How to summarize the history of a city which has witnessed millenniums of history and populations, and which has opened the way to geography as we know it today?
Lisbon was first inhabited by the Phoenicians, as the name self suggest : "Olissipo", or "enchanting port". Afterwards it was the Roman empire that occupied the territory for more than two centuries since 205 Bc, giving the city the name of Felicitas Iulia.
Under the Muslim domain between the VIII and the XII century, Lisbon became a port city of great importance. The Arabs provided the city with a fortification (the first nucleon of the wonderful Castelo de São Jorge) and rejected the numerous attacks by the Christians for 4 centuries, before giving up in 1147, with the conquer by Alfonso Henriques, first king of Portugal.
In the XIII century the city also gained the status of capital (passed from Coimbra to Lisbon), and for the subsequent centuries it enjoyed an age of development and wealthy, thanks to the prosperous sea and earth trades.
The XV century represents the golden age for Lisbon, when the caravels, departing from the mouth of the river Tejo, began their glorious conquer of the oceans which led to the discover of unknown worlds, and proclaimed the Portuguese navigators as the absolute kings of the Seas.
The first explorations went around the north-west coast of Africa. Afterwards, with the trespassing of the scary Cape Bojador, which at that time was considered as the end of the world, the last obstacles were removed, and the exploitation of the human and mine resources in Africa could finally begin.
In 1447 Vasco de Gama opened the sea route to India. The huge wealth brought back from the expeditions in the Indian subcontinent turned Lisbon into one of the most important commerce centers of the world, and one of the richest and opulent capitals.
The commercial glories lead to the growth of the sumptuous Manueline style, from the name of king Manuel I, who ordered the construction of numerous palaces and religious buildings, like the famous Jeronimous Monastery, who stood there as eternal sign of the Portuguese expansion and power.
But in the following century, the huge expenses of the explorations, as well as the sumptuous living cost of the empire and the failure of the expedition to Marocco led to a breakdown of the Portugal power.
The reign soon fell in the hands of Spain, and independence was reconquered only in 1640, after 60 years of Spanish occupation (the movements for independence are still recalled today with a national feast, the Independence Day).
The turn of the century saw the beginning of a new golden age for Portugal, with the discovery of Brasil and its rich golden mines.
Lisbon could only enjoy this new wealth for a short period: in 1755 a disastrous earthquake hit the city, destroying it for more than a third. Only the districts of Alfama and Mouraria, clinging on the Sao Jorge hill, and those of Belém and Ajuda, distant from the epicenter, could resist.
In Belém, where the Manueline masterpieces remain untouched, found shelter the royal family and the court. After the French occupation by Napoleon’s brother Giuseppe, over the course of the 19th century Portugal was subject to continuous stealth coups and liberal rebellions, which led to a total economic crisis. The social and political dissent against the monarchy led to various attempts to overturn the power, which ended up with the murder in 1908 of king Charles I and prince Luis Filipe. In 1910 the Republic was finally proclaimed, with Teófilo Braga as the first president.
The economic disaster caused by the monarchy and the deep wounds inside the country fostered the social fights during the entire successive decade.
In the ‘20s Portugal, just like the rest of the world, had to face the worst economic crisis in human history.
In 1926 a military golpe saw general Oscar Carmona’s rise to power; the dictatorship further consolidated in 1928 with the nominee of the finance minister António Oliveira Salazar, elected prime minister in 1932.
Its fascist dictatorship lasted for almost 4 decades, during which any strikes and political movements were banished, and Portugal was kept under control through censorship, propaganda and the fascist violence of the political police corp, the so called Pide.
In the meantime Salazar carried on his foreign policy based on the exploitation of the overseas colonies, suppressing any attempt of rebellion by the local populations.
In 1961 the ONU recognized the right to self-determination for all the populations dominated by Portugal, and the independent movements attempted to take back control over their countries: this is one of the bloodiest pages in Portuguese history, with the last attempts by the Regime to hold tight to an Empire which was destined to breakdown.
In the same period, Lisbon's economy is changing: a thousand small enterprises grow up, and the population sees a vertiginous increase. In this lively background a new urban social class takes over, constituted by a small middle bourgeoisie with liberal and democratic beliefs, which makes a stand against the dictatorial regime, the first prerogative of the clandestine communist party.
The resentment toward the regime grew stronger and stronger also among the troops settled in the colonies. On 25th April 1974 , the pacific military golpe finally overthrew the dictatorship: it’s the so called Carnation Revolution, from the flowers put inside the gun barrels which became the symbol of the revolution In the early transition period a National Salvation Committee took the power, made up of former soldiers, which reintroduced civil rights and press freedom.
The terrible police corp was dismantled, and all political prisoners were set free.
A process of decolonization also started. Lisbon’s human aspect is subject to a marked change in these years: on one side many colons choose to remain in Africa, whereas more than half a million people belonging to many different ethnic groups decided to move to Portugal, and today the retournados are more than a million.
This is what makes Lisbon one of the most multiethnic and multicultural cities in Europe, although a certain degree of racism and intolerance is always present among the Portuguese, both toward the retournados and the new immigrates.
In 1986 Portugal joined the EU, collecting a series of successes which helped the country raising its head from the dark period of the Salazar’s regime.
In 1988 Lisbon is hit by a bad fire, which destroys large areas of Chiado and Bairro Alto.
Afterwards, the city begins a process of recovery and renovation of the historic districts, and in 1994 it is elected European City of Culture. With the Expo of 1988 the renovation project completely changed the urban frame of the city, with the enlargement of the underground network, the port, and the construction of the spectacular and functional architectural structures of the Parque das Naçoes.
The numerous shanty towns which raised in the years of decolonization have not been completely removed, but at least they were reduced through a building policy which saw the birth of large districts in the suburban areas. Nothing in common with the ugliness of the suburbs of many other European metropolis.
Portugal is not exempt from today’s world economic crisis, but Lisbon seems willing to pass over this difficult period, and, as its past proves, this wonderful city can certainly win the challenge.