A History of Hamilcar: The Legend of Cardosa and a Lost Carthaginian City – Part I
Deep in the heart of the Portuguese arid interior lies a city. It is the regional capital of the lands known as Beira Baixa and is strategically well-placed near the grand Tejo river, the superhighway of ancient times. The city has a name but with an unknown origin: Castelo Branco.
Although attempts have been made to explain the name, none have ever really proved satisfactory. The city’s origins have been lost to time, just like the two character-defining hallmarks for which Castelo Branco is known: the famous ‘bordado’ (embroidery) of Castelo Branco and the beautiful and unique gardens called ‘Jardim do Paco’.
Bordado: Embroidery in silk (CC BY-SA 4.0)
There is no hiding this lack of identity. The city council admits to it in their official website; “Little is known about the origins of Castelo Branco” are the official words. Yet there is a general awareness that Castelo Branco had a distant past, even if unknown. It is an ancient city, the mishmash of stones and the successive rebuilding attests to that and, more importantly, everyone here believes it is so. Then there is the legendary nickname about which there is no denying, the name which according to legend identifies the ancient roots from which Castelo Branco came: Castraleuca . Nobody knows exactly how to pronounce it, nor spell it. Ask any senior citizen about the origin of their city, however, and they will probably reply using this word, even though they have no idea what it means or from where it came. The word Castraleuca, just like the bordado and the gardens, belongs to this city.
Jardim do Paço ( CC BY 3.0 )
Searching for a City’s Origins
Nineteenth century historian Porfirio de Silva in 1853 quoted a contemporary document which was very specific about the origins of the city: “Seven hundred years before the time of Christ, time of the Carthaginians, Goths, Saracens, there existed on Cardoso hill the ancient Castraleuca, and from its ruins of Castelo Branco was built.”
The name Cardoso, according to Portuguese historian Augusto Leal, was said to have come from the thorns and thistles (cardos) which grew amongst the ruins of Castraleuca.
Thistle (Fir0002/Flagstaffotos / CC BY-NC 3.0)
A little-known historian who worked in the famous Torre de Tombo and directly for the King confirmed this. His name was Gaspar Alvares de Lousada. He was highly respected in his time both here and abroad, and was known to have been well acquainted with the ‘antiquities of Portugal’. He said Castelo Branco had been rebuilt by the Knights Templars from the ruins of Castraleuca. He evidently had seen ‘cippos’ (marker stones) which identified Castelo Branco as being the ancient Castraleuca.
This is confirmed by the city foral (a royal document) written by Knights Templar Pedro Alviti in 1213. The wording is important:
Foral of Castelo Branco (Public Domain)
Volumus restaurare atque populare castelbranco . Translated this gives “we wish to restore and populate Castelo Branco”. So, Castelo Branco already existed, including its name, otherwise they could not restore these things— the city and its name. It seems that the name Castello Branco had already become the commonly used name at the time of the Templar’s rebuilding of Castraleuca.
Nineteenth century historian Herculano rejected both the idea of Castelo Branco as being Castraleuca and Lousada (whom he discredited), calling Herculano and others ‘impostors’. His arguments were based upon the work of Ptolemy the Greek Geographer, who in the first centuries AD placed Castraleuca south of the Tejo. However, Ptolemy’s work was and is known to be flawed. He also significantly did place Castraleuca on Lusitanian soil and near the Tejo river. Ptolemy wrote from Alexandria in Egypt and had never placed foot on Lusitanian soil, and even today it is advised when reading his work not to rely on his coordinates. Lousada, a man highly respected by other contemporary historians throughout Europe, was soon forgotten. This was a great error. Instead of checking out the foral and comparing the city to see if it really was a rebuilt ancient city, the Castraleuca version was relegated to a fairy tale.
In actual fact, what happened was that opinion became divided. On one hand, there were the academics who, having rejected outright the story of Lousada and his Castraleuca, and being ignorant of the significance of the word, were left chasing their tails as to a new plausible explanation of the city’s ancient history. On the other hand, there were the ordinary Albicastrenses, who simply continued believing what they had always believed.