500 Years of History

Tower of Belém

Belém Tower - eastern and western entrances (16th century) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

A landmark of Lisbon and Portugal

The Tower of Belém is one of the most remarkable monuments in Lisbon and Portugal, a landmark of Portuguese identity and a symbol of a country facing the sea and its discoveries. Its long history is made of several episodes marked by the different uses it has been given by time come a discover 500 years of Portuguese history through this exhibition.

Belém Tower - aerial view (16th century) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

A wealthy city that needed protecting

In the 15th & 16th centuries, Lisbon became a worldwide center of commerce thanks to the Discoveries. In order to protect the city, King João II conceived a strategic defense plan for the Tagus River by building the towers of S. Sebastião da Caparica and Santo António at Cascais. This in addition with the Tower of Belém project ordered by King Manuel I permitted crossfire between the two banks of the river and therefore they prevented the entry of enemy ships.

Bulwark (interior) (16th century) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

Innovative military architecture

The Tower of Belém is a testimony of the transitional nature of military architecture, having features of the defense of the Middle Ages and also of the modern Renaissance.

Interior of the bulwark (16th century) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

This monument combines the originality of a watch tower with a modern advanced and well armed structure, which was one of the first bulwarks with built-in casemates in Portugal.

Interior of the bulwark, bunker (16th century) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

Detail form main wall - Portuguese coat of arms (16th century) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

Symbols of Manueline power

King Manuel I wanted the Tower of Belém, located at the entrance of the kingdom’s capital, to clearly assert his power. Therefore, the king ordered that all his heraldry to be ostensibly carved out: the Royal Arms, also present in the shield of the Kingdom of Portugal; his personal emblem of universalistic nature - the Armillary Sphere...

...and the symbol of the Order of which he was administrator and that symbolized the extend of Christianity - the Cross of Christ.

Stairs leading to the basement/storage room (16th century) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

The tower as a prison

Beyond its function as defense of Lisbon, the Tower of Belém also served as a state prison. Opponents of political power were held here, mainly during the reigns of Filipe I of Portugal, D. João IV, D. José and D. Miguel. The prisoners were held mostly in the basement of the bulwark, an area originally intended to serve as storage, but also in other rooms of the Tower.

19th century photograph of the Belém Tower (1873/1873) by Francisco Rocchini / LisboaTower of Belém

The many functions of the tower

After the construction and successive reinforcements, the Tower of Belém saw its strategic importance decreased, and, started to assume other functions such as the customs control.

Following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the Marquis of Pombal used the Tower of Belém to control the movement of ships along the Tagus River and to prevent that looted goods were taken away from the city in ruins.

The Tower also served to support communications: circa 1810 a telegraph was placed on its top terrace and, in 1865, a beacon was placed on the edge of the bulwark terrace and it remained there until 1940.

Partial view of the terrace of the bulwark (16th century) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

The restoration of the tower in 1846

In the 19th century the Romanticism brought new conceptions of heritage and the overriding need for its preservation.

It was in this context that, in 1846, the Duke of Terceira, then Minister of Queen Maria II, ordered the restoration of the Tower. At that time, the barracks built in the 16th century over the small inner cloister were destroyed and afterwards some decorative elements were added...

Belém Tower - detail from balcony (16th century) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

...on the turrets of the bulwark terrace the cross of Christ was added in. The Tower windows were also redecorated.

Belém Tower - exterior (séc. 16) by Francisco ArrudaTower of Belém

The tower becomes a world heritage site

In 1983, the Tower of Belém was classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, along with the Jerónimos Monastery.

This is undeniable proof of international recognition of its great historical and symbolic value. Between 1994 and 1999, an exemplar preservation project was carried out and the Tower was rehabilited using the most modern cleaning and conservation techniques.

Credits: Story

Isabel Cruz de Almeida (Director, Tower of Belém)

Belém Tower

Digital Production:
Luis Ramos Pinto (Directorate-General for Cultural Heritage)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps