Évora and the Megaliths

We’ve made the passage into Spain, but for lack of a decent internet connection I’ve fallen behind on my posts. There are a couple more worthy things to write about concerning Portugal, and one of them is the quiet, pristine town of Évora.

We were drawn here after reading about the longevity of the place. This was originally a Celtic settlement that saw its fortunes turn first to the Romans, then the Visigoths, the Moors, and finally the Christians.

It was a smashing success of a town for 200 years or so starting in the 14th century – favored by royalty, home to a giant Jesuit University, and it was the seat of an influential archbishopric. So, naturally, in 1580 the King of Portugal managed to die without a successor and Spain seized the throne. That sent the royal court skittering into the winds and over the course of the next couple hundred years the whole place emptied out. Today, there are fewer people living here than in the Middle Ages.

But the city’s slow decline turns out to be what kept the place so wonderfully intact. The whole area has a “just as it was when” feeling to it.

A Roman temple stands in front of a 15th century church. Fourteen columns still stand, most of them still capped with marble. It was accidental preservation that saved this place. First, it was walled up to create a fortress, then it was used as a slaughterhouse. It wasn’t uncovered until the 19th century. Photo by T.
A closer look at the Templo Romano. Locally it’s known as the Temple of Diana, but there is no consensus by archaeologists about who the temple was actually devoted to. Photo by R.

The church just next door to the Roman Temple is the Church of St. John the Evangelist, and it has some of the most impressive azulejo tile work we’ve seen in Portugal.

Interior of the Church of St. John. Photo by T.

There are grates in the floor of the church – R is standing in between them in the photo above – that show off an old Moorish cistern on one side, and a pile of monk’s bones on the other.

Monk’s bones at the Church of St. John the Evangelist. Photo by R.

Inside another church in town – the Church of St. Francis – there is another, more elaborate Bone Chapel. It is worth the few Euro to get in. It was impressive, but not the most elaborate we’ve ever seen.

The Bone Chapel in Évora. There is an inscription on the entryway door that reads: “We bones that are here are waiting for yours.” Inspiring, no? Photo by T.

If you want to see a bone chapel that will keep you up at night, go to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome. It takes the concept to another, and dare I say artistic, level.

Évora itself is compact, picturesque, and easy to navigate. We stayed at a local AirBnB and availed ourselves of the local markets to make a few meals for ourselves. We had a delightful time, and actually decided to stay a little longer than planned after hearing about a tour for the “Stonehenge of Portugal.”

We don’t normally pay to take a tour unless they come highly recommended or they’re required for entry. Ebora Megalithica was recommended by our guide book, and it did not disappoint. If you are in this area do not miss taking this tour. We both learned a ton (no pun intended) about these magnificent stone formations that date back to the Neolithic. I won’t go into everything because then there’d be little incentive for you to take the tour, but here are some highlights:

The megalith stones are massive. There are easily fifty or sixty of them forming a large oval. They occupy the downward slope of a hillside, facing east, and were put in place roughly 7,000 years ago. Photo by R.
Say hello to Mario. He’s the archaeologist who leads the tours. He is a wealth of knowledge. He and his business partner are mounting an effort to preserve and protect the megaliths and the nearby burial grounds. Photo by T.

Some of the stones, like the one in the photo above, have faint carvings on them. They are barely visible today because of erosion and human tampering, but under the right light you can see some extraordinary stuff.

A reverse image of the stone above.

This stone has a bunch of shepherd’s staffs carved into it. The staff was, and still is, a symbol of power. (Bishop’s in the Catholic church still carry them). A shepherd’s staff is used to take hold of an animal by its neck and pin it to the ground. To wield it correctly  took strength and skill. (Fun fact: the word “imbecile” derives from the Latin ‘im’ – ‘without’ and ‘baculum’ – ‘staff.’ It literally means “without a staff” – and so connotes weakness).

These stones are some of the earliest attempts by humans to announce their mastery over nature. These are not grave markers or commemorative tablets. Taken together these stones form a giant calendar. They tracked the rising of the sun and the moon and gave the people knowledge of the seasons, which equated to a kind of power over their fates.

If I had to guess (and I’m no anthropologist, so take this with a HUGE grain of salt), I’d wager that each staff on this stone was carved by a different hand. Or at least each represents a different person. Perhaps as a boy came of age and earned his staff, he carved the stone. But it’s all just conjecture. So little is known about these carvings that guesswork like mine, and a heavy does of mystery, make the site a real cultural wonder. It also makes it ripe for abuse.

Another stone in the megalith formation. This one has “cups” carved into it. See all the dimples? Archaeologists think that these may have been used to track the stars. Photo by T.

The megaliths sit on private land, but given the cultural importance of the stones the government requires that the public be granted access to the site. The roads are rough, there are no fences, no preservation teams, and no security. Some rocks have been damaged by oil splashed on them by overzealous “New Agers” and others have bullet holes in them. Probably the most devastating damage, though, is to the ground itself:

There should be quite a lot of vegetation on the ground, which would help stabilize the soil and protect the stones from falling over. Constant foot traffic through here has degraded the grass, allowing erosion from the rains to wash away the earth. Photo by T.

If I could offer any advice at all, please treat these places with respect. You don’t actually need an “ancient site” to perform an energy or blessing ritual. The earth beneath your feet right now is ancient enough, and you already have the capacity within you to bless and be blessed. And, seriously, you can go to a firing range to practice shooting your guns. Leave these places intact for future generations to learn from.

One comment

  1. I adore tiles so a visit to the Church of St. John the Evangelist would be seriously high on my “must-see” list ..

    It sounds like at the very least the monoliths need a small path around their outer edge that connect to entry and exit point path: that would keep most people to fixed points around the stones and give the surrounding grass chance to grow back, stabalising as much of the area as possible.

    Next a perimeter fence would keep out some of the random vandals… a local education programme would teach people that there stones could be a valuable social, national, cultural and economic resource for the town, so keeping them in pristine state and promoting tourism could be a win-win situation for the stones and the town.

    Wonderful post… Thank You!


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