Historic Centre of Macau
The territory of Macao is located in south-east China, on the Canton River delta.
Portugal was the first Western nation to establish colonies and trade posts in the Far East. When the Japanese trade route started in 1543, the Portuguese kingdom began to use Macao as a port of call for its ships, and eventually established the first European trade post in China. Besides being a meeting place for merchants, this region was regularly attended by thieves and pirates. In order to overcome this menace, the Chinese agreed to let the Portuguese settle in their territory in exchange for defending it from any unwanted presence.
On his way to Japan in 1553, Captain Leonel de Sousa called on the port of “Amacao”, and was granted permission to legalise this trading post. This move attracted a number of Portuguese citizens who lived in different outposts in the area. Soon after, the Amacao trading post became known as the City of the Holy Name of God and was granted legal status in 1586.
It was around this time that the construction of churches and civil buildings defined the town’s urban layout. It was necessary to build defensive structures as well, even though the Chinese were concerned that Macao might became an excuse for the Portuguese to conquer the continent.
The Portuguese town grew from its inner harbour between Praia Pequena (Small Beach) and Praia Grande (Great Beach), Mount Hill and Penha Hill. In order to protect it from insistent Dutch attacks, a military wall was built in 1623 to replace a former wooden wall. Most fortresses, forts and gates were built along this wall.
Inside the defensive wall, the 17th-century urban layout was influenced by the typical Portuguese town where public, religious, commercial and administrative buildings made up the urban core.
There are basically two typologies testifying to the Portuguese presence in Macao: the military and the religious one.
Mount Fortress is located at the centre of the Macao pensinsula, on the S. Paulo Mountain Hill, fifty two metres above sea level. Its strategic position justified the settlement of the first Portuguese in the area. The fortress was the centre of the defensive system, as the wall enclosure linking it to the S. João Rampart and to the S. Januário Fort turned it into the main defensive square against any threat from the North. Besides, it provided an extensive fire arch as it covered the east, west and south coastlines.
Barra Fortress is located in the south end of the Macao peninsula, next to the inner harbour’s Barra hill, being therefore an important defensive system for the latter.
Bom Porto Fort and Barra Fort protected access to the inner harbour, but as the former stands on Penha hill, it was also used to supply fire coverage to the outer harbour, along with the forts of St. Francis’ and St. Peter’s.
St. Francis Fort, standing on the base of the hill where S. January Hospital stands today, was the first line of defence against any fleet coming from the sea.
Guia Fortress, located on the Guia hill, outside the city’s defensive walls, was raised to defend the city from any threat coming from the Chinese continent.
Taipa Fortress, on the Taipa island, was built by order of the Governor of Macao at the request of the population
Penha Fort, located on top of Penha Hill, was a defence against naval invasion. However, its strategic location enabled artillery to be pointed towards the whole city forming an arch.
Apart from this main defensive structure, there were other military buildings like the forts of Patane, Lapa, Mong-Ha, D. Maria II, Ilha Verde and St. Peter.
Noteworthy among the religious buildings in the historic centre of Macao are the churches of Mater Dei, St. Paul’s, St. Dominic’s, St. Augustine’s, St. Lawrence’s, St. Lazarus’, St. Anthony’s, St. Francis Xavier’s, the See, St. Joseph’s Seminary church and other small churches.
Mater Dei church was founded in 1563 by two Jesuit priests: Francisco Perez and Manuel Teixeira. The College of St. Paul, the first university in Asia, was raised next to it. Following a great fire, only its façade remained. Its façade design is traditionally attributed to the Genovese Jesuit Carlo Spínola.
St. Dominic’s Church, founded by the Acapulco Dominican friars in mid 16th century, is the only vestige of the presence of these friars in the Macao Province. Even though its exact date of construction is unknown, there was a reference to it in the 16th century. It currently has neoclassical features and a two storey main façade.
St. Augustine’s church was founded by Spanish Augustinian friars in 1586. Three years later, it was transferred to Portuguese friars who raised a classic style church in 1591.
St. Lawrence’s Church, of Jesuit origin, dates back to the Portuguese settlement in Macao and went through a number of reconstruction works.
St. Joseph’s Seminary church was the second Jesuit building to be dovoted to education. After the extinction of the Society of Jesus, Queen D. Maria I handed it over to the Lazarist priests who gave the College its original prestige from 1784 to1856.
St. Lazarus’ Church was the first to be built by the Portuguese in Macao. It has a special meaning for the local population, as it was once a leper colony. It underwent a few restoration works along the centuries, until it was demolished in 1885, and a new church was built on the site.
St. Anthony’s Church is said to have been built when the Portuguese arrived in Macao, though the first stone building dates from 1638. It underwent a few reconstruction works as a consequence of a number of fires.
Luís Vaz de Camões is said to have lived in Macao between 1557 and 1559. He apparently lived in the “Camões Grotto”, where he got the inspiration to write excerpts for his epic masterpiece “Os Lusíadas”.
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