Throughout the Algarve the mystery and romance of the area´s Moorish legacy is shown through the numerous legends of enchanted princesses left behind during the Christian Reconquest and by the celebrations recreating the scents, sounds and tastes of Arabic life. The Algarve has always been separated from the rest of Portugal by the Serra de Caldeirão and as it was one of the last areas to be reconquered by the Christians it has perhaps been separate from the rest of Portugal in terms of the Portuguese psyche. D Afonso III called himself King of Portugal and of the Algarves on this side of the Water and on the Other. Morocco was the ´other´.
For over 1300 years, there was no great urbanisation on the banks of the River Gilão and after the Islamic invasions of 711 the rural district of Tavira became part of the Califat of Córdoba. There was a village on the left bank known as Al-jillah (which is the probable origin of the name Gilão). It was only at the millenium that the Almoravid castle was built on the right bank of the Gilão to protect the ford where ´The Roman Bridge ´stands today. What we know of the activity in the port of Tavira in the mid 11th century shows that Tabira (meaning "the hidden") was one of the main settlements of the Islamic Al Garb.
The Christian reconquest of the North of Iberia displaced thousands of muslims southwards and with the influx of refugees the town spread down towards the river. The area between the castle and the river became wealthy and it was at this time that the famous ´Tavira Vase´ was made.
In February 2008 the Islamic Museum was opened to display the Vase and other Islamic artefacts found in the city. As reported in Algarve Resident 23 February, the Museum has been 10 years in construction and cost €2million (50% funded by the EU and the organisaiton Promuseus). The aim of the Museum is to inform residents and visitors of the patrimonial heritage and history of the city.
I have often complained to numerous Porutuguese (from museum guides to the Director of Culture in Tavira) about poor Portuguese translations into English. There was no complaint from me at Tavira´s Islamic Museum as indeed, there were no translations into English other than on the subtitles of the film on display. The guide apologised as soon as we walked in: he had obviously received complaints previously. We live here and speak some Portuguese but if the aim is for the Museum to be a tourist attraction then it falls short of the job. It is ironic that the Museum is in the same building as the Tourist Office, thoug the Museum is not signed and the entry is around the back. We thought that the guide books to the Museum might be able to help tourists who do not speak Portuguese but they are not translated into English either nor are they available to buy in Portuguese as there were not enough printed to go on sale.
The Tavira Vase excavated by the archaeologists Manuel and Maria Maia is a find of international significance. The Tavira Vase is 36 cm high and 42 cm wide, made on the wheel and modelled of ceramic fired clay. It is decorated with figurines of knights, musicians, a woman on horseback and a dismounted archer. (6 of the 14 figurines are missing). There is a set of 5 animals (of which 4 remain) including a cow, camel lion and deer and then a flock of doves is perched on the funnel neck. The Vase was probably a wedding gift as water from the gargoyles would water the plant in the Vase, probably basil (as the the plant is associated with the cult of love).
Other exhibits include part of the taipa walls which were built to defend the Muslims from the Christians under Mestre D Paio Peres Correia, lamps, kitchenware, games.
When I left the Museum I could not help thinking of the tragedy of Balsa. The huge Roman site to the West of Tavira which was destroyed in the 1960´s. Also of the Cromeleque at Almendres (near Èvora) which rivals Stonehenge and the standing stones at Carnac in France. With such a rich cultural heritage, should not Portugal´s leaders think more long term?
Tavira´s Muslim heritage may not be on the same scale as those mentioned above but if we are to do anything to promote cultural heritage, let us do it wholeheartedly and with pride and lateral thinking. There are many willing volunteers - Portuguese and expats here in the Algarve.