Immense riches, fires, plague, Europe’s worst recorded earthquake, revolutions, coups and a dictatorship – Lisbon has certainly had its ups and downs.
It’s said that Ulysses was here first, but the Phoenicians definitely settled here 3000 years ago, calling the city Alis Ubbo (Delightful Shore). Others soon recognised its delightful qualities: the Greeks, the Carthaginians and then, in 205 BC, the Romans, who stayed until the 5th century AD. After some tribal chaos, the city was taken over by North African Moors in 714. They fortified the city they called Lissabona and fended off the Christians for 400 years.
But in 1147, after a four-month siege, Christian fighters (mainly British crusader hooligan-pillagers) under Dom Afonso Henriques captured the city. In 1260, Afonso III moved his capital here from Coimbra, which proved far more strategic given the city’s excellent port and central position.
In the 15th and 16th centuries Lisbon boomed as the opulent centre of a vast empire after Vasco da Gama found a sea route to India. The party raged on into the 1800s, when gold was discovered in Brazil. Merchants flocked to the city, trading in gold, spices, silks and jewels. Frenziedly extravagant architecture held up a mirror to the era, with Manueline works such as Belém’s Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
But at 9.30am on All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1755, everything changed. Three major earthquakes hit, as residents celebrated Mass. The tremors brought an even more devastating fire and tsunami. Some estimate that as many as 90,000 of Lisbon’s 270,000 inhabitants died. Much of the city was ruined, never to regain its former status. Dom João I’s chief minister, the redoubtable Marquês de Pombal, immediately began rebuilding, in a simple, cheap, easily managed style that created today’s formal grid. (Though the famous quote ‘We must bury the dead, and feed the living’ was uttered by the Marquês de Alorna and not the Marquês de Pombal, to whom it is often attributed.)
In November 1807, Napoleon’s forces occupied the city, where they would remain for the next four years, and Lisbon slid with the rest of the country into chaos. In 1908, at the height of the turbulent republican movement, Dom Carlos and his eldest son were assassinated in Praça do Comércio. The next 16 years saw 45 changes of government, and another high-profile assassination (President Sidónio Pais, at Rossio station in 1918). During WWII Lisbon, although officially neutral, harboured numerous spies.
Two bloodless coups (in 1926 and 1974) rocked the city. In 1974 and 1975 there was a massive influx of refugees from the former African colonies, changing the demographic of the city and adding to its richness culturally, if not financially.
After Portugal joined the European Community (EC) in 1986, massive EC funding started to boost redevelopment, which was a welcome boost after a 1988 fire in Chiado. Streets became cleaner and investment improved facilities. Lisbon has spent recent years dashing in and out of the limelight as 1994 European City of Culture, and host of Expo '98 and the 2004 European Football Championships. Meanwhile, 2006 saw the continuation of major development projects throughout the city, from the reopening of the restored Praça de Touros (Lisbon’s bullring) to ongoing work on the metro system and, most importantly, much needed building rehab in the Alfama.