Santa Maria de Belém in Lisbon

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Santa Maria de Belém, or just Belém , whose name is derived from the Portuguese word for Bethlehem, is a civil parish of the municipality of Lisbon, in central Portugal. At the mouth of the Tagus River it is located six kilometres west of the city centre and two kilometres west of Ponte 25 de Abril (25th of April Bridge).


The first settlement of this region dates back to the Paleolithic, from archaeological evidence discovered along margins of the river courses.

Middle Ages

With the Kingdom of Portugal established, during the reign of Afonso III of Portugal the royal inventory determined that settlement was dispersed, occupying many of the lowlands lands on the avails of agriculture. The construction of the monastery was a project conceived prior to the arrival of Vasco da Gama's epic voyage (rather then as a homage to it), conceived in 1495 in the courts of Montemor-o-Novo just after Manuel ascended the throne, as a Pantheon to Iberian Kings he believed would follow in his footsteps.<ref name=Senos103/> In fact, construction was delayed, revised and completed, but never became a dynastic resting-place for Royal families of Portugal.<ref name=Senos103/>

The same monarch, in the words of Damiam de Góis ordered the construction on the rocks deposited in the Tagus a "a tower of four platforms", giving rise to the baluartes of the Torre of Belém.<ref name=JFHistoria/>

After these two construction projects, a number of estates started popping-up, both agricultural and summer homes. As the population continued to slowly grow, new convents appeared.<ref name=JFHistoria/> The nature of the suburb changed, and even Friar Nicolau de Oliveira (1620) began to indicate that it was within the city limits.<ref name=JFHistoria/> Between 1551 and 1591 (as noted by Vieira da Silva) the civil parish of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda was established, consisting of a vast territory, one of its clergy installed in the Monastery of Belém.<ref name=JFHistoria/>


The zone became progressively popular after King John V of Portugal acquired estates and properties in the area, in hopes of developing defenses.<ref name=JFHistoria/> Carvalho da Costa (in Corografia Portuguesa) noted that "in front of Junqueira is immediately the locality of Belém, so healthy and appreciable, that the naturals and visitors, want to live there; and those for lapse of comfort can not live [there], are continuously competing frequently for that site. In it there are houses, noble estates, nobility, nobles of the first order in the Kingdom; and if the land permitted more palaces, or buildings, there would continue the city until that site".<ref name=JFHistoria/>

In 1770, the ecclesiastical parish of São Pedro de Alcântara was established, that included the territory east of the Alcântra River, de-annexing it from Ajuda.<ref name=JFHistoria/> Also in the reign of Joseph, the barrio of Belém was officially instituted (judicial and administrative authority), which included the ecclesiastical parish of Ajuda, part of Alcântra and Santa Isabel, as well as the parishes of Benfica, Belas, Barcarena and Carnaxide.<ref name=JFHistoria/>

During the 1755 Lisbon earthquake (1 November 1755), Belém and Ajuda were the areas that were least affected by the earthquake and tsunami.<ref name=JFHistoria/> In fact, many of the survivors who lost homes were installed in numerous tents and shacks in the region.<ref name=JFHistoria/> The King (Joseph of Portugal) and the court transferred the royal household to a shacks located in the Royal estates, in the area that would later be transformed into the Ajuda National Palace.<ref name=JFHistoria/> The move of the King and his first Minister, and Secretary of State for the Kingdom's Businesses (the Marquess of Pombal), made the Belém-Ajuda axis during the third quarter of the 18th century, the centre of the bureaucracy and attracting commerce.<ref name=JFHistoria/> A military presence was also important; during this time, two regimental infantry barracks, under the Count of Lippe, and a cavalry regiment, under Mecklenburg.<ref name=JFHistoria/> These events consolidated the integration of Belém-Ajuda into the city of Lisbon.<ref name=JFHistoria/>

During the latter part of the 18th century, the monarchy slowly extricated itself from the zone of Belém-Ajuda.<ref name=JFHistoria/> In 1794, the Royal Shack was burned down in a fire in Ajuda, forcing the Royal Family to abandon the location and take-up residency in the Queluz National Palace.<ref name=JFHistoria/> But, even the construction of the Ajuda National Palace did not impede the Royal Family's move towards Lisbon, since the lack of moneys delayed its completion and the French Invasion during the 19th century, resulted in the Royal Family's escape to Rio de Janeiro.<ref name=JFHistoria/> But, when they did return (in 1821), King John IV installed the family in the Necessidades and Bemposta Palaces.<ref name=JFHistoria/>

Belém then evolved into an industrial zone, attracting factories and merchants, in particular around the zone of Pedrouços and Bom Sucesso, such as tanneries, metal-stampers, glass-makers, earthenware manufacturers, textile-makers and woollenware producers.<ref name=JFHistoria/>

On 28 December 1833, the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém was institutionalized, with its seat in the Jerónimos Monastery (that included the parish of Ajuda.<ref name=JFHistoria/> The industrialization that started during this period continued throughout the 19th century; an 1881 inquiry, established that 25 factories produced goods in the Alcântara-Belém region, emplying 1215 men, 812 women and 432 minors.<ref name=JFHistoria/> This growth attract new residents and social housing started to be constructed to support the manufacturing industry.<ref name=JFHistoria/> Belém experienced a greater level of autonomy: between 11 September 1852 and 18 June 1885, a municipality of Belém existed, presided by their first President, the historian Alexandre Herculano, that included the parishes of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, Santa Maria de Belém, part of São Pedro de Alcântara, Santa Isabel and São Sebastião da Pedreira, in addition to Nossa Senhora do Amparo de Benfica, São Lourenço de Carnide and Menino Jesus de Odivelas.<ref name=JFHistoria/> Equally, the Royal Family, King Louis of Portugal and Queen Maria Pia of Savoy began to reside in the Ajuda National Palace.<ref name=JFHistoria/>


Belém was also the location for the development of many urban projects, such as the construction of a landfill, opening of many docks or the opening of a raillink to Cascais, which initially departed from Pedrouços.<ref name=JFHistoria/> Socially, the first recreational and cultural organizations were established, and the area was a place for leisure activities. On transitioning into the 20th century, Belém had grown considerably, with the establishment of electrical services within the area and significantly with the 1940 Portuguese exhibition. The 1940 Expo resulted in the demolition of the older nucleus of Belém, the Praça do Império.<ref name=JFHistoria/> and the beginning of a phase of monumental constructions which, along with pre-existing historic architecture (such as the Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Tower, and Belém Palace) began to occupy the waterfront.<ref name=JFHistoria/> This included the iconic Padrão dos Descobrimentos and the modern Centro Cultural de Belém which helped to promote tourist and cultural exploration of the north margin of the Tagus.<ref name=JFHistoria/>


The southern limit of Lisbon, Santa Maria de Belém is delimited by the Tagus River estuary to the south, and the margins of the Algés and Alcântara Rivers (to the west and east respectively); it is bordered by the parishes of Alcántara (in the east), Ajuda (in the northeast), north by São Francsico Xavier and to the west by the municipality of Oeiras (Algés).

In addition to the historical buildings and avenues, Belém is the location of the Jardim do Ultramar , several blocks of green-spaces that includes the gardens of the Praça do Império , the Jardim Vasco de Gama , Afonso de Albuquerque Square and Jardim Agricola Tropical . These gardens cover a large portion of the waterfront area, encircling the buildings of the Rua de Belém, and backs onto the gardens of the Palace of Belém.


Belém is recognized for its concentration of national monuments and public spaces, including a mixture of historical buildings and modern symbols of Portuguese culture. This juxtoposition of famous icons developed from Belém's important military position along the mouth of the Tagus; its role in the exploration in India and the Orient (the Caminho das Índias); and 17th-18th century construction of royal residences and noble estates in the parish following the destruction stemming from the 1755 earthquake and tsunami.

Belém's main street and historical avenue is Rua de Belém, a strip of 160-year buildings that have survived several years of change and modernization. This includes the famous pastry shop Fabrica de Pasteis de Belém known for a specific Portuguese confectionery: pastel de Belém (pl.: pastéis de Belém), an egg tart made with flaky pastry.

In the heart of Belém is the Praça do Império, an avenue of open-spaces and gardens, with a central fountain, which was laid-out during World War II. To the west of the gardens lies the Centro Cultural de Belém, built in 1992 during Portugal's term in the revolving role at the helm of the European Union presidency. It is now an arts complex, containing Belém's Museu Colecção Berardo. To the southeast of the gardens is the Belém Palace (1770), the official residence of the Portuguese President. Five hundred metres to the east of Praça do Império lies Belém's other major square Praça Afonso de Albuquerque.

Belém is home to a number of other museums: Museu da Electricidade (Electricity Museum), Museu do Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau (Macau Cultural Museum), Museu de Arte Popular (Folk Art Museum), Museu Nacional dos Coches (Coach Museum), and Museu da Presidência da República (Presidential Museum).

Belenenses, a renowned sports club from Lisbon is based in Belém.


  • Belém Tower - constructed on the rocky outcropping/island along the northern margin of the Tagus River as part of a defensive system to protect access to the Tagus estuary envisioned by John II of Portugal, it is one of Belém's iconic symbols of the parish. Originally, the Tower of Saint Vincent , it was elaborated by Manuel I of Portugal (1515–1520) to guard the entrance to the port at Belém. It stood on a little island in right side of the Tagus, surrounded by water.
  • Monument to the Discoveries - located on the edge of the Tagus' northern bank, this 52 metre-high slab of concrete, was erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. The monument is sculpted in the form of a ship's prow, with dozens of figures from Portuguese history following a statue of the Infante Henry sculpted in base relief. Adjacent to the monument is a calçada square in the form of a map, showing the routes of various Portuguese explorers, during the Age of Discovery.


  • Jerónimos Monastery - located along the Praça do Império, across from the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, it was originally built to support pilgrims who travelled in the region by Henry the Navigator; expanded and elaborated from 1501 by architects for King Manuel I of Portugal to serve as a resting-place for members of the House of Aviz-Beja; and as a church for seafearing adventurers who embarked during the Age of Discovery, after Vasco da Gama's successful voyage to India. Construction was funded by a tax on eastern spices, and over time came to represent Portuguese historical discoveries, becoming over time a national monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site, housing (in addition to the religious art and furniture from its past) artefacts and exhibitions like the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (National Archaeological Museum) and the Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum) within its walls.

See also

  • Jerónimos Monastery
  • Torre de Belém
  • Padrão dos Descobrimentos
  • Belém Cultural Centre
  • Museu Nacional de Arqueologia
  • Museu da Electricidade
  • Museu da Marinha
  • National Coach Museum
  • Belém Palace
  • Pastéis de Nata
  • Estádio do Restelo
  • Encyclopædia Britannica Standard Edition CD ROM, 2002.

External links