Port of Lisbon
Review and History

The Port of Lisbon is Portugal’s biggest city and main seaport. Lying on the banks of the Tagus River near its mouth to the Atlantic Ocean, the Port of Lisbon is an important center for government, commerce, education, manufacturing, and tourism. Located on Portugal’s central shores and about 500 kilometers west-southwest of Madrid, Spain, the Port of Lisbon is the westernmost capital city in Europe.

The name “Lisboa” is a modern form of the ancient Olisipo (or Ulyssipo). In fact, the Port of Lisbon is said to have been founded by Ulysses of Homer’s famous Odyssey. Its founding has also been credited to Elisha, the grandson of Abraham. The more likely truth is that the Port of Lisbon was a Phoenician colony. Whatever its beginnings, the Port of Lisbon has one of the most beautiful and busiest natural harbors in the world. In 2001, more than 564 thousand people lived in the city of Lisbon, and more than 2.7 million called the metropolitan area home.

Port History

Historians believe that the original settlement of the Port of Lisbon took place around 1200 BC when it was a trading post for the Phoenicians. Historians know that Rome ruled the Port of Lisbon from 205 BC until 409 AD. Julius Caesar made it a municipality and named it Felicitas Julia. However, little physical evidence remains of Roman rule. After the Romans were driven out by the Alani, the Suebi, and the Visigoths are thought to have ruled the area, although there is little evidence of their presence.

In the 8th Century AD, Muslims from North Africa called Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula and occupied the Port of Lisbon. They ruled for over 400 years, repelling attempts at invasion by the Normans and Castile. The Moors withstood long sieges when Crusaders attacked the Port of Lisbon. The Moorish city walls, many of which still stand, encircled the medieval city of over 260 thousand square meters. When the Portuguese conquest came, there were already two settlements outside the city walls.

Led by the Portuguese king, Afonso I, the European forces included Normans, Flemish, English, and Portuguese soldiers. In 1147, the Moors lost the Port of Lisbon and were not able to re-take it. King Afonso made a site over 170 kilometers to the north his capital. It was another hundred years before the Port of Lisbon became the nation’s capital in 1256.

During the reign of King Denis I, the hilltops were adorned with churches and convents. The king established the University of Lisbon in 1288. The Castilians attacked and burned the Port of Lisbon in 1372, forcing King Ferdinand I to build new, stronger fortifications. He built a wall more than five kilometers long that enclosed over 100 hectares and contained 77 towers and 38 gates. The new defenses held when the Castilians attacked again in 1384.

In 1498 when Vasco da Gama and his Portuguese fleet went to India, they ended the Venetian monopoly on trade with the Orient. Merchants and traders from all over Europe quickly established themselves in the Port of Lisbon. King Manuel I ruled during this period, and it was under his rule that the Tower of Belem, a World Heritage Site and a good example of what is called the Manueline style of architecture, was built. Built in 1515, the five-story tower was a fort in the middle of the Tagus River that eventually changed the course of the river. Manuel I urbanized the Port of Lisbon, creating many new and ornate buildings along the river.

Some 65 thousand people lived in the Port of Lisbon in the early 16th Century. The Port of Lisbon had grown prosperous, and it contained many big lavish buildings. The slave trade was evident in the Port of Lisbon, and African slaves were common. John III the Pious succeeded Manuel I, inviting the Jesuits and the Inquisition to Portugal. The main victims were the Port of Lisbon’s Jewish bankers, moneylenders, and financiers, many of whom lost their property and were driven to other countries. The consequence of this action was the loss of relations with foreign markets and economic hardship for the Port of Lisbon. 

When Portugal’s King Sebastian was killed trying to invade Morocco in 1578, the Spanish moved in. Philip II of Spain took the throne of both Spain and Portugal. His famous Armada sailed against England from the Port of Lisbon in 1588. Through the rest of the 16th Century, the Port of Lisbon benefitted from the wealth of Spanish conquest.

In 1640, Lisbon nobles conspired to expel the Spanish and win back Portuguese independence. Their military allies, the British, set up a merchants’ area and established the British Factory. The establishment gained trade concessions and privileges from the Portuguese crown, and their influence on Portugal’s economy and politics remained strong until the early 19th Century.

The first half of the 18th Century was a time of plenty for the Port of Lisbon. Brazilian gold, diamonds, and plantations brought new wealth. Manufacturing created jobs and wealth. During this prosperous period, many new churches appeared. The residents of the Port of Lisbon were optimistic about their future.

In 1755, a devastating earthquake, one of the biggest ever recorded, struck the Port of Lisbon. The quays sank into the river, and a tsunami killed those who had run to boats for safety. Then, fires erupted and lasted for many days. When all was said and done, around 60 thousand people were dead, and over 12 thousand buildings lay in rubble. The impact of the tragedy remained with the people of the Port of Lisbon for generations, even though the Port of Lisbon recovered physically in relatively short order.

Sebastiao Jose de Carbalho, Joseph I’s Prime Minister, saw to the reconstruction of the Port of Lisbon. He sent in the realm’s chief engineer and five architects to plan for a restored city center. The prime minister was rewarded for his work by being made the Marques de Pombal. The style of architecture that evolved to quickly replace destroyed structures came to be called pombalino.

In the early 19th Century during the Peninsular War, the British and French traded control of the Port of Lisbon back and forth. Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1807, and the royal family escaped to Brazil. For a time, Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Portugal’s empire. Despite this difficulty, the Port of Lisbon continued to grow. By the mid-1880s, around 300 thousand people lived there. New public buildings were erected, and a new port was built on reclaimed land. The railroad came to town.

In 1880, the Avenida da Liberdade was opened. This six-lane carriageway became a landmark of the Port of Lisbon that remains today. Lined with blue mosaic sidewalks, trees, fountains, and waters stocked with swans and goldfish, the Avenida was the base for the Port of Lisbon’s expansion to the north and many new neighborhoods. Today, cafes also line the Avenida da Liberdade.

In the early 20th Century, the country’s political life went into a tailspin. King Charles made Joao Franco the prime minister, investing in him dictatorial powers. In 1908, anarchists assassinated the king and the crown prince. The king’s younger son, Manuel II, took the throne, vowing to uphold Portugal’s constitution; however, Manuel II abdicated two years later. Upon his abdication, a republic was declared, and a time of instability began.

By 1932, the country was almost bankrupt. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar rose to power and created a corporate state under his sole control. He remained in power until 1968. During this time, the Port of Lisbon continued to grow. New industries emerged, and public facilities were modernized. Housing projects, sports arenas, colleges and hospitals appeared. By the 1960s, tourism and foreign investments began to be welcomed, bringing a modest economic revival to the Port of Lisbon.

In 1974, Salazar’s successor was overthrown in a military coup. By the early 1980s, economic and political conditions were poor, and it was difficult to make changes. Portugal entered the European Community in 1986, creating a movement to modernize the Port of Lisbon. Private investment increased, and new buildings were started. In 1998, the Port of Lisbon’s World’s Fair created further change. The Port of Lisbon’s infrastructure was modernized, economic growth rebounded, and tourism increased.

The Port of Lisbon was not as greatly affected by Portugal’s economic stagnation in the early 2000s. It continues to bring in tourists and foreign investors in the beginning of the 21st Century. Today, the Port of Lisbon is Portugal’s wealthiest region, and it is well above the European Union’s average per capital GDP. Many multi-national corporations have European headquarters based in the Port of Lisbon region, and the metropolitan area is heavily industrialized. The Port of Lisbon boasts a modern seaport and a sophisticated regional market. It is also developing as a center for finance and technology. With the biggest mass media sector in Portugal, it houses several television, radio, and newspaper interests.

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