Originally, the Castle of Sintra was built by the Moors, possibly between the 9th and 10th centuries. Arab chronicles depict the Sintra region as being very rich in cultivated fields. Its castle was one of the most important in the surroundings and served as an excellent observation point for monitoring the coast as you can see in the picture above. In 1109, the castle became subject to an attack by crusading Norwegians, led by King Sigurd I, on their way to the Holy Land. Every man at the castle was said to have been killed as they had refused to become christened.
In 1147, after the conquest of Lisbon by King Afonso Henriques, the Moorish garrison of the castle surrendered to the Christians without resistance as part of the liberation of Portugal from the Moors. Afonso Henriques entrusted the castle’s security to 30 inhabitants, conceding them privileges across the foral (charter) signed by the monarch in 1154. The charter suggested the that settlers should occupy and inhabit the castle, as a mechanism for guaranteeing the regions security and development.
In the second half of the 12th century, a small chapel was built within the walls of the castle. The decline of the castle began in the 15th century, when most of the population settled downhill, in today’s old quarter of Sintra. While the chapel was still being used a centre of religious activities at the beginning of the 15th century, by 1493, this chapel was abandoned and later only used by the small Jewish community of the parish. In the 16th century, the castle lost all military relevance and was abandoned by its last inhabitants, the Sintra Jews, who were expelled by Manuel I of Portugal. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake caused considerable damage to the chapel and affected the stability of the castle.
In 1840 Ferdinand II of Portugal consolidated the walls, reforested the spaces, created nooks and manicured spaces and conserved the chapel. Along the south flank of the chapel he built a monument to collect the bones discovered during the public works, planting a tree in the central nave of the chapel. These works were planned and executed by Baron von Eschewege, the architect of the Pena Palace.
The trail up to the Moorish Castle is part of the same beautiful forest that surrounds the Pena Palace. The air is sweet and cool and a surprising number of species make up the forest. While we were hiking a maintenance crew was working in the forest, cutting up a cedar tree that must have been 4-5 feet in diameter. The smell of the cedar was amazing, especially since we were in Portugal where the cedar is not native. The remains of the castle are scattered along the trail and sort of blend into the landscape.
Along the way you pass by the low outer wall of the castle which runs all the way around the castle.
And a little lookout tower tucked away in the forest.
These little holes in the rock were used to store grain.
The inner walls of the castle are much higher than the outer walls as shown above.
This arched door is the entrance to the chapel. You then go up some stairs to exit the chapel and come upon the main gate.
The main gates to the castle are impressive entering into a space that is perfect for families, with lots of places to explore and admire.
A little ticket office, seen above, is just inside the gate.
This area just inside the front gate has a large cistern under the concrete. The funnel shaped things in the middle are for aeration. It also has a small doorway to get in as shown above. Apparently, the buildings were used as stables.
Once you are inside, almost everywhere you want to explore involves climbing steep stairs.
The views are pretty spectacular but there really isn’t much to do in the castle.
There is a so-called “traitors gate, for getting outside the castle on the north wall, complete with a long tunnel. In the end the Moorish castle of Sintra is many things, drawn from the history of the place and times that transpired through it’s history. First I suppose must be the Moorish invaders that actually built the castle. The little things survive from that time, the cistern, the stables, the “traitors door” and the general outline of the castle itself. Archaeology is ongoing on the site and perhaps we will learn more about the medieval castle and town that existed on this hilltop. As one can see from the pictures, the modern town of Sintra is just down the hill, still on the mountain that inspired it’s founding. A tunnel connecting the castle and medieval town has collapsed, perhaps opening on the “traitors gate”.
The second, and more important point, is that the reconstruction of the Moorish castle of Sintra was performed in the spirit of the times 200 years ago. From a purely practical point of view, the fortifications remind me of the Great Wall of China. Defensible because of the terrain, but requiring the defenders to navigate steep inclines to get from point to point, thus making the defences less than optimal, perhaps explaining the fall the fall of the castle.
Finally, the “reconstruction” of the castle walls is performed in the spirit of “naturalism”, a view of nature and history that seeks to reconcile the effects of history with art. Not essential to Romanticism, but so widespread as to be normative, was a strong belief and interest in the importance of nature. However this is particularly in the effect of nature upon the artist when he is surrounded by it, preferably alone. In contrast to the usually very social art of the Enlightenment, Romantics were distrustful of the human world, and tended to believe that a close connection with nature was mentally and morally healthy.
Botanical gardens, in the modern sense, developed from physic gardens, whose main purpose was to grow herbs for medicinal use. Such gardens have a long history. In Europe, for example, Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE) is said to have had a physic garden in the Lyceum at Athens, which was used for educational purposes and for the study of botany and this was inherited, or possibly set up, by his pupil Theophrastus, the “Father of Botany”. More to the point, in 1550, when Farnese acquired a northern portion of Palatine hill (historically the oldest of Rome’s seven hills) he had ruins from a Roman palace of Tiberius at the northwest end of the hill top filled in, and converted to a summer home. I suspect the ultimate motive here was similar to Farnese, except this is gardening on a truly monumental scale, involving hundreds of acres, and the “ruins of history” are in this case the Moorish castle. This is the legacy of the Moorish castle of Sintra. A partial reconstruction, meant to display the decaying glory of the past with the beauty of a botanical garden. Really a beautiful place to spend an afternoon, take a lunch and have a picnic.