A new world

Monument to discoveries in Belem, Lisbon

The 4th of July is a good day to blog about Europe’s "Age of Discovery". This is commemorated in the immense memorial (above) raised in Belem area of Lisbon in 1960 on the 5th centennial of the death of Infante Henry (the Navigator). That is the figure in front holding a caravel.

The decay of the Mongolian empire and the subsequent rise of the Ottoman empire blocked the overland trade routes between Europe and Asia. Infante Henry tried to send ships down the coast of Africa to bypass the Muslim kingdoms and open new trade routes east. This was the beginning of Europe’s age of discovery. Islamic scholars had reasonably good maps of the region around the Mediterranean sea and Asia, where their trade links lay. In 1486, Portuguese sailors, under the command of Bartholomew Dias, rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The route to India, and the direct spice trade, was within reach.

The Italian seaman, Christopher Columbus, had petitioned the rulers of Portugal and Spain to finance his voyage to open up a western route to India. Estimates of the size of the globe led the Kings’ advisors to believe, correctly, that Columbus had significantly underestimated the length of the journey. With Dias’ achievement, Portugal was no longer interested in the west. Spain eventually financed Columbus, who serendipitously discovered something new in 1492. By 1494 the two European powers, Portugal and Spain, had divided the world amongst themselves: to the east of meridian 46 degrees west, everything belonged to Portugal, and the west belonged to Spain. By 1498 Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, with the help of a Gujarati pilot. Soon after, during the reign of king Manuel I, the Portuguese voyages of discovery came to an end.

By 1513 Balboa and his men had become the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. Spain then financed the voyage of the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, which circumnavigated the earth, and was also the first European expedition to reach Tierra del Fuego and the Philippines. The geometry of the earth conflicted with the political resolution of 1494. Following skirmishes along the Pacific Ocean, a treaty of 1529 divided the earth into two hemispheres for the first time. The hemisphere to the west of 46 degrees west and up to 142 degrees east was to be Spain’s share, and the rest belonged to Portugal.

Weekend fishing near the Belem tower

The monument faces out on to the estuary of the Tagus river, through which the ships of the era of discovery passed. A short promenade connects it to the fortified renaissance style tower of Belem (the square tower in the background of the photo above). This was raised as part of the fortification of the river, first against the Moors, and then against Spain. As far as I can tell, it never served its real purpose. The only time it came under attack, in 1580, it fell within hours. Nevertheless, it is a major tourist magnet today. On weekends the promenade is full of people fishing for sport. I sat down at a cafe behind these people and had a coffee and an ice cream, without seeing a single one of them land a fish.

The Family had taken a bus to come and visit this area while I was at work. After dropping her at the airport for her flight back, I had half a day left for my flight out. I decided to come to Belem to see the tower, the monument and the Jeronimos monastery. The easiest way to get here by public transport is to take the Metro up to Cais de Sodre and then the local train to Belem. If you have loaded your Lisbon Viva Viagem ticket with the zapping option then the same ticket can be used on both.

Jeronimo monastery in Belem, Lisbon

The main thing to see here is the Jeronimos Monastery. It is said that before starting from Lisbon in 1497, Vasco da Gama spent a night praying at a church which earlier stood here. With the permission of the Pope, king Manuel I started building a monastery here in 1501. It was financed by a 5% cess on the spice trade, except the part which went directly to the crown. The enormity of the spice wealth can be appreciated even today, as you walk up to the enormous edifice, meant to dwarf anything on a normal human scale. What look like short queues from a distance eventually turn out to be pretty long by normal standards.

Inside the Jeronimo church in Belem, LisbonIt is possible to see the church free of charge. It is an imposing space (photo here), but the queues to enter are long. I decided not to take this option. The other options are to buy a single ticket to the monastery, the monastery and the attached museum, or a ticket to all the sights in Belem. The last is clearly the correct option.

The monastery is an impressive example of the style known as Manueline. It is ornate and rich, and incorporates complex sculptures and maritime themes. A view of the wings surrounding the central courtyard (photo below) shows how overwhelming it can be.The Jeronimo monastery from its courtyard I walked into the courtyard and spent time looking at each arch separately. There is an incredible amount of detail, making it worth your time to look at it carefully.

Detail from the Jeronimo monastery in Lisbon

The photo above is one detail which you may miss unless you take your time. On top of one of the arches is this sculpture of a Portuguese carrack. This is the type of ship which Vasco da Gama commanded in his voyage to India. His armada also had a smaller and more agile ship of a type called a caravel. I could not spot a representation of a caravel, but the monastery is large, and I may easily have missed something.

The next floor is equally complex and pays close viewing. Off to one side is a little gallery from which you can look down into the church. I spent a long time here with my camera looking at the details of the church so that I could avoid standing in another queue downstairs to see the same space from below.

Gold torc from the museum of Jeronimo monasteryThe museum attached to the monastery is also interesting enough. This is mostly about pre-Christian inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula. There was a section on the iron age settlers in the area. Some of the jewelery (see alongside) is spectacular.

Roman mosaic from the museum of the Jeronimo monasteryThere was constant contact with other Mediterranean civilizations: Phoenician, Greek and Carthage. Some of the artefacts in this collection come from these contact. The later Romans, however, left extensive remains. It was interesting to see that the Mithraic cult is widely represented in the Roman remains in this area. The mosaic alongside contains a central iconography of the slaying of a bull. It did not take me too long to walk through the museum, but it was worth it.

The area is full of tourists, and therefore contains all the little conveniences and annoyances which attend on them. I skipped the ride on a carriage, and the over-priced bottles of water. But I was snagged by a kiosk which sold artisanal beer. I tasted a lager, and went on to catch my train back to Lisbon.


Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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