Coming out of anonymity, the town of Mértola has come to be the target of an experience that, although elongated in time, has already allowed a positive balance to be made. The benefits have come to be evident to the community and to the tourists that visit us annually in increasing numbers. They have a pleasant surprise to discover places of interest scattered throughout the inner part of the town and in cultural circuits in the surroundings.
Our intervention in Mértola began with archaeology, an archaeology that, although had begun quite naturally with a purely university approach, was diverted early on, in order to have educational aims. Until then, the programme could only count on voluntary, seasonal work from a team of volunteers made up of students from Lisbon Arts Faculty, who would come and carry out fieldwork interventions at weekends or in the holidays, with the view of being able to gather some information. [...] This cyclical movement of people with other habits and culture, that generally did not show the minimum interest in satisfying the curiosity of the local inhabitants, created a certain strangeness locally, if not an almost complete indifference.
For this reason, we tried to proceed in a different way from early on, right in the first years. We felt involved in the life and interests of the community since the first contacts with Mértola and also for reasons of political affinity. The excavation was taking place within the interior of the community in the place used by the inhabitants as their point of collective reference, their community soul – the castle and all its direct surroundings. By excavating in the castle we were forcibly touching the depths of the community, awakening natural and inevitable curiosity. Throughout the first campaigns we learnt to justify our work, listening to commentaries and always, when possible, finding consensus.
Mértola’s parish church, with its unusual Moorish profile hides, the memories of a Roman temple, of another older church and above all of a mosque. This was the house of Moslem prayer until 1238 when the Knights of the Order of Santiago placed it in the service of the conquerors. The Mosque, constructed in the Almoahad era, in the second half of the 12th century, is the only Moslem temple in Portuguese territory still recognisable in its volumetric size and decorative elements. It was a building of 5 naves, each one covered with a ridge roof whose timberwork was seated in rows of six columns. Four horseshoe-arched doorways have come to us from the ancient Mosque. So too, the “mirhab” facing Mecca and maintaining its original decoration.
In the act of Conquest and in order to demonstrate the difference, the Christian altar was placed on the North wall of the temple where it stayed until the remodelling of the 30s in the 16th century when large-scale work removed the covering of all the naves for a sequence of net vaults. Curiously at this time, the town’s population asked the King for the altar table to return to the mirhab position, showing clearly that they had still not lost the memory of the former place sacred to the Moslem. Some decades later, the Inquisition ordered the Mirhab to be walled over and that the location for the Christian Liturgy was the return to the Northern wall. It stayed here until the 20th century when the National Monuments Management unwalled the doors and once again placed the altar in its former setting.
1. Mértola washes its eyes in the river, today as it has done so for two millennium, although it is not possible, as the Greek Heraclito said, to wash your hands twice in the same flowing water. Today, the same as two thousand years ago, the river rises or withdraws its course to the rhythm of the tides. Sole and dolphins used to visit its waters and were stamped on the coins of Myrtillis. In the 18th century, shad, conger eels, lamprey eels, mullet, rock bass, barbells and other species flocked to the fishermen’s nets. The waters of the Guadiana would cure the “melancholic affects” and humidify greatly the intestines. Even livestock that used to drink its waters were tastier, as Mértola’s parish priest, Bento José Sevilha, wrote in 1758. Already Duarte Nunes de Leão before him had praised the taste of fat livestock that would graze on its banks.
2. The Guadiana is the most Mediterranean of the rivers that flow in Portugal. Significantly, it received its name from the two civilizations that profoundly marked its hydro-graphic basin. From Rome comes the name “Anas”, to which the Arabs joined “ued” or river, sounding in Medieval speech as “Odiana” and in ours as “Guadiana”. Then, the vast region of its hydro-graphic basin knew its relative maximum development. The liquid entrance opening out onto entrances on the land, a horizontal line open to the sea. Cities rose up over the ancient Iberian populations: Mérida the beautiful capital of Lusitânia, Beja and Mértola where Julius Cesar passed and other cities and towns. In those days the River did not separate but rather united.
(in Medieval Archaeology no. 1)