one) which included permanent access to, and work permits for all EU countries. They were offered the safe haven their ancestors had been denied…

One of these Americans with a family history of escape from the Portuguese Inquisition is Judith Berck from Seattle. She expressed her joy with the Portuguese invitation roughly as follows: “I had never thought that the country where I was born and raised, the United States of America, would stray off from its original path and move toward intolerance and darkness now their government under Trump closes the door to immigrants because of their nationality, and takes children away from their parents.” Her old ones were Sephardic Jews who she found trace of in the City of Amsterdam’s archives; they attended the Portuguese Esnoqa (synagogue) in the Dutch capitalbefore they found their way to Rhode Island. Berck was able to trace eleven generations, including scientists and traders and even the daughter of the astronomer who had charted for Vasco da Gama’s far-reaching explorations.

In 1790, George Washington paid a visit to Newport. His program included speeches for the Jewish community and he said: “… luckily it is so that the Government of the United States does not accept xenophobia, and gives no support to repression of which ever group of people as long as they know how to behave as citizens … rest assured, everyone can sit under his own tree without fear of anything.” The times, they are a-changin’, was Berck’s conclusion too: “Who would have thought that America would step away from the fundamental principles of tolerance as proclaimed by George Washington. Who would have thought mosques would burn in Texas. Who would have thought …” Etcetera. And yes, who would have thought of erecting a wall between the US and Mexico, or putting up trade barriers between the US and the rest of the world.

Recently, I visited a museum north of Lisbon devoted to a Portuguese philosopher, Damião de Góis. He traveled all over Europe and was a friend of Erasmus and Luther and also of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order. A major intellectual and humanist, he was critical of the Inquisition, of course. He was a tough cookie, outspoken in all matters: he filed a complaint with the Church of Rome because one of Loyola’s disciples had “searched to touch him indecently” – yeah, he loudly complained… and it was in the year of 1550. His actions and thoughts were not much appreciated by the Church and segments of the Portuguese ruling class. He barely escaped from being burned on the stake, was saved by influential friends, but died too young anyway. His body was found lying in his home with his face in the fireplace and burnt beyond recognition. Had he tripped? There was doubt even in those days. Centuries later, after opening his grave in the Santa Maria da Várzea church in Alenquer, forensic experts discovered a deep and nasty wound to his neck. The fanatics of the Inquisition had succeeded in killing him after all.

The church, built in 1203, became a museum not only honoring Damião de Góis, but all other Portuguese victims of the Inquisition. The building was beautifully restored in 2016. The design of the displays is in spectacular but respectful contrast with the old structure. A place to visit and revisit.   

PS: Talking about “sitting under the tree without fear”… The Portuguese government has declared that from now on children from other countries coming to Portugal for whatever reason will after two years automatically receive the status of Portuguese national, unless they decide they don’t want this. For grown-ups there is a five-year waiting period.