A brief summary of the history of the Algarve
The south coast of Portugal was settled in different periods by people from the Mediterranean as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors. The Phoenicians were the first to establish trading posts along the coast around 1200 BC.
The Carthaginians controlled the Algarve from 550 BC, when they founded Portus Hanibalis. They controlled the region until the Romans conquered it in the 1st century BC. The Romans changed the structure of the region. They developed the production of salt and minerals. They also introduced a new type of agriculture, based on huge agricultural estates (latifundia) and planted vines and olive trees. Furthermore, they built roads, bridges (for example, the bridge of Tavira) and large villas (from which we still have important ruins in Milreu, Vilamoura and Abicada). The Romans christianised the country and introduced their language, Latin, from which the Portuguese language developed.
When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, the Algarve was occupied by the romanized Visigoths. They secured the Catholic religion in Portugal and built the first churches. Portugal was one of the first Catholic countries in Europe. While the Visigoths were ruling Portugal, the Prophet Mohammed (7th century) proclaimed the Islamic religion in Saudi Arabia, which spread rapidly to North Africa. Islamic armies crossed the Straight of Gibraltar in 711 and started to conquer the Iberian Peninsula. These Islamic invaders were called the Moors. They were converted Berbers from North Africa and Arabs. The Moorish rule in the Algarve lasted for more than 500 years (711-1250) and has left relevant influences. The Moors introduced many new plants and trees to the Algarve, such as almond trees, carob trees, fig trees, pommegrenates and the first orange trees. The Arabs also gave the Algarve its name: Al-Gharb (meaning: the west), as it was the westernmost possession of their empire.
In the Portuguese language there are around 1000 words of Arabian origin, such as the names of towns and villages which begin with the prefixes ‘AL’, ‘Ben’ and ‘Ode’. Examples are Albufeira, Alvor, Almancil, Benafim, Bensafrim, Odeceixe and Odeáxere. The old irrigation techniques, the white washed houses, and the typical chimneys also have a strong mark of Arabian influence. The Califate of Cordoba, to which the Algarve belonged, fell in the 11th century. Thus, the Algarve became an independent Moorish Kingdom with Silves as its capital.
In the North of Portugal, a Catholic county was founded in the 8th century. It was called Portucale (the names of two cities: Porto and Cale) and it was declared an independent Kingdom in 1140. The first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, extended the Portuguese territory from its southern border, the Mondego river (Coimbra) to the Tagus river line by conquering many towns from the Moors, including Leiria, Santarém and Lisbon, which was conquered in 1147. The second Portuguese King, Sacho I, helped by an army of Cruzaders, commanded a raid from Lisbon to the Algarve and sieged the Moorish capital of the Algarve, Silves, and conquered it in 1189. Although the Moors could reconquer this city two years later and keep the Algarve until the 13th century, the conquest of Silves represents the decline of the Arabian rule in the Algarve.
Afterwards it was a question of time to reconquer the region and integrate it into the Portuguese kingdom, which happened in the middle of the 13th century. At this time, the war against the Moors was over. Christian settlers moved into the Algarve and built the first churches (usually converting mosques into churches). This was the case in Silves, Faro, Loulé and Tavira. The Moorish populations remained both in the countryside and in the towns. Portuguese kings granted them rights of citizenship and their economical activities as well as some religious tolerance, until centuries later the Inquisition compelled Moors and Jews to become Christians.
Having stable borders (mainly the same as today) since the 13th century and no more territory to conquer, Portugal got involved in several wars against Castille, before concentrating its effort in continuing the war against the Moors in Morocco. That can be seen as the continuation of the Christian conquest. In 1415 a Portuguese fleet of 200 ships, commanded by Henry the Navigator, sailed from Lagos to attack the important trade and fortress city of Ceuta in Marocco. The conquest of this city was a great success for Henry the Navigator, who was named ‘Duque of Viseu’. Later, Henry got other titles, such as Great Master of the Knights of Christ and governor of the Algarve. Henry became especially famous as the organiser of the Portuguese overseas discoveries, such as the discovery and control of the African coast and the discovery of Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, such as Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde and others. During Henry’s lifetime and later, conquests in Morocco continued with the domination of many cities like Tangier, Larache, Arzila, Mazagan Safin, Azamor, Mogador and others.
Henry died before the most important discoveries were made. Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Vasco da Gama discovered the searoute to India in 1498 and Pedro Alves discovered Brazil in 1500. For the Europeans the world concept changed completely, as the known world became four times bigger. In the 16th century Portugal controlled the trade with Africa, Asia and Brazil. It had the largest trading empire in the world. Soon, towns on the Algarve coast (such as Lagos and Tavira) became important trading ports.
The Portuguese Golden Age finished at the end of the 16th century, first with the military disaster of Alcacer Quibir (1578). This was a battle where Portugal lost its young king Sebastian, a large army and later its independence, as the Spanish King Philip II inherited the Portuguese throne in 1580. Afterwards, the country was ruled by Spanish kings during 60 years. During this period, Portugal had great difficulties to secure its large empire, mainly in Asia and lost it to the enemies of Spain, the Dutch and the English. Later, in 1640 a revolution burst out in Lisbon. Spanish governors were killed and, soon after, the rebellion against Spain spread through the whole country. As a consequence, the Duque of Braganza was acclaimed by the population as the new king and the Portuguese had to prepare for 28 years of war against Spain. Hundreds of fortresses were quickly built along the 1290 km long border with Spain, in order to protect all towns and villages along the coast. In the Algarve there are many fortresses from this time, as for instance in Castro Marim and Alcoutim. Further north in the Alentejo, the fortress city of Elvas is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The colonisation of Brazil, especially the large quantities of gold and fine woods that were brought to Portugal in the 18th century, influenced the development of the Portuguese Baroque art, which is characterized by gilt carved wood that you can see in almost every church in the Algarve. The best example is the Santo António church in Lagos.
From 1595 until the beginning of the 19th century, the Algarve was a semi-autonomous region within Portugal. The Algarve for example had its own taxation system.
The greatest disaster in Algarve history happened on 1st November 1755 when a tremendous earthquake destroyed countless buildings and killed many people. Many villages near the beach were affected by the subsequent tsunami, except for Faro (which had protection from the sandy banks of Ria Formosa). As a consequence, the capital of the Algarve changed from Lagos to Faro after the earthquake.
Modern Algarve history
In modern Algarve history, the region experienced an economical recovery in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. This was mainly due to the fish-canning industry. The fish canning industry, fishing and agriculture were the main activities of the Algarve until the 1970’s. Since then, tourism has developed into the economical base of the region. Nowadays, tourism is an important part of the economy of the Algarve.