Portugal’s history is dominated by the discoveries of maritime explorers, the most important dating back to the early 15th century. Portugal’s Golden Age of Exploration was initiated by Henry the Navigator, who wanted to break the Arab monopoly on African and Asian trade routes. Famous Portuguese explorers include Bartholomeu Dias, who was the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, Vasco da Gama, who discovered an ocean route from Portugal to India, Pedro Álvares Cabral, who was the first European to set eyes on Brazil, in 1500, and Ferdinand Magellan, the first person to cross all the meridians of the globe. This epoch saw the success of the Portuguese explorers in acquiring monopolies on much of the spice trade and their expeditions to Japan and the New World brought great wealth and power to Portugal. The new discoveries didn’t just bring untold riches in terms of gold, silver and spices, but also power and influence. The spread of Catholicism was perhaps the most lasting of the results of exploration.
In 1755, at around twenty to ten on the morning of 1 November, one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes in human history struck Lisbon. It has been estimated that about a quarter of Lisbon’s population of 200,000 was killed, but the death toll number may have been as high as 100,000. The earthquake, which measured an estimated 9 on the Richter Scale, was soon followed by a tsunami and widespread fire that together destroyed much of the city. The event worsened political tensions in Portugal, delaying its colonial ambitions, but may be credited with creating the science of modern seismology. Despite the catastrophe and thanks to Portugal’s huge colonial wealth, a massive recovery operation was mounted and within months much of Lisbon’s city centre was already being rebuilt. Lisbon’s new neoclassical central bairros were the first in the world to be designed to be “earthquake proof” and it is said that scores of marching troops were used to recreate seismic activity around model buildings to see the effects. This rebuilding was, however, concentrated in the lower part of the city, and Portugal’s subsequent economic decline impeded the complete resurrection of Lisbon. Even in the early parts of the 19th century there were reports of ruined structures which had not been rebuilt. A few prominent Manueline style buildings survived the earthquake, including the Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery, which are both UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Castelo de São Jorge is by far the oldest building in Lisbon, dating back to the fifth century. Lisbon’s urban history may really have begun as a commercial hub for Phoenician traders shipping tin from ancient Britain. Evidence of Phoenician influence dates back to the 13th century BC, but ancient Lisbon was, according to legend, founded by Ulysses (Odysseus), the renowned Greek king of Ithaca and hero of Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey. Ulysses supposedly named the city “Olissipo”, meaning “enchanting” or “friendly” port and by the time the Romans arrived the capital became known as Olissipona. The Romans built extensive temples, aqueducts and baths across the city, as well as a large necropolis under modern day Praça da Figueira. Early in the 8th century Lisbon was conquered by Muslim armies from North Africa and the Middle East, who in turn built their mosques above Roman temples and who also built a fortified city wall known as the Cerca Moura, which is still visible today. As commerce and trade flourished under Moorish rule, Lisbon became more cosmopolitan, attracting Christians, Berbers and Jews, and in 1147 it was taken into Christian hands, heralding the killing, expulsion or conversion of the Muslim residents and the construction of Catholic churches on top of mosques.