Cláudio Torres

Cláudio Torres & Mértola

Turning weaknesses into strengths

“How is it possible that, in the eyes of historiography, 500 years of Islamic presence now correspond to a huge void?”. This was one of the questions at the root of the Mértola project. The old city of Martulah (Muslim name of Mértola) plunged into oblivion after golden periods in Antiquity and the Middle Ages before the Reconquest.

And in 1978 Mértola was still a small village, far away from the capital and distant from the university world, wgere isolation was the first obstacle, making it difficult in many ways including to hire qualified staff.

Difficulties associated with this isolation were overcome by setting up a framework –the Mértola Archaeological Site – which developed all the subsequent activities. Cláudio Torres managed to make the project attractive and operational. He obtained funding, and the interesting and original work there developed attracted dozens of volunteers and experts from which was formed a technical staff that settled at Mértola. And the creation of a large team of collaborators with different levels of involvement, also contributed and keeps contribuiting to the project’s strength and credibility.

He turned weaknesses into strengths. It was the unique nature of the Mértola project, together with the charisma, vision, and determination of Cláudio Torres, that attracted the attention of both public and private entities. This was accomplished through a persistent contracting policy, searching for creative solutions and diversifying funding sources, public and private. In 1994, Portugal’s Tourism Board, acknowledging the impact on cultural tourism of the village’s revitalisation, launched a specific programme to support the Mértola project, which also relied on the continued commitment of the Municipal Council. Research projects funded by public agencies ensured the project’s visibility to the national and international scientific community.

The way Cláudio Torres lead the project, as a link between archaeology, cultural heritage, and local development, along with the support given to the community and local traditions in different domains, have boosted one another. The project’s consolidation accompanied Mértola’s growth.


The multicultural Mértola stones


The multicultural Mértola stones

The project developed by Cláudio Torres at Mértola revealed a long-forgotten heritage wealth. The village had plunged into oblivion, and archaeological work gradually added value to its past. Links to the Mediterranean world were always at the heart of his project.

His work focused on more than just the accomplishment of the excavations programme, which has been conducted for 45 years. All archaeological works resulted in a careful recovery of each site and their integration into a didactic discourse aimed at all audiences. For example, the Roman nucleus was installed over the remains of a house of the Roman period, and the Paleo- Christian nucleus was built around a basilica of the 5th century. In some cases, nuclei could be created on- site. When this was impossible, materials were exhibited at in buildings that stand out for their architecture, as in the Islamic Museum (

Museum nuclei decisively contributed to highlighting connections with different points of the Mediterranean, e.g., tombstones at the Paleo-Christian Basilica bear witness to the links with Greek and North-African communities, and mosaics found at the Citadel prove Mértola’s connections with the Middle East.

The Mértola stones, which became widely known thanks to Cláudio Torres, have texts in Latin, Greek, Romance, Arabic, and Portuguese. A crossroads of civilisations, Mértola’s trading web is the result of a mercantile city open to the Mediterranean world until the 13th century.

Mértola’s links to European science and cultural heritage protection communities have been evidenced by projects such as Discover Islamic Art, led by Cláudio Torres in Portugal (, and many others. Special reference should be made to two exhibitions that highlighted the Mediterranean cultural legacy, i.e., “Mértola Almoravide et Almohade” (Rabat, Morocco, 1988) and “Maroc-Portugal, portes de la Mediterranée” (Tangiers-Rabat, Morocco, 1999). Bilingual catalogues were published for both exhibitions in Portuguese and Arabic.

His tireless availability to share and publicise the Mértola project has made him travel around the World, participating in conferences, congresses, and meetings, as well as events organised by small civil society organisations.


Com um grupo de crianças


From research to community ownership

Islamic door

Archaeological research would soon lead to other routes. What started as a scientific issue to be addressed quickly followed a different path. Excavations gave way to the recovery of old production systems of traditional woolen blankets, an innovative approach combining archaeology, anthropology and ethnography. Research placed Men and their future at the centre of all concerns in a depopulated region forgotten for centuries. Supported by this research, the local community took ownership of its History and made it part of its future and development.

Over more than 40 years, 14 museum nuclei were developed, dozens of books and catalogues were published, and a journal in medieval archaeology was kept. In addition, Master’s and PhD dissertations were supported. More importantly, dignity was given back to the population and this small village, located far from major urban centres, conquered an unthinkable central position.

Mértola became a regular destination for academics and both national and international researchers. The village has since been the venue of conferences on History, Archaeology, and Museology. Decisively, Mértola became an essential platform for contacts between nations of the Mediterranean’s southern coast. Dozens of grant holders visited the village and its Archaeological Site, especially Tunisians and Moroccans. Along with them, several generations of archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, curators-restorers, etc., had their professional internships here. All of them benefited from its library, which specialised in the Islamic and medieval periods and received significant donations. Portuguese Academy also participated in this process. The research centre created by Cláudio Torres integrates now a research unit in collaboration with the Universities of Coimbra and the Algarve.


An innovative vision, a holistic approach

In Mértola, Cláudio Torres materialised an innovative vision that encompasses the scientific, museological, environmental, socioeconomic, and political dimensions. Many of them took centre stage in Mértola for the first time.

The project’s core topic was the rediscovery of Mértola’s Islamic past. Very little was known about the Islamic period in Portugal (711-1250) when archaeological works began in the Castle in 1978. This project was critical to start building up such knowledge.

But it is not by accident that the study on woolen blankets – connecting their decorative patterns with the historical roots of Islamization – was one of the first projects and was later transformed into a small manufacturing cooperative. That deep connection to people also enabled, for example, to save a blacksmith’s forge, turn it into a museum piece, and put it at the service of the community as a pedagogic tool.

In Mértola the expression “on-site museum” has evolved from a theoretical concept and acquired civic significance. A tour for visiting and acquiring knowledge on the site was created by connecting different exhibition spaces, combining archaeological sites with museum integration. The village thus became a huge museum in which History is always present.

A less known but crucial dimension of the project, coherent with his holistic approach to heritage, is the importance acknowledged from the start to the landscape and the rural world, led him to promote the creation of the Guadiana Valley Natural Park, of which he was the first Director.

In this specific case, cultural heritage was given outstanding recognition. It was an opportunity to emphasise a comprehensive view of the Mértola project in which Man is at the centre of History and the landscape, in which he is the territory’s leading actor.

Archaeology and Heritage strongly impacted the local economy. The project dynamic and the activities jointly developed with the Mértola Municipal Council – the project’s leading partner since day one, both institutionally and financially – allowed to launch new businesses and were a significant driver for Mértola’s tourism.

This small village, with little more than 1,000 inhabitants, henceforth attracted thousands of visitors yearly. The village and its inhabitants achieved undisputable recognition nationwide.


Inclusive and bonding

The tireless ability of Cláudio Torres to gather people and build bridges paved the way for national and international cooperation with other research projects while energising a permanent active presence in international forums.

Getting the population to know its local heritage was the first step. His most important initiative was to let Mértola’s inhabitants (re)claim ownership of what had always been theirs: their History and heritage.

The rationale behind the exchange of knowledge was also based on equitability. Everything that Cláudio Torres gained in terms of scientific knowledge through extensive research was later given back to the population, first and foremost. The project was based in Mértola, and the locals were always the key players and “receivers” of that knowledge. From day one, those non-traditional audiences followed the project and were involved in its development. Museum spaces and events, such as the Islamic Festival, exist in areas belonging to the community. The presence of Heritage in daily life was, and is, the best way to convey that knowledge permanently.

At the same time, the work done in Mértola under the leadership of Cláudio Torres has been disseminated among the scientific community through museum catalogues and Master’s and PhD dissertations prepared at Mértola’s Archaeological Site (CAM), as well as the “Arqueologia Medieval” Journal (15 issues published). CAM regularly organises scientific encounters at Mértola. The regular publication of papers and colloquium proceedings and the presentation of conference lectures have made the name of Mértola familiar to the national and international scientific community.

But, his inclusive and bonding spirit has always guided the project, involving multidiscipline teams fully aware that the man-community and their territory were at the core of research.

Among other aspects, the vision stemming from a new approach to the extreme importance of Islamic heritage in Portugal brought us nearer to other communities, cultures, and experiences which are indeed close to us. In Mértola, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews once lived, worked, and traded together, sharing their lives and graves, we feel that, and we know that, we are part of a larger community sharing the same values.


Inclusive and bonding