General Overview

This text was originally written by the respective coordinator for the print edition as a general introduction to the volume for the part of the globe in question; the possibility of updating it was left to each author’s discretion. It is complemented by texts from the same author concerning each of the geographic subdivisions in which the volume’s entries were grouped.
The Portuguese In The Islamic World

Bringing together three regions so extremely remote from one another in a single chapter deserves an explanation. It is mainly connected to the way European Christians in general, and the Portuguese in particular, saw and perceived the world by the late Middle Ages, a perception that nowadays we can probably do no more than guess at.

In effect, North Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, apart from the occasional town in present-day Eritrea, were the special strongholds of the enemies of the faith, whom the Portuguese had to know well and against whom they had to take special defensive measures. Unlike what took place in Brazil, in Sub-Saharan Africa and in several regions on the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese presence in these three regions never succeeded in venturing outside the walls of the fortresses they built. Outside those fortresses were societies that were structurally hostile, resting in a power that defined itself, primarily, as Islamic.

It is true that the Portuguese encountered and confronted many Islamic communities spread across the Indian Ocean and Africa, but usually these powers – with rare exceptions – did not have sufficient territorial or demographic weight to create so many and such effective problems. At the same time, all of these dominions had strategic interests that were threatened by the Portuguese, thus increasing the levels of conflict already existent in the region.

Moreover, the Maghreb, the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf corresponded perfectly to the official discourse that reigned supreme in Europe on the people and territories controlled by Islam: Homines bestiales in desertis morantes, that is, “Savages living in the desert”. This was the blunt manner in which Arabs were defined and described in the Summa contra Gentiles by Thomas Aquinas, which followed closely a text by Ramon Marti, titled Capistrum Judaeorum. It is part of a true western intellectual tradition, which survived until very late, that denounced Muslims and the Islamic religion as the natural enemies of Christians, and which included Peter the Venerable, Al-Kindi, Godfrey of Viterbo, and Jacques de Vitry. They, the Arabs, were truly the incarnation of the other, that is, he who embodies my antithesis, he who is not included in my community, he who does not share my values and beliefs.

The architectural structures that survive in these regions convey this perception of siege and a fragile control of the territory. The urban planning to be seen in certain places was limited to the area within the walls, particularly in Morocco, whereas in the Persian Gulf Portuguese settlements were largely limited to the fortifications themselves. The overwhelming majority of architectural structures in these areas are, therefore, composed of the fortresses and the more or less complex surrounding defensive systems built around them.

Alongside the forts and fortresses, and in fact within them, the Portuguese presence also defined itself as Christian, which explains the visible presence of the many churches and monasteries that were built there. These structures were obviously places for worship, but also the marks of another religion and hubs of an unmasked religious proselytism which was never neglected.

It is true that the activities developed by the Portuguese from the forts in the Indian Ocean and in North Africa were similar: to obtain markets, to control sea routes, and to support navigation. But, as we will see later, ways of doing it depended largely on the situation encountered and the objectives intended.

Portuguese action in Morocco was marked by the proximity of Portugal, enabling a more consistent settlement, given the theoretical ease of support. Moreover, the commerce they conquered and the markets they served had long been familiar to the Portuguese. These aspects enabled a greater expression of settlement itself, which included small forts, but also allowed the Portuguese to dare make bolder conquests, aimed at major cities. Ceuta, to the north, and Safi, to the south, were major metropolises that once taken were known to be hard to maintain.

In the Persian Gulf and in the Red Sea everything was different. In the first case, the aim was, as we know, the rich port of Hormuz, around which Portugal centered its presence in the area; after its loss, the Portuguese attempted, for a short period, to turn Muscat into an alternative trading port, but without success. The Red Sea was already a special case. Despite historic-geographical debate, it seems certain that Portugal never intended, even when it had the chance, to seize places on the Red Sea coast. However this fact does nothing to diminish the importance of this area. Through it passed a significant part of the spice trade en route to the Mediterranean and it was through it that Mameluk power had access to the Indian Ocean, and this always represented a threat.

The lack of watering places, the harsh natural environment and the danger of constant attacks put a brake on settlement objectives in this region, but it was still essential to be familiar with it. Hence the concern for the creation of safe and exact navigation routes, such as that resulting from the expedition of 1541, in which João de Castro took part. But there is no doubt that, as claimed by Tomé Pires in his Suma Oriental, it was in this sea that India started.

In the Red Sea, the option was clear: unable to block the coast of Malabar, where the system of commerce could be deemed “porous” due to the incredible volume of its shipping, the closing of the entrances to the Strait were their intended means of control. How could that be done? Magalhães Godinho explained this clearly: from 1505 onwards, the Indian Ocean was divided into two main captaincies; the first had a jurisdiction that stretched from the Cape Guardafui to Cambay, with a focus on the Strait of Mecca, preventing the passage of spices through it; the second, which went from the Sea of Cambay to Cape of Camorim, had the task of preventing the Moors of Cambay from reaching Sofala and the Red Sea. At least once a year, a Portuguese squadron sought to destroy ports and ships of that sea through which danger came, threatening to allow only the passage of merchandise the Portuguese sought to control.

These are the objectives that help understand the taking of Suqutrah in 1507. It is also true that nowadays we have more knowledge about the relevance of the role the markets in this island played in bringing the results of the pillage of pirates and privateers in the region of Malabar and Yemen into the “legal” market.

Therefore, as in the Orient, north African settlements might have fortifications, often walling an entire city, and a trading depot, which was, after all, the institution that promoted and managed trade in the area. But there were also important differences: in Morocco, the trading depot of Andalucia carried out the maintenance of settlements, and the fleets organized in the kingdom tended to assist in potential sieges. In the Indian Ocean, the fleet would, alongside the fortress and the trading depot, ensure the transit of Portuguese goods, protect the interests of the kingdom, deal with its enemies (whoever they were), and ensure supply. Besides the fleet, the system of safe-conducts (cartazes) was aimed at ensuring safety on the sea to all people who could show them, thus obtaining maximum control of sea routes, and ultimately the monopoly of commercial circulation at sea. In the Atlantic, of course, the implementation of such a system was unthinkable given the amount of European competition.

This range of situations led to a presence that was sometimes short-term and dependent upon specific circumstances, sometimes longer and more stable. This is the reason why it is difficult, in many parts of these three regions, to identify accurately the dimension of the Portuguese presence. This explains the inclusion of some entries that are intended to signal the existence of probable structures of Portuguese origin, despite historiographic debate about provenance, and even sometimes a lack of field work.

This is the case, for instance, of several entries about places located near Velez de La Gomera. To be able to participate in the debate on the origin of this rich heritage found in Morocco, it has often become necessary to deepen our knowledge of certain places. This is the only way to account for many of the observations and conclusions drawn. It is also, for instance, the case of the city of Ceuta, in which works of Portuguese origin are easily mixed and confused with those promoted by the Spanish.

The same applies to the Persian Gulf, where we chose to include entries on places with Portuguese vestiges, although ignorant of their scope. This is the case, for example, of the entries on Nizwa, particularly those on Jabrin, in one of the turrets of whose fortress Portuguese paintings were found.

There are also several place-names, mentioned by sources as occupied by the Portuguese, in which we find it difficult to understand what this control meant and the way it was performed; it is the case of the town of Cernu, near Azemmour, whose profits and rights were granted in 1514 to Bentafufa for the services he paid to the Portuguese crown.

Likewise, in the Persian Gulf there are several place-names that suggest a Portuguese presence, although there is little information on this potential presence. In the locality of Bouchehr, in present day Iran, and near the Iraqi city of Basrah, local inhabitants identify a fort located there as being Portuguese, which however has a structure resembling that of many other forts of local origin in the region. Also in Iran, south of Hormuz, in a town called Chabahar, besides a fort similar to those in Bahrain (Arab Fort and Abu Mahir Fort), we can still see the ruins of a structure locally called Portuguese Kent.

This aspect indicates a reality that emerges from this work: that the Portuguese presence connected to the process of expansion may well be greater than that which we know.

Let us take three examples, in the south of Morocco. The first is connected to a monument known as Borj Nador. This structure, which appears to be a watchtower, is one of the rare constructions supposedly built by the Portuguese to support the defense of the fortified cities. As far as we know, a systematic survey of these kinds of structure was never carried out, although all sources indicate that they were used as a support to the defensive system, which was far from being limited to walled spaces. Even though it is not classified, regional authorities consider 1510 as the year of construction of this watchtower. Also included in these types of structure, and perhaps part of the same defensive system, is the watchtower situated in Oualidia, about 55 km northward of Safi and little studied.

The second example regards another type of settlement and control of Moroccan territory which is unknown. We know, for instance, that in some regions the Portuguese controlled, or controlled at a given time, villages and their corresponding resources, such as the aforementioned grants of the town of Cernu to Bentafufa, about which we know little.

The third point directs us to our insufficiencies in terms of research. A concrete case in the region of Doukkala-Abda is that of mining, which is attributed to the Portuguese by natives and some scholars. Vitorino Magalhães Godinho had raised this hypothesis regarding the region south of the Tensift River, which extended to Mogador (Essaouira) and had been controlled by the xiatimas. According to this author, in the Mountain Range of Ferrarias, or Mountain of Iron (Djebel El Hadid), on the occasion of Portuguese arrival, the mining after which the place was named had already been abandoned. Nonetheless, in more remote places on the coast, such as Foum Jamaa, in the region of Azilal, there are still some open-cast mines attributed to the Portuguese. It is true that little is known about the origin of these mining structures that are perfectly recognizable on the landscape, but that does not stop us wondering about how much we really know about the Portuguese heritage that remains in Morocco.

Despite the huge amount of work still to be done, there are no doubts about the importance of the Portuguese heritage in the south of Morocco. In fact, Moroccan citizens and authorities find themselves in a situation of comfortable coexistence with this and agree that this heritage offers development opportunities that should not be missed.

More serious than the lack of knowledge is the state of abandonment and the impotence shown by the Portuguese authorities in any attempt to prevent the decay of a heritage which is an important part of Portuguese memory.

In Morocco, despite many years of successive gatherings of delegations from both countries and meetings of mixed committees of experts, despite the agreements in principle, the decay and often destruction of the remnants of a rich and diversified presence have not managed to be stemmed. Even reports of intended archaeological work, if accomplished, are not available to interested parties. In terms of restoration in recent years, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has promoted certain projects such as the Keep of Asilah as well as preparatory work for the restoration of the Cathedral of Safi.

Safi continues to consider the Sea Castle one of its true symbols. Despite economic growth and urban pressure, the city has managed to preserve values of the Portuguese heritage such as the city walls, coats of armour and the Land Castle, as well as some more fragile items such as the remnants of the Cathedral and some fine portals. It is also worth noting, as indicated in the corresponding entry, that, in this city, one of the finest Portuguese overseas fortresses, the Sea Castle, saw the collapse of one of its sea-facing towers in February 2010, thus putting the whole structure in jeopardy. (> image next page).

Similar situations can also be verified in the Persian Gulf. Without proper vigilance by the national authorities, many structures lose their original features or are destroyed. The above mentioned forts in Bahrain are gradually being eradicated from the coastal landscape, submerged by recent industries.

As a whole, the state of preservation and the evolution of this heritage varies a great deal. Returning to Morocco, in Agadir and Essaouira it is only possible to have a perception of, rather than actually see, some of the structures of Portuguese origin. In the former due to the effects of an earthquake and in the latter to successive architectural alterations, the Portuguese heritage is gradually being expunged. In Aguz it is still possible to visit the fort on its beach, somewhat abandoned and battered by the sea despite having been classified as an historical monument since February 23, 1943.

In Azemmour, architectural heritage of Portuguese origin has been subject to some preservation work, but urban pressure for construction has not always given time for a more careful assessment.

The last Moroccan town worthy of note is Mazagan, present day El Jadida, elevated to World Heritage status by UNESCO, and which preserves an important architectural legacy, perfectly visible and visitable. Over time, it has even become an important tourist attraction. Despite this the Portuguese fortified city faces certain risks. While some structures, such as the cistern, have been the subject of works of preservation, other areas have been overlooked and are threatened with irreparable decay.

As far as the Gulf is concerned, surprise comes from another quarter. The fact is that successive entries in this inventory show how, besides fortified structures, there is a register in the region of a surprising Portuguese heritage of religious origin. Obviously linked to this is the presence of priests, religious orders and missions that circulated and in some cases settled in the region of Oman and the Persian Gulf.

It is not difficult to realize the important role that the presence of these religious entities had in the consolidation of Portuguese interests; besides religious proselytism, they created channels of communication with the various powers in the region, were an important source of information of all kinds, served as ambassadors, and often played a paramount role in conflict mediation. Therefore, in some regions, such as Persia, even after the departure of the Portuguese, they preserved missions near the churches and monasteries that remained in operation.

Whereas we know the places in which they settled, we have little – or virtually no – information on the heritage they left along the region of the Persian Gulf and Oman, and which stretched further north, right up to Georgia; in fact, Gori, in Georgia, and Esfahan and Shiraz, in Persia, were cities that supposedly had their own convents of Augustinian friars although we no longer know their exact locations; even Basrah had a convent of the same order alongside the Portuguese military presence.

Jesuits, in their turn, took advantage of the Persians’ desire to defend themselves against the Sunnite Turks and settled in Hormuz a few decades later its definitive occupation by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1515. At his request, Mughal Emperor Akbar I (1558-1605) received missions from the Society of Jesus, which were only occasionally hampered by the emergence of orthodoxy in the court of the Grand Mughal. In any case, these missions played an important role in counterbalancing British influence, which had been making itself felt across the region since the second decade of the 17th century. The first embassy took place between 1580 and 1583, being composed of three priests of the order, including Francisco Henriques. The second was held in 1590, and the third, which had the greatest impact, began in 1595; their effects only really stopped at the start of the 19th century. It is associated with the major names of Jerónimo Xavier, Manuel Pinheiro, and Bento de Góis; Men such as the latter became an inexhaustible source of information and knowledge for Portugal. In effect, Bento de Góis, initially between 1584 and 1588, and then from 1602 to 1607 when he died in Suzhou, China, passed through many of the places on the so called Silk Route, travelling through Persia, Arabia and Baluchistan, crossing the Gobi Desert and travelling across China and through the whole of Asia. During this period, he was able to maintain communications with India, thus helping the Portuguese to have greater knowledge of the Orient, its people, languages, and markets.

Several of these structures, despite having been little studied, are still visible across the Persian Gulf and on the coast of Oman. Some of them, such as those of Bahrain and Muscat, have been rebuilt and restored and included by UNESCO in its list of assets and structures considered as World Heritage sites.

Let us now return to the title given to this section of the inventory, which encompasses places as varied as Gori in present day Georgia, Suqutrah at the entry to the Red Sea, and the Moroccan souks. Within the political context outlined above this region of the Indian Ocean indicates an idea of confrontation with Turks and the Arab world in general. It was a region where, along with their trading depot, the Portuguese would only succeed in remaining if they built well-fortified areas; however, despite the dangers, it proved well worth the effort: it was through these regions that the greater part of the riches sought by the European consumers of the time circulated! Danger as well as hoped for glory and riches are what connect Morocco with these regions of the Indian Ocean.

Filipe Themudo Barata