The town of Silves, the former capital of the Algarve, is built on a hill overlooking the River Arade, which was navigable to the Atlantic Ocean in historic times. It is located above a massive aquifer making the area very fertile. Although standing stones in the area date back to the Palaeolithic era, the first habitation of the hill was probably by Phoenicians, followed by Greeks and Carthaginians.
The town of “Cilpes” was first established during Roman occupation, with a major commercial and military centre built around the Citadel. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the vacuum in Iberia was filled by Visigoths from the north who arrived in the 6th century,
A big change came in 713 CE when the Moors invaded from North Africa, and under the Umayyad Arabs control, “Shilb” became one of the most important towns on the peninsular.
In 1156 the Almoravid Berbers conquered the area, and there followed much toing and froing as Muslims and Christians fought for control of southern Iberia. Sancho I the King of Portugal, supported by a Crusader army, captured Silves in 1189, but the Almohads, who had by then replaced the Almoravids, soon retook it.
The fortress as seen today relates from this period. Built as an irregular polygon with towers, a twin towered gatehouse, and crenulated walls, all in red sandstone. There are many internal structures within the walls, some still being excavated, including rainwater catchment and a subterranean cistern with vaulted roofs, supplying water to the garrison and surrounding houses (still in use until the 20th century).
The Muslims raided the Christian kingdoms to the north for both treasure and slaves, making Silves so rich it became known as Baghdad of the West. The town finally fell into the hands of the Christians led by the Grand Master of the Order of Santiago in 1242. The castle served as the seat for the provincial governor until the 16th century, and later its towers were used as a prison.
Following the Christian take over, the Great Mosque of Silves built by the Moors was converted into a Gothic cathedral. There was a setback in the 14th century, when the cathedral was damaged by a big earthquake. In the 15th century King Afonso V added the apse and three chapels, along with a Gothic transept and main door. By the 16th century Faro had become the major centre in the area, and the bishopric was transferred there, however the church interior continued to be enriched, with Baroque altarpieces.
Archaeological excavation at the castle has revealed the oldest buildings on the site to be 8th century, but Iron Age remains have been found in the trenches. The 11th century governor's palace, and the residence of Prince Henry the Navigator have been located alongside the curtain walls. Excavation is slow as there is up to twenty feet of soil to remove from the military square to reach the floor levels. There has been some renovation done since the 20th century, tiling and plastering and making the battlements safe.
The Fertile Arade Valley
King Sancho I