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Belém: gateway to the Amazon for four centuries

As the first capital of the Amazon region, the city preserves traceable memories in Architecture, Politics and Economy

Elisa Vaz


An economic and cultural reference in the North region, the city of Belém remains known as the “Metropolis of the Amazon”, even regarding the growth of other Brazilian cities in different states, and Manaus standing as the largest exponent in the state of Amazonas. However, the history of colonization in the Brazilian Amazon gained greater prominence in the capital of Pará, which grew both in size and importance, and was consolidated over the centuries as one of the main gateways for those visiting the Amazon region. Next Wednesday, January 12th, Belém turns 406 years old.

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The first capital of the Amazon, Belém, was founded in 1616 by Francisco Caldeira Castelo Branco, Major Captain of Rio Grande do Norte, who disembarked with his troops at the mouth of the Guajará River, a strategic defense point for the area, with the purpose of moving away the Dutch and French invaders from the Northern coast.

The city began to be built after the erection of the military fortification named “Forte do Castelo do Senhor Santo Cristo do Presépio de Belém”, currently known as Forte do Castelo, in Cidade Velha neighborhood. The name goes back to the period of Jesus' birth, Christmas, when the Portuguese command entered the region. The birthplace of Christ, in fact, would work as an inspiration for the future name of the city. Precisely in that site, the captain built a rustic fortification, a “palisade”, that is, a quadrilateral form of defense, which employed rammed earth technique. Inside, a chapel was built, dedicated to Nossa Senhora da Graça [Our Lady of Graces]. Even after undergoing many reforms, reconstructions and restorations, the building still preserves the original cannons untouched.


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(Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)


Professor Ida Hamoy, from the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), explains that Belém fits well with the name ‘metropolis’, which is assigned to a city (polis) that is the origin, beginning, reference [meter/mater] of a region. “Belém effectively represents this reference ‘of origin’, ‘of entry’. It is the reference of the Amazon region. Belém was the first city officially 'founded' in the North region and from where the colonization and conquest process started. From a region, initially despised by the conquerors, it sparked interest after the expulsion of the French invaders from Maranhão by the Iberian crown”, she says.

Ida also points out that, by the time of its “foundation” (1616), Portugal and Spain were united under a unified crown during the reign of King Philip III, a period that became known in history as the “Iberian Union” (1580-1640). The Iberian Union was established since the succession crisis that followed the death of D. Henrique, the King of Portugal, who succeeded his nephew, D. Sebastião, and both had no heirs.


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(Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)


According to the scholar, as a consequence, King Filipe III, King of Spain, with the support of the Portuguese nobility, took over the Portuguese crown as Filipe II of Portugal. A priority of his governance should be that of keeping the Portuguese in positions related to the administration of the colonies, including Brazil. However, the great Spanish contribution was the systematization of administrative and judicial procedures.

Due to conflicts between the Spanish and the French crowns, the expulsion of the French from Maranhão and the conquest of the Amazon achieved through the foundation of a city located at the entrance of the great Amazon River was demanded by ‘royal order’. Later, the king determined the division of Brazil into two states: the State of Maranhão, area which encompassed the current states of Maranhão, Pará and Ceará, and the State of Brazil, which encompassed the rest of the territory.

According to the scholar, Santa Maria de Belém was founded in 1616. And this fact, is regarded as the beginning of the colonization of the region, thus establishing a contact zone for intense processes of mestizaje, which consolidated this identity of cultures: Ibero-Italian, Indigenous, Caribbean and African. “And today, ‘Belém’ is recognized worldwide for its gastronomy, religion, dances, music and diversity of heritage”, affirms professor Ida Hamoy.

Buildings that tell the city’s history


Today, the area where the city originated is called “Feliz Lusitânia” and gathers an architectural complex in the historic center that encompasses not only the Forte do Castelo, but also buildings such as Dom Frei Caetano Brandão Square, Casa das Onze Janelas, Catedral de Santo Alexandre [Church and Museum of Sacred Art], and Catedral da Sé [Metropolitan Cathedral of Belém], important tourist attractions in the capital.




The two cathedrals and the Forte do Castelo were the first buildings to be erected after the foundation of the city. Catedral de Santo Alexandre used to be the headquarters of Companhia dos Jesuítas [Company of the Jesuits] in Brazil at colonial times and built in the 17th century by the Jesuits themselves. The construction of the church, currently dedicated to São Alexandre, began in 1616 with the participation of the indigenous people and was inaugurated in 1719. The Metropolitan Cathedral, also dating from 1616, was initially built in the former Forte do Presépio, but later transferred to its current location. It remained as a Chapel until 1719, when it was raised to the category of Cathedral. The construction of the Cathedral started in 1748, continued until 1755 and then was handed over to the Italian architect Antonio Landi – one of the most prominent names that changed and modernized the “face” of the city.

Finally, the Casa das Onze Janelas dates from the second half of the 18th century. It was built by the wealthy owner of sugarcane mills Domingos da Costa Bacelar and used to be a house for the weekends. In 1768, the building was sold to Francisco Ataíde Teive, governor of Grão-Pará. After reforms done by the Italian architect Landi, it became a military hospital until 1870, then it was used as a military facility until the end of the 20th century. In 2002, the building became a museum, named Casa das Onze Janelas [The House of Eleven Windows], to promote contemporaneous art. Soon, it became the most important museum of contemporaneous art in the North region of Brazil.


Capital was a center for transformations in the region


The city of Grão-Pará was living under pressure due to the political emancipation of Brazil, in 1822, since there was a large distance from the political decisions in the South of the country, which was still strongly dependent to Portugal. Thus, Belém only recognized the independence of Brazil, which was proclaimed on September 7th 1822, almost a year later, precisely on August 15th 1823. The date marks the celebration of the Adesão do Pará [Joining of Pará].

From the end of the 20th century on, socioeconomic changes in the Amazon were experienced. During this period, the city received the title of “Metropolis of the Amazon”, though before that many other designations were assigned to the city, such as “Little France in the North”, “North Star”, “The Great Capital”, “The City of the Mango Trees"


However, the Independence of the country did not bring significant changes to the economic structure and it did not change the unfavorable conditions of living for the majority of the population, composed by indigenous, black and mixed-race peoples. Among other reasons, the social inequality led, between 1835 and 1840, to one of the most significant revolutions ever occurred in the country, the Cabanagem.

The economic development in Belém effectively emerged in the 19th century. The opening of the rivers – Amazonas, Tocantins, Tapajós, Madeira and Rio Negro for navigation of merchant ships from all nations, after the colonial period, contributed for the development of the capital of Pará. During the period known as Ciclo da Borracha [Rubber Cycle] or Era da Borracha [Rubber Age], particularly between 1879 and 1912, the city experienced the first important development period. Almost all the commerce in the region had to go through the Port of Belém, where there was technology that the capitals in the South and the Southeast of the country did not have. Belém was known as “Paris in America”.

During that time, the urban center also experienced modernizations. Important symbols were built in the capital of Pará, such as the Theatro da Paz; the Olympia Movie Theater, the oldest movie theater still in activity in Brazil; Antônio Lemos Palace, the current City Hall of Belém; and the Ver-o-Peso street market, one of the most famous touristic spots, the largest open air street market in Latin America. The successful economy attracted groups of immigrants from many countries. It was since then that Belém was known as the “Metropolis of the Amazon”.


City of the Amazon plurality


During its history, Belém has received many titles, such as “Francesinha do Norte” [Little France in the North], “Cidade das Mangueiras” [City of the Mango trees] and “Metrópole da Amazônia” [Metropolis of the Amazon]. Michel Pinho, historian and current president of the Fundação Cultural do Município de Belém (Fumbel) [Cultural Foundation of the municipality of Belém] states the importance of noticing that, since the 18th century, the city has a major role in this part of the country. Either as a reference from Portugal or as a reference from the Rubber Period, the capital is recognized for its great economic potential.


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(Marcio Nagano / O Libaral)

“From the end of the 20th century on, socioeconomic changes in the Amazon were experienced. During this period, the city received the title of “Metropolis of the Amazon”, though before that many other designations were assigned to the city, such as “Little France in the North”, “North Star”, “The Great Capital”, “The City of the Mango Trees”. Those titles indicate the importance of the capital, not only for the region, but also for the other parts of the country. Currently, Belém holds a very important role in Brazil, not only regarding its cultural, gastronomic and musical production, but also concerning its imaginary. Our imaginary perspectives are strongly related to the black, indigenous and Portuguese roots. That is something fundamental”, he affirms.

For the historian, Belém is really culturally rich and that richness is seen in many different ways, such as in its historical definitions, music, food and even in dance representations. “We also have other cultural representations, for instance, brega music and the technology of the aparelhagens [a kind of electronic music party] during the last 40 years”, he says.

Besides the titles, Michel defines the capital of Pará as a plural city. “Belém is the city of the plurality in the Amazon. Here, you can find forest area 5 minutes from the city urban center, in Combu island, contrastingly, there are 40-floor buildings; there is diversity in cultural production, flowing from opera to aparelhagem parties, from graffiti to photography. Belém is a kind of city that connects to the rest of the country via its plurality, he states.

For the future, the president of Fumbel believes that the capital of Pará needs to overcome some important economic barriers, producing virtual or real knowledge, strengthening its economy and generating wealthy, mainly concerning social issues. According to Michel, in order for Belém truly become the “metropolis of the Amazon”, it is necessary a great national agreement. “We need to think on a great national plan, involving the municipality, the state and the federal level, to create platforms of development, which should necessarily focus on decreasing the social inequality, he highlights. 


Ver-o-Peso street market is a must-see


The Ver-o-Peso street market is a non-sleep commercial complex in the city of Belém. It integrates the residents of the urban area with the riverine people. “It starts with the açaí and fish selling early in the morning, before the dawn. Then, the fruits and vegetables stalls wake up, then the herbs stalls… one by one, section to section wakes up, lastly the food stalls, where the peak is at noon, at lunch time. We assist all the small street markets in the city and also the riverine people”, tells Manoel da Silva, the general coordinator of the Ver-o-Peso Institute and a street market salesperson, known as “Didi do Ver-o-Peso”, a nickname.

In order to work in the complex, where around 30 thousand people pass daily, 1,150 workers are registered in the City Hall. Each one has two or three assistants. According to “Didi do Ver-o-Peso”, when you get to Belém, going to Ver-o-Peso is a must-see. “You have to go there, you have to try açaí, fish…”. However, he is worried about the future of the street market. “Today, Ver-o-Peso market is listed as heritage, but the activities are not. This is our fight. One of the most worrying things for us is having the activities also listed, so Ver-o-Peso will not be at risk of ending up”, he pleads. 


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(Igor Mota / O Liberal)