Revealing the tragedy behind the relics of the Convento do Carmo.
History of the Convento do Carmo and Lisbon's Great Earthquake
On November 1, 1755, the Great Lisbon Earthquake shook the city of Lisbon and its surrounding areas. The estimated 8.5 - 9.0 earthquake is considered one of the top 25 most destructive earthquakes in history and caused a tsunami that reached heights of 5-15 meters, striking the coastline of Lisbon and southwest Portugal. Unfortunately, the earthquake occurred on the Catholic holiday, All Saints' Day. On this day, Catholic people traditionally attend mass at church and remember their loved ones that have passed by lighting candles. With Portugal being a predominantly Catholic country, the churches were not only full of lit candles for the holiday, they were also full of people honoring All Saints' Day. Consequentially, the earthquake ignited several fires throughout the city. Earthquake + Tsunami + Fires = a recipe for complete disaster. Much of the city was destroyed and the disasters killed between 10,000 and 100,000 people.
One of the few structures that survived the Great Lisbon Earthquake is the Convento do Carmo (Carmo Convent). Founded in 1389 by Constable D. Nuno Álvares Pereira, the convent and adjacent church were built in the Gothic architectural style between 1389 and 1423. It underwent several modifications over the years, which explains its various architectural styles. The Earthquake destroyed the structure of the building, while a fire ruined the interior. Reconstruction began in 1756, but was abandoned by 1834. Thirty years later in 1864, the Convento do Carmo became an archaeological museum and the first of its kind, known as the Museu Arqueológico do Carmo. Already a building of historical importance, the Convento do Carmo cemented its place in national lore when it became the site where the Estado Novo dictatorship, led by António Salazar, surrendered their power during the 1974 Carnation Revolution.
Visiting the Convento do Carmo Today
Today, you can visit this relic of the past located in the Chiado district of Lisbon. As you enter the skeletal nave of the former church, you're pleasantly greeted by open skies above. The view is flanked by tall Gothic arches, an effect of the church's incomplete reconstruction. Its open structure gives it a slightly whimsical and modern touch, as though it was intentionally built this way as the ultimate way to bring in natural light.
At the end of the nave is an archaeological museum with an eclectic collection including Roman epigraphs/writings and tombs, Pre-Columbian mummies and ceramics, Egyptian mummies and a sarcophagus, and artifacts from the excavation of the Castro de Vila Nova de São Pedro, a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) archaeological site in Azambuja, Portugal. Once you've explored the church ruins and museum, you can take the Elevador de Santa Justa (Santa Justa lift) down to explore the Baixa district. Before you descend down the lift, stop for a moment to admire the incredible, panoramic views of Lisbon. Don't drop your camera!