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Remembering Serrão Martins – Mina de S. Domingos and Mértola – 16 to 25 March 2024

Remembering Serrão Martins

Mina de S. Domingos and Mértola – 16 to 25 March 2024

As part of the Remembering Serrão Martins initiative, we must not forget his innovative territorial development vision, combined with that of Cláudio Torres. They both realised that combining the potential of heritage with excellent research and dissemination would contribute to the development of this territory and this community.

In the words of Cláudio Torres, ‘since our first contacts with Mértola, and mainly for reasons of political identification, we naturally felt involved in the life and interests of the community. On the other hand, the excavation was taking place in the vicinity of the castle, inside the settlement, in the place considered by the inhabitants to be their collective point of reference, their community soul. By digging in the castle, we were bound to touch the depths of the collective imagination, arousing natural and inevitable curiosity. We learned to listen to feedback and justify our work from the very first campaigns. From the outset, the city council, represented by Serrão Martins – the first democratically elected mayor – was the great intermediary and driving force behind this project. Thus, with a motivated local authority, we found the stimuli to pursue an adventure in which the municipality was not only an investor, but also a directly involved player. For this decisive reason, the Mértola Project became a pioneering project at the time(TORRES, Cláudio, ‘A arqueologia, o território e o desenvolvimento local’, in Seminário Efeitos Sociais à escala local, Mértola, Mértola Archaeological Site, 2001, p. 22.).

In a text by Serrão Martins we can read ‘(…) Yes, old Myrtilis continues its secular stasis. The castle above continues its centuries-old agony. Its old, decayed body crumbles. It slowly dies. Every now and then a stone leaves the walls and sadly rolls down the slope. Only the dungeon stands tall. Look at the vast surrounding terrain. It recalls distant eras, past glories. But it no longer sees or hears. It remembers, only agonising and desperate. The river, the Guadiana, is still as wild as it once was. It runs, languorous and free, on its thousand-years-old virgin bed. On its banks, a few stunted trees gaze into the liquid mirror of the water. Is there no possibility of integrating the Guadiana and the castle into the future tourist movement? It is absolutely necessary to do so. That is the only way for tourists who drive by quickly in their cars or stop briefly for a drink to be able to stay here a little longer or perhaps settle in for a few days. Mértola must therefore wake up and not just witness the country’s tourism progress, but become one of its active elements instead”.

Sobre António Manuel Serrão Martins (n. 1944 – f. 1982)

A central figure in the municipality of Mértola during the revolution period and the democratic regime, Serrão Martins was chairman of the administrative committee from 1974 to 1976 and of the city council between 1977 and 1982. He became the symbol of April in Mértola, both during his lifetime and after his death. He left an immense legacy: Mértola owes him the direction that the municipality took in different areas of municipal management, and the town, the project that made it a museum. (…) Noble in ideals, free in spirit, and passionate about his land and its people, the young mayor who got a PhD in History to better serve his causes has left an immense human and material legacy. Mértola owes him the direction the municipality took in different areas of municipal management, and the town owes him the project that made it a museum and a pioneering example of cultural investment among Portuguese municipalities (in BOIÇA, Joaquim M. F, Mértola da República à democracia – 1910-2014. O Poder local municipal e as suas figuras, Mértola, Mértola City Council, 2016. Pp. 68-75.).

António Manuel Serrão Martins, ‘was born in the town on 25 March 1944 and learned here his first letters. The death of his father when he was just 11 years old led him to go to the Telhal Seminary (in the municipality of Sintra), the only possibility at the time to continue studying. He returned to Mértola to complete his 5th year of secondary school before heading to Beja in search of work. The Caixa de Previdência dos Empregados de Escritório, where he had found a job, had a branch in Mina de São Domingos, which allowed him to return to the municipality and follow the last dramatic years of the operation of this exploration. Before leaving in 1967 for military service (among other postings, he spent two years in Mozambique as a militia officer during the colonial war), he took the opportunity to complete the Secondary School Complementary Course, which would enable him, after returning from Africa in 1971, to teach at Externato Local, where he had been a student, marrying Ondina Palma the following year.

The role he played during the dictatorship – an enlightened activist against the regime, always on the side of his people and committed by all means to improving the difficult living conditions of the poorest – led to him being chosen, after the restoration of political freedoms on 25 April 1974, as President of the Administrative Commission (provisional executive), and then elected, in several elections, as Mayor of Mértola. He became ‘addicted to the practical resolution of problems’ (…) ‘he wanted to recover from fifty years of ostracism, of doldrums’.

He did, however, find time, in the midst of a huge amount of political activity (much of the modern infrastructure was non-existent in most of the municipality at the time), to complete his degree in History at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities in Lisbon, his great passion, and to lay the foundations for a cultural and heritage project that would become, beyond the international prestige it enjoys today, a model admired throughout the country: Mértola, vila museu’ (BOIÇA, Joaquim e MATEUS, Rui, Mértola Vila Museu – Roteiro de História Urbana e Património, Mértola, Mértola Heritage Defence Association, 2014, p. 255.).

In 1977, Serrão Martins was finishing his degree in History, which meant he had to go to Lisbon more often for classes. He graduated on 25 July 1977. It was in this context that he met two of History’s greatest figures, both of whom were his teachers: archaeologist Cláudio Torres and historian António Borges Coelho. (…) Cláudio Torres remembers the day in the spring of 1978 when the two teachers and the former student set off in his car: ‘Borges Coelho, curious as always, asked questions. Serrão answered as best he could…’ They wouldn’t shut up! ‘It was a very interesting trip to prepare for entering Mértola. Everything in the village was also under construction, everything was waiting for the miracle’ of what was going to happen next. Everyone had enormous admiration for Serrão, everyone expected him to do something fabulous in the town’, he continues: ‘We came directly or almost directly to the Castle, the town’s centrepiece’. A series of shards and broken fragments in the square of the fortress, which the archaeologist ‘already knew theoretically to be from Islamic times’, caught the attention of the historians and the president himself, who hadn’t been to the castle for some time. Cláudio Torres immediately thought that something had to be done quickly, more than just collecting the pieces. ‘That first visit to Mértola with Serrão was immediately a door that opened to the future that I had been anticipating for a long time. That meeting, that collage of the world of Islam-Mértola with Serrão Martins and what he was doing, building something interesting for me in this town, which was a game of the present, the presence and the evolution that was happening post-25 April throughout the Alentejo, and a leap, a bridge to the past that could also justify not only that violent and beautiful present that was happening, but above all open up a perspective of dialogue and development for that territory. Those two days in Mértola ‘were fundamental for us to start drawing a plan for me to come here to work and start that political-cultural project linked to the past, to create development for the future’. (…)

In the summer of 1978, the municipal integrated development project began to take shape. Excavations began in Mértola, with teams of students from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities selected by the archaeologist, and the unconditional support of the municipality, which provided the old Dispensary to house the volunteers. (…) On the one hand, Serrão was very interested in archaeological research. (…) And Cláudio Torres was very interested in ‘what he was doing, creating and organising’. He guarantees: ‘It was a creative period for both of us’.

The archaeologist says that the ‘prolific atmosphere’ in the town would give rise to a particularly attractive event, such as the one that ‘turned the Old Dispensary into a very interesting centre of political debate’. He’s sure that nothing similar happened anywhere else in the country. ‘That was where, in the evenings, they discussed the news of the day, locally, and what had happened in the country and in the world’. He brought together the archaeological team, which started coming to Mértola every year, ‘also for political purposes’, and the ‘people from the city council who were there hungry for something new’.

Even today, it’s easy to imagine the man who once stood on the balcony of the first floor of the city hall to speak to the people who had just elected him, climbing up to the castle. From this strategic point, he looked out over his village, the centre of the huge territory that, freed from misery and oblivion, he would mark forever: giving it a new direction, where the key word is progress. Serrão Martins was, and still is, almost 40 years after his death, a synonym of freedom, development, justice and the aspiration for a better world’ (in SERRÃO, Júlia, Serrão Martins – Uma vida dedicada aos outros, Mina S. Domingos, Serrão Martins Foundation, 2023, pp. 89-94.).

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