Aljezur Castle

Castelo de Aljezur

by Matt D’Arcy

Aljezur Castle was captured from the Moorish occupation in 1249 because an Arab girl fell in love with a Christian soldier and betrayed her people.

So the legend goes—and more of that later.

What is without dispute is that this fortress, whose ruins still stand in their dominant position on the heights above the town, played a pivotal role in a hugely important period of Portuguese history.

It is said to be one of the most impressive castles in the Algarve, with great regional importance, yet is simultaneously one of the least known national strongholds.

The flag of Portugal, whose current design was adopted on June 30, 1911, shows seven golden castles, one of which is claimed to be the fortress of Aljezur.

The seven castles are traditionally considered a symbol of the Portuguese victories over their Moorish enemies under Afonso III, who supposedly captured seven enemy fortresses in the course of his conquest of the Algarve in 1249.

Yet, this is nothing more than popular belief because this king did not have seven castles on his banner, rather an unspecified number up to 16!

But it is known that the red border featuring the seven golden castles on ancient versions of the flag was introduced to mark the extension of Portugal’s territory to include the Algarve.

The castles were first introduced to the flag around 1253 and do, indeed, represent the castles taken from the Moors in Algarve.

One theory states the castles reflect the fact that Afonso lll, the king who placed them in the flag, was son of Urraca, a Castilan princess—he also took a Castilian princess for his second wife—as the castles were a symbol of the Castilian royal family, their arms consisting of a golden castle on a red field.

Their number has been changed with the evolution of the flag. Some reconstructions display 16 castles, a number which changed to nine in 1385, and only in 1485 did it definitively become seven.

Because of those changes, historians don’t always agree on which castles are actually represented in the flag, as the Portuguese conquered well over seven castles during the Algarve campaigns.

Some suggestions include Albufeira, Aljezur, Cacela, Castro Marim, Estombar, Faro, Loulé, Paderne, Porches and Sagres.

But Aljezur Castle was certainly highly significant at the time of those final campaigns against the occupiers from North Africa, as it was the last fortress on the Algarve to be captured from the Moors.

So, it is more than reasonable to expect it to be one of the seven shown on the flag.

The site of the fortress has been occupied since the Iron Age, but the castle itself is a Moorish fort from the 10th century and is still an imposing edifice, dominating this small west coast town.

In that period the Moors occupied the southern part of Portugal, an area which they called “Garb Al Andaluz” (eventually becoming The Algarve), and the castle was built to guard the ancient river port that once provided direct access to the sea.

The origins of the fort, however, date from well before the Islamic period.

Excavations conducted there by Carlos Tavares da Silva showed levels of occupancy of the Bronze and Iron Ages, which testifies to the importance of this hill for the successive peoples who inhabited this southwest corner of Portugal.

In fact, archaeological discoveries have confirmed that humans had settlements in the area at about 4,000 BC.

Origins of the Castle

But at the time the fortress was built the Moors controlled Algarve (meaning ‘the west’) and Aljezur (‘the bridges’) until it was conquered by the Portuguese—led by Dom Paio Peres Correia—in the 13th century.

Although the municipality covers some 32,065 hectares along the Algarve’s west coast Aljezur itself is a small market town of two parts, the old village and the new, divided by a fertile river valley. The once-navigable river, which brought fishermen directly into the town from the Atlantic, is now silted up.

The older part, dating back beyond the 10th Century is located next to the river and winds up the hill to the remains of the castle on its highest point. In fact, some historians suggest the castle itself was the original fortified town of Aljezur, dating from the 8th Century.

From the high point of the castle, whitewashed buildings cascade down the hillside and at the bottom is the river, with the road across the bridge leading to the east and the newer part of the village, Igreja Nova.

This was built in the 18th Century after Aljezur suffered terrible destruction during the great earthquake of 1755, which all but destroyed Lisbon and towns all close to the coastline south from the Capital.

Fishing and agriculture were the main economic industries in the coastal areas and countryside surrounding Aljezur. So overflowing was the produce that the farm products were shipped to the market via the port up the Aljezur creek.

Over time and partly, it is thought, due to the huge movement of the earth shifting the river bed during the ’quake, siltation made the creek impassable to barges or boats.

The earthquake brought much destruction and disease to Aljezur and in the 18th century, the old town was infested with malaria.

To assist the people in this grave epidemic of the time, the Bishop of Algarve, Dom Francisco Gomes de Avelar, ordered the construction of the new town, called Igreja Nova, in order to escape the deadly consequence of the disease which resulted in numerous deaths.

Despite these efforts, many of the residents stayed in their old homes, eventually creating the two halves of the municipality known as Aljezur.

The sheer majesty of the castle, despite it having been abandoned in the 15th century, had dominated this region for almost 700 years, until it was badly damaged in the earthquake.

But much of the outer wall remains, a walled area that comprised a courtyard, two main towers, one round and one square, several residential structures, as well as two grain silos plus a covered cistern with a vaulted roof.

In 1249, with the final conquest of the Algarve, the castle passed into the possession of the Portuguese king, Afonso lll, and in 1280, the town received its Royal Charter from the reigning King Dinis.

In 1504 King Manuel revised the Charter by awarding the town the title “Noble and Honourable.”

Documents dating from 1448 suggest that the castle was now in ruins having lost its military function, and with the strategic importance of the town having been devalued.

The Order of Santiago tried to carry out some degree of reconstruction, building, it is said, new houses which were constructed in the castle on top of the Moorish foundations. These buildings kept to the basic layout, but now butted directly onto the walls covering the Arabic walkway which had previously lain around the inner circumference.

But three centuries later, the 1755 earthquake ruined much of the town, destroying with it a significant part of the castle, including the residential enclosure.

As we said at the outset some legends exist concerning Aljezur Castle, one of them being that it was overrun by the Portuguese at dawn on 24th June, 1249 because of an act of betrayal brought about by love.

The timing is why Our Lady of Alva–Nossa Senhora da Alva (Our Lady of The Dawn)—is the patron saint of Aljezur, commemorated by a fine 18th century statue in the main Igreja Nova church and probably taken from the previous town church, Misericórdia Church, which was destroyed in the earthquake.

The aforementioned cistern is associated with this claim as it connects to the Fonte de Mentiras—“Liar´s spring” –which lies below the castle, so called because the legend tells that the castle fell when a Moorish girl who loved a Christian man betrayed her people and allowed him access.

A more likely version of this legend is that a maid might have prevented the capture, but mistook the attacking knights for Moorish defenders and failed to raise the alarm.

Contemporary accounts from the 16th through to the 19th centuries talk of the Castle’s antiquity and decay.

But in recent years the ruins have undergone some restoration, and further general improvements to the surrounding area have made it into a pleasant walk, or an easy drive through the village and up to the castle.

The new information boards provide a great deal of information, but remember—take your camera!

The Castle offers fantastic stunning panoramic views of the surrounding countryside in one of Portugal’s most beautiful National Parks, from the Monchique mountains to the east, to the Atlantic in the west.

There are no entrance charges and there is limited free parking.

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