Lisbon History

Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world – believed to date back 300,000 years, and certainly one of the oldest in Western Europe, predating other European capitals by hundreds of years.

During the Neolithic period, pre-Celtic tribes inhabited the region; evidence of their stone monuments still exist today, dotting the periphery of the city. Archaeologists claim that Phoenicians established a trading port here in the sheltered Tagus estuary. There are numerous theories as to how Lisbon got its name. Some say it was named after Ulysses, who founded a settlement here on his journey home to Troy.
With the arrival of the Romans, there started a 200-year reign in Lisbon in 205 BC. During this period, Lisbon became one of the most significant cities in the Iberian Peninsula, particularly when Julius Caesar became the governor in 60 BC, and it was renamed Felicitas Julia.

Lisbon was later occupied by a succession of conquerors, most notably the Moors, for 450 years starting in 711 AD. The city prospered under the Moors as a trading centre and their legacy is evident today in the Castelo de Sao Jorge and the streets of the Alfama district, which has many place names derived from Arabic.

In 1147, crusaders re-conquered the city and Christian rule was returned. It was a significant event in Lisbon’s history; many of the Muslims were expelled or forced to convert to Catholicism and mosques were destroyed or turned into churches. In 1255, Lisbon became the capital of the Portuguese territory and the city expanded substantially.

As a city, Lisbon reached its zenith in the 14th and 15th centuries, when its explorers – including Vasco da Gama who famously discovered the sea route to India - conquered the world's oceans; the city was at the heart of an empire that stretched from Brazil to India. Many of its grandest buildings, such as those along the waterfront in the suburb of Bélem, are legacies of that Golden Age.

But something was to happen that would change Lisbon forever. The 18th century brought the Great Earthquake of 1755, when a large swathe of the city was devastated and had to be rebuilt. But urban planner, the Marques de Pombal, was on hand to plan and oversee the reconstruction and he did it on modern principles. He designed the city on a north-south axis with a grid of streets stretching out from Baixa (lower town) at its heart. It is within or adjacent to the reconstructed area that most of the city's administrative, cultural and historical artefacts are found today.

The 20th century brought political upheaval. The Estado Novo regime from 1926-74 proved to be the longest, right-wing dictatorship in Europe and led to the suppression of civil liberties and political freedom. It was finally brought to an end by the Carnation Revolution but in the aftermath, the city failed to modernise, and despite its rough-edged charm, right up until the late 20th century it was widely regarded as a rundown poverty-stricken place.

Then, in the 1990s, urban regeneration projects finally helped to transform Lisbon – the Vasco de Gama bridge was constructed, the city was crowned European Capital of Culture in 1994 and its container port became the largest on the Atlantic coast. Lisbon's transformation has finally helped the city to grow up.

Edited by Tina Banerjee
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