The charming Portuguese town of Sintra is famous for its fairytale palaces and enchanting gardens. Although Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira are the highlights of the hilly region, the Moorish Castle has recently gained the attention it deserves. The castle lacks the extravagance of the other two palaces, but that doesn’t make it unworthy of a visit. On the contrary, the unique structure is a perfect spot for every history lover.
The Castle of the Moors, or Castelo dos Mouros, was built in the 8th and 9th century by the North African Moors during their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, hence its name. The Moors chose a strategic military location high in the mountains over the River Tagus. Once it was completed, the castle was of great significance for the Moors and remained so until the end of their rule.
The Norwegian Viking Sigurd I Magnusson, a king better known as Sigurd the Crusader, took over the castle in 1108. The Vikings were headed to Jerusalem and as soon as they left the castle, it was once again in the hands of the Moors. Finally, after a couple of attempts to expel the Moors from the castle and the country itself, it was conquered by the King of Portugal, Afonso I “the Conqueror” Henriques, in 1147.
Archeological excavations at the site have discovered remains of a mosque and a few houses that used to be inhabited by the North African Muslims. On the location where once the mosque stood, Afonso I “the Conqueror” Henriques built a small chapel. Although it remains undiscovered until today, one legend has it that under the cistern is the burial site of one of the powerful North African Kings.
The monarchs of Portugal continuously used the castle; however, it wasn’t as important as it had been during the Moorish rule. The last king of Portugal believed to have used the castle was Fernando I. The monarchs kept the original Moorish architecture of the castle but made small alterations. After the 14th century, it was neglected. For a short period, Jewish families lived in the castle. However, it was once again abandoned after they were banished from the country.
The Moorish Castle didn’t see any improvements in the following centuries. In fact, its condition has only gotten worse. Vegetation took over the castle and a big fire damaged most of the towers and rooms. Also, the tremendous earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 affected the architecture of the castle. But no one was willing to repair it and everything was indicating that nature would eventually destroy the castle. And so it would have probably ended up if it weren’t for King Ferdinand II.
In 1842, he built the Pena Palace and enjoyed looking at the Moorish Castle from his residence. However, the condition of the medieval fortress troubled the King, so he started to make plans to restore it. Ferdinand II was a great admirer of the arts, and the castle was his favorite spot for painting. Everyone who has visited the castle would be unsurprised by this fact.
It has breathtaking views: from one side is the magnificent Pena Palace, and on the other is the oldest palace in Portugal, the National Palace of Sintra. Beautiful landscapes and the fairytale town of Sintra beneath the fortress are also part of the unforgettable panoramic views. And when the weather permits, it is possible to see the Atlantic Ocean from the highest spot of the castle, known as the King’s Tower.
Ferdinand II liked the Moorish Castle very much and did everything he could to maintain it. In the 20th century, it was once more restored as part of the commemoration of the foundation of Portugal. Archeological excavations continue to this day, and so far the archeologists have also discovered a Christian graveyard and many artifacts on the site that are now on display in the castle. Today, the remarkable Morish Castle is a National Monument, open to visitors and since 1995 has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.