About  Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi

Dona Gracia – born in Lisbon in 1510 as Beatrice de Luna, a Christian, died in Istanbul in 1569, as a Jew. She was one of the most prominent, rich and influential women of her time. A young rich widow of Don Francisco Mendes – who held the Portuguese Crown’s worldwide monopoly of the Indian spices – she was nominated in his will as the administrator of the family’s business. Soon she became known in the public sphere as a shrewd business woman, running a global trade Empire, lending money to Kings, Sultans and Popes. Most of the time, Dona Gracia led a double life – living publicly as a Christian, while holding on to an inner secretive Jewish self identity – obscure as it might have been – until she arrived in Istanbul, where she could profess her Jewish identity without the fear of the Inquisition.

While still on Christian soil, Dona Gracia handled a net of spies, not only for the sake of commercial interests, but to maintain the influx of information which was used to help rescue thousands of Portuguese ‘New Christians’, such as herself, who were fleeing Portugal in fear of the Inquisition which was established there in 1538.
In 1553, just a short while before leaving Christian Europe for the Muslim Ottoman Empire, Dona Gracia financed the first translation of the Bible into the Castilian language (Ladino). This was crucial for maintaining the Jewish identity of the Portuguese ‘New Christians’ who were losing the ability to read the Bible in the ancient Hebrew language, after almost four decades of having no public Jewish life, whilst being estranged of the Catholic Latin Old Testament.

A few years later, when Dona Gracia learnt about the capturing of almost one hundred Portuguese ‘New Christians’, such as herself, by the inquisition in Italy – she tried to press the Pope through her influence on the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire , to release them with no harm. Realizing her failure to do so, she emerged as a strong headed and courageous leader of the Jewish and ‘New Christian’ communities in the Ottoman Empire, alike, arranging a revenge commercial boycott on the harbor city of Anacona, in which the ”New Christians’ were burnt on the stake.
Perhaps as a personal conclusion of these events, Dona Gracia leased from the Sultan later on a large piece of land next to The Sea of Galilee – Tiberias, and its surrounding villages. Although the raison d’être of the lease was tax collection on behalf of the Sultan – pamphlets were distributed among Jewish and ‘New Christian’ communities in Italy, calling them to embark the Mendes vessels, which will take them to the Holy Land, and settle in Tiberias. It turns out that Dona Gracia was planning to plant trees in order to establish a silk weaving small industry in order to provide the means for self maintaining of the new community in this no man’s land.

In the year 1565 a Portuguese traveler reported in his diary that a palace was being built for ‘La Señora’ on the banks of The Sea of Galilee. Rumors had it, that she was about to arrive there the coming year. But has she ever set her foot there…? This is a mystery yet to be solved. The only thing known for sure, is that by 1569 she was already dead. Her grave was never found.