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Why are all Portuguese buildings covered in tiles?

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

One of the best parts of strolling through the historic heart of Portugal’s cities — like Lisbon, Porto and Lagos — is encountering the stunning decorative tiles that can be found covering the facades of both medieval and more modern homes, restaurants, cafes, churches, shops, and train stations.

But where did all these tiles come from?

And, why are they all over the buildings in these cities?

These polished painted tiles — called azulejos after the Arabic al-zulaich, meaning polished stone — were introduced to the country by the Moors, who had learned the craft from the Persians.

The Persians likely were influenced by Roman floor mosaics that they encountered in the 7th century when moving into parts of North Africa that had once been ruled by Rome.

After the Portuguese took over Ceuta in Morocco in 1415, they started working with this form of tile work themselves. The historic Moorish art mixed with the 16th century Italian invention of “majolica” — painting colors directly onto wet clay over a layer of white enamel — made the tiles bright and vibrant and the Portuguese fell in love with the art form.

Or, more accurately, became obsessed.