Carmo Convent in Lisbon is significantly beautiful, ironically, because of it's ruins. Carmo was mostly destroyed on All Saints Day in 1755. In the Western Christian practice, the liturgical celebration begins at Vespers on the evening of October 31st, All Hallows' Eve (All Saints' Eve), and ends at the close of November 1st. It is thus the day before All Souls' Day, which commemorates the faithful departed.
Because of this holiday, many people were in Carmo at the time of the fateful quake of 1755. The candles that burned in commemoration of loved ones were partially the cause of the destruction that day. The roof caved in as the ground shook, causing many fatalities. Those who did not perish in the quake were said to have been trapped in the flames of the fallen candles, setting fire to much of the convent.
Though Carmo Convent holds a bloody history, it was not so much of an eery place as some may think. The bones of the convent still stand strong, though the roof is completely gone.
The open structure allowed the wind to flow through and the sun to beat down on those who wandered the aisles. Looking up to the towering arches that competed with the clouds, dancing across an immense blue sky, made me feel smaller than ever.
The sight of this incredible structure alone would have sufficed in keeping our jaws agape, but the artifacts it held had a story of their own. Standing tall along the aisles originally appeared to be broken off slabs of stone from the convent itself, but when we got a closer look we realized their significance.
We approached the first of the pale stones and the shadows fell in to what appeared to be letters. Upon reading the accompanying descriptions, we discovered that the slabs were the remains of tombstones. Ancient Roman tombstones, that is. Each one ranged, very roughly, from 500BC - 1200AD.
The convent was warm with the impeding afternoon sun, but my fingertips ran along cold stone. This was one of the first times that I truly felt the weight of history that seemingly simple objects held.
We didn't know it at the time, but only steps away was the archaeological museum that held artifacts predating this one stone by thousands of years. We spent hours wandering wide-eyed amongst shrunken heads, the tomb of King Ferdinand I, Visigothic artifacts, coins, mosaics, tiles and much more.
One installation at the museum gave me goosebumps. Side by side, crouched in the fetal position, sat 2 South American mummies. Their presence was so haunting that I thought for a moment that they could not be real. Nevertheless, the two skeletal beings were once innocent adolescents. The two children were brother and sister, offered up for sacrifice by their own parents. Thinking this was the greatest honour and a one-way-ticket to the good place, their parents were willing participants in the ceremony. The siblings were tied up, in the position that they remain, and then dropped into holes dug into the ground to be buried alive. Their fate was already sealed, but their bodies were recovered, having been mummified.
Large portions of their features remained. Their skin was shrivelled and leather-like, bones visible and frail. The hair that was left was wispy and tangled. The most vile sight, to me, were their hands. So delicately folded one on top of the other, resting under their chins. It looked as though they were trying to warm themselves, left naked and vulnerable for the public to stand and stare into their empty orbitals. On the ends of their slender, bony fingers were tiny fingernails, left intact. This small, seemingly insignificant sign of human life made me sorrowful and even a bit queasy.
I felt uneasy about these poor children being in glass display cases at first. I knew their lives were long departed and we only viewed the bodies left behind, but it still felt a breach of privacy. Upon further contemplation, I realized I was experiencing the same sadness that I felt while walking through the Holocaust exhibit of the National War Museum in London. Every single exhibit I saw, I didn't want to look at, but I also knew I wouldn't have ducked out the nearest exit. Hard as it was to take in some of the greatest atrocities ever committed, there was a great level of respect in educating oneself about the events that once took place. Some folded their arms and shook their heads in disbelief, some cried quiet tears and kept their heads down, but everyone conducted themselves in a respectful manner. I reminded myself that we do not gawk at these displays because we always enjoy it. Sometimes, we expose ourselves to these tragedies of the past because it would be careless to look away. Even though it leaves us with a creased brow and a pit in our stomachs, we are honouring these children by having them sit, grossly exposed, in glass display cases. We honour them so history may never repeat itself.