Question: Where in the world did a dictator unwisely hide from a mob in a church with no roof?
Answer: Carmo Convent, Lisbon, Portugal
April, 1974. Political unrest in Portugal was coming to a head. The authoritarian Estado Novo regime, fronted by Prime Minister Marcelo Caetano, had become unpopular to a degree that was unsustainable. A military-backed revolt had been in the works for months. And now the time had come. Late on the 24th, Portugal’s 1974 Eurovision song played on the radio, the first secret signal to rebels that a coup was imminent. On the 25th, at 12:20 am, the second and final signal—a song by a blacklisted folk singer—hit the airwaves and the rebellion was on.
The signals may not have been quite as secret as expected. The Caetano administration immediately retreated to within the confines of Carmo Convent, which was serving as royal guard headquarters at the time. Though the military soon surrounded the convent, Caetano hoped no one would dare attack this beloved symbol of Lisbon, considered an icon of its endurance.
The gothic church complex had once been the largest religious structure in Lisbon. With Visigoth artifacts, a Roman tomb, residential halls for more than 100 clergy, a 5,000-volume library, and a stone proclamation from Pope Clement VII, it was the epicenter of Lisbon spiritual life. But the famously devastating 1755 earthquake (see below) brought the roof and arches of the nave tumbling down onto the gathered congregation.
While some repairs were made in the first few years after, the nave was left open to the sky. For part of the 19th century, monastic quarters housed the police and served as a district court. The uncovered area became an open-air sawmill shop. Happily, the 20th century brought meaningful repairs to damaged walls, lost arches, and the façade, restoring the structure’s beauty, if not its purpose.
What Caetano did not expect when he hid there among the royal guard in 1974, was that the military coup would also turn into a popular uprising, with tens of thousands of Lisboans flooding the streets behind the soldiers. That the entire city had turned against him convinced Caetano to hand over the government—with almost no shots being fired. Jubilant revelers stuck flowers in the unused gun muzzles, giving the rebellion the name it remains known by: The Carnation Revolution. Caetano fled to Brazil and never returned, April 25 became a national holiday, and the historical importance of Carmo Convent (still roofless) was cemented in history.
Fast Facts about the Great Quake
- The “Great Lisbon Earthquake” rocked the city at 9:40 in the morning on the Feast of All Saints, while many locals were attending mass.
- The quake’s epicenter was actually 120 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean but because it registered at least an 8.5 magnitude, its reach was vast.
- The quake rolled through Lisbon for as long as six minutes, opening a 16-foot-wide chasm in the city center.
- Countless candles lit for All Saints Day were knocked over by the tumult, starting a blaze so intense that it asphyxiated people 100 feet away.
- Many citizens raced to the seeming safety of the seaport, removed from most of the buildings, only to drown in the face of a tsunami that washed in 40 minutes after the earthquake (followed by two more giant waves).
- An estimated 30,000-40,000 people lost their lives to the earthquake, its related tsunami, and the ensuing fires.
- 85% of the city’s structures were destroyed, including the Royal Palace (and all the papers of Vasco de Gama), all the major churches, the hospital, and the brand-new Opera House (only six months old).
- The royal family was on vacation and missed the entire event, but the devastation so frightened the King, he refused to live within walls again; he made his court live in tented pavilions for the rest of his reign.
- The Prime Minister led the relief work, saying there was nothing to do but “bury the dead and heal the living.”
- The citizenry was pressed into service both for reconstruction work and to remove the bodies from the city, often dumping the corpses into the sea.
- Within a year, the rubble had been cleared away and new city planning began, with wider streets and large public squares.
- Recovering from the earthquake cost Portugal more than 40% of its Gross Domestic Product in the first two years.
- However, the rebuilding led to an increase in the employment of skilled construction workers and other laborers, which eventually steadied the economy and decreased Portugal’s dependence on Britain—a positive outcome from a tragic loss.
Visit Carmo Convent and witness Lisbon, old and new, during your Iberian Voyage: Lisbon to Barcelona Small Ship Adventure.