Anyone who travels to Idanha-a-Velha cannot leave without visiting Igreja de Santa Maria (Saint Mary’s Church) and Sé Cathedral in this Historic Village. This church still preserves traces from the time it had been a mosque.
Right in the historic center of Idanha-a-Velha, one of the largest archaeological sites in Portugal (where we find remnants of the Roman and Muslim occupations, for example), we discover the magnificent Sé Cathedral of Idanha-a- Velha, a formidable construction that is unparalleled throughout the entire country.
It is believed that the building was constructed in the 4th century or in the early 5th century as a place of worship, presumably during Swabian reign. Afterward, during the Muslim occupation in the late 9th century, the temple was modified by the local Mozarab community. It was then converted into place for Islamic worship. However, the Christians took over the region once again in the 11th century. What we now know as the Sé Cathedral of Idanha-a-Velha was left in ruins until the mid-13th century, when the Knights Templar, the Order that also occupied the territory of this Historic Village, restored part of the ruins to build their church in honor of Saint Mary. The building underwent another intervention in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when the main gates on the western and northern sides were opened. In 1497, by order of Dom Manuel, Governor of the Order of Christ, initiated a new construction campaign.
Therefore, the unique character of the building’s exterior results from the various interventions it underwent. On the interior, we find an ample space divided into three aisles, dominated by 12 thick colonnades that support the archways with 12 iron arches. The colonnades are made of reused materials from Roman buildings, and the capitals are foundations for ancient Roman columns.
The walls still preserve traces of ancient decorations, with some marble etchings on the imposts, and the severity of their 16th century frescos are still perceptible.
Islamic believers used the well on the inside, at the base of the central portion of the West wall, for ritual washing when the building was a mosque – when the current apse of Idanha-a-Velha would have been the mihrab (a niche in a mosque in the form of an apse that serves to indicate the direction of the city of Mecca, where Muslims face when they perform their five daily prayers).
A testament to the passage of the peoples who occupied the territory of Idanha-a-Velha and still standing to this day, Sé Cathedral of Idanha-a-Velha is an example of how the historical and cultural heritage of the Historic Villages of Portugal takes anyone who visits on an exploration into our country’s origins.