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History & Architecture


The Iberians and Celts were the original settlers in the region that is today known as Portugal, but these people eventually intermarried the emigrating people to the region to create a completely different ethnicity. This began after the Punic Wars, when the Carthaginian coastal cities were overtaken by the Romans in the late 200s BC. The Romans' infrastructure and communication slowly Latinized the people of both Spain and Portugal by introducing a new language and later a new religion in Christianity. However, as the Roman Empire weakened, Portugal fell into numerous small kingdoms until the 700s.

Modern-day Portugal and the most of the Iberian Peninsula was overtaken and unified by the Moors from North Africa in the early 700s. The Moors were Muslim and encouraged conversion by forcing a tax on the local Christians and Jews (although they were allowed to practice). This system did encourage a large number of conversions, but never converted a majority of the country to Islam. The Moors also introduced a number of new systems and foods in the country, forever altering the culture.

As Christian groups slowly began to take control over various lands in the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese founded their first state in 868, but didn't gain full independence until 1139. Despite independence the country was rather small in comparison to today and only in the mid-1200s did Portugal finally defeat the Muslim Moors in the south to establish something very similar to their modern-day borders.

In the mid-1300s the Black Death struck Portugal and war with Castille (in Spain) broke out, but quickly ended with Portuguese victory. This was followed by a relatively peaceful and prosperous time for Portugal. The 1400s gave rise to Portugal's power on the seas as they established trade along Africa's coasts and later that century, in 1498, Vasco da Gama reached India as Portugal took control over the Indian-European spice trade.

Portugal spent much of the 1500s colonizing, most notably Brazil, Goa, and what is today East Timor (Timor-Leste); they were also the first Europeans to land in Australia and New Zealand. However, Portugal's independence weakened in 1580 when their king died without an heir and the Spanish ruler, Philip II took control of the country. Although they nominally maintained their independence, this led to Portuguese involvement in Spanish wars and eventually led to the loss of Portugal's monopoly on Indian Ocean trading routes. In the mid-1600s Portugal tired of Spanish rule so an uprising put a Portuguese king back on the thrown.

In the late 1700s a number of social and political reforms were undertaken and in the early 1800s the Spanish allowed Napoleon's French troops into their country to invade Portugal. With the support of the British, the Portuguese held off the French and maintained independence. This, however was only the beginning of many of Portugal's problems as, soon after, Brazil gained independence and Portugal's power went into a continuous decline.

Economic disasters in the early 1900s led to the assassination of the king and his son, which was followed by revolution, a second new government, a coup, and the beginning of a dictatorship in 1926. Shortly after the new government took power, World War II (WWII) broke out, but Portugal managed to maintain neutrality.

After WWII, Portugal joined NATO and became more involved in European affairs while, after focusing on their African territories, eventually moved out of Africa and Asia entirely. In the 1970s Portugal overthrew their government and again welcomed a democratically elected body. In the 1990s the European Union (EU) was founded with Portugal being an original member and the colony of Macau was handed over to China. In 2002 East Timor was also granted independence.


Portuguese Architecture - Moorish fortress
Moorish fortress

Much of Portugal's historic architecture is in the Gothic style, although the Portuguese dragged this style out for years so it's quite diverse. Additionally, due to outside influences from the Moors and later as Portugal rose to a world power, there is incredible diversity in Portuguese architecture.

However, older than these styles, there are some Roman ruins that remain in Portugal, although few are in good condition. The Roman city of Aquae Flaviae has some of the best remaining examples (in Chaves).

Portuguese Architecture - Pena Palace
Pena Palace

The next major influence was from the Moors, who arrived from North Africa via Spain. The Moors have few surviving constructions in Portugal today, but there are a couple remaining examples, primarily in the form of forts as most mosques were restructured into churches and are hardly recognizable as former mosques today. One of the better preserved castles from this time is Silves Castle (700-1200s).

There are numerous Romanesque buildings in Portugal today; some of the best examples of this style are in the country's two largest cities: Porto and Lisbon. The Cathedral of Lisbon (or Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major; 1147-1200s) and Porto's Cathedral are excellent examples in this style. The Convent of the Order of Christ (begun in the 1100) in Tomar is fairly unique as it was built by the local Knights Templar and has a slightly altered style.

Portuguese Architecture - Nossa Senhora da Conceicao
Nossa Senhora da Conceicao

The Gothic style in Portugal is primarily found in churches today. The Alcobaca Monastery (1153-1200s) best displays the Portuguese variety on this larger style. Few other early Gothic examples are worth noting though, as the style in Portugal truly emerged later. The extraordinarily unusual Monastery of Batalha (1385) is a late Gothic structure unlike any other building. The gothic period continued until the early 1500s and this time period includes one of the purest examples of Portuguese architecture in the Monastery of the Hieronymites (begun in 1502).

As Portugal reached its peak of power in the 1500 and 1600s, their architectural achievements during this time somewhat represent this, but there wasn't as much building as expected during a prosperous time. The Renaissance and Baroque styles, popular in much of Europe at the time, weren't well liked by the Portuguese so little from these styles were built. Most of the structures that were built in these styles are in Tomar, which was home to the seat of the Order of Christ, which oversaw most of Portugal's overseas territories. In Tomar, the Nossa Senhora da Conceicao (1532-1540), the Cloister of John III, and the town square are all in either the Renaissance or Baroque style.

Portuguese Architecture - Church in Lisbon
Church in Lisbon

During this same time, Evora was home to the Portuguese kings so developed a unique style of whitewashed buildings and homes, which directly led to the growth of this style in Brazil and in other Portuguese colonies.

In the 1800s the neo-Classical style rose in popularity, particularly in Lisbon after the city was struck with an earthquake and had to be re-built. The Ajuda National Palace in the capital is a prime example from this time period. Also in the 1800s the similarly styled Romantic period flourished and the town of Sintra is a great example of this style.

Although Lisbon was almost wholly rebuilt since the 1700s, it still has a number of excellent architectural examples throughout history as does Porto. However, perhaps the best place to see the full scope of Portuguese architecture is in Tomar, which has ruins from the Romans and has added buildings over history until the modern day, making it a great destination for an architectural buff.

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This page was last updated: March, 2013