The Iberian Peninsula was once made up of various tribes including the Celts, Aquitani, Iberians and Turdetani. Trade had been established across the Mediterranean by the Greeks and Phoenicians, though the Romans came to control the entire peninsula. As the Roman Empire began to weaken, the peninsula was invaded by various barbarian tribes and the Visigoths came out victorious. They controlled the entire Iberian Peninsula and converted to Catholicism.
The Moors and Reconquista
Meanwhile, Islamic forces had been slowly sweeping from the Middle East to Northern Africa and in AD711 the Moors crossed the Gibraltar Strait and defeated the Visigoths. They pushed north and conquered nearly all of the peninsula, though the Christian kingdom of Asturias held strong in the northwest thanks to the protection of the surrounding mountains. The Iberian Peninsula was known as Al-Andalus and became a centre for science and progress, though infighting eventually led to the area being split into a number of independent Muslim states.
In the 11th century, Christian soldiers from across Europe answered the call to fight the ‘infidels’ during a period known as the Reconquista. The Moors were pushed south and, in 1139, Afonso Henriques declared himself the King of Portugal after defeating the Moors in the south. The Algarve was conquered in the late 13th century and Portugal’s borders were defined.
After securing their borders, the Portuguese turned their attention abroad. Nearby Morocco was the first target and Portugal’s victory spurred the country into global exploration. Africa, Southern India and Brazil followed, as well as trading posts in Timor, China and more. Their plan was simple: despite having a relatively tiny population, they would build their empire through trade.
This, of course, was unsustainable for such a small nation and they eventually found themselves in and out of Spanish rule towards the end of the 17th century. A period of peace and prosperity ensued until a giant earthquake hit Lisbon in 1755, levelling the city and causing tens of thousands of deaths. The Prime Minister at the time, Marques de Pombal, famously promised to ‘bury the dead and heal the living,’ and somehow did just that.
After Brazil’s independence was recognised in 1825 the Portuguese focused in on the domestic front. Education improved, as did women’s rights, and slavery was ended across the Portuguese colonies. Still, discontent was spreading as inequality rose and the monarchy was seen as a cause of this: the king, Carlos, was assassinated and his son was exiled to the UK – an unstable republic was born.
Over the following 16 years there were 45 changes of government. Coup after coup after coup took place, with Portugal supporting the Allies in WWI and remaining neutral in WWII. The post-war years saw yet another coup in Lisbon, known as the Revolution of the Carnations, led by military personnel sympathetic to the colonies, and the decolonisation of territories swiftly followed. Countries like East Timor and Angola were plunged into chaos and by the late 1970s, Portugal was equally, if not more, unstable.
It’s been a long slog for Portugal and the economy is by no means safe. The country was in a serious recession for years, but the past five years have seen unemployment drop and wages rise. There’s been a heavy investment in green energy too. And though tourist numbers continue to swell and boost the economy, the cities are facing similar problems to a lot of European hotspots: rising rents and cost of living, thanks to tourism, are forcing locals out of the city centres. But for now, Portugal is going from strength to strength and looking positively towards the future.