History of the Algarve: a brief overview
The Algarve has more than 3000 years of history. During different periods, the south coast of Portugal was occupied by people from the Mediterranean, such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors. In this article you can read more about the history of the Algarve.
A time of Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans
The Phoenicians were the first to establish trading posts along the southern coast of Portugal around 1200 BC. A couple of centuries later, the Carthaginians controlled the Algarve. Around 550 BC they founded Portus Hannibalis (currently Portimão). 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. The Romans introduced a new type of agriculture, based on huge agricultural estates (latifundia). They also planted vines and olive trees. Furthermore, the Romans built roads, bridges and large villas. Take for example the bridge of Tavira. Nowadays you can still see important Roman ruins in Milreu, Vilamoura and Abicada. The Romans made the country Christian and introduced their language, Latin. Eventually, the Portuguese language developed from Latin.
The end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of Moorish rule
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. The Islam spread rapidly to North Africa. Not much later, 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). Nowadays you can still see many influences of the Moors in the Algarve. The Moors introduced many new plants and trees to the Algarve. Examples are almond trees, carob trees, fig trees, pomegranates and the first orange trees. The Arabs also gave the Algarve its name: Al-Gharb. This means ‘the west’, as it was the westernmost possession of their empire.
In the Portuguese language there are around 1000 words of Arabian origin. In general, the names of Portuguese towns which begin with the prefixes ‘Al’, ‘Ben‘ and ‘Ode‘ come from the Arabic language. 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 town of Silves you can still find a castle that is actually one of the best preserved Moorish fortifications in Portugal.
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). This was declared an independent Kingdom in 1140. The first King of Portugal, Afonso I, extended the Portuguese territory from its southern border, the Mondego river (Coimbra), to the Tagus river line. He did this by conquering many towns from the Moors, including Leiria, Santarém and Lisbon, which was conquered in 1147. The long series of battles to regain control over the land from the Moors are also known as the Reconquista.
The second Portuguese King, Sancho I, helped by an army of Cruzaders, commanded a raid from Lisbon to the Algarve. He sieged the Moorish capital of the Algarve, Silves, and conquered it in 1189. Although the Moors could reconquer the town 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. This 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 Catholic churches (usually by converting mosques into churches). This was the case in Silves, Faro, Loulé and Tavira. Some Moors still remained in the Algarve, living in the countryside and in some towns. Portuguese kings granted them rights of citizenship as well as some religious tolerance, until centuries later the Inquisition compelled Moors and Jews to become Christians.
Start of the Age of Discoveries
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 sailed from Lagos to attack the important trade and fortress city of Ceuta in Marocco. The ships were commanded by Henry the Navigator. The conquest of this city was a great success for Henry, 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. He discovered several 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, El Jadida, Azamor, Mogador and others.
End of the Golden Age of Portugal
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. 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, with the military disaster of Alcácer Quibir (1578). This was a battle where Portugal lost its young king Sebastian and a large army. Portugal would also lose its independence, as the Spanish King Philip II inherited the Portuguese throne in 1580. Afterwards, Portugal was ruled by Spanish kings during 60 years. During this period, Portugal had great difficulties to secure its large empire, mainly in Asia. Parts of the Portuguese empire were lost to the Spanish, the Dutch and the English.
Later, in 1640, a revolution burst out in Lisbon. Spanish governors were killed. 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. Portugal went at war with Spain, which lasted for 28 years. This war is called the Portuguese Restoration War (1640-1668). Hundreds of fortresses were quickly built along the border with Spain, in order to protect towns and villages. 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.
Colonisation of Brazil
The colonisation of Brazil brought large quantities of gold and fine woods to Portugal in the 18th century. This influenced the development of the Portuguese Baroque art, which is characterized by gilt carved wood. You can see this in almost every church in the Algarve.
Earthquake of 1755
The greatest disaster in the history of the Algarve happened on 1st November 1755. On that day, a tremendous earthquake destroyed countless buildings and killed many people. It had a magnitude in the range of 8,5 – 9,0. The earthquake almost completely destroyed Lisbon. It had severe effects on the Algarve as well. Many villages near the beach were affected by the subsequent tsunami, except for Faro (which had protection from the sandy banks of the Ria Formosa). As a consequence, the capital of the Algarve changed from Lagos to Faro after the earthquake.
Modern history of the Algarve
From 1595 all the way until the beginning of the 19th century, the Algarve was a semi-autonomous region within Portugal. For example, the Algarve had its own taxation system. This changed in 1808. 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.