A Window to the Past

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As my third week in Lisbon is coming to an end, I’ve taken some time to reflect on all my experiences thus far. I’ve been mistaken for Brazilian many times, explored beautiful cities nearby, and visited some incredible historical sites.

I was always good at most subjects in school except for history. I never found any of my history classes particularly captivating, as they were a reiteration of facts and of a narrative that I had begun learning from a very young age. Here in Portugal, however, I have learned to appreciate history so much more. Portugal became a country in the 12th century, but prior to then, it was home to many groups such as the Lusitanians, the Moors, and the Romans.

The Castelo de São Jorge, which can be seen from all over the city, is a castle on top of a hill in Alfama, the oldest part of Lisbon. In the castle, there are vestiges of the occupation of these peoples, dating as far back as the late 8th century B.C. This site alone encompasses so much of Portugal’s rich past, which has captured my attention and my heart!

Portugal is known for Vasco da Gama, a famous maritime explorer who sailed the first trade route to India by sea. The Portuguese absolutely love him and have named so many structures after him: there is a shopping center, many restaurants all over the city, and even a bridge over the Rio Tejo named after him. The Portuguese are very fond of their role in the Age of Discovery, and there are homages to this all over Lisbon, reminders of their participation.

I love my study abroad program because we do not give in to the status-quo narrative; instead, we are forced to think critically and fill in the gaps in history that are purposefully left out. For example, in our first week, we visited the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a structure erected in 1940 under the dictatorship to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Portugal’s nationhood. The gigantic monument is an homage to the Age of Discovery, featuring 33 prominent Portuguese figures of this time.

Near the Padrão, there is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a monastery built in the 16th century. We had the chance to hear Professor Miguel Jeronimo, a specialist on the Age of Discovery from the University of Coimbra, speak on the monuments and the history behind them. He pointed out the blatant lack of any reference to the slaves who built the beautiful monastery or the country that the Padrão was commemorating.

Views of Lisbon from the Castelo de São Jorge.
Views of Belém from the top of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is featured in the lower left.

In our historical discussions, we also analyze word choice. There is a stark difference in when the words descobrimento (discovery) and invasão (invasion) are used. For example, when talking about the maritime explorations and the Portuguese settling in other territories, the commonly used word is descobrimentos. The Portuguese went out into the world and “discovered” new lands, food, and trade routes.

However, when discussing the Moor occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, and their time in Portugal, it is often referred to as an invasion. Having to think critically and with an open mind has made me realize that history is important; it is a window to the past, one that we must constantly be looking through to ensure that our society, as a whole is moving forward. My time in Portugal has opened up my eyes and made me so much more interested in this amazing field.