Gracia Mendes Nasi
Gracia Mendes Nasi (Gracia is Portuguese and Spanish for the Hebrew Hannah, which means Grace. She also known by her Christianized name Beatriz de Luna Miquez, 1510–1569) was one of the wealthiest Jewish women of Renaissance Europe. She married into the eminent international banking and finance company known as the House of Mendes. She was the aunt and business partner of Joseph Miques (alias Joseph Nasi), who became a prominent figure in the politics of the Ottoman Empire. She also developed an escape network that saved hundreds of Conversos from the Inquisition.
Family background and early life
Dona Beatrice de Luna was born in Portugal in 1510. The family was from Aragon in Spain and were forcibly converted Jews known as Conversos (also called Crypto-Jews, Marranos and Secret Jews). So that they could still practice Judaism, the family had fled to Portugal when the Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, expelled the Jews in 1492. Five years later, in 1497, they were forcibly converted to Catholicism along with all the other Jews in Portugal at that time. Beatrice's father, Alvaro de Luna of Aragon, was considered a Nasi or Prince in Hebrew. Beatrice's mother, Phillipa Benveniste, was of a Nasi family and was great granddaughter of Don Abraham Benveniste of Castile.
In 1528, Beatriz de Luna Gracia Nasi married the very rich black pepper trader Francisco Mendes Benveniste, who belonged to the same very prominent Jewish family as her mother – Benveniste from Castile and Aragon – and was also the great grandchild of Don Abraham Benveniste of Castile. Like other Spanish women, she never went by her husband's name (Mendes or Benveniste), although many historians have since called her Gracia Mendes. The couple were believed to have been married in the great cathedral of Lisbon, in a public Catholic wedding, and then to have had a Crypto-Judaic ceremony with the signing of a ketubah,. Francisco Mendes Benveniste and his brother Diogo were the directors of a powerful trading company and bank of world renown, with agents across Europe and around the Mediterranean. The House of Mendes Benveniste probably began as a company trading precious objects and currency arbitrage. Following the beginning of the Age of Discovery and the finding, by the Portuguese, of a sea route to India, the Mendes Benveniste brothers became particularly important spice traders. They also traded in silver – the silver was needed to pay the Asians for those spices.
In 1538 Francisco died, leaving Dona Gracia, his young wife, with an infant daughter, Brianda (the future wife of Don Joseph Nasi). A few years earlier, Francisco's brother, Diogo, had opened a branch office of their banking house in the Habsburg Netherlands city of Antwerp together with his relative Abraham Benveniste. Soon after Francisco's death, Dona Gracia moved to Antwerp with her daughter and sister, also named Brianda, and joined Diogo. Once there, she developed an escape network that helped hundreds of fellow Conversos flee Spain and Portugal, where they had been constantly under threat of arrest as heretics by the Inquisition. These fleeing Conversos were first sent secretly to spice ships, owned or operated by the House of Mendes Benveniste, that sailed regularly between Lisbon and Antwerp. Once in Antwerp, Dona Gracia and her staff gave them instructions and the money to travel by cart and foot over the Alps to the great port city of Venice, where arrangements were made to transport them by ship to the Ottoman Empire Greece and Turkey in the East. At that time the Ottoman Empire, under the Muslim Turks, welcomed Jews to their lands. The escape route was carefully planned. Even so, many died on the way as they traversed the mountain paths of the high Alps.
Five years after Dona Gracia settled in Antwerp, Diogo also died. It was now 1542, and in his will he left his niece and sister-in-law control of the Mendes Benveniste commercial empire, making Dona Gracia an important businesswoman. Her enormous wealth gave her influence with kings and popes, which she used to protect her fellow Conversos and money to finance her escape network. It is believed she was the driving force behind the publication of the Ferrara Bible from Sephardic source texts; the second, public printing of this document was dedicated to her. All the while she had to fend off attempts by various monarchs to confiscate her fortune by trying to arrange a marriage of her only daughter to their relatives. Had this happened, a large portion of the family wealth would have been lost, as it would have come under the control of her daughter's husband. Dona Gracia resisted all these attempts, which often put her in personal peril.
Under Dona Gracia, the House of Mendes dealt with King Henry II of France, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, his sister Mary, Governess of the Low Countries, Popes Paul III and Paul IV, and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. These dealings involved commercial activities, loans, and bribes. Earlier payments to the Pope by the House of Mendes and their associates had delayed the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal (see History of the Jews in Portugal).
In 1544, she fled once again, this time to the Republic of Venice. There she had a dispute with her sister, Brianda, Diogo's wife, regarding his estate, and had to flee yet again to the nearby city state of Ferrara. In 1553, she moved to Istanbul, in the Ottoman domains, where she arranged for her daughter to marry her husband's nephew and business partner, Don Joseph Nasi.
In 1556, soon after Dona Gracia arrived in Istanbul, the Pope sentenced a group of Conversos in Ancona to the stake, claiming they were still practicing Jewish rites. In response, Dona Gracia organized a trade embargo of the port of Ancona in the Papal States. In Istanbul, she built synagogues and yeshivas. One of the synagogues is named after her (La Señora). These institutions were created primarily to help the refugees to return to Judaism, their ancestral faith.
In 1558, she was granted a long-term lease on the Tiberias region in Galilee (part of Ottoman Syria at the time), from Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, in exchange for guaranteeing a substantial increase in the yearly tax revenues. The Ottoman Empire, under the Sultan, had conquered that part of the Holy Land some years earlier, but it was largely a desolate place. As a result, she obtained the ruling authority over the Tiberias area. With the help of the Sultan, she then began to rebuild the area's abandoned towns to make them available to refugees so they could settle there if they wished. Her aim was to make Tiberias into a major new centre of Jewish settlement, trade and learning. A Jewish traveler who visited Tiberias around this time mentions how she had leant support to the Jewish community there, and how that after her death they were compelled to ask for Jewish donations elsewhere. This venture has often been called one of the earliest attempts at a modern Zionist movement. Dona Gracia (Mendes) Nasi died in Istanbul in early 1569.
Her legacy today
Though she disappeared into oblivion almost immediately and remained hardly known for the subsequent 500 years, that is now changing, possibly due to a new sense of relevance among today's women. Indeed, Dona Gracia is fast becoming a cult figure on the world stage. New York City designated a Dona Gracia Day in June 2010, followed by a similar proclamation in Philadelphia a year later. Israel’s political leaders honored her for the first time in October, 2010. A dedicated website  was launched in 2011. She now has a Facebook page: facebook.com/donagraciaworldwide. The Turkish government sponsored a Dona Gracia evening in New York City and has also sponsored an exhibit in Lisbon. There have been lectures, articles and festivals in her honor all over Europe. The growing numbers of women in business and the professions who attend the programs identify with her ambition, courage and even personal loneliness. An Italian white wine has been named after her. The Israeli mint has produced a commemorative medal. She now has a museum in Tiberias devoted to her life and deeds. She is idolized by the descendants of conversos she saved, now living in southern Italy, Central and South America and the United States. In the TV series Muhteşem Yüzyıl, Gracia Mendes Nasi is portrayed by Turkish actress Dolunay Soysert.
- Birnbaum, Marianna D. (2003). The long journey of Gracia Mendes ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). Budapest: Central European University Press. ISBN 9639241679.
- Zechariah Dhahiri, Sefer Ha-Mūsar (ed. Mordechai Yitzhari), Chapter Twenty-four, Benei Baraq 2008 (Hebrew), p. 157.
- Cecil Roth, Doña Gracia of the House of Nasi, Philidelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1948, pp. 120-121
- Andrée Aelion Brooks, The Woman who Defied Kings Paragon House, 2002
- Marianna D. Birnbaum, 2003: The long journey of Gracia Mendes
- "Nasi, Gracia", in The Encyclopaedia Judaica
- Gad Nassi, Rebecca Toueg, Doña Gracia Nasi, Women's International Zionist Organisation, Tel Aviv, 1990
- Cecil Roth, Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1948
- Novel - The Ghost of Hannah Mendes  St. Martin's Griffin (November 16, 2001)
- Dona Gracia Project
- Out of Spain educational materials
- Biography at Jewish Heritage Online Magazine
- House of Dona Gracia museum, Tiberias