WORDS Luka Alexander

From small cobbled towns visited by few tourists to the wide streets of Portugal’s most famous cities, thousands of historic buildings are left abandoned. Their decay is evident as Mother Nature’s hand slowly reclaims her land – until someone snaps them up for development! 

Each property is distinguished by its own ornately carved wooden door, which would have once opened up to a palatial setting; such dwellings have one thing in common – the hand of Fatima. 

I can’t count the number of old buildings that I have seen over the years that have the hand of Fatima as the house door knocker. These unique brass door knockers come in both hand sides, sometimes as the left hand, the right hand or as a pair. But what do they symbolise?

Having seen this quirky door knocker across Portugal, even in towns way up north, I began to delve into their history. It is no surprise that this old tradition is of Moorish origin, dating back to the Moorish occupation of Portugal in the 8th century. Named “Fatima’s hand,” the door knockers represent the hand of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohamed. Fatimah bint Muhammad is held in similar esteem to Mary in the Christian faith, the ultimate archetype for Muslim women. She symbolises compassion, generosity and enduring suffering.

In times gone by, the hand of Fatima, also known as the “Hamsa” (meaning five in Arabic) referred to the fingers. It was supposed to offer protection against the evil eye and was especially used as a protective talisman by the vulnerable, such as pregnant women and newborn children. 

In addition to indicating that the inhabitants were of the Muslim faith, it is suggested that two types of hand door knockers existed, a male hand and a female hand, both of which would be present on the front door, each with its own distinct sound. Legend has it that the visitor would knock the appropriate knocker according to their gender.

Often seen on older front doors in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, this Moorish tradition is also present in Europe, notably in Spain, France and here in Portugal. Though most of the old door knockers we see today are from the early part of the 20th century and are probably decorative rather than practical, there is no doubt that these unique door knockers were much more common in past centuries. 

Today, the old buildings that line our streets have kept this tradition as modern replicas are few and far between. One historic building I recently noticed with the hand of Fatima was the former residence of the Viscount of Rocha, Frederico da Paz Mendes. Located in Portimão, the house overlooks the Arade river. 

In contrast to the hand of Fatima, it’s also common to see fish-shaped door knockers representing a Dourada on doors of old mansions dotted along the coast. So, it is no surprise, given its seafaring heritage, to see many fish-shaped door knockers in and around Portimão. Legend has it that these were used on the doors of shipping merchants and possibly originated in Scotland. 

Fatima is also the Arabic given name to the Parish of Fátima in the Santarém district where the well-known Marian apparition of 1917 took place. Legend has it that during a surprise attack on the Feast of St John in 1158, a Christian knight by the name of Gonçalo Hermigues kidnapped a Moorish princess believed to have been Fatimah bint Muhammad. The pair eventually fell in love and Fatimah converted to Christianity, where she took the name Oureana. 

After their marriage, the princess was given a town that she called Ourém, which derived from her own name. Though likely not historically accurate, the cities of Fátima and Ourém are yet another nod to Portugal’s Moorish history, even if the story has been fabricated over the centuries.

Having admired these unique door knockers for so many years, I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a replica pair of Fatima’s Hands for sale in a small hardware store on a visit to Loulé. Now waiting to be fixed on my front door, I can only sit back and wonder if this ancient tradition will make a comeback – even if only as a decorative piece.