Where Christians pray facing Mecca
When archaeologist Claudio Torres first visited Mertola, a small town in the south of Portugal, he stumbled upon broken pieces of pottery near the old townʹs medieval castle. The area on top of a steep hill on the banks of the Guadiana River had been abandoned for several centuries.
Near the ruins, he saw an imposing church with whitewashed walls and horseshoe arches. In its vaulted interior a mihrab, a niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, showed that the church had once been a mosque.
"We realised there were very important traces of the Islamic period in Mertola and quickly started excavations," says Torres, who first visited the town with the historian Antonio Borges Coelho in 1976. The ceramic shards they found under a fig tree turned out to be important Islamic artefacts.
In the 8th century, Muslim armies sailed from North Africa and took control of much of what is now Portugal and Spain. Muslims would rule over a big part of the Iberian Peninsula, known in Arabic as al-Andalus, for several centuries before losing territory to Christian kingdoms.
After the discovery of ceramics from the Andalus period, a team of archaeologists, researchers and students came to Mertola every summer to look for traces of Portugalʹs Islamic history.
"We discovered that Mertola was more important than we had ever imagined," says Torres. The townʹs river port made it a major regional capital, which went into decline after the 13th century.
The significance of the remains found led Torres to establish the Archaeological Field of Mertola in 1978 and move to Mertola permanently with his family.
Since then, archaeologists have uncovered rare Islamic ceramics, a 12th century Almohad quarter and a 6th century baptistry. Mertola now holds one of Portugalʹs most important Islamic art collections. From an impoverished town in a marginalised region of Portugal, it has been transformed into a museum town visited by tens of thousands every year.
But what was discovered in Mertola had much wider implications. It showed deep connections between Europe and Islam and challenged the way history is told in Portugal.