A few years ago, whilst on a holiday trip, we accidently came across what can only be described as Portugal’s Stonehenge.
We were driving through the countryside in an isolated area with no houses when I spotted a sign saying megalithic ruins. Curious as to what this might be in the middle of nowhere, we followed the dirt track for some 4kms to a rudimentary parking area.
From there, we walked around 150 metres through the countryside, along a narrow fenced-off path, which emerged in a clearing that was absolutely full of megalithic stones and … it was incredible!
We had accidently stumbled across one of the biggest megalithic monuments of the Iberian Peninsula and one of the oldest in the world.
We later found out that this was the Cromeleque dos Almendres, which was discovered in 1966 by the investigator Henrique Leonor Pina, while he was creating a geological map of Portugal. What a find!
A cromlech is a circle of stones and this one occupies an area of 70×40 metres, oriented along an axial alignment northwest to southeast. The upright stones are known as monoliths or menhirs.
The site is located off the national roadway from Évora to Montemor-o-Novo, just after the village of Guadalupe, in Herdade dos Almendres.
This Neolithic site actually predates Stonehenge by 2,000 years as it is over 7,000 years old. Just think, it was built at the same time that the Egyptian pyramids were being built! In the district of Évora alone, there are 10 known megalithic sites, over 100 isolated menhirs and 450 megalithic settlements.
It is believed this is because the area was an important passageway where the basins of the rivers Tejo, Sado and Guadiana meet. Within a range of 10kms of the cromlech, there is evidence of four Neolithic settlements.
This cromlech was built at a time when humans were evolving from being nomadic hunters and gatherers, who followed the migration of their prey, to those who instead settled down to a sedentary life as farmers and livestock keepers.
The location for the Cromlech of Almendres was most likely chosen because the communities needed a place where they could observe both the rising of the sun and the moon. This may have been where they made their astrological observations as well as where people gathered during the equinox to celebrate and exchange animals and produce in the spring and autumn.
The 100 menhirs are predominantly egg-shaped and were originally placed in a horseshoe shape, but more stones were added over time. The cromlech was built at the top of the hill, with the stones then being placed down the hill to be precisely aligned towards the equinoxes.
Studies have shown that the Cromlech of Almendres was erected in three stages covering a period from the Neolithic to the Chalcolithic. The mere feat of building such a site would have taken a lot of people and time.
It is likely that Neolithic tribes would look for the right-shaped granite stones in various sizes and roll them on logs towards a hole in the ground where they would be put into place with sheer manpower force using ropes and levers. Of the original stones, 95 are still in good condition, scattered across the site in a circular fashion.
Nearby and within view of the cromlech is a single large menhir stone known as the Menir do Monte dos Almendres. The phallic-shaped stone has a crozier engraved on it, which can represent the importance of the animal domestication at the time. From the cromlech on an imaginary line to this stone, you can see the sun rise.
The fact that the cromlech is aligned with the spring equinox and the invisible line linking it to the lone menhir, which is aligned to the winter solstice, suggests that the change of the seasons was important to this community.
Whilst the true purpose of the site is unknown, it is believed to be related to agriculture due to the life-size relief decorations found on some of the stones that relate to cattle breeding and farming. Historians have also suggested that the phallic stones placed in the ground were perhaps emulating the fertilisation of the earth for farming.
Some of the stones’ carved drawings could represent a face and so it has been suggested that perhaps each stone may represent a person. Other predominant engravings on the menhirs are wavy and radial lines, circles and dimples whose purpose is unknown, but these may represent astrological markings that may have been for finer astronomical observations, using small stones as markers in the dimples.
The site was classified as a national monument in 2015 and I feel privileged to have seen it before it became a known tourist attraction. There is evidence that some pagan celebrations still take place there, although, of course, these are kept out of the limelight.
Until last year, the Cromlech of Almendres site was considered the largest megalithic site on the Iberian Peninsula, but, last year, a site with over 526 stones was discovered near Huelva as part of a survey to access the land for an avocado plantation.
This site is of particular importance because it has examples of alignments, cromlechs and dolmens (tombs) all in one site, which is unusual. Excavations of this incredible site are planned until 2026, but the site is bound to become a huge attraction for Southern Spain.
The Cromlech of Almendres is a peaceful place where the architectural design and the celestial alignment connect you with the ancient world to bring a sense of magic and peacefulness, where you can sit quietly and be at one with nature amongst the natural landscape of oaks and corks that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. How amazing is that?
So now you know!
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.