Earlier this year, I took my first trip to Italy where I visited the grand capital founded by the mythological brothers Romulus and Remus across the seven hills of Rome. Similarly, legend has it that Lisbon was also built upon seven hills as described by Frei Nicolau de Oliveira in his book The Grandeurs of Lisbon, dating back to the 17th century. However, there are, in fact, eight with the “forgotten” highest hill of the city, Graça, obscured by the castle of São Jorge. This omission first occurred because it could not be seen by anyone coming up the Tagus river.
Incidentally, São Jorge, the highest hill besides Graça, is steeped in history. It was in May 1147 that thousands of crusaders left Dartmouth in England to sail to the Holy Land. However, a violent storm forced their ships to anchor in the city of Porto. There they were introduced to Afonso Henriques, the very first King of Portugal who was, at the time, negotiating with the Pope for recognition of his title after conquering the land of Santarém, which is 80 kilometres northeast of Lisbon.
Afonso Henriques had arrived upon the outskirts of Santarém during the night of May 14, with 250 of his best men who hid ladders in the fields. That very night, 50 of his men scaled the city’s walls and killed the unsuspecting Moorish guards before opening Santarém’s gates and flooding the streets with the remaining Portuguese army.
By morning they had sieged the city, defeating the Moors and expanding the Kingdom of Portugal. Due to this conquest, the newly-arrived crusaders were convinced to aid the new King of Portugal in conquering Lisbon and, in return, they were promised the pillage of the city’s treasures and the ransom money for impending prisoners.
Subsequently, the Portuguese forces advanced south by land whilst the crusaders sailed their ships down the sea before entering through the Tagus River. Once united, the siege began on July 1, west of the hill of São Jorge’s castle at what is known today as the Baixa of Lisbon.
Months went by, yet the citadel’s walls were proving to be impenetrable as the number of victims and deaths grew by the day. Eventually, the combined forces managed to breach part of the fortified wall and, at this point, a wooden tower was hauled up to the castle bringing an end to the siege of the city. The Moors, weakened by hunger, illness and months of endless battle, finally surrendered on October 20 in order to save the lives of the thousands of men, woman and children still harboured inside the castle. However, there is a legendary hero of the conquest whose heroic deed is said to have secured the capture of the castle. It is the legend of Martim Moniz.
The noble knight was the first to battle his way up to the top of the hill. There he encountered the last of the Moors retreating through a secluded entrance within the impenetrable walls that guarded the citadel. As he looked around, the rest of the soldiers were still battling far below and as the Moors began to close the city’s gates, he realised he was the king’s only hope of conquering the city. He, therefore, charged the gates himself, lodging his body between the two doors just as they were closing. It was at these doors that Martim Moniz valiantly sacrificed himself to allow time for his fellow soldiers to reach the top. It was his body that prevented the Moors from fully closing the doors and, in his honour, the entrance is still known today as The Gates of Martim Moniz.
During the siege of Lisbon, the mythical Battle of Sacavém also took place. Word had already spread through the Moorish troops that Afonso Henriques was preparing to invade Lisbon and consolidate Portugal’s independence. Thus, thousands of Moorish troops gathered around the land of Sacavém, just northeast of Lisbon, ready to repel the king’s forces.
It is said that the Moorish troops were double that of the Portuguese and that the miraculous victory was attributed to the divine intervention of the Virgin Mary who summoned ‘strange men’ to fight by their side. As we know, the crusaders had previously agreed to fight alongside Afonso Henriques and his men, so the crusaders are most likely the ‘strange men’ referenced in this legend.
Presently, there is a lot of speculation as to the origin of the castle’s name, yet it may have to do with the very crusaders who helped conquer it. After the siege, some of the crusaders once again set sail to the Holy Land whilst most decided to settle within the newly-conquered city.
During the battle, Saint George, a Roman officer of Greek descent who was sentenced to death for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, was often venerated as a military saint by the crusaders and may have been the origin of the castle’s name.
Eventually, Lisbon was made the capital of Portugal in 1255 and the Castle of São Jorge became the royal palace, hosting many coronations. However, in 1580 Portugal became part of the Spanish Crown and the castle took on a more important military role which lasted until the 20th century. Nowadays, the hill of São Jorge consists of the castle surrounded by the traditional Portuguese neighbourhoods, Alfama and Mouraria, and stands out as one of my favorite views of Lisbon.
By Jay Costa Owen
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.