The Torre de Belem, or Tower of Belem in Lisbon is one of those iconic landmarks that’s even more interesting on the inside than the outside. So if you happen to be in the neighborhood of Belem and consider skipping the tower because it doesn’t look that imposing or impressive, think again.
The Tower of Belem was commissioned in the late 15th Century by King John II as a defence system for the city of Lisbon after it was decided that the fortresses of Cascais and Sao Sebastio didn’t offer sufficient protection. Unfortunately the king passed away before the plans were drawn, so the idea was put on hold. Approximately twenty years later, King Manuel I of Portugal decided to forge ahead with the construction. The tower was built between 1514 and 1519.
The building was designed in the Portuguese Manueline style. King Manuel I had his own architectural style named after himself, how cool is that? The Manueline style is a reflection of late Gothic, with smatterings of maritime exploration to the Far East and Africa. You’ll often see elements of botanical or oceanic symbols, Christian symbology and ornate carvings. It’s all very stunning when it’s combined together, and unique from anything I’ve seen before.
The Manueline style wasn’t popular for long though; it only lasted from around 1490 to 1520. (King Manuel I died in 1521.) But it was long enough to influence the architecture of Portugal, and elements of it can be seen in numerous buildings still standing today, such as churches, monasteries and palaces.
If you have a sharp eye you may notice something familiar about the shape of the crosses on the tower. If it reminds you of the Knights Templar cross, you’d be right. The Knights Templar was disbanded by the pope in 1312, but King Dinis I of Portugal created the Order of Christ in 1317 for the remaining knights who escaped the mass slaughter across Europe.
King Manuel I received the title of Grand Master of the Order in 1516, hence the crosses.
King Manuel was also the guy who sent Vasco de Gama, a member of the Order, to sail around the African cape to India. Both King John II and King Manuel I were very big on exploration, which is where the maritime influences come from in the architecture. These excursions to other lands also brought a great deal of wealth and prosperity to the country.
Now let’s step inside the tower, starting with the entrance level, or lower battery:
Lots of cannons for protection of course. I love the arches though!
The tower is made of limestone and is comprised of four storeys. They have an interesting system of red-light green-light on each floor to control the flow of traffic up and down the narrow staircases. As you climb up you get to explore each level, most of which look like this one:
The tower went through numerous incarnations, renovations and additions during its history. By 1589 it became a prison for political prisoners. The dungeons below the tower were actually used as a prison all the way up to 1834! This area is also open to the public, though it’s quite cramped and there isn’t much to see. In fact, there’s just barely enough room to stand fully upright for a person of average height:
The tower was used as a customs post in the mid-1600s, a telegraph station (1810) and a lighthouse (1865). In 1983, the building was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was added to the registry of the Seven Wonders of Portugal in 2007.
To be honest, my husband and I were both a bit “meh” about seeing the tower initially, but we were in the neighborhood and had the time, so we decided to take it in. It was much more interesting than we had anticipated! I would highly recommend giving it a visit if you’re ever in Lisbon, it doesn’t disappoint.