Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami of 1755
When you first look at a map of Lisbon's historic center one thing immediately grabs your attention. Amidst the confusion and drunkenly orchestrated streets of the Alfama, Castelo, and Bairro Alto sits a monument to order and city planning. The "Baixa" with its wide avenues organized into a perfect grid with large open squares and plazas stands in stoic protest to its unkempt immediate neighbours. Watching the devastation that has hit Japan in the form of an earthquake and tsunami is heartbreaking. It is even more heartbreaking thinking about it in relation to the city of Lisbon. Normally when such tragic events happen they remain safely off in the distance confined to images on the TV or Computer screen. But as I watch the events unfold in Japan and walk the streets of the Lisbon an uncomfortable reality begins to set in. The exact same thing has and will happen again here. Maybe it won't happen in my lifetime, but the immediate threat remains like a thick gray cloud pregnant with the warning of a coming storm.
On the morning of November 1st, 1755 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the city of Lisbon for an estimated 3-6 earth shaking minutes. Gigantic fissures measuring close to 5 meters wide opened up in the middle of the city center. Survivors of the initial quake rushed to find safety in the wide open spaces of the ports next to the river Tagus only to be confronted 40 minutes later by an enormous tsunami that engulfed the harbor and downtown Lisbon. To make matters worse, this catastrophe happened on a religious holiday where churches were filled with people and large amounts of candles to commemorate the day. Otherwise unaffected areas of the Tsunami and quake were soon raging with fires. When all was settled and done 85% of Lisbon's building had been destroyed, amoung those many palaces, theaters, libraries and museums and all they guarded inside would be lost forever. Many classical works of art, historical records of an empire, even the detailed writtings of Vasco de Gammas explorations were swallowed up by the quake. The human toll is said to have been around 100,000 which would be about a third of the population of the capital at the time.
The Baixa was reconstructed after the 1755 Earthquake that devastated Lisbon. The Marques of Pombal set out with the help of Manuel da Maia to build a new city. A rational and open city. It was laid out on a grid with wide and open roads and featured large squares and plazas. The building style which would later take the name Pompaline, after the Marques himself, is a notably restrained neo-classical style, do as much to the new "rational" architecture so beloved by the Marquess as to limited funds and an urgency to rebuild quickly.
Disasters of great magnitude often act as a stress test of a social formation, revealing inner weaknesses and fault lines, and in the case of a decaying society, thereby quickening its demise. In other cases they act as a catalyst for major ideological shifts. Before the quake, Lisbon and much of Europe were shackled by the church and its belief that the world was exactly the way God intended it to be, so we must be living in the best of all possible worlds. What is, is because God has made it so. Even immediately after the quake many religious leaders pointed the finger at society blaming them for their lack of piety and faith which had wrought this terrible disaster upon them. Inquisitors literally roamed the streets looking for heretics to hang. For others the trauma universally suffered made the very idea seem a bit silly. Many, including Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau began to rethink this ideology out loud wondering just what type of deity could have desired or ordained the destruction of Lisbon. Just as the earthquake had brought down the foundations of the city , it also began to raze the "dead-hand" grip of the medieval church giving way to the beginnings of what would later become know as the Enlightenment. When I see images like the ones I am seeing coming out of Japan now, I don't think of causes, geological or philosophical. I don't wonder why. I just realize how connected we have become as a planet and how human we all are. Despite our differences in politics, religion and customs. We all worry about our family, our friends and those we love. We all want to do right by them and be loved in return. When the King of Portugal asked his prime minister what should be done after the earthquake. His words were both prescient and simple. " Bury the dead and feed the living."