The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes

The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes

The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes

The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes


The historical biography of a true Jewish heroine in her day, Gracia Mendes. Born in 1510 in Portugal, the book details this woman's extraordinary personality until her death in 1569 in Constantinople (today's Istanbul). Her life exemplified a perseverance by the Jewish culture to survive and triumph even in the worst of conditions. As a young girl, Gracia secretly married successful Jewish spice trader, Francisco Mendes. But at age 27 she became a widow, yet she went on to raise her children and run the family business all on her own. Her travels led her through Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara, Ragusa, and finally to Constantinople, from where the Ottoman Empire dominated former Byzantium territories and offered shelter for battered Conversos (converted Jews). The text recounting the last fifteen years of Gracia's life at the center of the Empire is particularly revealing. Birnbaum's biography has the unique distinction of being the first among many studies to pay tribute to a woman during this period. It is also one of the first titles to pay equal attention to the lives of the Conversos in Christian West Europe and in the Muslim East.


This book is about Señora Gracia Mendes (Luna), the wealthy sixteenth-century widow of Portuguese origin who, for many decades, while a practicing Christian, remained a secret Jew. Her career and that of her family spanned the map of Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to Italy (where she later openly embraced Judaism) to Turkey and to Ottoman-ruled Palestine.

Part of Gracia’s family arrived in the mid-1490s in Portugal, where she was born in 1510 and where, at the age of eighteen, she married another secret Jew, Francisco Mendes, a wealthy businessman. The two families were most probably related. The couple had a daughter whom they named Reyna. Following her husband’s death in 1536, Gracia moved her daughter and other members of her family out of Portugal, and after a long and perilous journey, reached safety in Turkey.*

Whereas much is known about Gracia’s life, her family’s genealogy is less well documented. Although it is generally accepted that her parents arrived in Portugal from Aragon, neither their places of birth, nor their residence in Spain can be assigned to a definite locality.

In all probability the name “Luna” represents the mother’s side of Gracia’s family. It can be found as a last name in Illueca where in the fifteenth century Christians, Jews, and Moors lived together. Located on the northern slopes of the “Sierra de la Virgen,” on the River Aranda in the vicinity of Gotor, Illueca lies 48 kilometers from Zaragoza and 45 kilometers from Calatayud. In the fifteenth century, the village belonged to the Baronate of the de Lunas who also owned the village Arandig and several other smaller settlements. Probably it was Juan Martinez de Luna IV under whom the Luna ancestors of Gracia lived.

* Since contemporary European sources referred to the Ottoman Empire as “Turquie,” I am using both names.

1 For more on Illueca, see Encarnacion Marin Padilla, “La villa de Illueca, del señorio de los Martinez de Luna, el en siglo XV: sus judios,” Sefarad 56 (1996): 1:87–126, 2:233–75. Padilla’s study was based on notary deeds kept in the archives of notarial protocols of Zaragoza, Calatayud, and La Almunia de Doña Godina. In his marriage with Deanira de Lanuza, Don Pedro Martinez de Luna had two sons: Don Juan and Don Jaime. After the death of Juan, his son became the owner of the region.

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