Sat upon one of the peaks overlooking the Sintra Hills, the Moorish Castle is a fortification built in around the 10th century following the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors. Two rings of walls run irregularly around both the granite boulders that dot these hills and along the peaks of sharp and steep cliff faces. Along the sentry walkways, there is the opportunity to admire the unique landscape that in the foreground features Sintra town and its Town Hall, the Palace of Pena and the hills and, beyond, in the background, the extensive plain running northwards and the Atlantic Ocean.
The current configuration of the Moorish Castle derives from a series of building campaigns and events and particularly highlighting the interventions taking place during the first dynasty, begun by Afonso Henriques following the taking of Lisbon and Santarém (1147); through to the utilisation of the fortification during the reign of Fernando I (1383); the damage caused by the 1755 earthquake; the restoration work undertaken by Ferdinand II in the 19th century within the Romantic tastes of that era and as well as the interventions carried out by the General Directorate of National Buildings and Monuments in the 20th century. Through to the implementation of the global “Conquering the Castle” requalification project carried out by Parques de Sintra-Monte da Lua, the Castle experienced no other major alterations.
A new perspective on the Castle
In order to support the restoration intervention and deepen the historical knowledge about this site, the “Conquering the Castle” project was preceded and accompanied by archaeological excavation works, ongoing since 2009, in partnership with Lisbon’s Nova University. The archaeological works completed in various sectors of the Castle have enabled a fuller understanding of the occupation of this site over the course of many centuries in conjunction with the possible identification of a medieval Christian cemetery, silos and the foundations to Moorish residences along with objects and artefacts from the Bronze Age, from the Iron Age and the Neolithic period, including the singular highlight of a complete ceramic vase dated to the 5th century BC.
On the site of the Former Stables, the excavation identified stone pavements, likely built during the improvements made by Fernando II, and a drainage gallery running from the cistern in a west to east direction.
This also involved the discovery of various bases of silos carved out of the rock and alongside walls to a Moorish residence with ceramic artefacts from the 11th and 12th centuries. It is over this that the entire eastern section of the wall stands and thus demonstrating how this stretch of wall was built as from the second half of the 12th century and therefore following the Christian re-conquest.
The remaining areas subject to excavation within the inner section of the fortification also reveal more space given over to silos and other domestic environment related structures and where there were also found various coins dating to the first Portuguese dynasty and a range of items in bone, ivory and ceramics dated to every epoch from the Neolithic period through to the 14th century.
The Romanesque church of São Pedro de Canaferrim hosts the Interpretation Centre of the History of the Castle, including some of the recent archaeological finds.
A Castle for everybody
The Conquering the Castle project involved investment totalling €3.2 million and brought about the restoration of the Castle and the re-creation of the romantic landscape designed by Ferdinand II as well as the installation of new visitor support infrastructures with the services resulting adapted to contemporary times and needs and including cafeterias with terraces, stores, indoor ticket offices, sanitary installations, an interpretation centre and as well as improvements to the pathways and overall mobility and access. On this last point, there was a constant concern to improve the means of access to those with reduced mobility levels and ensuring they are able to take the pathway all the way to the Castle, access the new visitor welcome facilities as well as the views from at least one section of the wall looking out over Sintra.
The Moorish Castle was classified as a National Monument in 1910 and forms part of the Sintra Cultural Landscape classified by UNESCO as World Heritage since 1995.