A city set on the estuary of a river, white when seen from a distance and golden when looking out from one of the panoramic viewing points as evening approaches. Afterwards, narrow and deserted when going down some of its streets and discovering the usual everyday routes, the traffic and derelict sites – scenes of unhappy endings. The Lisbon which fascinated all its victors is, nevertheless, largely unknown.
Situated as it is in a typically Mediterranean environment, Lisbon's origins as a city probably go back to Roman times. It must have gradually grown outwards from the crown of the hill on which the castle was built, its first inhabitants moving downwards in the direction of the river.
«As much as my gaze searches the fortified walls of St. George's castle, I am hard put to find the first traces of Lisbon», wrote Júlio Castillo, whose name is a «must» in any reference list about the Lisbon. Despite his rather disheartening comment, this did not stop him from publishing 18 volumes about the city's early days.
As early as 2000 BC, there were already people living in the hilly countryside around Lisbon called Serra de Monsanto. Later, ancient Greek and Phoenician ships were to make their way up the Tagus estuary and we cannot dismiss the likelihood of Phoenician etymology lying behind the word «Lisboa» (Alis Ubbo – pleasant little bay). Be that as it may, this conjecture is a lot less fascinating than another possible theory about the city's name which was aired in the 15th and 16th century (although, today, we have to admit that it is only based on legend). It stated that Ulysses, the ancient Greek hero, had given the city its name.
After the conquest of Lusitania and Galicia, Lisbon was occupied by the Romans and, in 205 BC, raised to the status of a municipality under the name Felicitas Julia Olissipo.
The Roman part of the city has survived until the present day but is buried three or four metres under existing buildings. Little by little it is being unearthed although it is almost impossible to dig up and show everything owing to the streets built over it at a later date.
The most famous ruins discovered here include a theatre dedicated to Nero built in 57 AD (underneath the intersection of Rua São Mamede and Rua da Saudade at the top of Rua da Madalena), and the portuary facilities in (now under) Rua da Prata, built when Tiberius was emperor. Both sites were discovered as a result of excavations after the 1755 earthquake.
MARINA TAVARES DIAS
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