Lisbon: long story short

Since pre-history, thousands of years BC, Lisbon has been inhabited by several tribes and peoples. It developed naturally, as it was a privileged place for supplying the trade ships traveling between the mediterranean and northern Europe. The river Tagus estuary was the best natural port along the way. The ships would also trade goods in Lisbon, as the river was used as a mercantile route supplying the inland settlements. Lisbon was so important as a comercial port that the Greeks, Celts, Phoenicians, Visigoths, Carthaginians along with other European tribes had outposts and established routes in the area. Remains from these times were found around the “São Jorge” castle’s area, and it is actually possible to see the archaeological excavations inside the Sé de Lisboa’s cloister. This site features Phoenicians, Visigoths, Romans, and Islamic remains, and it is held as proof of their presence in Lisbon’s area.

Before the roman invasion, the region that is now Portugal was inhabited by the “Lusitanos”. These people were a fusion between the ancient iberian tribes and the celts, and they were nicknamed “the people with no history”, as there are few or none civilizational remains. They became a nation of fierce warriors called “Lusitania”, that resisted the romans until around 30 BC.

Eventually, the Romans were able to expand their empire into the “Lusitania” area. Portugal was then a roman province, and it would be so until around 700A.C.. “Olissipo”, as the romans called Lisbon was one of the most important cities of the roman “Lusitânia”, with high comercial relevance. Remains of these times are still possible to visit. The two main archaeological sites are the Roman theater, close to “Sé de Lisboa”, and the Roman galleries, located under “Baixa” neighbourhood. These galleries are underwater most of the year, but the water is drained for two weeks every year, and it’s possible to visit them. Roman lusitania was progressively weakened by the successive attacks by other european tribes from around 500AC, and it ended up being conquered by the north african moors around 700AC.


The Conquest of Lisbon painting by Alfredo Roque Gameiro (1917)

The moors conquered almost the entire Iberian Peninsula. They were technologically very advanced, and brought their scientific knowledge to Lisbon, rebuilding a city that had been destroyed by the constant attacks from other tribes. The moor domain of the vast majority of the peninsula developed into a specific iberian muslim culture with their agriculture methods, architecture, and art in general. Al-Ushbuna, as the moors called Lisbon, became great again. At the time Lisbon was the castle area and Alfama. In fact, Alfama is an arab word that means something like “baths” or “fountains”. However, the moorish Lisbon never knew peace, as it suffered a great deal of attacks coming from the north. Condado Portucalense was the first form of Portugal, and it’s power grew with the “Reconquista” wars. These wars were fought by the non-muslim iberian people with the help of the crusaders. After several unsuccessful attempts, the king of Condado Portucalense conquered Lisbon in 1147, with the help of english and normans crusaders. The muslim were outnumbered, and had to accept defeat. The remaining moor people were relocated to Mouraria neighbourhood, next to the castle. Today Mouraria is still the multi ethnic place of Lisbon.

Lisbon gave the newly founded Portugal a great deal of prestige, and it became the capital city in 1256. The city developed, and the area that is now “Praça do Comércio” was taken from the river with a lot of drainage works. The modern Lisbon was then being shaped into what it is today.

 The next relevant chapter of Lisbon’s history was when King Fernando passed away in 1383 and left no heirs. Portugal fell into the hands of Castilla’s king. However, Spanish feudal practices and crusader spirit were not the best strategy for Lisbon development. With the Spanish domain, Lisbon lost its comercial contact with England, the northern European states and the middle east. With the help of the bourgeoisie and Lisbon’s merchants, Master of Avis would overcome the Spanish domain and become King João I of Portugal. This event had two major battles, the Lisbon siege of 1384 and the mythic Battle of Aljubarrota.


The entrance profile of the Padrão, an homage to Portuguese Sea Discoveries, as seen from the compass rose square

Lisbon reestablished itself in the world commerce map and kept on growing and establishing comercial and cooperation treaties with several trading capitals. The sea exploration began in the XV century with Infante Dom Henrique’s work and vision, and the Portuguese came across Madeira and Açores archipelagos. There they have built port cities, useful for exploring other markets. With the sea explorations, the Portuguese would discover the maritime route to India, and Brasil, and would also send several ships to Africa. These discoveries would allow the Portuguese exclusive trade of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and other spices within Europe for several years. With the wealth that came from the trading activity, Lisbon knew one of its greatest prosperity periods along the XVI century. Culturally, Lisbon produced the golden generation for science, literature and arts. Several national personalities lived in this period.

In the beginning of the XVI century, the Spanish would cast out most of the jew community from their country, and a great deal of them would establish themselves in Portugal, and in Lisbon. The Portuguese King Manuel was asked by the King of Spain to do the same, and to either convert or extradite the Jews. Later on, the King is persuaded to decree the Catholic Inquisition, and a dark time would start. Intolerance and prosecution replace the liberal and comercial spirit and Lisbon loses economical relevance. King Sebastião would die in battle in northern Africa, and again, left no heirs. Spanish would reclaim Portugal in 1580, and Portugal would fall even more. The liberal spirit disappeared and it was replaced by an extremist catholic order. The Portuguese nobility destroyed the bourgeoisie with the help of the king of Spain. This was a critical moment, as other countries were investing in sea exploration, and the Portuguese were left behind. Again, the Portuguese merchants and bourgeoisie conspired against the Spanish domain, and King João IV successfully reclaimed back the throne in 1640. Old alliances were restored with England. Catholic domain was reaching its pinnacle in Europe, delaying progress, but Portugal was able to solve its economic crisis by colonial exploration. Gold was coming from Brasil, and with it, the monumental constructions like the Lisbon aqueduct and Santa Engrácia’s church. Despite all the gold, the general population was very poor, and Lisbon was known as a degraded and dirty city. This period ends with the earthquake of 1755 that destroyed the lower areas of the city.

Being a catastrophe, the aftermath of the earthquake was in some ways extremely positive to Lisbon. Marques de Pombal would project a super modern city and Lisbon would become a laboratory for illuminism political and economical theories. Gold from the colonies paid for the new Lisbon, and made the city a worldwide modern center. Short after the reconstruction, the new liberal ideas gained power. The liberal revolution began in France in 1789, and the French would come to invade Portugal. The Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro was, for a brief period, the capital of Portugal. With the help of the English, Portugal was able to fight France, and they were forced to leave. As payback, Portugal was led to open the Brazilian ports to the English fleets, and the exclusive wealth coming from those strategic ports was lost. King Pedro IV of Portugal didn’t left Brazil, and he became Pedro I, emperor of Brazil. With the Brazilian independence, and the English colonialism in Portugal, Lisbon lost a great deal of economic relevance. The British generals were expelled from Portugal as the Portuguese bourgeoisie rebelled.

Tram 28, today

Lisbon’s development stagnates in the XIX century. There was a cold war between the liberals and the conservatives and Brazil was lost. This century marks the beginning of African colonies exploration, the installation of public lightning in the city, and the constructions of connection roads and railways. In the late XIX century, the tramways are installed in Lisbon. Today, these trams are one of the main attractions in Lisbon, specially the 28, offering great sightseeing rides. The cultural center was then in Chiado, and several cultural clubs are created. Avenida da Liberdade, the main road artery in Lisbon is designed, connecting the center of the city and the agricultural areas. The city gains new horizons, and the possibility of further territorial expansion was opened. Fado and Bullfights became popular entertainment in this period.

The beginning of the XX century comes with the end of the Monarchy. Radical liberals, or republicans defend a new social organization. With the industrialisation, a new popular class emerges in Lisbon, the proletariat. This class of people would encompass marxist ideas, and they would create unions used not only to protect their interests, but also to conspire against the king. They are in favour of a republic instead of the old monarchy. Portuguese monarchy was giving its last breath when they tried to install dictatorship in 2008. It was too late, even the army was moving along with the new ideas. in 1908 the royal family was assassinated in the center of Lisbon, and in 1910 the first republic emerges.

The first years of republic were not easy. Conspiracies led by the church and the nobility would try to reestablish the monarchy, and the first world war began. New residential areas were built in eastern Lisbon, and the city expanded not only terrain wise, but also people and industry wise. First republic would end in 1926, and the longest dictactorship in Europe would be installed until 1974. The dictator Salazar was semi-fascist, in some ways similar to his peers in Italy and Spain, and had a vision about an imperial Portugal. The exploration of African colonies reached its highest peak during this time. In the 1950’s a rural exodus happened in Portugal, and Lisbon grew fast. Salazar was in the office until 1968, and he was replaced by Marcelo Caetano. The regime would eventually fall, mostly because of the colonial wars in Africa. The regime didn’t want to give independence to it’s african colonies, and as a consequence, the war would continue for more than 10 years. The carnation revolution ended the authoritarian regime in 1974, and it opened the doors of Portugal to the world.