Mértola region, Beja, Portugal
Hegira 2nd/3rd–7th centuries / AD 8th/9th–13th centuries
Umayyad, early Taifa kingdoms, Almoravid, Almohad
The system of settlement of the region between the Baixo Alentejo and the Algarve is characterised by widely dispersed small centres of population, either situated in proximity to former alcarias (fortified villages) abandoned in the Islamic period or built on top of older villages.
Between Campos de Ourique and the northern slopes of the Mu and Caldeirão mountain ranges, the ancient settlements were organised almost exclusively into villages on the tops of hills. These fortified settlements, many of which were inhabited continuously until the Islamic period, consist, in the most distinctive examples, of two separate but complementary parts: a higher part with walls surrounding an area of around half a hectare, and at a lower level, an enclosed area of 12,000 to 20,000 square metres for the protection and gathering of cattle.
Several examples exist of this urban model, although those of Ourique and Castro da Cola are among the most significant. In Almodôvar too, the manner in which the settlement was organised from the Iron Age onwards can be clearly seen. On the hill of Santa Rufina, or Castelo Velho, the centre of a probable saluquia (the higher part inside the fortification) can be discerned which, from its circular shape, was the reason for the place name, Almodôvar – which means 'round' in Arabic. At a lower level is the hypothetical albacar (the lower open-air enclosure around the fortification), which would subsequently have been adapted to house the population. The hill of Nodre (which means 'watchtower' in Arabic) indicates a lookout station which would have preceded the 14th-century development, built along the north–south road to the Algarve.
Each of these fortified villages included an economic belt consisting of vegetable plots, fields of cereals, and an area of brushwood and forest. Inside this area, all the alcarias and households lived an interdependent existence based on families or clans, revering the same saints and burying their dead in the same place.
For many centuries, building and rebuilding their fragile stone and mud walls, they resisted the feudal lords and maintained strong and ancient relations of solidarity.
Even today, the villages in the area around Alentejo and Algarve are arranged according to a system that dates back to Muslim times, characterised by the timeless Mediterranean models of large numbers of dispersed small settlements, economies based on cattle farming and traditional architecture.
Each village would have been surrounded by gardens, field of cereals, scrubland and forests. For many centuries the inhabitants resisted the power of the feudal lords by maintaining their fragile stone and mud walls, as well as close co-operative relationships.
The dating of this type of settlement is generally based on establishing analogies with other villages of a similar kind and also on the basis of ethno-archaeological studies.
Torres, C., “Povoamento Antigo no Baixo Alentejo: Alguns Problemas de Topografia Histórica”, Arqueologia Medieval, no. 1, Porto, 1992, pp.189–202.
Santiago Macias "Fortified villages" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2017. 2017. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;pt;Mon01;1;en
Prepared by: Santiago MaciasSantiago Macias
Santiago Macias é licenciado em História (variante de História da Arte) pela Universidade de Lisboa e doutorado em História pela Université Lumière – Lyon 2. Investigador do Campo Arqueológico de Mértola e técnico superior da Câmara Municipal de Mértola desde 1991. Foi comissário científico das exposições “Portugal Islâmico” (Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, Lisboa – 1998) e “Portugal-Marrocos” (Musée d'Art Contemporain, Tanger – 1999). É membro do comité científico do itinerário/exposição “Terras da Moura Encantada” (Lisboa, PICT e Museu Sem Fronteiras, 1999/2000). Recebeu em 2001 o Prémio Rómulo de Carvalho pelo livro “O legado islâmico em Portugal” (escrito em colaboração com Cláudio Torres). Foi responsável pela coordenação do projecto do Museu Islâmico de Mértola (2001). É responsável editorial da revista “Arqueologia Medieval”. Dedica-se ao estudo do período islâmico em Portugal, com particular incidência nas questões de urbanismo e habitat.
Translation by: Gilla Evans
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: PT A
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Muslim West | Settlements and Domestic Life
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