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Mysterious megaliths of Portugal.

'Wise the one who turns back and looks again at familiar things and ancient truths awaiting.'

In many countries people celebrate their birthday with a cake, candles, and a special wish. My recent birthday in Evora, Portugal is a bit different. I do not bite the candle under the table while making my wish (as is the old traditional custom in Portugal), but look at a different side of Portuguese culture. Instead, I connect with prehistory and heritage by touring sites of sacred stones associated with ancient astronomical, burial, and fertility rites in southern Portugal.

UNESCO declared Evora a World Heritage Site because it is a "museum-city, whose roots go back to Roman times." Located less than 2 hours from the capitol city of Lisbon, there is much to visit in this historic place filled with narrow, winding cobblestone lanes, and one of the world's oldest universities, adorned with impressive blue painted and glazed tiles (azuleos) arranged in large, wall panels relating to class subject matter.

Evora boasts many popular tourist sites such as the Roman Temple (well-preserved ruins with Corinthian columns dating from the 2nd century), Chapel of Bones (filled with skulls and bones from 5,000 skeletons of Franciscan monks), the Evora Museum (housed in a 16th century palace, with archeological finds and city history), and the recently added Watch Museum (with examples ranging from Mickey Mouse to the Moon on the face of assorted timepieces) all within the city walls, with some of the newer fortifications dating to the 14th century, in this well-preserved, medieval town. There is much to absorb in this appealing city, which has been inhabited since the 2nd century BC and has adapted to 21st century technology with Wi-Fi zones in public town squares. But I am particularly drawn to the surrounding, outlying areas, with impressive, ancient stones predating Stonehenge by two thousand years.


A megalith tour of prehistoric monuments in a loop of about 50 miles in the environs of Evora has much to offer. It includes the largest concentration and most significant examples on the Iberian Peninsula. I opt for this path less taken (with a nod to Robert Frost), away from the charming city, in search of an Iberian Mesopotamia. Visiting the powerful, ancient stones, connecting with their energy, and learning the lingo of the mysterious megaliths await, as I pass holm oak, olive, and cork trees in the picturesque and alluring Alentejo region of Portugal, which makes up about one third of the country. And I continue on to view other mysterious stones in southern Portugal, many of which are ancient, and some of which take on imaginary, anthropomorphic qualities.

The word 'megalith' comes from the Greek for 'great stones,' and there are many types imbued with religious and symbolic meanings, both known and unknown. I discover a dolmen is thought to be a burial site for community leaders, while a cromlech is a sanctuary and gathering place on the winter and summer solstice and for other ancient rituals around a grouping of elliptical stones. In contrast, a menhir, or 'standing stone' is a solitary, naturally shaped, phallic rock most likely associated with fertility rites. The word 'menhir,' translating as 'long stone,' comes from the language of Breton. As I consider the idea of distant messages embedded in stone, the only thing audible on my megalith tour of sacred sites is the gentle patter of rain and the voice of Libanio Murteira Reis, my excellent cultural guide, bringing history alive as he imparts startling facts, such as evidence of human existence in this area, dating back 100,000 years.


The ethereal Almendres Cromlech, an open-air, oval complex made up of close to 100 granite stones, is believed to have served as a primitive astronomical observatory, possibly for a solar cult as well as a gathering place for celebrating the cycles of nature. This cromlech is the largest site of its kind on the Iberian Peninsula and among the oldest known monuments. Some muse on the name of this site, suggesting that the stones are almond-shaped ('almendres' meaning almonds) while another theory says this fertile area may have been an almond grove in times past.

The 7,000-year old site lies on a gentle sloping hill, with upright stones (some of which are decorated with hard to interpret iconography as well as anthropomorphic and pastoral references) facing the sun for sunrise and sunset. The builders of this structure were aware of the movements of both the sun and moon and the natural rhythms of the solar and lunar cycles as evidenced in the shadows it casts along with alignments during the equinox and solstice. My heart rate seems to slow down in this peaceful place. Also known as "The Hill of Stone," it is easy to imagine it as a sacred sanctuary, where offerings of coins, beads, and jewelry are still found today.

Nearby is the upright, 8-foot high Menhir of Almendres, also called, 'Standing Stone.' This single, phallic stone is thought to symbolize male fertility. Shaped in an elongated ovoid, it dates from the Neolithic period and there is a crook (shepherd's staff) engraved in it, referencing agrarian culture. Local lore connects it to a tale of a Moorish princess, who is said to comb her hair once a year at this site, while historians consider the evolution and transition of hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian communities. The relatively remote area of this standing stone allows for viewing it quietly, without the disturbance of others.


This dolmen, located close to the village of Valverde, is considered among the tallest funerary monuments in the world and the largest dolmen in the Iberian Peninsula. Anta Grande do Zambujeiro is thought to be a burial site (for people and possessions) with pottery, decorated schist slabs for adornment, and copper artifacts. Made of 7 enormous, vertically placed stones leaning towards one another, it also has a corridor of upright stones leading toward its entrance. Viewing this site begs the question of how did the ancients put this together? In the 20th century the capstone covering on top was removed and broken in the process. Today the dolmen has an artificial roof, resembling a large carport, to protect this significant site from the elements. When approaching the structure, there is a long rock on its side with depressions in it. We speculate if these stone pockets or dimples were functional recesses for pounding food, educational purposes, or playing a game. But the truth is, no one knows. Artifacts recovered here are on exhibit at the Evora Museum.

Driving further west we come to The Dolmen Chapel of Sao Brissos. Sacred stones cross religious borders here. While the Church destroyed some dolmens, others were considered sacred. This Neolithic dolmen, now whitewashed with a blue stripe painted on the bottom for protection, was converted into a small Catholic chapel in the 17th century. Like other dolmens, it is capped with a top stone. The repurposing of a dolmen or other sacred stones into a chapel is rare, mixing the ancient pagan traditions with Christianity. In years of drought, this chapel is a pilgrimage site associated with fertility.


Both cave paintings and engravings can be seen inside the cave at Escoural, but unlike the other rock sites, an appointment must be made ahead of time for once-a-day viewings with their tour guide. (You must call ahead to see if the tour is leaving in the morning at 10:30 or afternoon at 2:30 of a particular day.) No photographs are allowed inside the cave and protective helmets are handed out at the cave entrance. Inside there are good walkways and it is well lit.

The Cave of Escoural, discovered by quarry workers in the early 1960s (and declared a National Monument in 1963), leaves us clues about early man with drawings from 25,000 BC. Its Upper Paleolithic art--largely composed of visual imagery of animals (such as horses, deer, and aurochs, who were ancestors of the wild ox)--is a reminder of hunter-gatherer communities who probably took refuge in the cave for shelter as well as for socio-religious practices. Rock art--the ancient ancestor of today's graffiti--often tells a story, serving as a shared diary of a community in times past. But there are also abstract images in various chambers, in which the rock serves as a canvas, with finely incised dots and lines, where the meaning is less clear in this cave or prehistoric sanctuary on three levels, used as both a shelter and sanctuary for different chronological settlements in centuries past.

There is evidence of their stone tools (axes, adzes, and flint blades) along with other archeological artifacts found in this limestone grotto (in an area where granite is the dominant stone), now exhibited in area museums. But the accompanying, poorly-lit, Visitors Center is particularly disappointing and pales severely in contrast with its northern counterpart in Foz Coa, where an excellent museum about cave art brings that site to life. That said, the Escoural Cave provides a glimpse into the collective imagination of our ancestors with a visual language dating back 50,000 years, since the cave shows us paintings from the first settlements of the Middle Paleolithic era as well as later use in the Neolithic period, when bodies were buried here along with pottery, tools, and adornments made from bones, stones, and shells.


Beyond the official 'megalith tour,' aided by the insights of historian Libanio in the environs of Evora, we continue to search for additional sites. Traveling East through the plains of the sparsely populated Alentejo region of southern Portugal, we pass cork trees of various ages, where the mid-section of the bark is removed during the harvest every nine years. Numbers are painted on the tree to indicate the year when the cork is harvested. This clear marking allows time for the tree to nourish and grow before the next harvest, almost a decade later. But at the moment, our focus returns to the rocks.


In the Monseraz area, 49 stones encircle a single menhir. While we are pleased to visit and explore this place, it is frustrating to find a family picnicking and running around the stones as if it is a playground. Then we learn it has been transplanted from its original site in 2002, due to the construction of the extensive Alqueva Dam and Reservoir (the largest man-made lake in Portugal). If Neolithic socio-magical rites took place at the original locale of the stones, moving them elsewhere seems to change their context and decrease their power. My partner and I rename the stones of Xerez, calling it the Xerox Stones, which seems apt for a copy of the real thing, which in effect has been cut and pasted into a new environment.


Unlike the other menhirs with pointy tips, this hefty one is shaped more like a mushroom. A large collection of small stones can be found on its top from a practice, which is part pagan tradition and part modern-day ritual. Young, single women come and turn away from the monument as they throw little rocks with their left hands, over their shoulders, hoping the small stones will land safely on top of the menhir. If they do, it is believed marriage will follow. If the rocks fall down, this is interpreted as one year of remaining unwed for each stone that misses or tumbles off. The site is well marked and close to the road in the town of Sao Pedro, known for its pottery.


Communities were believed to have lived here at the end of the 4th millennium BC. Set in an olive grove (as its name reflects), relics have been excavated from over 130 burials along with a variety of personal offerings at the Olival da Pega site. We get up close to this dolmen, which you can't stand upright inside of, although it is possible to crawl into it. Today, sheep graze in a surrounding pasture and the sounds of their bells linger in the air.


Sometimes the stones are decorated, as is the case with this Menhir of Bulhoa. It is outside of Monsaraz with good signage to track it down. The top of this standing stone has engravings including a sun and serpentine line motifs. There are also agricultural crooks engraved, associated with pastoral activities. Some speculate this monolith was used to mark territory. It was identified in 1970, but dates back to the 5th or 6th millennia BC.


This menhir is also called 'Long Rock' and weighs approximately 8 tons. Some believe it is connected to fecundity rites and it displays a slight depression on its apex. This notable, granite stone with a rust hue stands as a solitary symbol in the countryside. It is considered one of the most important in the Iberian Peninsula. As we walk around this towering granite stone, church bells peal in the distance.


While most of these megaliths are accompanied by good signage, not all of the ancient stones have names or plaques indicating what or where they are. This is the case in the Vila do Bispo, outside Sagres in the southwestern portion of the Algarve region. We take time out from our bird-watching tour with our friendly and informative guide, biologist Nuno Barros, who is flexible and reconfigures our day to include a visit to a mysterious megalith. I quietly wonder about other megalithic sites and unmarked sacred stones strewn throughout Portugal and the rest of Europe, lying unrecognized as if they are unknown tombs of the dead. While stone circles and archeological sites may be more commonly associated with the British Isles and France, Portugal is a highly recommended place to ponder the secrets embedded in these ancient ceremonial sites.

'Men have collected stones since the beginning of time and have apparently assumed that certain ones were the containers of the spirit of the life-force with all its mystery.'--Carl Jung

Iris Brooks is a cultural writer who enjoys exploring and writing about stones of all kinds: from the energetically charged red rocks of Arizona, etched petroglyphs of the southwest, and healing pohaku in Hawaii to ancient cave paintings in Australia and Zimbabwe. The aesthetic qualities and mysteries of the megalithic stone sites of Portugal continue to resonate with her. Learn more about her work with photographer Jon H. Davis on their NORTHERNLIGHTS STUDIO web site, or


Recommended Guides/Tours

M & M Cultural Tours with Libanio Murteira Reis,

Birdland with Nuno Barros,

Recommended Hotels

Hotel--Evora Hotel in Evora,

Hotel--Horta da Moura in Monseraz,

Escoural Cave--for an appointment email,

Guidebook--DK Eyewitness Travel Portugal,

Airline--TAP Portugal,

Alentejo Tourism,

Portugal Tourism,
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Title Annotation:LIFE; Evora, Portugal
Author:Brooks, Iris
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:4EUPR
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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