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Arches remain mute testament to Lisbon's darkest hour

By Catholic Online
December 22nd, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Lisbon, Portugal faced its darkest hour November 1, 1755 as a massive earthquake destroyed buildings. Lisbon was almost totally wiped from the face of the earth, the ancient Carmo convent and its library of 5,000 books reduced to ashes. The ruined arches stand today in the middle of the rebuilt city as a reminder of the worst day in Lisbon's history.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Lisbon, Portugal faced its darkest hour November 1, 1755 as a massive earthquake destroyed buildings. Lisbon was almost totally wiped from the face of the earth, the ancient Carmo convent and its 5,000 book reduced to ashes. The ruined arches stand today in the middle of the rebuilt city as a reminder of the worst day in Lisbon's history.

The magnitude 9 earthquake struck early that morning, tearing wide gashes in the earth. The quake was followed by a series of devastating tsunamis and five days of raging fires which devoured the buildings left standing.

It was one of the deadliest earthquakes in world history, leaving an unknown total number dead, usually estimated as about 60,000 people though estimates range from 10,000 to as many as 100,000, and 85% of the city in total ruins.

Lisbon was once a major city and seaport, home to the famous navigators of the great Age of Discovery, and among the oldest continually settled cities on Earth. The earthquake and fires destroyed more than just homes, it took out the royal palace, destroyed the opera house, cathedral, and library.

The quake also incinerated most of the maps and journals of the great explorers, and countless works of art. Survivors lived in tent cities in the outskirts of town, traumatized and too terrified to return to the city, overrun by looters and the dead.

The earthquake inspired a frenzy of philosophical and religious soul searching, and some famous battles of wits. Voltaire, horrified by the tragedy and annoyed by religious accusations that Lisbon had been leveled in an act of divine retribution for the lewd lifestyles of its citizens, wrote his "Poem on the Disaster in Lisbon" in 1756. The poem reads, in part:

"What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother's breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?"

Most of the city was rebuilt, the rubble cleared, and new buildings started. The Marquis of Pombal immediately turned his energies to rebuilding the city with the famous statement of his plan of action: "Bury the dead and feed the living."

While modern buildings in the Baixa Pombalina area are considered to be some of the first seismically sound constructions in the world, the Carmo convent which had stood in the center of Lisbon since 1389 was intentionally left roofless as a reminder of the disaster.

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