Belém Tower

Belém Tower (5)

Declared a humanity heritage site by Unesco, the “Belém” tower is one of Lisbon’s greatest symbols as much for its artistic and architectural value as for the history that its silhouette evokes.

During the era of exploration when sailors left for the high seas to discover new marine routes, the tower’s location was their principal departure point. That is why it is considered a symbol of Portuguese expansion today.

In the 16th century when Lisbon was an essential stop on marine trade routes, it became necessary to build a defence tower in the city. King Manuel I ordered a tower to be built to provide protection to the mouth of the river Tajo. This area of the city had become known for commercial and cultural exchanges, as well as the sharing of knowledge. 

If King Joao II conceived of the idea for the tripartite defence and built fortresses at Cascais and Caparica, it was his successor, Manuel I, who finished the project. The tower’s construction was carried out between 1514 and 1520 and during this time it was located further from the coast than it is in the present day. In the 19th century the city and river gradually moved closer together, reducing their limits and eventually the tower found itself on the banks of the Tajo. The stone “Belém” tower was built in honour of Saint Vicente, the patron saint of Lisbon, and placed on what was previously the site of a large wooden ship. 

Over the years the tower did its job of defending the city but as time passed this role was lost. For two centuries it was used as a customs house, a dungeon and even a lighthouse.

The tower is a great piece of manueline architecture with Eastern and Islamic influences. What’s more, it is a fine example of military design and formed one of the first artillery bastions in Portugal, marking an end to the medieval tradition of building towers of homage.  

The manueline specialist, Francisco de Arruda, was the architect in charge of its construction.

The structure comprises of two main elements: the square tower and bastion. The former rises five floors above the latter and consists of the Governor’s room, King’s room, which includes Manuel I’s royal arms, the audience gallery, chapel and terrace.

The bastion takes on a hexagonal form and faces the river, it also portrays the shape of a ship’s bow facing out to sea. Its defensive capabilities can be clearly seen from its 16 cannon openings and the watchtowers crowned with domes in the shape of orange segments. Ventilation of the bastion’s nave comes from a small gothic cloister forming a vault which was used as a dungeon until the 19th century.

Much of the tower’s beauty comes from the design of its exterior. The outside brings to mind exploration’s golden age. A clear example of this is the thick rigging displayed on the building, as well as the armillary spheres, a coat of arms showing the order of the cross of Christ (which is displayed from the battlements), and exotic animals.

It is also worth paying attention to the image of a rhinoceros shown on another small inland facing tower. It was the first stone example of this particular well-known animal and is connected to an amusing story.

It is said that King Manuel I received a rhinoceros as a present from India and because it was an unknown species in Europe at the time, this caused quite a commotion. The king wanted to test the animal’s strength and therefore set up a fight with an elephant. However, according to the tale, the elephant took flight straight away, panic stricken just from hearing the wild snorting of its adversary. Following this the king decided to offer the rhinoceros as a gift to the pope, however on its journey to Rome both boat and animal sunk in the Tyrrhenian sea and were never heard of again.

Today the “Belem” tower is an essential stop for any visitor and apart from marvelling at its beauty, you can explore its surroundings and watch youngsters playing football on wide, green fields, dogs bounding on the river bank and the yellow and silver trains racing along the coast. 

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website