National Castles Day – 7 October 2021
Located on the top of an elongated and steep hill and articulated with an impressive belt of walls that hug the urban hull all the way to the downtown area, next to the Guadiana river, Mértola castle provided exceptional conditions for defending and controlling the surrounding territory. In the timeline, it succeeds previous fortified structures, in a structural evolution of imprecise contours, which chronologically extends from the Iron Age to the Almohad fortress that the knights of Santiago conquered in 1238.
From the Islamic period, traces and clear influences are preserved in the fortification’s implantation and trapezoidal design, which could date back to the 9th century when Abd al-Malik Abil-Gawwad took over Mértola, as well as the solution of a gate flanked by turrets and access in elbow, probably developed in the Almohad period, in the year 1171, as suggested by news regarding the reinforcement of the Castle promoted by Caliph Abu Ya’qub Yusuf.
It was in the Almohad castle that the Knights of Santiago, under the authority of D. Paio Peres Correia, got settled after their conquest, in that year of 1238. There are no traces of the adaptations and transformations they may have carried out, adjusting the enclosure to their religious and military needs and obligations, namely the construction of its convent.
Despite reusing previous structures and elements, the present-day Castle is a Gothic morphology building, built in 1292 to house the first seat of the Portuguese branch of the Order of Santiago and the symbolic residence of its first Master, D. João Fernandes, former High-Commander of Mértola. Equally inscribed in the context of refurbishment the castles on the border promoted by D. Dinis, the castle has a trapezoid plan, wide and high walls, angles fortified by towers, a set in which the mighty Keep (around 27 meters high) and the bastion that protected the entrance stand out. In its enclosure, in addition to the convent that constitutes the headquarters of the Order, there were different buildings with various purposes (cistern, barracks, stable, kitchen, etc.), of which little remains.
Mértola Castle, given its strategic position in the territory (river link with the coast), followed the troubles of the kingdom’s military defense until the 1930s, being one of the fortified spaces with the longest operational longevity in Portuguese military history.
By the late 15th and early 16th centuries, an imposing manor and a chapel, both no longer in existence, were erected, the cistern was enlarged and a bulwark was built, which remains as a memory-space of the adaptations that the castle underwent from medieval to modern times. Within the framework of the long Restoration Wars (1640-1658), which had a continuous stage of conflict in the Guadiana territory, walls were recovered, barracks were built and, instead of building modern bulwarks, towers and merlons were razed to the ground to create artillery platforms. Since then and until the beginning of contemporary times, it alternated between periods of occupation, in which it underwent works and served as a barracks and surveillance post, and phases of neglect and abandonment.
Having lost its military value, it would be rescued from an intensified state of ruin through a variety of construction work (between 1950 and the early 20th century), which allowed for the recovery of its historical and heritage memory and subsequent musealisation. The museum, located at the Keep, comprises two theme-based units: the historic journey and the formal evolution of the Castle (1st floor) and the historical-heritage relationship of Mértola with the Order of Santiago (2nd floor).