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Recalling the great Lisbon earthquake.

One of Europe's greatest tragedies is forgotten today. A walking tour of Lisbon brings it back to life. We meet our smiling young guide Rita at Comercio Square, where the Portuguese royal family once watched bullfights from their palace balconies. The Tagus flows just beyond.

In 1755 Lisbon rivaled Florence, Rome and Venice in its wealth, art and palaces. Vasco da Gama and other explorers had opened trade routes to India, making this one of Europe's richest cities. Ships loaded with Brazilian gold and diamonds lay at anchor. This boom financed the flamboyant Manueline art, Portugal's answer to the renaissance. Eighteenth century prints show a city of opulence, a skyline dotted with towers, palaces and convents.

Then, on All Saint's Day, Nov. 1, 1755 at 9:30 a.m. an earthquake struck. Felt from Ireland to Morocco, it measured 9 on the Richter scale.

A witness, Sister Catherine Witham, wrote, "It began like the rattleing of Coaches and the things befor me danst up and downe upon the table. All around us the dust was so thick there was no seeing ... We layd under a pair tree, covered over with a Carpett for Eight days."

Within minutes a second and third tremor brought down the walls and roofs of houses, shops, the Royal Palace, Opera House and the Cathedral, reducing two-thirds of the city to rubble. More than 20 churches collapsed, crushing holiday worshipers. Flaming church candles ignited blazes that engulfed the city for six days.

People scrambled toward the waterfront seeking safety. At 11 a.m. three tidal waves between 15 and 20 feet crashed into the city, hurling people and debris as flotsam. Observers on hilltops said that the city swayed like corn in the wind before crumbling and watched the ancient walls of the castle fall. Fire completed the destruction.

Priceless gold, jewelry, art, archives, furniture and books were lost. Some 40,000 of Lisbon's 230,000 people died.

Our Lisbon Walker Downtown tour looks out on Lisbon's grandest square lined by classical buildings. In its center is a statue of apathetic King Dom Jose (Joseph I) who was residing with the royal family downriver at the palace at Belem when the quake struck. "This square, where the royal palace once stood and the first commercial development took place, was underwater during and after the quake," Rita says. "Only the buildings in the hills were not flooded."

We walk up the orderly pedestrian streets of the Baixa, pronounced Bye-sha, a neighborhood leveled by the quake but still the heart of the city. Rita says that the quake influenced European thought as eyewitness accounts appeared in foreign newspapers. Was it natural or caused by divine wrath? Lisbon was famed for its Inquisition.

The French author Voltaire wrote sarcastically, "After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-de-fe; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra that the burning of a few people by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking."

Preachers warned of further catastrophes.

But no sooner had the dust settled than the frightened king, who loved opera more than affairs of state, appointed Portuguese statesman Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho e Melo, later to become the Marquis de Pombal, prime minister. The king gave him complete control because the marquis's palace had been spared in the quake and the king saw this as a sign from God.

Pombal then ordered the king, who wished to escape to Brazil, to stay with the court and remain under canvas in the palace garden to maintain morale. Many others followed his example and camped in the open, even if their homes were intact.

The marquis then ordered the dead buried, the living fed, the port closed and Lisbon's food and water stored in tents. Food was rationed to workers and all were ordered to work. None was allowed to leave the city.

A plague did not follow the disaster. The dead were burned, thrown into the river or piled on barges and sunk at sea. Prices were fixed, most taxes suspended, emergency hospitals opened. Pombal directed that new streets should be "forty feet in width, with pavements on either side protected from wheeled traffic by stone pillars, as in London."

During this period, Portugal, a nation of 3 million, was considered a European backwater. In 1750, some 200,000 people lived in the nation's 538 monasteries, but after the quake change was in the air. Within a month a gridiron of parallel streets running from the waterfront to the Rossio, Lisbon's main medieval square, was taking shape.

The marquis designed a survey sent to all parishes, asking whether animals behaved strangely before the quake, whether water levels rose or fell in wells, how many buildings were destroyed and what type of destruction occurred. The answers have permitted a precise reconstruction of the disaster.

Engineers designed flexible architectural models. Quake effects were simulated by troops marching around the models. The first sewage system, still in use today, was constructed. Within a year, central Lisbon was redesigned to resist earthquakes. All projections from buildings and carvings were forbidden by law.

We walk under the triumphal arch, the Arco da Rua Augusta, depicting historical figures, including Pombal. This loveliest part of the city is home to banks, businesses, outdoor cafes and artists. Pombal's perfect neoclassical grid was Europe's first example of visionary urban planning and today many streets take their names from crafts, goldsmiths, silversmiths, cobblers and dealers in cloth.

Then, in 1759, Pombal expelled the Jesuits, created secular public primary and secondary schools, introduced vocational training, created hundreds of new teaching posts, added natural science and mathematics departments to the University of Coimbra, and ordered new taxes to pay for these reforms.

Pombal created companies and guilds to regulate commerce and demarcated regions to ensure port wine's quality. This classical enlightened despot ruled with a dictatorial hand, imposing strict laws on commoners and nobles alike. The nobles despised this upstart.

Rita points at a house and explains that after the quake all buildings of the rich or poor looked similar--the same height and facade. Tiles were added to facades for decoration and to resist salt water. Churches were ordered to show similar facades. Rita points at a typical building. Then we notice a small cross. It's a church.

Years passed before property problems were solved and later streets were lined with trees. The buildings of Pombal's era represent Europe's first attempt at quake-proof structures.

We detour to Lisbon's oldest, most fascinating district, the Alfama, whose steep, narrow streets were built of stone, which preserved them from the quake's devastation. Laundry hangs everywhere above uneven staircases and doors with peeling paint. At Saint Domingo's Church recent remodeling has uncovered tall, blackened pillars reminding us of the fierce flames that followed the quake.

Today Lisbon's busiest underground station is named Marques de Pombal in his honor. The square has an imposing statue of him. Pombal was cruel, but had no regrets. As he said, "The prisons and cells were the only means I found to tame this blind and ignorant nation."

We stop at a cafe on the Rossio, Lisbon's liveliest square where the Inquisitional Palace once lifted its gloomy facade and heretics were burned at the stake. Today, peace permeates the square's salty air as we sip coffee in this capital that rose from its own ashes.

If you go

We bought a 15 Euro ticket at the airport for a taxi ride that takes one anywhere in the city and the LisboaCard that covers all transportation, free entrance to many museums, discounts on others and tour discounts. We got around easily on local buses and street cars. The Lisbon Restaurant Card covers 35 restaurants with prices from 15 Euros a meal. There is also a Lisboa shopping card. We stayed at the Heritage Av Liberdade, on Avenida Liberdade, an 18th century mansion once owned by one of Portugal's most illustrious families. It was erected in 1770 and recently redone by famed architect Miguel Cancio Martins. The hotel is centrally located and a delight. For information on Lisbon, go to on the Web, and for the Lisbon Walker Tours go to Museo da Cidade in Campo Grande has maps and information on Lisbon both before and after the C18th earthquake.

Harvey Hagman is a freelance photojournalist, travel writer, international correspondent, and frequent contributor to The World and I Online.
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Author:Hagman, Harvey
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4EUPR
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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