Tsunamis and tremors reached multiple continents; Portugal's biggest city was thrown into chaos.

Today is the anniversary of an earthquake that shook Lisbon to its core.

In 1755, a devastating quake killed tens of thousands of people and caused 15-foot fissures through the center of the city. It was felt throughout the country, triggering a tsunami that swept through the center of Lisbon, a series of fires that lasted for days, and aftershocks that continued for months. Tremors and huge waves reached the shores of North Africa and the Azores.

Before the dead were even buried at sea, the city devolved into chaos. Gallows were constructed for looters, and dozens were publicly executed. The army was tasked with the stopping able-bodied citizens from fleeing and figuring out how to rebuild. 

The psychological effects reached even King Joseph I, who became so claustrophobic that a complex of tents and pavilions had to be built on the outskirts of Lisbon to accommodate him. The Royal Palace was not even reconstructed until after his death.

But the King and his Prime Minister did manage to rebuild Lisbon. They presented plans just one month after the event; new public squares, wide boulevards and some of the world's first seismically protected buildings went up in the months after. By the end of 1756, the city had been mostly cleared of debris. 

The event led to the birth of modern earthquake studies and seismology. Below, a look at how the earthquake was depicted at the time and photographs of some of its modern remains:

Copper engraving from 1755, showing the city in ruins and flames. "Tsunamis rush upon the shore, destroying the wharfs. The engraving is also noteworthy in showing highly disturbed water in the harbor, which sank many ships. Passengers in the left foreground show signs of panic." Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Copperplate image from 1755. Survivors camp in a tent city outside Lisbon, following the November 1 earthquake. "The image shows criminal activity and general mayhem, as well as the hanging of quake survivors under constabulary supervision. Priests are present, one holding a crucifix, one possibly a prayer book, so appear to be giving last rites to persons being hanged." Courtesy the National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering (NISEE)
An undated handout painting shows people recovering a girl from ruins in Lisbon after an earthquake hit the city on November 1, 1755. (Via Reuters)
"Tremblement de Terre de Lisbonne, en 1755" from Librairie Larousse, 1913 edition. Courtesy University of Washington Libraries
"Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755. From "Histoires des Météores," 1870. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Copperplate from 1175, republished in 1909. "The earthquake of Lisbon. A street with houses damaged and overturned. In the end, the same is a church, whose pillars have fallen. Here and there, anxiously running half-buried ruins or among people struggling with death. Some corpses, also a coach overturned on the road. One climbs over the debris, bringing the door of his house is filled. Flames rising behind the houses was caused by a great conflagration, the fire of the shattered ovens." Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
An undated handout painting shows Portugal's Marques de Pombal with plans to rebuild Lisbon after the city was hit by an earthquake on November 1, 1755. (Via Reuters)
A combination photo shows a handout picture of the ruins of main Lisbon cathedral Se de Lisboa after the November 1, 1755 earthquake (top) and the same building after its rebuilding (bottom) in a picture taken October 25, 2005.
A cat looks on under the ruins of Lisbon's Convento do Carmo church October 25, 2005. The earthquake that hit Lisbon on November 1, 1755, rang. (REUTERS)

About the Author

Mark Byrnes
Mark Byrnes

Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design, history, and photography.

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