ALENTEJO

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The Moorish Ambience

In the Alentejo, you travel naturally with and to History. The abundance and the quality of the Heritage which it expresses become easy for you to discover but, if you are visiting the Region for the first time, you could be spoiled for choice. If this is the case, don’t hesitate: opt for our suggestions and you will discover that the magic of the Alentejo is to be found, with endless pleasure, everywhere.

The Mosque in Mértola is the only one existent in Portugal that is still recognisable as such by reason of its shape and space and its decorative elements. Despite being adapted as a Christian church, there are still four doors with horseshoe arches, and it retains its alfis, the mihrab and the compartment for the minbar (pulpit). The mihrab retains its sculpted plaster, though the polychrome work has disappeared. The compartment for the minbar is alongside the mihrab and held the movable pulpit needed for Muslim worship.It is thought that the construction of and major repairs to the mosque must date from the 12th century, during the Almohad dynasty.

The period of Arab occupation, begun in the 8th century, lasted in the south of Portugal for almost 500 years. From this long period of shared occupancy, we have inherited agricultural plants and techniques, systems for capturing and storing water, culinary customs, hundreds of different words, construction techniques, decorative tastes, artistic styles, urban environments.

The archetypes of many of our castles from the Reconquest are Moorish in character and a number of Christian churches were built over earlier mosques. Mértola, the most Arabic town in Portugal, is a place where you can really understand this inheritance.
The last interior port of the great river route, the Guadiana, Mértola has been an active centre of commerce since the Roman period of occupation and earned the prestigious title of municipium, was the capital of a Muslim kingdom during the Islamic period, and became the main headquarters of the Order of Santiago. Here, in ancient times, settled people were circulating products from the most disparate places in the Mediterranean and exporting bread and olive oil from the storehouses of Beja and minerals from Aljustrel and São Domingos.

The mosque, converted to a Christian church, is the only Arab religious space still conserved in Portugal. The Núcleo Museológico Islâmico, with a valuable collection that is the fruit of twenty years of investigation, offers us the best testimony to and the finest lesson in the richness of the period of Arabic occupation of the south of Portugal.

But it is not only the mosque and the Núcleo. There is also a variety of other reflections of the past that justify a visit to Mértola. What makes it unique is that the whole of the historical centre is a field of activity in relation to archaeological work. Thanks to the daily commitment undertaken by a team of researchers and technicians, we can see a living example of the unveiling of history, meet archaeologists in the street returning from their excavations and have personal contact with important new discoveries. The way in which this project has transformed the very poor town of some years ago to a point of reference for multiple cultural itineraries from Europe and other parts of the world has made Mértola a demonstrative experience of the role that Culture can play in the sustainable development of a place, with an impact that is perhaps unique in Portugal.

If you want to visit Mértola at festival time, choose the dates when it is in particular celebratory mood: during the Islamic Festival, every odd year, in the month of May.

Moorish Quarters
After the Reconquest, a lot of Moors accepted the rules that were imposed on them for allowing them to remain in Portugal. This process brought about the creation of Moorish Quarters, at the time situated on the outskirts of the urban centres. These districts, today fully integrated within the general rows of houses in towns and cities, retain some, though few, traces of their presence, but they do maintain the names and layout, as is the case in Évora, Beja and Moura, among others.

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