Mértola is a village in Southeastern Portugal, near the Spanish border. It is situated in a strategic location, with the structure of an amphitheater on a hill, between the right bank of the Guadiana river and the left bank of the Oeiras creek, by the northernmost navigable part of the Guadiana river. Its 7000 years of existence are related both to the existence of a waterway, and to the establishment of land linked to the southern Iberian Peninsula.
Mértola was inhabited by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Arabs and its economy was largely based on the mineral exploitation of copper iron pyrite and on being one of the most important commercial hubs of the western part of the Mediterranean region. The mining activity of the region dates back thousands of years, with the remains of roman mining structures identifying the importance of the area to the expansion of roman metallurgy. In addition, this Southern area of Lusitânia, was an abundant source of other minerals such as gold, silver, copper and iron. Nowadays there is no longer a mining economy and Mértola became one of the most important archaeological and historical research nucleus of Portugal thanks to its immense past richness.
Ptolomeu, a greek-egyptian scientist, that lived in Alexandria in the 1st century AD, considered Myrtilis (Mértola’s original name) “opium antiquum et praeclarum” - an ancient and noble addiction.
When the Romans invaded the region, this city used to bear great commercial importance.
The first historical reference to this settlement was made in the Suebi Chronicle, by the bishop Idácio, while narrating an episode dating from the year 440. This episode mentions the existence of a fortification in the site, at the
time referred to as Myrtilis.
After the Romans, the location was occupied several times by the Suebi and the Visigoths, being dominated by the Arabs from the 8th century on (around 711 AD). Always re birthing from the ashes after every conquest Mirtolah (the name the Arabs gave the location) was a prosper city filled with life. Throughout the 12th century, under Moroccan domination, Mértola was part of an important military strategic plan, having its Mosque reconstructed as well during this period of time. These Arabs were also responsible for remodelling the defense structures of this prosperous settlement. There are references to these structures by the end of the 9th century AD, and it is certain that the castle was consolidated between the years 930 and 1031 AD, becoming one of the most solid defense structures in the area. As the Caliphate of Córdoba fell (1031AD), Mértola became an independent kingdom and was soon to be claimed by Al-Mutamid, king of Seville. During the Christian Recapturing of the Iberian Peninsula, more exactly in 1238, the town was conquered by Portuguese King Sancho II, and donated to the Kights of the Order of Santiago, a Military Order that payed a vital roll in the christian conquest of southern Portugal.
Mértola’s Parish church, was originally the old Muslim mosque built between the 12th and the 13th centuries. After the christian conquest of the town, the mosque was turned into a church, but its architectonic structure was left unaltered. In the 16th century, the church was partially remodeled, but never modifying the inner arrangement of the naves, with four naves and several columns, which strongly resembled the original mosque and with the decorated niche indicating the direction of Mecca.
Even though Mértola was an important strategic point in southern Portugal, this settlement and its castle became less important once the Portuguese Discoveries began. From this period on, Mértola went into decline: its walls were so damaged that, in 1758, they were in ruins and did not have any type of military protection.