Lisbon at sunset panorama

How Lisbon Rose Up After The 1755 Earthquake

By Xijie Zhang

In the charming cities of EU member states, Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, appears less attractive. However, this ancient city recovered from the earthquake ruins has its own unique temperament and character. As the centre of the former maritime empire, it does not lack elegance. In the era of the great geographical discovery, Lisbon once had the prosperity and glory of a sea overlord. It also experienced a great disaster in the devastating earthquake in 1755.

Therefore, Lisbon knows how to be optimistic about life and how to keep calm. When you listen to it, Lisbon is like the Portuguese folk music Fado. It hides sadness in the sunshine and shows warmth in the fading. When you think about it, Lisbon is like an olive with an unusual taste.

Lisbon Portugal earthquake

From the map, Portugal’s narrow territory looks like a sailing boat anchored on the Atlantic Ocean at the westernmost end of Europe. Lisbon is like a bright porthole on this ship. Through this porthole, one can find the glory and vicissitudes Portugal has gone through.

Glory and Dream of the Capital of Poseidon

Lisbon is surrounded by mountains and rivers. It is located on seven hills on the north bank of the mouth of the Douro River. Portugal’s largest river, the Tejo River, flows into the Atlantic Ocean after passing through the southern part of the city. In ancient mythology, Lisbon was the capital city founded by the sea god Ulysses.

Lisbon earthquake

Legend has it that Ulysses often came to the riverside to date the fairy Calypso, but he abandoned her at random and left without saying goodbye, leaving the infatuated fairy devastated. The sad fairy turned into a snake. After years of expectation and disappointment, the twisted snake turned into seven rolling hills. Lisbon was born in these seven hills and watched the confluence of the river and the sea with inherent melancholy.

The Phoenicians, the Greeks of the trading docks, the Romans and Moors of fairs and castles, Lisbon, which was controlled by the changing nationalities, went through many wars. Although Lisbon was officially the capital of Portugal in 1255, the size of the city was not large. It was not until the 15th century that Portugal became the maritime overlord in the era of the great geographical discovery that Lisbon became the centre of the empire that attracted worldwide attention and became one of the four largest cities in Europe.

monasterio de jeronimos Lisbon
Monasterio de Jeronimo Lisbon

Lisbon’s most spectacular historic site, Monasterio dos Jerónimos, is part of the world’s cultural heritage. It is located on one side of the broad Indian Avenue, which is in harmony with Belém Tower on the other side of the Avenue. The church that was built in memory of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of India took seventy years of painstaking work. The whole building is magnificent and elegant. It combines the features of Moorish architecture and late Gothic architecture. This kind of east-west mixed architecture was very popular in Emmanuel I (1495-1521). Therefore, it is also called “Emmanuel style” for this kind of architecture.

Lisbon after earthquake Belem Tower

The gate of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos fully embodies Emmanuel’s style. In Emmanuel’s era, the West began to really contact the East. The earliest time was when Vasco da Gama sailed far to the Indian coast in 1498. Then Afonso de Albuquerque occupied Goa in 1510 and built a trade centre to the east. The success of the great discovery of navigation stimulated Portugal’s economic and cultural development, and also affected the architectural art, magnificent palaces and churches of this period, which were awe-inspiring and vigorous.

The complicated and exquisite stone carvings constantly spread the glory of God, the majesty of the royal power and the theme of sailing expeditions. Abstract patterns advocated by Moors. The natural tastes enjoyed by the Portuguese. Along with the royal emblem, the king’s badge has become an element of decoration inside and outside the building. In 1755, Lisbon’s rare earthquake destroyed the entire ancient capital. Since the earthquake happened on Halloween and all Catholics celebrated mass in church, their casualties were extremely serious. The monastery, however, survived the landslide and saved the Portuguese king and all members of the royal family praying here. As a result, it has been added to the mystery of “divine protection”.

Lisbon after earthquake

Lisbon’s main street is Liberty Avenue. It is 90 metres wide and 1.2 kilometres long. The road is inlaid with exquisite coloured tiles. Liberty Avenue divides Lisbon into two parts. The old city of Alfama in the southeast is Lisbon’s most traditional block. Its steep and narrow streets lead straight to the river. For thousands of years, this place has left the mark of Carthaginians, Romans, Germanic and Moors, conquerors after conquerors. Walking through the streets here is like walking in a long history of Portugal. Looking up, you can see Lisbon’s oldest landmark, St. Jorge Castle.

Glory and Prosperity Disappeared in the Great Earthquake

A storm may arise from a clear sky, while human fortunes are as unpredictable as the weather. 1st November 1755 A.D. happens to be Catholic Halloween. At 9: 30 in the morning, while Lisbon residents gathered in the church to celebrate the festival, a sudden earthquake hit the city. According to survivors’ later descriptions of the earthquake: The city was shaken by invisible gravity. The roofs of tall and low buildings fluctuated like wheat waves in the wind. Followed by strong shaking. doors, windows and walls of the building fell into the streets like waterfalls, turning them into graves to bury the dead and wounded.

In the 1755 earthquake, the main hall of its church survived, but the roof fell off completely, leaving only four walls and pillars standing in the middle. It is a rare relic of the great earthquake in Lisbon. Today, some architectural fragments from various periods in Portugal are displayed in the monastery’s nave and prayer room. They become a small archaeology museum.

Convento da Ordem do Carmo Lisbon Portugal
Convento da Ordem do Carmo Lisbon

Modern geologists have estimated that the Lisbon earthquake, with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale, is the most destructive earthquake in modern European history. The tsunami triggered by the earthquake is also the most serious one in Europe so far. The earthquake and tsunami killed 90,000 people. Lisbon thus lost a third of its population; 85% of the buildings in the city were destroyed. Even though some of them were not destroyed by the earthquake, they did not escape the fire after the earthquake, including some famous palaces, churches, libraries and opera houses.

For example, the Phoenix Opera House, which had just been completed at that time, and the Lipira Palace on the banks of the Tejo River. The 70,000-book royal library was also set on fire. Many precious materials, including the navigation records of the famous navigator Vasco da Gama, as well as many famous paintings and works of art, have disappeared. Since then, Portugal’s overseas colonial ambition has been greatly frustrated. The empire went into decline and Lisbon lost its central position in Europe.

Rebuilding Lisbon and Restoring People’s Confidence

Although Lisbon was reduced to ruins and Portugal’s political economy was severely hit by the earthquake, it also gave birth to modern earthquake science and started the reform of Portugal’s political system. The Portuguese authorities did not simply regard the earthquake as “God’s punishment” in a religious sense. Instead, they asked all priests in the country to inspect the disaster situation and report the experiences of the victims so as to better understand the nature and characteristics of the earthquake and quickly carry out disaster relief and self-rescue.

The post-earthquake reconstruction of Lisbon was actively carried out under the leadership of then Prime Minister Marquis Pombal. In the words of Prime Minister Pombal, ” Bury the dead and feed the living.” Arrange accommodation for the residents while holding a sea funeral for the victims. He also organized manpower to formulate a city reconstruction plan that is now recognised as the best in the 18th century and took the lead in implementing strict architectural design and construction codes in Europe. It is required that all buildings must have wooden pegs embedded in masonry walls to prevent the walls from collapsing when an earthquake strikes. Moreover, the core parts of new buildings in downtown Lisbon have adopted intricate wooden pile cage frame structures, which can help buildings consume earthquake energy.

Despite the complexity of post-disaster reconstruction, some Jesuit priests tried to obstruct reconstruction after the earthquake because they believed that rebuilding Lisbon was against God’s will. Prime Minister Pombal and his government are still confident in rebuilding Lisbon. Pombal and his followers finally became the winners in this contest between the church’s theocracy and the secular regime. He not only successfully reformed Portugal’s education, trade and legal systems, but also revived Lisbon from the ruins of the earthquake.

The reconstructed Lisbon has a square pattern and rich levels. The buildings are strewn at random according to the terrain, and the streets extend from the hillside to the river. Square, fountain, sculpture and courtyard are located in it. The streets and buildings are very pleasant in scale, especially suitable for walking. In order to remember Pombal’s achievements in rebuilding Lisbon, a memorial square was set up for him in downtown Lisbon. There is a statue of him in the centre of the square. He faces Tejo River and overlooks the city he rebuilt. The statue was created by Portugal’s most famous sculptor Castro. The neoclassical pink arcade in the square is a typical example of the Pombal era.

The controversy over the cause and effect of the earthquake, including a series of measures taken by Portugal in the post-earthquake reconstruction, has had a profound impact on many social and historical aspects such as politics, economy, ideology, education, culture, religion, etc. It not only weakened the powerful religious forces at that time, strengthened secular power and centralized power, but also promoted the establishment of a national disaster-resistant mechanism, and played a considerable role in the enlightenment movement and the development of seismology throughout Europe.

This article is one of a series about Lisbon. To discover more and get excellent information about this city, head over to the Lisbon Portugal Travel Guide.

As the topic of sustainability is so important, you may be interested to learn more about Why Lisbon Is A Top Sustainable Destination by Eduardo Lera Latorre

If you are considering relocating or retiring to Portugal, you may find this article about relocation and retirement to Portugal of interest. It is written by a relocation expert. Doctor Valentino Coletto.
Other articles featured in this Lisbon series are:

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