Country Directory

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Fortress Portugal

Portugal's development into a unified country took centuries and involved the "reconquering" of the area from Muslim states and then the consolidation of smaller feudal counties and kingdoms into the final state that became Portugal. This, along with conflicts relating to Portugal's imperial status throughout the 15-19th centuries, has created a country with many forts, castles, walled cities, and watchtowers.

City walls of Évora. Image source: Commons.

In the process of mapping all of the extant classical fortifications in Portugal (including current overseas territories), I noticed that many were in a ruined state or were simply rather small which is one reason it has taken such a long time for me to finish the country. Ruined castles among Portugal's beautifully rugged terrain aren't exactly easy to identify when there's no Wikipedia entry for them, and few sources even provide descriptions of lesser known sites.

So how many castles and forts are in Portugal? For this #FortressEarth project, I was able to identify 575 castles and other sites. I know that there's at least a dozen watchtowers that are missing from my map, but I simply could not find their actual locations.

If you notice any fortified structure that I have missed (that was built or in use between the years 1000 AD and 1945), then please contact me and I will add it. Regardless, I am fairly certain that the Google Earth map I made has the most complete and accurate listing of fortified sites that is available in a single place.

Fortifications of Portugal.

As you can see from this image, most of the sites are located along the coast and border with Spain. The interior sites reflect Portugal's territorial evolution during the Middle Ages as the country evolved from the County of Portugal centered on Braga and Porto through the 9th and 12th centuries to the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1139, and to the final reconquest of Algarave (far south) nearly a century later. These changes necessitated the continual construction of fortifications as Portugal's frontiers were ever growing.

Later, larger fortresses were built to defend sea ports and key border areas with Spain as sporadic conflicts with them arose and as Portugal grew to become a major empire. Other fortifications were built in response to the Napoleonic Wars which saw the temporary occupation of the country by his forces. Many of the coastal watchtowers and several inland fortifications from Lisbon and to the south were built as a result. A key example of this are the "Lines of Torres Vedras".

Small map showing the various parts of the Lines of Torres Vedras.

Some more Portuguese sites include....

Castle of Belver

This castle was constructed in 1194 and was the first castle to be built by the Hospitaliers in Portugal. It was built to protect the country's new frontiers along the Tagus River against Muslim powers on the other side. The castle consists of a strong central tower surrounded by a roughly circular wall. The hill it sits on was also surrounded by a wall but nearly all of that has been lost to time.

By the time the castle's construction was completed in 1212, it had been turned into one of six fortified repositories of the country's wealth. It was modernized until the 17th century instead of being demolished as other castles had been. However, it lost its importance and had become largely forgotten by the 19th century. An earthquake in 1909 severely damaged the castle but it was reconstructed from 1939-1946 and today sits largely as it was long ago.

Forte Sao Julio da Barra

I was able to locate 28 fortifications in the city of Lisbon. The most important is the Forte Sao Juliao da Barra which defends the entrance into the Tagus River and the city. The fort is the largest Vauban-style fortress in Portugal and was built from 1553-1568. It is part of a larger complex that includes four other forts and an arsenal.

Castro Marim

Within the small town of Castro Marim, near the Spanish border, are two fortifications. One is an older 13th century castle that sits on an even older ancient fortified settlement and the other is a "newer" fortification, the star fort Forte de São Sebastião.

The large fortress was constructed in 1641 by King João IV as part of the "Restoration of Independence" when Portugal sought to reestablish its autonomy from the Iberian Union with Spain (1580-1640). It is polygonal in shape and has five bastions.

Castelo de Montalegra

This is a stout but dominating castle with three towers connected by a curtain wall and a main keep on the northern side. The castle was built from 1279-1325 and sits across from Portugal's northern border with Spain.

The castle was sporadically repaired and improved through to the 1580s. From there it underwent a modernization program in the mid-1600s to help it withstand the weapons of the time as part of the Restoration War. The major earthquake of 1755, which destroyed Lisbon, had little impact on the castle (lying 360 kilometers to the north) except for damaging part of the curtain wall. The castle was slowly abandoned starting in the 18th century and now serves as a tourist destination.

Sources and Map

Like with mapping all countries, I try to use as many techniques and sources as possible to help locate, name, and describe places. This ranges from simply zooming around Google Earth in the hopes I find something that I couldn't find anywhere else (as was the case with the ruined fortress of Almendra in Guardra) or finding other databases that may have lists of known sites. Some of these databases/websites include Portugal's official heritage site, Wikipedia,, and the blog Miscastillos. I also used some information found on OS-Culture. Unfortunately, many of their locations are incorrect, so I had to geolocate the sites myself and correct them for this #FortressEarth project.

Here is an explorable Google map.

If you'd like to get the Google Earth KMZ file for more casual exploring, you can directly download it here. It organizes sites by district and includes a lot of additional links to help people learn more about different sites. Since this project is based in the English language, I've tried to add English sources where possible, but they aren't always available. However, simply using the Google translate function will easily translate Portuguese webpages so you can read them.

--Jacob Bogle, 7/16/2020

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

South Korea's Fortress Island of Ganghwa

Ganhwa is a large island at the mouth of the Han River and lies less than 50 km from Seoul. Its strategic location allows it to serve as a defensive bulwark against invading naval forces to protect the city, and it has played this defensive role for centuries.

Forts of Ganghwa Island (left side) with Seoul in the lower right.

Prior to the division of Korea in 1945, Seoul had served as the capital of a unified Korea for over 550 years. The country struggled against successive attacks including from Japan and even the United States prior Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910. Thus, the Korean authorities built what became a ring of 27 small forts around the island. A twenty-eighth site, the older, large fortress city of Ganghwasanseong, served as an anchor point.

Ganghwasanseong actually dates to the 13th century and was a fortified palace-city for King Gojong of Goryeo during a time of conflict with the Mongols, who had by then occupied parts of China and were at the borders of the Korean kingdom of Goryeo. Much of the early wooden fortifications were later destroyed. The site was rebuilt in stone and survived attacks in 1637 by the Qing Dynasty. This invasion brought Korea (then called Joseon) into the Imperial Chinese tributary system.

While this brought relative stability to the area, it did not prevent other powers from trying to seize Korea for themselves.

Cheomhwaru Gate, Ganghwasanseong Fortress. Image:

As mentioned, Ganghwasanseong is the largest of the fortifications on the island, occupying ~194 hectares. The other forts are much smaller and only take up between 600 and 1,000 sq. meters.

Korea had long sought to keep itself closed to foreign trade. This became a problem once China had been forced to open to the French, British, and Portugese, and then after Japan had undergone the Meiji Restoration. Squeezed between longstanding powerful countries and the arrival of younger Pacific powers (Western nations), a clash of civilizations was inevitable. Ganghwa Island saw several attacks during the 19th century. The French punitive expedition of 1866, the American expedition of 1871, and the 1875 Battle of Gangwha against Japan all played their part in wearing down Korea's antiquated defenses and eventually led to their annexation by Japan in 1910.

Of the smaller forts on the island, one is Chojijin. Built in 1655 by King Hyojong, the fort was the site of a number of battles. During the 1870s the fort was attacked multiple times including in 1871 by an American expeditionary fleet and then nearly destroy in 1875 when the Japanese warship Un'yō helped to force Korea into opening their ports.

Another is Gwangseongbo Fortress, along the short "Seele River" that runs north to south and separates the island from the mainland. Like Chojijin, it was also built in the 17th century. Unlike Chojijin, however, it is part of a combined fortified area made up of two small forts with other fortifications and batteries in between. Gwangseongbo is the largest of them, with the circular Sondol Mokdondae lying 300 meters to the south.

Google Earth image showing the forts of Gwangseongbo and Sondol Mokdondae.

The island forts take on a variety of layouts: square, rectangular, and circular, with a few being irregularly shaped.

An example of the square-shaped fort is Mangyangdondae. It is approx. 30 x 30 meters in size.

Other than Sondol Mokdondae mentioned above, a great example of the circular forts is Odudondae.

Odudondae as seen from the air. Image from the Ganghwa government website (2019).

The design of these forts underscore how behind Korea was technologically. Most lack space for cannons or other gunpowder-propelled artillery, and they are simple stone structures. Star forts had been developed a century before and were spreading out of Europe across the rest of the world, as they were designed specifically to withstand cannons and give defenders a better field of fire.

Although remaining closed off from the wider world allowed Korea to develop and maintain their own distinct cultural and religious heritage, it greatly handicapped them (as it did with China and Japan before) when confronted with a rapidly advancing world.

Today, these forts remain an important part of Korean history, both good and bad, and also allows us insights into seven hundred years of history. And while these individual forts no longer stand to protect the area, Ganghwa's military importance continues to this day, as it helps protect modern-day South Korea from future invasions. Not from foreign imperialism, but from their fellow Korean cousins in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. And unlike centuries ago, South Korea now has access to some of the most modern and powerful weapons anywhere in the world.

You can explore the location of all of these forts here.

--Jacob Bogle, 4/1/2020