The other day, I was walking along the riverbanks of the Tagus River when I arrived at the impressive Tower of Belém. I remember visiting the tower a long time ago when I was younger, but in the last four years of living in Lisbon I have never quite got around to revisiting the regal fort.
Recently whilst travelling around Greece, I met a young traveller from New Zealand who, for the previous couple of months, had been backpacking across Europe. He began his travels by first exploring his vast homeland before catching the cheapest flight out to the Netherlands. The reason for this, he explained, is that they have a saying back in New Zealand, “you should know your own backyard better than anyone else’s”.
On returning to Lisbon, I realised that there are so many national treasures and mythical places surrounding us and yet we often spend our time dreaming of distant wonders whilst taking those nearest to us for granted. So with this in mind, I decided to visit the fort and once again climb the long winding steps to the top of the tower.
From the top, there is an amazing view of the Tagus River, home to the legendary Tagus Nymphs which are better known as the ‘Tágides’. In ancient times, when people believed it was possible to sail a ship off the edge of the world and monstrous creatures dwelled deep within the depths of the ocean, it was said that the Tágides helped sailors overcome the dangers faced throughout their treacherous expeditions.
The illustrious Luís de Camões, one of Portugal’s most celebrated poets, also evoked the deific nymphs to help him immortalize, in his work, the great feats of the Portuguese people and to celebrate Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India which united the West and the Orient, during the Age of Discovery.
According to legend, not only is the Tagus River home to the mystical nymphs, but also to a large collection of gold that rests upon its sandy riverbed. It is said that various kings, throughout history, had sceptres made from the gold found within its murky waters and that they ruled the country with them in hand, bringing glory upon the land.
As familiar as I was with the legend, I could not see any gold as I gazed down at the river. However, despite not locating any new treasures, one thing I could see was a rhinoceros’ head carved in stone, protruding from the side of the tower.
Following the Age of Discovery, Portugal had established various territories around the world, including the Portuguese Indies. Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese governor of the newly-founded colonies, planned to build a fortress in the land of Diu, ruled at the time by King Modofar. Generous gifts were sent to the king in exchange for permission to build the fortress, but the request was declined, and Portugal was instead bestowed a live rhinoceros in return!
The rhinoceros’ arrival upon the shores of Lisbon, not far from the Belém tower, was an extraordinary moment not only for Portugal but for all of Europe. It was the first rhino to arrive on the continent in over 13 centuries and it attracted people from all over who wanted to see the beast with their very own eyes.
Like myself, the king of Portugal Manuel I was a big admirer of ancient legends and with the arrival of the majestic beast he was reminded of ancient Roman tales relating epic battles between rhinoceroses and elephants.
Inspired, the king decided to organise a grand spectacle where the two creatures would battle for the entertainment of his beloved queen and noble guests. You can just picture the fearsome battle between the two beasts as they charged each other down, the rhino’s deadly horn piercing its rival’s chest just before the elephant used the sheer force of its trunk to clutch the rhinoceros, bringing it to an untimely fall, before trampling it within a cloud of dust as the crowd cheered for more.
Throughout various tales, I have always heard that elephants are scared of even the sight of a tiny mouse and if there is any truth to these stories, you can therefore picture the rhinoceros as a giant rat, for in reality as soon as the elephant entered the ring and saw the rhino approaching, it panicked and ran off!
Following the failed spectacle, it was decided that the rhinoceros should be gifted to the Pope to further secure relations between Rome and Portugal. However, the ship that was transporting the beast was caught in a violent storm, an epic war between Zeus and Poseidon themselves, causing the ship to be swollen whole by the sea.
As the rhinoceros was chained up to prevent it from escaping, it was unable to swim to safety and sadly it drowned. However, the carcass was recovered and stuffed before being sent to the Pope who unfortunately was not that impressed with the straw-filled carcass! Nevertheless, the rhino was immortalised in stone at the Tower of Belém.
In present times, the stone tower stands tall on the sandy shores of Belém, but it was originally erected upon a small island of rocks bathed on all sides by the Tagus River. It was primarily built to aid in fending off attacks on Lisbon by enemy ships, but as time passed it was no longer needed to defend the city’s shores and later became not only a lighthouse but also a prison for prominent and political convicts, whose dungeons you can still visit today.
Many people dream of one day visiting the Seven Wonders of the World, yet Portugal has its own elected seven wonders that should definitely be visited, the Tower of Belém being one of them.
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.