SINGAPORE (Oct 22): In Lisbon, not far from where the Tagus River empties into the Atlantic Ocean, there is a large, rose-tinted mosaic floor map that details one of the most significant periods in the history of Portugal and the world. It had ramifications far beyond Europe, with the rumblings of change reverberating through the centuries.

In the 15th to 18th centuries, Portuguese sailors set out on an unprecedented series of voyages that would bring them down the coast of Africa, to India and eventually, China and Japan. In 1488, Portuguese sailors rounded the Cape of Good Hope, reaching the Indian Ocean, and a decade later, they reached India. In 1509, they landed on the shores of the Malacca Sultanate, to the astonishment of the locals.

New trade routes were found, established hegemonies upset and traditional land routes such as the Silk Road withered. The Portuguese were followed by other European powers, setting in inexorable motion the wheels of a new world order, of European colonialism, the global interchange of ideas, influence, trade, expansion of religion, military conquest, enslavement and exploitation of native peoples and their lands, and global trade.

The period is called the Age of Discovery, and it established Portugal, a small, seafaring nation, as a world power. The influence of Portugal spread far and wide. Currently, the number of people who speak Portuguese as their first language is some 200 million, far exceeding the population of Portugal, which is 10 million. Portuguese peppers distant languages — the Malay gereja from the Portuguese igreja for church, and the Japanese arigato could be a derivative of obrigado for “thank you”, for example. Where did these ships of exploration come from?

The most southwesterly point of Portugal is Cape St Vincent. It is a desolate, starkly beautiful coastline of stern cliffs rising above the expanse of sea. According to legend, the cape owes its name to the fourth-century St Vincent, whose body was washed up on these shores. There is a lighthouse on the cape, which warns mariners of the strong currents and treacherous cliffs off the headland.

Ocean winds rake the land, keeping vegetation to a dense, low shrubbery. Centuries ago, the lighthouse would have witnessed sturdy sailing ships, called caravels, set out to sea into the vast unknown on their world-conquering voyages. The ships set sail from a port a little distance up the coast.

Lagos is a quiet, tourist-friendly town with cobbled, narrow streets, a maritime atmosphere and Moorish-influenced architecture. Visitors come to enjoy the scenic country of the Algarve coast, such as the striking Ponta da Piedade coastline, with its jagged rock precipices and tossing sea, near the town.

There is little to indicate that Lagos once had a thriving shipbuilding industry, was a centre of the European slave trade and was where ships set sail on their journeys to the ends of the known world — for this was the nexus of the Age of Discovery, the home port for ships bound for far-flung, unknown lands.

The main patron of the Age of Discovery was Prince Henry the Navigator, the Duke of Viseu. Under his aegis, Portuguese sailors explored farther than any European had ever gone before, discovering the vast riches of Africa and, in the process, founding the European slave trade.

There is a bust of Prince Henry in the town square of Lagos. Henry’s wealth came from various sources, including privileges granted by his father, King John I, but Henry was also the Grand Master of the Military Order of Christ, a powerful and wealthy militaristic order. The Order of Christ was no ordinary order and it was headquartered in one of the most evocative and mysterious buildings in the town of Tomar

Set in rolling hill country, Tomar is a small, quaint town in central Portugal, belying the fact that it was once the most important city in the country and in Europe. On a hill is the imposing structure of the Convent of Christ. Built in the 12th century as a fortification for the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula held by the Moors, in later centuries, it became a symbol of the opening-up of Portugal to external civilisations.

The Order of Christ was headquartered in the Convent of Christ. Its wealth and power financed the overseas expeditions of Portuguese sailors. The Order of Christ itself was derived from a much older, storied military order — the Knights Templar.

A thousand years after its founding, mystery and controversy continue to swirl around this Catholic organisation. Books and documentaries put forth theories of the military-religious order, its esoteric practices and supposed fabulous wealth and power. Originally born from the Crusades, the Knights Templar in its heyday was one of the most powerful military institutions in Christendom.

In the 13th century, the Knights Templar were betrayed by their own, denounced and outlawed by Papal decree. Its members were captured, tortured and burned at the stake. Throughout Europe, the society was disbanded and hunted down — an inglorious end to an organisation that had served its purpose.

In Portugal, however, the king, who owed a debt of gratitude to the Knights for battling the Moors, struck a deal with the Pope, and the Knights Templar in the country simply became the Military Order of Christ. It prospered, escaping the persecution in other parts of Europe. In the 1400s, its grand master was none other than Henry the Navigator, who used its wealth and influence to pursue his initiative in launching the Age of Discovery.

Ostensibly a religious building, the Convent of Christ has been on the Unesco World Heritage List since 1983. It is an imposing sprawl of fortified walls, monks’ cloisters, a church and various courtyards, as well as apartments, including those of Henry the Navigator. The convent was in fact the headquarters of the erstwhile Knights Templar and rumours continue to the present day that its treasure trove is buried beneath the hills of Tomar.

The Convent of Christ has some interesting features. Its heart is the fabulous Round Church, featuring a hollow octagonal tower, which allowed the Knights to ride their horses into the church. The interior is magnificent, dripping elaborate ornamentation, gilded surfaces and lavish paintings by the best artists of the day. The church is thought to be modelled after the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Another striking feature of the Convent of Christ is its Manueline architecture, a style native to Portugal, first introduced in the 16th century. The style is named after King Manuel I and is characterised by maritime elements such as seashells, braided ropes, anchors, seaweed and pearls, as well as botanical motifs such as sprigs of leaves and acorns. Manueline architecture owes its themes to the Age of Discovery, for in a circular manner, the very powers that enabled the far-ranging discoveries also immortalised and incorporated them into their power base.


A bell tower in the Convent of Christ.

Although Manueline architecture was short-lived and confined to Portugal, there are many striking examples of it in Portuguese architecture of the period. In the Convent of Christ, it is incorporated into extensions built in later ages as the building underwent constant renovation and expansion. The most spectacular expression of this architecture is the Chapter House window, a large window gasp-worthy for its unprecedented boldness in design and execution, with a stunning degree of detail.

Henry the Navigator remained grand master of the Miliatry Order of Christ until he died. He was buried in Batalha Monastery in Portugal’s central region. Other European powers, notably Spain, also launched their own voyages of discovery, but Portuguese sailors were the first to reach many hitherto unknown parts of the world. Their journey began in a quiet port on the Algarve coast, fuelled by the vision of their patron, and the power and wealth that supported him.


Lee Yu Kit is a travel writer who likes to eat. He still raves about the Portuguese egg tart he found at a small bakery in Lisbon. 

This article appeared in Issue 853 (Oct 22) of The Edge Singapore.

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