History of the Municipality Silves
The presence of man during the Palaeolithic period is confirmed by one archaeological site. The whole of the area of what is now Silves municipality was however inhabited during the Neolithic period and the Bronze and Iron Ages, a fact borne out by numerous archaeological finds. Particularly impressive are the abundant megalithic monuments - menhirs - carved out of the region's red sandstone and of limestone.
The Arade river has since time immemorial been the route to the interior favoured by the vessels of the Mediterranean peoples - Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians - who were drawn to the region by the copper and iron mined in the western Algarve. This much is evident from the archaeological site at Cerro da Rocha Branca - unfortunately destroyed - about half a mile away from Silves, which was inhabited from the end of The Bronze Age onwards. In the 4th century B.C. Silves boasted a strong defensive wall and in the ensuing centuries it was occupied by both the Romans and the Moors.
Silves owes its existence to the navigability of the Arade river and to its strategic position atop a hill that dominates a broad swathe of countryside. It was possibly founded during the period of Roman rule, but it was with the Moorish invasion which began around 714-716 that Silves became a prosperous city. By the 11th century it was the capital of the Algarve and according to some authors surpassed Lisbon in size and importance. At this time Silves was also a centre of culture, home to poets, chroniclers and lawmakers.
The religious and political tremors that rocked the Moslem world in the 11th and 12th centuries were felt in Silves too, where they manifested themselves in frequent changes of ruler and sieges and struggles that pitted rival factions against each other. King Sancho I took advantage of this internal division to lay siege to the city in 1189. His army was aided by crusaders from Northern Europe who were on their way to the Holy Land.
The fight for Silves was long and cruel and. according to chronicles of the time, many of its inhabitants perished, killed by hunger and thirst or slaughtered when the crusaders sacked the town. But Portuguese rule was initially short-lived and in 1191 the city was recaptured by the Moors.
Despite having lost many of its inhabitants and much of its wealth, Silves was elevated to the status of Episcopal see and headquarters of the military government after the definitive conquest of the city in the context of the Christian occupation of the Algarve - 1242 to 1249 - which was concluded in the reign of King Afonso lll.
The centuries that followed were a difficult time for Silves. With the sundering of its former links with North Africa and the gradual silting up of the river it found itself sidelined from the lucrative maritime trade. As a consequence its economic, political and military influence dwindled, while places like Lagos, Portimão and Faro grew in importance. Natural catastrophes like the plague, earthquakes and fevers caused by the swamp that formed where the Arade had once flowed also contributed to the town's decline.
The coup de grace came in 1534, with a papal bull allowing the transfer of the Episcopal see to Faro, a possibility that only became a reality years later. Silves was never to recover its past splendour and for almost three centuries it was a city inhabited by only a few remaining citizens.
But in the second half of the 19th century dried fruit and, above all, cork breathed new life into the city, which became one of the main processing centres for those products. Today Silves is a town proud of its past, at the heart of a municipality with a thriving and increasingly diverse economy.