On the northern bank of the River Tagus on Portugal’s southwest coast, Lisbon is surrounded by seven hills. A major port, the city lies where the Tagus widens to form the Mar de Palha (Sea of Straw), 15 km from the Atlantic Ocean. Known as the white city, Lisbon is the political, economic and cultural capital of Portugal.
The city’s ancient name of Olisipo is thought to derive from the Phoenician alis ubbo (beautiful port). Phoenician merchants may have established a trading post on the hill of São Jorge around 1200 BC, although legend claims Ulysses founded Lisbon. The Romans settled the area in 205 BC and Julius Caesar created the municipium of Felicitas Julia. Lisbon developed into an important port. Following invasion by the Alani from the area northwest of the Black Sea and then the Germanic Suebi, in 457 AD the Visigoths conquered Lisbon. The Moors extended their power in the Iberian Peninsula to include Lisbon in 714. They resisted invasion by the Normans in 844 and by Alfonso VI of Castile and León in 1093 to rule the area unchallenged. King Alfonso Henriques of the newly independent Portugal united Norman, Flemish and English troops to finally expel the Moors in 1147.
At this time Lisbon’s hillside nucleus had begun to extend towards the port area outside the city walls. Under Portuguese rule the royal palace replaced the Moorish Alcáçova on the São Jorge hill and it is believed that the mosque was the foundation for the Sé Patriarcal Cathedral. In 1256 Lisbon succeeded Coimbra as Portugal’s capital. In 1290 the first university in Portugal was established in Lisbon, although it was transferred to Coimbra in 1537. In the fourteenth century land around the city was granted to Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustines and Trinitarians. The city itself comprised the central Baixa quarter, the Mouraria or Moorish quarter, and the Alfama, mainly inhabited by Christian and Jewish residents. During a war with Castile, King Ferdinand I built a 4 km defensive wall around the city (1373–75), with 77 towers and 38 gates to defend Lisbon from further invasion.
In 1415 the Portuguese age of discovery began and Lisbon grew in size, wealth and importance. Departing from Lisbon in 1493, Vasco de Gama’s expedition to India opened the eastern trade route and ended Venetian commercial domination. The city’s centre, including the royal residence, shifted to the port area of Ribeira. The city hummed with maritime trade attracting English, Netherlands, Flemish and French merchants. The British community grew in importance until the Cromwellian treaty in 1654 formalized trade by establishing the British Factory. A centre of trade, politics and community life, the Factory lasted until 1810. In 1498 the large Jewish community was expelled or forced to convert to Christianity. But even those who converted suffered in the 1506 pogrom and suffered under the Inquisition.
Maritime dominance in Africa, India and the Americas created vast wealth for Lisbon, a principle player in the slave trade. The height of Lisbon’s prosperity came at the end of the seventeenth century, financed by Brazilian gold. But an earthquake on 1 Nov. 1755, followed by floods and then fire devastated the city. 30,000 people died and 9,000 buildings were destroyed, mainly in the Baixa. Lisbon was rebuilt to a neo-classical grid plan by a team of architects working under the prime minister Sebastião José de Carvalho, later the Marquês de Pombal.
Despite French and British occupation during the Peninsular War, civil war and violent civil unrest in the first half of the nineteenth century, Lisbon continued to expand and develop. This was aided by the arrival of the railway and an expansion and renovation of the harbour. In 1879 the Avenida de Liberdade was built. Tree-lined pavements with fountains bordered the six lane road. Following the assassination of King Carlos I in 1908 and the establishment of the First Republic in 1910, the capital’s development was halted by a period of political instability. Lisbon provided shelter to over 200,000 refugees during World Wars I and II. Urban development regained impetus in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1966 the seventh longest suspension bridge in the world was built. The Ponte de 25 Abril spans the Tagus linking Lisbon with Almada. Lisbon hosted Expo 1998.
By far the largest city in Portugal, 20% of the country’s population live in Lisbon. Portugal’s principal port and main industrial centre, Lisbon’s key industries are chemicals, textiles, electronics and diamond cutting. It also has one of the world’s largest cement plants. Major exports are wine, olive oil and cork. Lisbon’s Portela airport is 10 km north of the city centre. The city has train links with Madrid and Paris. Internal travel is facilitated by a metro system and tram network as well as the funicular railways ascending the steep gradients to the bairro alto.
Places of Interest
The twelfth century cathedral is in the Alfama, the old town, characterized by its winding medieval streets. Overlooking this quarter is the Castelo de São Jorge. The castle’s extensive grounds are enclosed by the original Moorish walls. Museums include the Gulbenkian with collections spanning all stages of eastern and western art, the Museu de Arte Antiga and the Museu Arqueológico do Carmo, housed in the shell of the destroyed Convento do Carmo church. The Teatro Nacional de Dona Maria stands on the site of the Inquisitional Palace, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a white tower built between 1512–21 to protect Lisbon’s harbour, is in Belém near to the Torre of Belém. Both are examples of the Manueline architectural style. The castle at Sintra northwest of Lisbon, is where Byron began writing Childe Harold.