Permanent Delegation of Portugal to UNESCO
Beja, Mértola, Mértola
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The town of Mértola owes a great part of its historical importance to the Guadiana River where, the first important text with information on commercial circulation, was the charter of Mértola, from 1254, granted by D. Paio Peres Correia, Master of the Santiago Order. A river port in constant contact with the sea, it has been, over many millennia, an important commercial port where metal extracted in Alentejo’s interior and cereal from the fertile lands of Beja have passed. Benefiting from the exceptional position of a rocky outcrop separating the Guadiana waters from the Oeiras riverbank, the old city of Mértola has been - since the Pre-Roman Age - an important trading hub where people arrived to stay and products from the most disparate places in the old Mediterranean world have been circulating. Its historical importance comes from these multiple factors combined, of which this currently small village only shows very little but still echo through the monumental heritage and archaeological remains that are proof of such a significant past for the construction and organisation of the European south-west territory. In the early Middle Ages, the Guadiana River went through a slowdown as a communication channel until it gained a determining role in most of Alentejo’s vitality, as well as the regional and national economy, during what was known as the ‘mineral cycle’ (1857-1917).
The historic centre remains unchanged, hence allowing for the old walls and remains of the old port structure to reach our day and age, where you can see the Torre do Rio (a national monument since 1910), a fortified tower that has remained intact after centuries of intense flooding, the Castle (a national monument since 1951), the Main Church (a national monument since 1910), and the Citadel. These places are of the utmost interest for learning about the territory and the town’s historic evolution. Mértola's past, and remains, has been the centre of attention for visitors, archaeologists, and historians for a very long time. In Portugal, we find the first references in the 16th century, in the work Antiguidades da Lusitânia, by André de Resende; however, archaeologist Estácio da Veiga only identified and collected important material remains in 1877 and 1878, after the Guadiana’s flood that completely wiped out its riversides. This place’s archaeology was only restarted in 1978 under the supervision of archaeologist Cláudio Torres and Mértola's Archaeological Site. You can identify remains of human occupation in Mértola since the Iron Age, passing through the Roman Age, Late Antiquity, and the Islamic and Modern/Contemporary Age, which give it exceptional potential.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Mértola has established a connection with other people and cultures for centuries through the Guadiana’s natural communication channel. These contacts have left marks, which are still visible in the city’s organisation, architecture, archaeological remains, and traditions. The historic and archaeological research carried out on the remains left by these people has changed the historiography paradigm, hence allowing for less important periods to gain new importance. Deepening knowledge has contributed towards developing a new view regarding this territory’s history and has enabled a new perception over its relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. Research and dissemination and exploitation carried out in Mértola have in fact changed the European view regarding historic periods of time, such as Late Antiquity and the Islamic Period, and they have also enabled a perception of continuity regarding the society's essential values: respect for what is different, inclusion, intercultural understanding, the importance of sharing and exchanging, and priority to be given to man’s relationship with the territory and other people.
Criterion (ii): Mértola, an iconic site, shared and shaped by many civilisations, with emphasis on the Roman Age, Late Antiquity, and the Islamic Period, it is a privileged meeting space for the dialogue between cultures, respecting and working with other forms of being and living, and fostering balanced economic development that is socially fair and environmentally sustainable. The Guadiana River is a key element for understanding the importance of Mértola over time, which has already been mentioned in texts by Late Antiquity geographers and historians. Settled on a rocky outcrop between the waters of the Guadiana River and its affluent Oeiras, in permanent contact with the river and the sea, it has been for many millennia the main communication channel fostering intense commercial activities and a fruitful exchange of experience and knowledge. People have been established here and products from the most disparate places in the old Mediterranean world have been circulating since the Pre-Roman Age, of which archaeological remains and monumental heritage still keep remnants that are proof of such an important past for the construction and organisation of the European south-west territory.
Remains from the Islamic Period preceded by well-rooted Christian communities, as well as influence from the most diverse areas, have resulted in strong growth and meaning for Mértola. Research, broadcast using all the different forms and means, and the important network of contacts kept with many countries in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, have placed this town in a crucial position as a privileged link to current discussions on social, cultural, and religious issues. Knowledge of the past is indispensable for understanding current phenomena and it may be an important tool used in the service of awareness for such important values like multiculturalism, tolerance, and respect for others
Criterion (iii): Mértola has grown through influence and permanence over historic periods of time and by people who have lived here, where the remains of Late Antiquity and the Islamic Period have left a strong mark on this territory.
There is an important baptistery from the Palaeochristian Period in Mértola, deemed unusual due to the quality of its construction materials, monumental structure, and the fact that it is the second Palaeochristian baptistery found in Mértola’s acropolis, not far from the other, which makes it a rare archaeological phenomenon for this period of time. The recent findings regarding a new baptistery in the Hills of the Castle of Mértola incredibly added to the town’s rich heritage, hence broadening the study framework for the first Christian communities settling in the west.
Early Christianity and the materialism that carries some of its cults are unique in Mértola and relate to merchant communities who traded in the port, as well as long-distance maritime commerce whose roots are to be found in the current North African cultures.
Criterion (iv): The history of Mértola is closely related to its excellent location and strong connections to its most important communication channel – the Guadiana River. Land, maritime, and fluvial communication channels are not just means for the disposal of products, they are also privileged vehicles for transmitting ideas, knowledge, and cultures; those who visit them interact with local communities, hence shaping and transforming minds and cultures. Since the 8th century B.C., people in the south of the Iberian Peninsula have started moving towards the west attracted by the gold and silver mines whose extracted metals supplied the eastern commerce. The need to dispose of these products through ports located near the extraction areas with proper communication channels provides a context for the formation and development of Mértola. Fit perfectly between the Oeiras riverbank and the Guadiana River, with exceptional defence conditions, Mértola’s river is its main communication channel, a link between the interior and the south of the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the territories in the Mediterranean basin.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The urban tissue in the historic centre of Mértola is of high historical, patrimonial, aesthetic, and existential value. This primitive urban centre gathers all remains from the past, where the Mértola Museum serves as cement and link.
The asset boundaries correspond to the area where each national monument is located and comprehend the entire area in-between walls, as well as the buildings in the north, in which point some constructions are supported by the wall or their yards border with the latter. These are coherent buildings, which were shaped by the natural characteristics of the site where they have been placed and cannot be separated from the entire landscape surroundings, hence forming a remarkable lookout point, which lets us encompass a wide view of the landscape with only one glance, and, for the same reasons, it delineates a unique spot that stands out in the landscape, where the castle, the walls, and the surrounding forecastle may be seen from many external positions.
The surrounding area (buffer) corresponds to the area around the Historic Centre, which has been established in order to form a unit that partially includes the suburbs, the other side of the river, and the St. Francis Convent fences. In the north sector, the suburbs are unified and linked to the old hull forming an aesthetic and urban unit with great quality and identical urban characteristics. This is a coherent limit, which does not fragment the buildings but rather adapts to the urban mesh.
Comparison with other similar properties
In the national context, Mértola may be equated with different settlements in terms of organisation and spatial layout, which are aligned throughout the Spanish border and, after the Reconquest have been key elements for defending the territory against the powerful Kingdom of Castile. On the other hand, the model for Portuguese medieval villages does reflect the passage of other populations, since reoccupation is influenced by the existing structures as they are readjusted or transformed in order to take on new defensive roles. We have examples like Penamacor, Linhares da Beira, Lindoso, Marialva, Marvão, Portel, Castro Marim, and Monsaraz, among others, where the observed differences relate more to materials and construction techniques rather than organisation and implementation in to the landscape. Castelo de Vide, Alandroal, Vila Viçosa, and Monsaraz also have common elements in terms of scenery and blending with the landscape. On the other hand, there are important historical landmarks located in the south of Portugal, in areas like Moura, Serpa, Beja, and Évora, which play an important role in the area’s politics, economy, and culture. The importance of Évora is also noteworthy, since this small city’s roots have been lost in time but its importance remains until our days, having been considered as a prime example of Portuguese history and copied in Portugal and abroad.
On an international level, there are many examples of medieval towns and cities with a similar organisational structure and different shapes and sizes and specificities, which are associated with the places where they have been implanted, surrounding characteristics, and cultural differences arising from the influence of different populations who have shaped it over time. There is a great diversity of historic centres in Spain of medium and great sizes, organised based on a territory defence philosophy and preservation of the community gathered within the walls as is the case with Pedreza, Consuerpa, Olivenza, Cuenca, Segovia, Cáceres, Toledo, and Salamanca. In terms of scenery and blending with the landscape, we have the province of Cadiz, the sites known as Pueblos Blancos, which were established on areas with steep slopes and nest in terraces overcoming the differences in height with inclined alleys and stairs. The cities of Avignon, Carcassonne, and Turenne, in France, and Lucignano, Montalcino, Pienza, and San Gimignano, in Italy, were organised using the same philosophy as fortified cities. You can also identify similar characteristics in terms of organisation and establishment in locations situated in Greece, overlooking the Mediterranean, or in eastern Europe cities like L’Viv, in the Ukraine, and Pisek, in the Czech Republic.
Mértola is differentiated from other sites with the same size and organisation characteristics due to its longevity and continuity of its occupation, but it is also a crossroad for people and cultures.