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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of the Aljube Museum in Lisbon

What is the Aljube Museum?

The Aljube Museum (known locally as Museu do Aljube) is a museum in a former prison that is dedicated to the history and memory of the struggle against Portugal’s 20th-century dictatorship.

Firgure behind bars at the Aljube Museum

Aljube Museum History

The Aljube Museum commemorates freedom, and resistance to those who would deny it to others. Between 1926 and 1974 Portugal was ruled by a dictatorship, and this museum was established in honour of the many people who fought back. This space was then a political prison, which was eventually decommissioned in the 1960s. Prisoners were confined, interrogated, and tortured within these walls for committing acts that could undermine the authority of the political regime in power.

As is often the case in European history, authoritarianism grew in a climate of chaos and hardship. Portugal’s First Republic, founded in 1910, endured much political instability: strikes and civil unrest, but also political crime and abuse. Matters came to a head, in May 1926, in the form of a coup d'état, led by General Gomes da Costa. A dictatorial regime had taken hold, and its authoritarian character intensified in 1933, when a fresh constitution was unveiled proclaiming the Estado Novo (or New State), under the rule of Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar. Political stability was finally achieved, but at the cost of crushing repression of individual liberties. The PVDE (or Police of Vigilance and Defence of the State) was in charge of persecuting, torturing and imprisoning dissenting voices that threatened the regime’s iron stability. Many newspapers were banned and censored; many citizens were arrested and held without trial. The Aljube Prison served as a place of incarceration for many of those who fought for freedom.

In the early 1960s, during Salazar’s regime, British lawyer Peter Benenson was inspired to set up a charity promoting human rights when he read about two students in Coimbra drinking a toast to liberty, who were imprisoned for seven years - and it was called Amnesty International.

In April 1974, Portugal witnessed a peaceful military revolution, putting an end to almost 50 years of autocratic rule. The symbol of this revolt is the carnation flower that the soldiers put in the barrel of their rifles as proof of the peace they wanted to achieve, and the non-violent nature of the revolution. The Colonial War, which had been stubbornly continuing on several fronts in Africa since 1961, as Salazar clung to the remnants of Portugal’s once-enormous empire, was finally over. Several new states, themselves liberated, declared independence: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe. In Portugal, a democratic order was established that endures to this day.

In April 2015, exactly 31 years after the Carnation Revolution, the doors of this former prison were opened once more. This time, the building didn’t swallow and stifle the people, but welcomed the inquisitive visitors and let them wander its corridors. The museum presents several exhibitions that tell the story of those who fought bravely against the regime. You can also see an archaeological exhibit, elaborating some of the excavations carried out on the site of the museum. While here, you’ll learn about the ‘song of intervention’, which became an important vehicle for protest against the dictatorship, its censorship and repression of human rights. This prison turned museum serves as a physical reminder that freedom and democracy are only won through enormous struggle and must be protected at all costs.

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