Between the Tejo River and the beaches of Algarve, lies the largest region in all of Portugal: Alentejo. It is a vast rural area with golden grasslands, that stretch vast and wide. But in this vastness, there are cities, though none are very big, like in the case of Mértola. A small town near the south, with a rich history, located in the valley of the Guadiana River. And here, for almost two decade, during the month of May, an Islamic Festival is held, celebrating one of Portugal’s most ancient and important periods in History.
I’m not sure if it is a well known fact around the world but Portugal has a deep islamic heritage. In the 700’s a.C., the Iberian Peninsula was invaded by tropes from the north of Africa, that made their way there through Gibraltar. These islamic forces dominated a large area of what is now southern Spain and Portugal, and spread their beliefs, culture and way of life.
This islamic reign lasted for centuries, almost 800 years to be precise! And though it was so long ago, it was one of the most important events in Portugal’s history, because it was in this environment that the country, as we it know today, began. And the impact of these invasions still lasts until our days. Some big examples are the southern portuguese architecture and some words in the portuguese alphabet, like Algarve (the area most affected by islamic presence), amongst other examples.
2019 marked the 10th edition of the festival (which happens every two years). The entrance is easy to find, since you’ll immediately notice all the movement towards it, and when you arrive, the (faux) ancient arabian archway is a dead giveaway to where the fair begins.
It is comprised of a series of decorated streets along the top of the hill, near the castle, with vendors and restaurants, and even special events like parades and concerts. It can get a bit crowded since the streets aren’t very wide and are full of decors and shops, but then again, that’s is sort of the point, to make it feel like a busy arabian market. Here you’ll find a whole lot of good stuff, from sweets, to tattoos, to a myriad of spices and accessories! While also enjoying the magnificent view of the river.
These fairs and festivals are now very common and stand as a way fun and communal of remembering and teaching about Portugal’s history.
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