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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Portugal: Ordinary House Hid Islamic Baths, Stately Home

The Islamic bathhouse at the Municipal Museum of Loule (Photo by Loule Municipality)


Near the city wall of Loule, there was a house long silent and a garden untended when the municipality in the Algarve bought it.

At one time, the house plot had been full of the sounds of communal conversation and, later, of family life.

Several years of archaeological work and the removal of several hundred cubic meters of earth uncovered two secrets: a stately 15th-century house and a 12th-century hammam, or Islamic bathhouse, according to Loule Municipality, which showcases both in its municipal museum.

Centuries ago, Islam was a major religion in the territory of modern-day Portugal. By the 10th century, half the population of the Iberian Peninsula was Muslim, research suggests, according to Aljazeera (June 10, 2020).

The culture of Portugal is rich because of the many different people who inhabited the land during the past millennia, from prehistoric cultures to its pre-Roman civilizations, (such as the Celtic tribal groups, the Gallaeci and the Celtici; the Lusitanians, and the Cynetes, among others); contacts with the Phoenician-Carthaginian world; the Roman period; the Germanic invasions of the Suebi, Buri and Visigoths; Viking incursions, and Sephardic Jewish settlement.


The Umayyads were the first Muslim dynasty, established in 661 in Damascus. It oversaw a rapid expansion of territory as far west as Portugal and as far east as India, making it one of the largest empires in history at 11,100,000 square kilometers (4,300,000 square miles). (By Constantine Plakidas)


Finally, in the 8th century, Arab and newly converted Berber Muslims sailed from North Africa and took control of al-Andalus, or modern-day Portugal and Spain. The region joined the expanding and prospering Muslim empire in the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), according to Britannica.

By the 11th century, Islamic rule still was prevalent in much of what is now Portugal, namely south of the Mondego River and, later, across the Alentejo and Algarve southern regions. In the 13th century, Muslim military forces retreated from modern-day Portugal, leaving behind a robust cultural heritage, such as Islamic art and language – the writer, Adalberto Alves, has published a dictionary of 19,000 Arabic and Arabic-inspired words and expressions in Portuguese, reported Aljazeera.

Islamic Baths

Between the early and mid-12th century, the public bath, or hammam, of Al-Ulya (Loule) came into existence.

Before the advent of modern plumbing, the hammam was a vital social institution in any Middle Eastern city. It played a central role in promoting hygiene and public health, and it served as a meeting place, according to Baths and Bathing Culture in the Middle East: The Hammam (October 2012), The Met.

Also, a Muslim is required to be pure morally, spiritually as well as physically. Several times, the Quran, or the Muslim book of sacred writings, cites the importance of keeping clean and tidy.

The hammam in Loule was built partially underground to help keep the heat in, according to Loule Municipality. It consisted of a vestibule, cold room, tepid room, hot room and the furnace compartment. The rooms would have had vaulted ceilings so that condensation from the water would run down the walls rather than drip on the bathers. Small skylights would have been set into these vaulted ceilings to allow daylight. No traces of these have survived to the present day.

However, the rooms of the hammam can be seen today from above. To enter the hammam, visitors would go through an L-shaped vestibule, which prevented passers-by from seeing inside. This space housed the changing rooms and latrines. From the vestibule, bathers would enter the cold room first, then the tepid room and, lastly, the hot room, which is where the bathing began and was located farthest from the street to retain as much heat as possible.

The hot and tepid rooms had raised floors supported by pillars, which allowed hot air to circulate beneath, heating the floor. The hot air came from the furnace, located in a room adjacent to the hot room. The furnace heated the water that had been brought in through pipes built into the wall. Eight chimneys funneled the furnace smoke outside.

Stately Home

By the mid-15th century, the bathhouse building had fallen into ruin, been partially buried and forgotten by everyone, according to Loule Municipality, who acquired the plot in 2006.

The site became the property of Gonçalo Nunes Barreto of the Morgado de Quateira. In 1462, King Afonso V gave Barreto permission to build a house there. Initially consisting of a ground floor and an upper floor built in an L-shape, the buildings were set around an uncovered courtyard that was separated from the street by a high wall. An arcade, or a series of arches, which featured four stone columns with octagonal capitals and bases, supported the upper floor on the south side of the building.

Between the late 15th century and early 16th century, the house underwent extensive remodeling. On the north side of the site, new additions were an exterior wall and a new colonnade. Another arcade was built over the new colonnade to expand the first floor. The bases and capitals were square-shaped and decorated with pentagrams, or five-pointed stars, vine leaves, bunches of grapes and stylized roses, symbols associated with Christianity.

One of the colonnade’s capitals features the coat of arms of the Melo family, connected to the Barreto family through the marriage of Nuno Barreto, son of the original house owner. This colonnade can be viewed on site at the museum, together with cobblestone paving, walls, foundations and the door with an ogival, or pointed, arch.

As a result of the Portuguese Restoration War (1640-1668), the war between Portugal and Spain that began with the Portuguese revolution and ended with the cessation of the Iberian Union, the Barreto family abandoned their home and went to Spain.

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