Lisbon: Navigating the Old and the New


Portuguese Republic

May 13, 2013 

Bom dia! 

Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, is the oldest city in Western Europe.  Lisbon predates London, and Paris, and Rome by hundreds of years. 

Even earlier, there is evidence of Neolithic settlement, Pre-Celts, Celts and Phoenicians. 

The Romans ventured to Portugal.  They were followed by Germanic tribes from Europe, Moors from North Africa, Crusaders from Britannia and the Spanish from over the mountains. 

Lisbon lies along the sheltered harbor of the broad Tagus River.  The Tagus and the other rivers in Portugal that flow from east to west into the Atlantic provided the embarkation points of adventure, trade, discovery, conquest and colonization.  

With a new type of astrolabe, a navigational device to determine latitude developed by Abraham Zacuto (1452-1515), and the revolutionary design of the caravel, a small and highly maneuverable ship built in the Fifteenth Century, the Portuguese sailed down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean. 

Sponsored by the Kings, the Portuguese adventurers crossed the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.  They navigated the Strait of Malacca and headed north through the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. 

The Portuguese sailed across the North Atlantic Ocean.  They sailed across the South Atlantic Ocean. 

The first truly global empire in the world, the Império Colonial Português began in 1415 with the conquest of Ceuta in North Africa and ended more than five hundred years later in East Asia in 1999 when Macau was handed back to the Chinese. 

In Africa, Angola and Madagascar were claimed by Portugal.  Also, Essaouira, Mozambique, Zanzibar and Tangier. 

In South America, Brazil of course.  But also Barbados, and Colonia in Uruguay. 

In Asia, Macau.  And Bahrain, Makassar, Muscat, Malaysia, the Maldives, Timor, Thailand. 

In India, Mumbai and Goa.  Chittagong and Cochin. 

The Portuguese Colonial Empire, spread over time, covered a vast number of Territories that are now part of 53 different Sovereign States. * 

So, what happened?  

Bad luck?  

At 9:40am, on All Saints Day, Saturday, November 1, 1775, a major earthquake with ensuing fires and a tsunami struck Lisbon.  The city was almost completely destroyed.  Up to 100,000 lives were lost.  Colonial ambitions were disrupted. 

(For additional information about the symptoms of disrupted colonial ambitions, ask the Romans, the Moors and the Ottomans.  For the factors contributing to the decline and fall of an Empire, see the Maya, the Inca, the Dutch, the Spanish, the British, the Soviets.)  

Lisbon recovered and is an important and attractive city.  The freighters still arrive and depart from the harbor.  And Lisbon is on the itinerary of modern international cruise ships.  

For a few hours, cruise passengers visit the Jerónimos Monastery and the monuments and towers that attest to the grandeur of imperial Portugal.  Passengers may even wander up the hills to the Alfama District to enjoy the ambience of a cheerful city. 

This traveler need not  catch the tide.  This traveler strolls at his leisure as he admires the architecture, the tile work, and the cobblestone art in the Old Town.  This traveler stops for salada de bacalhau e café. 

This traveler stands on the hilltop that overlooks the traditional red tile roofs, the river, the harbor.  He imagines the caravels gliding out to sea.  He watches the hawkers conquering the tourists.  

He wonders about discovery.  He contemplates adventure in a new land.  

He navigates the Internet.  He enters, “Lisbon, rent a caravelle.”   


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