Architect: Elias Bouwman (1838-1686)
Commissioned by: Portuguese Israelite Community
Year of Construction: 1671-1675
Spanish and Portuguese Jews came to the trading city of Amsterdam as from 1585. They had fled for the inquisition. Contrary to large parts of Europe, the Jews were not hindered in their religious traditions in this country. The first synagogues were erected along the Houtgracht (canal), the present-day Waterlooplein (square).
The Portuguese Synagogue with statue of dock worker, 1999
Model of the temple
A number of well-off members of the Portuguese Jewish community rendered it possible in 1671 to build a new synagogue of an unprecedented size. The design of urban architect Elias Bouwman (1838-1686) was based on a model of the biblical temple in Jerusalem, with the Holiest of the Holy in the middle of an enclosed forecourt. It was not completed until 1675 due to wars and a major storm.
The synogogue as seen from the front courtyard. Drawing: H.P. Schouten, 1765
The Hebrew text ‘I enter your home in your great goodness’ can be found above the entrance to the synagogue. The year 5432 (1672) and the name of the initiator, rabbi Aboab, have been incorporated as well. The interior is for the most part still in its original state. The hegal, or Holy Ark, in which centuries old Torah rolls are stored, takes centre stage. The tebah, from which the Torah is read during services, stands in the middle of the synagogue. The women’s gallery above this is supported by 12 pillars, symbolising the 12 tribes of the Israeli people.
The building was lit with candles and had no heating system. Photo: Roeland Koning
The synagogue is still in use. Services are held in the small synagogue in the forecourt in the winter. The furniture that is present here comes from an earlier synagogue that was inaugurated along the Houtgracht (canal) in 1639. The low-rise building also accommodates ‘Ets Haim’ (Tree of Life), the oldest still functioning Jewish library in the world.