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The History of Portugal

From the first inhabitants to the Celtic tribes, the Roman and Moorish invasions, the Age of Discovery, and today

Portuguese explorers

Portugal is Europe's oldest nation-state. This is its story.

The First Inhabitants

Homo Sapiens appeared in what is now Portugal during the Old Stone Age. It is believed they got there from what is now Southern France prior to 10,000 B.C., by entering through the low passageway between the shore and the west end of the Pyrenees. They settled in the north, and later in 2000 B.C. , another group (who came to be known as "Iberians") settled in the south. The origin of these Iberians is unknown, but it is likely to be North Africa.

Where to see Prehistoric Portugal: A memorable prehistoric site is outside the city of Evora. That's the Almendres Cromlech, a circle of some 95 monoliths which is the finest in Iberia. Also near Evora is the Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro, the largest in Europe, with six stones, each 6 meters high, forming a huge chamber. Nearby is also a 7 tonne phallic monument, standing as the centerpiece in the Xerez Cromlech, a group of some 50 menhirs.
The world's largest outdoor gallery of prehistoric stone art is found close to Lamego in Côa Valley.

Celtic Portugal

The Celts arrived thousands of years later, and brought a small group of Germans with them. They settled mostly in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, especially in what is now the north of Portugal and the Spanish province of Galicia. Celtic languages spread from Southern France throughout most of the north of Iberia, and extended southward to include central Portugal. These Celts were both agriculturists and pastoralists, and introduced the type of Central European wagon that is still used in Galicia and northern Portugal. In the northern forests of Iberia they found everything necessary for their animals, and evidence of the importance of herding to them is found in the large number of granite sculptures of certain animals, especially pigs, present in the area. These pigs are said to have been associated with fertility, authority and power. The veneration of animals was not unique to the Iberian Celts, since Irish Celts also kept sacred cattle, and "royal" oxen, swine and sheep. They lived in villages of round stone houses which can still be seen in northern Portugal, and eventually they established contact with their kinfolk in Brittany and the British Isles for tin trade.
These Celts, which came to be known as "Lusitanians," had a similar culture to the groups already in Iberia, which allowed them to settle in amity and cooperation. In certain areas, these Celts mixed with the other population, and created groups that were named "Celtiberians." At about the same time, the Phoenicians founded little fishing and salting settlements throughout the south of Portugal, and were followed by the Greeks and Carthaginians.

Where to see Celtic Portugal: The best examples of the Celtic settlements (called "Castros") are found in the northern Minho province, notably Citania de Briteiros close to the city of Guimarães. Here are well-preserved ruins and several buildings (stone dwelling huts that were built in circular or elliptical shapes) that have been restored. One of the most arresting artifacts recovered from Briteiros is a slab of carved stone thought to have been the front of a funerary monument, and can be seen, together with other sculptural remains, in Guimarães' Martins Sarmento Museum. Closeby is the region of Terras de Basto, where there are statues believed to represent Celtic warriors. Another site is Sanfins de Ferreira, close to the city of Porto, where there are traces of a triple ring of defensive walls around 100 huts and a small museum. In the town of Viana do Castelo are also traces of a Celtiberian settlement by the Hill of Santa Luzia, with remains of walls and circular stone huts. Town names ending in "briga" (like Conimbriga or Mirobriga) also date back to these times, as well as more than 200 granite pigs or boars (some up to 6ft/2 meters in length), found throughout the Tras-os-Montes province.

Roman Portugal

The Romans overran Gaul (today's France) in seven years, but it took them almost two centuries to completely take over Iberia. The leader of the Lusitanians, Viriathus, led his people in a triumphant campaign against the Romans, which led to his death at the hands of hired assassins. After Viriathus' death, the Romans were able to take over, and the Lusitanians withdrew to hilltop villages of the rural northwest and maintained resistance for several generations, with occasional raids on the settled territory. The Romans settled everywhere, but their numbers in the north was comparatively small. The south was more to their liking, which was better for growing wheat, olives, and grapes. They eventually imposed their language upon the entire peninsula, and their code of law was applied, which was also ultimately the basis of the Portuguese legal code. Forums, temples and lawcourts were built in the cities, large-scale agriculture was conducted, and the plow was introduced. Roads and bridges (still in evidence throughout Portugal) were created, as well as a system of large farming estates called Latifundios still seen in the area of Alentejo. Under Decimus Junius Brutus and Julius Caesar, a capital was established at Olisipo (Lisbon), and around 25 BC, Augustus divided the peninsula into several provinces, naming much of the area that eventually became Portugal "Lusitania."

Where to see Roman Portugal: In the city of Evora are the impressive remains of the 2nd century Temple of Diana, with 14 Corinthian columns. The Roman town of Conimbriga, founded in the 2nd century B.C., has some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Iberia, with remains of walls, columns used for structural or decorative purposes, classical ornamentation, an aqueduct, fountains and baths with magnificent mosaics, some of which can also be seen at the site museum. There are also Roman remains at Estoi in central Algarve, with some tentalising fragments of fish mosaics in a former bathing chamber, as well as a Roman villa at Pisões near the city of Beja showing extensive floor mosaics and fragments of decorated walls, baths, a bathing pool, and hypocaust. There are also remains of Roman buildings in Beja, and a Roman bridge in the town of Chaves.

Germanic Portugal

The weakening of the Roman Empire enabled various Teutonic peoples to invade Gaul. They eventually crossed the Pyrenees and entered Iberia. The Suevi (or Swabians), who mostly stayed in the northwest, made Bracara Augusta (now the Portuguese city of Braga) their capital. These new German rulers did not altogether sweep away Roman civilization, which they had learned to admire, and styles of dress remained different. The Germanic groups wore their hair long, while the Romans clipped theirs. However, they blended easily with the Romans, as well as with the Celts, whose culture was not too different from theirs. The great contribution of the Swabians was in the use of land, and the introduction of the quadrangular plow. They preferred to settle in the north and northwest of Iberia, which are areas that had a climate more suitable to their crops. Other Germanic groups such as the Vandals and Alans also crossed the Pyrennes, and spread to the western edge of the peninsula. The Alans, at the time the strongest of the tribes, took a large area in the center and south, approximately the area of Roman Lusitania. The Luso-Romans offered no effective opposition to their settlement.

Where to see Germanic Portugal: The Visigoths built a few temples, some of which have been restored over the centuries. Examples include the São Gião Church near Nazare, the São Pedro de Balsemão Chapel in Lamego, the Santa Amaro Church (also serving as part of the Visigothic Museum) in Beja, and the Byzantine-style chapel of São Frutuoso near Braga. The Visigoths also rebuilt the Roman town of Idanha-a-Velha near Castelo Branco and parts of its cathedral date from this time. Also, many of the 92 villages of the Montesinho Natural Park in the Tras-Os-Montes province still bear distinctly Germanic names such as Fresulfe or Sernande, memorials to the Visigoths who founded them.

Moorish Portugal

The Prophet Mohammed preached his new religion, Islam, in Arabia, and when he died in 632, his successors undertook a program of world conquest in the name of Allah and Islam. By 700, their forces swept across North Africa and subdued Morocco. They crossed into what is now Spain in 711, and over the years subjugated almost the entire peninsula with incredible speed. However, as opposed to the previous invaders of Iberia, these Muslims (who were named "Moors" by the Christians), chose to settle mostly in the south. In the area of present Portugal, their presence was stronger mostly in today's Alentejo and Algarve provinces. The Moors from Egypt settled mostly in today's Beja and Faro, while the Syrians settled between Faro and the Spanish city of Seville. The Moors fortified several cities, works of irrigation from Roman days were restored and perfected, and the use of linen paper made the multiplication of books much easier than in the days of parchment rolls. As a result, literacy was widespread.

Where to see Moorish Portugal: Unlike Spain, Portugal has no complete buildings left from the Moorish period, but in the south of the country there is still a rather strong Moorish influence. The styles of the typical chimneys in the Algarve are often ascribed to Moorish influence, as are the whitewashed houses with wrought-iron work of Alentejo. There are also several Moorish castles, with the most famous being the Castelo dos Mouros in Sintra. There are also remains of Moorish quarters, particularly in Alentejo in the towns of Moura and Mertola, the site of a church that retains many Moorish features. Mertola also has a small museum housing the country's best collection of Islamic art, including ceramics, coins, and jewelry.
The Sintra National Palace also features Moorish decoration, although that dates from the 16th century, long after the Moors had been expelled from the country.

Christian Reconquest and the Emergence of Portugal

Christians continuously tried to get rid of the Moors, and the first attempt is said to have been as early as ten years after their invasion. This was when a man named Pelagio won the first Christian victory against the hated invaders in the north of Iberia. Though the military significance was small at the time, it lifted Christian morale. Over the years, the Christians reconquered several areas from north to south of the peninsula (the north was reconquered earlier, with the Portuguese cities of Oporto back in Christian hands by 868 and Coimbra by 1064).
Several Christian Kingdoms were formed. In 1095, Alfonso VI, the ruler of the kingdom of Leon and Castile established the County of Portucale between the rivers Douro and Mondego. In 1139, the ruler of this county, Afonso Henriques won a battle over the Moors, and declared Portucale a separate kingdom, with himself as king. Four years later, Alfonso VII of Leon-Castile recognized Portucale as a separate, independent kingdom, as did Pope Alexander III in 1179. Afonso Henriques continued to capture land from the Moors, and by 1147 he reconquered Lisbon with the help of English, Flemish, German, and French crusaders. Evora was retaken in 1166, and the Algarve in 1249. At this point, Portugal's conquest was complete, and Portugal became Europe's first state to reach the limits of its territorial expansion, which remain unchanged to this day.

Where to see Medieval Portugal: Of the numerous castles built or rebuilt after the Reconquest, the most impressive are at Guimarães, Almourol, Bragança, Leiria, and Obidos. The cathedrals in Porto, Lisbon, Evora, Braga and Coimbra also date from this time, as well as many smaller churches throughout the country. This was also when the monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha and the Templar's Castle in Tomar, which are three of the country's most impressive monuments, were built.

The Age of Discovery

After Portugal was able to expel the Moors, neighboring Castile (Spain) tried to do the same, achieving that goal in 1492. But over those years it also tried to take over Portugal. There were several invasion attempts, ending with a Portuguese victory in the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, during King João's rein. His rein then saw the beginning of Portugal's colonial expansion in Africa and the voyages of discovery which made Portugal rise as the leading maritime and colonial power in western Europe, and Lisbon develop into a major commercial city. In 1415 the trading post of Ceuta in Morocco was captured. Years later, João's son, Prince Henry the Navigator promoted voyages of discovery, and his "school of navigation" in Sagres was founded. At this point, the "Portuguese caravel" was created. This ship was rounder and better suited for the Atlantic, moved entirely by lateen or square sails, and requiring a smaller crew than the previous ships. As a result, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to open the way into the Atlantic (discovering the islands of Madeira, Azores, and Cape Verde), to sail down western Africa (reaching the mouth of the Congo in 1482), to cross the Equator, to round and name the Cape of Good Hope (Bartolomeu Dias), to reach India by sea from the west (Vasco da Gama), to set a foot in South America (with the discovery of Brazil by Pedro Alvares Cabral), and were the first westerners in Ceylon, Sumatra, Malacca, Timor and the spice islands of the Moluccas, the first Europeans to trade with China and Japan (establishing a trading post in Macao, which was the first European settlement in China and part of Portugal until 1999), and to see Australia two hundred years before Captain Cook. The Corte-Real brothers also reached Newfoundland in 1500, and sailing for Spain, Portuguese explorer Magellan (Magalhães in Portuguese) was the first to circumnavigate the globe, and Cabrilho was the first to explore the coast of California. Thanks to worldwide trade, Portugal enjoyed an upsurge of prosperity, making it the wealthiest country in Europe. During this period, King Manuel I marked the exuberance of the age with the lavish Manueline style of architecture (still seen today throughout Portugal, especially in Lisbon's Belem Tower and Jeronimos Monastery).

Where to see Portugal's Golden Age: The unique Manueline Style of architecture developed during the time of Portugal's Golden Age. The most impressive buildings are the Belem Tower and Jeronimos Monastery (where explorer Vasco da Gama is burried) in Lisbon's Belem area, famous for being where ships departed from and returned to after their voyages. The pavement in front of the Discoveries Monument shows a map with the routes of the discoverers in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Maritime Museum by the monastery illustrates the rapid progress in shipbuilding with navigational instruments, astrolabes, 16th-century maps, replicas of caravels, etc. Another area famous for its role during the Discoveries is the town of Sagres in the Algarve province, where there is a giant pebble wind compass 43m (141ft) in diameter, said to have been used by Prince Henry the Navigator.

60 Years of Iberian Union

In the late 16th century, King Sebastião was determined to take Christianity to Morocco. He rallied a force of 18,000 but was killed in the battle along with 8000 others. His successor, Cardinal Henrique took over the throne. In 1580, when Henrique died, Sebastião's uncle, Phillip II of Spain, claimed the Portuguese throne. Phillip promised a purely personal union that would leave his new kingdom as independent as before, guaranteed the separation of the two governments, and promissed that the Portuguese language and laws should be used in the governance of the country. Phillip's rein lived up to his promise, but under his son and grandson, Spain let the English and the Dutch strip Portugal of valuable foreign possessions, and Lisbon declined as a commercial center with competition from the harbors in England and Holland. This marked the end of Portugal's golden age. In 1640, leading personalities staged a well-planned rising in Lisbon and easily overpowered the sentinels guarding public buildings. In the absence of any force capable of suppressing the rising, a new ruler was acclaimed and the "Iberian Union" ended. Later, a treaty of friendship and commercial cooperation with Britain ensured Portugal's restored crown, but also guaranteed British predominance in Portugal. Two years after the treaty, Portugal's Catherine of Braganza (Bragança), married England's Charles II.

The French Invasion

In 1755 a devastating earthquake shattered Lisbon, killing thousands of people and destroying most buildings. The prime minister at the time, the Marquis of Pombal, directed the rebuilding of the city. By the turn of the century, the country went through better times. Much of Lisbon had been rebuilt, the peasant class was stable, the middle class was prospering, all presided over by the relatively considerate government of Queen Maria I. At about this time however, events in other European countries threatened Portugal. In France, Napoleon declared a blockade of English trade, and the English responded with a continental blockade. The French insisted that the Portuguese close their ports to the English, open them to Spanish and French ships and arrest all Englishmen in the country and confiscate their property. Not to meet these demands would result in invasion. Portugal had always had a friendly relationship with England, so the government procrastinated. France and Spain then signed the Treaty of Fountainebleau, which gave Napoleon the right to invade Portugal through Spain. They agreed that after the invasion, Portugal would be divided between France and Spain. The French occupied the country in 1807, and the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil. About 50,000 French and Spanish troops roved the countryside arresting, killing, plundering and raping as they pleased. In 1808 Portugal got help from the British, their oldest allies. With their help (headed by General Sir Arthur Wellesley), defensive lines were built around Lisbon. When Napoleon reached the fortifications, he retreated. After the war a new constitution was proclaimed and Brazil was given independence. The years that followed were marked by political confusion.

Where to see 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries Portugal: Examples of buildings from the 17th century are Lisbon's São Vicente de Fora Church and Fronteira Palace, the Sé Nova in Coimbra, and the Palace of the Dukes in Vila Viçosa. From the 18th century are several Baroque churches found throughout the country, many with ornate interiors of gilded wood such as the São Francisco and Santa Clara in Porto. The Mafra and Queluz palaces and Porto's Clerigos Tower also date from this time, as well as many elegant country houses such as the Palacio de Mateus. Lisbon's Baixa district was also mostly rebuilt during this time, following the 1755 earthquake. The 19th century was dominated by Neo-Classicism, as can be seen in Lisbon's Ajuda Palace and in several other buildings in the capital. Other impressive buildings from this time are Sintra's Pena and Monserrate Palaces. Lisbon's Rossio and Porto's São Bento stations, Lisbon's Santa Justa Elevator, and Porto's bridges also date from this century.

The 20th Century

The beginning of the 20th century was marked by a radical, nationalist republican movement. In 1908, the king and crown prince were assassinated, and in 1910, after an uprising by military officers, Portugal was declared a republic. During WWI Portugal joined the Allies, and in the postwar years, political chaos deepened. Between 1910 and 1945 there were 45 changes of government, often brought about through military intervention. In 1932 Antonio Salazar became prime minister, and during WWII, Portugal was declared neutral. Salazar ruled the country for 36 years, banning political parties and workers' strikes. Censorship, propaganda and force kept society in order. A secret police force used imprisonment and torture to suppress opposition. Salazar also refused to give up Portugal's colonies but India occupied Portuguese Goa in 1961, and local nationalists rose up in Angola. Similar movements happened in Portuguese Guinea and Mozambique. As a result, there were costly military expeditions. In 1968, Salazar suffered a stroke and Marcelo Caetano was his successor. Military officers grew reluctant to serve in colonial wars, and several hundred of them carried out a bloodless coup on April 25, 1974. The African colonies were then given independence, and a new constitution committed Portugal to a blend of socialism and democracy. There were several governments after that, and the country was only considered officially stable in the mid-1980's. In 1986 Portugal joined the European Economic Community (later renamed European Union in 1992). With EU funds, Portugal went through a dramatic change -- it became the EU's fastest growing country (recording an unprecedented 4.5% to 5% annual economic growth rate).

Portugal Today

Today Portugal is a stable country well integrated in the European Union. It's on the list of the countries with "Very High Human Development" and attention in future years will focus on bringing the country's level of skilled jobs and educational achievements closer to the European average.
In 1998 Lisbon hosted the World Fair Expo 98, leading to major infrastructure and urban regeneration projects. A year later, the country adopted the Euro as its official currency along with ten other countries of the European Union, and in 2004 it hosted the Euro2004 championship. In July 2007 it took over the European Union presidency when EU members signed the Lisbon Treaty which revised the EU's constitutional framework. Despite the current economic and financial crisis of the Euro zone which has greatly affected the country, Portugal is now a country looking to the future, while never forgetting its long, remarkable past.

Where to see 20th century and modern Portugal: One of Portugal's most photographed monuments, the Discoveries Monument in Lisbon, was built in the last century (in 1960) to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. Lisbon's 25 de Abril Bridge was built shortly after. The other bridge over the Tagus River (Vasco da Gama Bridge) was built later in 1998 just in time for Expo98, the area of which (now called Parque das Nações) is now the best example of the modern and future Portugal. The buildings that first represented modern Portugal however, were the Amoreiras buildings in Lisbon, built between 1980 and 1987.
Porto's Casa da Musica is the best, most recent example of 21st century architecture.

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