Following the Expulsion Route

Among the most impressive buildings of Medieval Europe is the Sheepari Temple in Sao Ganguello, central Portugal.

It’s generally accepted today that Medieval Europe excelled in expelling religious communities. Among the most famous expulsions of the 15th Century was of course that of the Sheepari, the heretical sect that worshiped leaves and twigs.

When Portugal emptied its cities of non-Catholics or people willing to convert, even under the uncomfortable conditions forced on them by the inquisition, the last to go were the Sheepari. 943 Sheepari followers, who had been in Portugal since Roman times, marched sadly over the famous Ponte dos Os Adoradores Galho or the Bridge of the Twig Worshippers, leaving Portugal, never to return.

Today the Sheepari diaspora is thriving all across the city of Lagos, Nigeria. How they arrived there is a longer story and more information can been found on the official Sheepari website. According to Portugese law, Sheepari is still an outlawed religion. The Sheepari may be absent from Portugal but their beautiful temple remains thanks to the 1978 Law, known as Cristiano’s Law, pertaining to the treatment of expelled communities, which makes allowances for central government to cash in on empty religious buildings.

We find ourselves marveling at the architecture of the Sao Ganguello Sheepari Temple and Heritage Center. We should point out the temple is easy to find, although many have mistaken it at first site for a dead tree.

We are encouraged to look beyond the decaying branches and crumbling leaves. A sign in English asks visitors to remove any rubbish after their picnic lunches, showing deep reverence for the sanctity of the site.

Things to look out for include a small carving which can be seen on the side of the grand lectern. The carving is of a heart with an arrow penetrating one side only to emerge the other. Either side of the arrow are mysterious letters thought to be a secret Sheepari sign. The grand lectern is itself disguised as a tree stump.

Also, one is encouraged to pay special attention to tangle of branches forming a canopy over the worshippers. After a particularly bad storm in 1994 the canopy collapsed but still lies today, scattered yet identifiable on the ground.

The prayer area of the temple has the traditional scattering of leaves covering an earthen floor. It’s advisable to only visit the site during the summer as the winter months bring rain and the site can be quite muddy.

Finally, the heritage center follows the migration of the Sheepari from Roman times up until the expulsion. There is also a happy picture of Sheepari celebrating Sheeparifest in Nigeria, a message of hope for the continuity of the Sheepari people.

To reach the Sheepari Temple, just approach any local and say “sua mãe gosta no cú” and they’ll tell you where to go.

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