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Sintra: Palace of the Moors

Saturday, October 8, 2011

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Islamic monument in Southern Spain, especially in Granada and Cordoba, are well-known. Little, however, is known about Islamic monuments in Portugal. One monument that stands out and is considered to be one of the finest in Portugal is known as the Palace of the Moors in Sintra.

The Palace of the Moors, or Castelo dos Mouros in Portugese, was built by Arabs who settled in the Iberian peninsula in 711AD. The choice of the site of building the palace in Sintra between the two mountain peaks of Serra de Sintra is considered to be most strategic once the geography of the region is examined. The favorable climate, proximity to Lisbon and high elevation overlooking the entire region gave the palace a key strategic importance. The Palace of the Moors was built sometime in the 9th or 10th century. The walls of the palace extended to nearly half a kilometer. Sintra first appeared in recorded history in a book entitled "Book of Highways and of Kingdoms" written in 1068 by the famous Andalucia carteographer Al-Bakri. His book encompassed detailed accounts of regions from West Africa and the Iberian peninsula.

After the breakup of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba in the Iberian peninsula in 1008AD into little fiefdoms, the Christian northern kingdoms of Leon, Castile and Pamplona started to expand south. Sintrea became the focus of attacks by various Christian invading forces for more than a century. In 1093, Alfonso VI of Leo was the first to capture the palace, but only to lose control of it again two years later. The palace was attacked again in 1109AD. This time it was by the Norwegian crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. The Norwegians were able to overtake the palace and spared no life. All the palace`s inhabitants were slaughtered. After their bloody affair, they continued on their voyage to teh Holy Land for more bloodshed.

By the mid-12th century, the strength of the Muslims in the Iberian peninsula was further weakened. In 1147, King Afonso Henriques was able to capture Lisbon, the capital of Western Andalucia. Afterwards, he set his eyes on the Palce of the Moors in Sintra. The palace defenders knew that their city was taken and there were no prospects of reinforcements any time in the future. They surrendered to King Afonso without a fight. King Afonso built a Romanesque Chapel of Sao Pedro (Saint Peter).

By the 15th century, the Muslims were evicted from western Iberia, which became known as Portugal. This meant that Sintra was no longer a frontier location and its palace lost its military and strategic relevance. Over the years the palace was abandoned and fell into disrepair. In 1755, an earthquake nearly destroyed the palace.

During the 19th century, the Portugese viewed their Medieval past with nostalgia. This became a source of inspiration to renew and renovate the dilapidated castled throughout the country. In 1860, King-Consort Fernando II of Saxe Cobug-Gotha restored the Palace of the Moors in the modern Romantic style. The local gardens were replanted with exotic flowers that have been blended from local plant species. The restoration effort became the first center of European Romantic architecture. The palace itself was restored to contain a mixture of Moorish, Mudajer, Gothic, Baroque, Egyptian and Renaissance architectural influence. The structures in the garden have retained their original Moorish sytle, including calligraphy displaying quotations of the Quran. In 1995, the Palace and surrounding gardens were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique and exotic flowers in the gardens and its unique blend of architectures in the palace.


  • [1] Fisher, J. and Hancock, M., A Rough Guide to Portugal, Rough Guide Ltd: London, UK, 2010.
  • [2] Lowney, C., A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain, Oxford University Press: New York City, NY, 2006.

  • Keywords: Andalucia, Portugal, Sintra

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