Where the Ancient, Medieval & Modern live Entwined

Evora, Portugal
Jan 17, 2018

Close to Evora, in a field, stand some stone megaliths.They are a mute testament to the Celtic tribes in the Alentejo region dating back five millennia. But this is not the only legacy they left behind. The very name Evora, is derived from the Celtic ebora, meaning “of yew trees”. The Yew was considered magical by the Celts, sacred because of its connection with the dead and used for summoning spirits of ancestors and communicating with the Otherworld. Not surprisingly, yew trees were associated with the Celts, sometimes synonymous with the tribes.

Like other parts of the Iberian Peninsula, this area too saw the advent of the Romans. Settled by them around 57 AD, mentions of Ebora Cerealis, are found in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, so called because of its abundant wheat fields. They too left their legacy and some of these remain to this day. The Corinthian columns of a roman temple, probably built in the first or second century still stands in what was the heart of the old town, surrounded by Roman walls.

There are arches dotting the town, many built upon earlier roman ones and a roman bath that lies under what is today’s Town Hall is still being excavated. New lives have woven into the old and many of the arches have seen homes built within them, morphing with time and demand. Some doors use the old arches and some narrow entrances, while others are more conventional. This is a city where most doors must be custom-made, at least in the historic center. How refreshing in our cookie-cutter age!

The tides of time wore on as the fifth century brought the Visigoths and a period of decline. But barely three centuries later came the Moors, reigning here between the eighth and twelfth centuries. The narrow streets meandering off in labyrinthine webs are the legacy of the Moors and astonishingly, have not only survived, but remain in use today.

Some are barely as wide as an arms-span, while others are just about as wide as a small car. A nightmare for motorists but a delight for pedestrians, they wind this way and that, inviting random exploration with the reward of hidden surprises. The Moorish fountain still spouts water as it stands within the old city walls. An aqueduct that carried water to the city, built in 1537 still functions today, and links to this fountain.

Wrested from the Moors in 1165 AD, by Gerald the Fearless, Evora has remained in Christian hands since. The largest square is named after him with a requisite church at its head. The walls that surround the city dates from this medieval period and are surprisingly intact. Instead of armed horsemen riding beneath banners, it now sees cars and buses zipping through its gates. The town also sprouted many churches in this period, most of which stand today and are in use.

The lofty tower of the cathedral rears up above all, tolling the hours. The church of Saint Francis is one of the most lavishly decorated but it is the attached chapel here that of more intriguing, if gory interest.

Enter, and you might take it to be normal mosaicked walls with the usual arches. But look closer – the walls are embedded with human skulls and bones. The story goes, that dissatisfied with the increasingly mercenary tendencies of the populace, three monks in the sixteenth century, created this to bring home the transient nature of life. Driven home by the inscription above the entry: We bones that are here, for yours we wait.

Somewhere along its checkered history, Evora acquired a reputation as a center for learning and continues today to be home to one of the major universities. In 1656, a library was built atop the ruins of the old castle. It holds books printed in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as more recent additions, totaling a staggering six hundred thousand. The original University of Evora was housed in one of the most beautiful buildings, founded more than five centuries ago. Today the University has expanded into a number of departments scattered around the town but this remains the oldest and most beautiful of them all. Who would not want to learn in such surrounds?

Sintra might be beautiful but it has a museum-like quality whereas Evora lives and breathes. The past and the present are woven together seamlessly, and continue as they have for millennia. There is none of the brashness of youth though and life here moves at a unhurried pace. At odd corners of streets are plazas, called largos.

They are scattered with cafés, some under leafy trees. They see a constant parade of students, locals and the odd tourist, sipping a drink or an espresso, eating a snack and chatting. Older citizens seem to routinely gather on park benches to spend time catching up on gossip. Delightfully unhurried is the way of life here, a forgotten skill in some parts of the world.

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