A view of the historical centre
The Ria Formosa lagoon attracted humans from the Palaeolithic age until the end of prehistory. The first settlements date from the fourth century BC, during the period of Phoenician colonization of the western Mediterranean. At the time, the area was known as Ossonoba, and was the most important urban centre of southern Portugal and commercial port for agricultural products, fish, and minerals.
Between the second and eighth centuries, the city was under the domain of the Romans, then the Byzantines, and later Visigoths, before being conquered by the Moors in 713. From the third century onwards and during the Visigothic period, it was the site of an Episcopal see, the Ancient Diocese of Ossonoba (306-688). The Byzantine presence has endured in the city walls' towers that were built during the Byzantine period.
With the advent of Moorish rule in the eighth century, Ossonoba retained its status as the most important town in the southwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula. In the 9th century, it became the capital of a short-lived princedom and was fortified with a ring of defensive walls. At this time, in the 10th century, the name Santa Maria began to be used instead of Ossonoba. By the 11th century, the town was known as Santa Maria Ibn Harun.
During the Second Crusade soon after the Anglo-Norman forces took Lisbon in 1147 a detachment of this group sack faro on their way to the Holy Land.
Again in 1217 during the Fifth Crusade a Frisian fleet of Crusaders on their way to Acre, sacked an burned the city.
During the 500 years of Moorish rule, some Jewish residents of Faro made written copies of the Old Testament. One of Faro's historical names in Arabic is ʼUḫšūnubaḧ. The Moors were defeated and expelled in 1249 by the forces of the Portuguese King Afonso III. With the decline of the importance of the city of Silves (which was made the regional bishopric as Diocese of Silves shortly during and properly after the Reconquista), Faro took over the role of administration of the Algarve area.
The civil governor's palace in Faro
The building of the Câmara Municipal of Faro
After Portuguese independence in 1143, Afonso Henriques and his successors began an expansion into the southern Iberian territory occupied by the Moors. Following the conquest by D. Afonso III, in 1249, the Portuguese referred to the town as Santa Maria de Faaron or Santa Maria de Faaram. In the following years, the town became prosperous, due to its secure port and exploitation of salt. Consequently, by the beginning of the Portuguese Age of Discovery, the town was well positioned to become a leading commercial centre.
In the 14th century, the Jewish community began to grow in importance. In 1487, Samuel Gacon began printing the Pentateuco in Hebrew, the first book printed in Portugal. The Jewish community of Faro had long been a dominant force in the region, with many artisans and merchants contributing heavily to the economy and city development, but this level of prosperity was interrupted in December 1496 by an edict of Manuel I of Portugal, expelling those who did not convert to Christianity. As a result, officially, Jews no longer remained in Portugal. In the place of the Jewish village of Vila Adentro, the convent of Nossa Senhora da Assunção was founded and patronised by Queen Leonor, wife of the king.
Manuel I promoted the development and expansion of the city; 1499 had the construction of a hospital, the Church of Espírito Santo (or Church of the Misericórdia), a customshouse, and a slaughterhouse, all near the shoreline.
By 1540, John III of Portugal had elevated Faro to the status of city, then in 1577, the bishopric of the Algarve was transferred from Silves, which retains a co-cathedral, to the present Diocese of Faro.
In 1596, the city was sacked by English privateers led by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. The resultant fires damaged the walls, churches, and other buildings. At the same time, English troops seized the library of the Bishop of Faro, then Fernando Martins de Mascarenhas, which eventually became part of the collection of the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library. Among the looted books was the first printed book in Portugal: a Torah in local Hebrew (Judeo-Español), printed by Samuel Gacon at his workshop in Faro.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the city was expanded, with a series of walls during the period of the Restoration Wars (1640-1668), encompassing the semicircular front to the Ria Formosa.
The western city of Lagos had become the capital of the historical province of Algarve in 1577, but this all changed with the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. It affected many settlements across the Algarve, including Faro, which suffered damage to churches, convents (specifically the Convent of São Francisco and Convent of Santa Clara), and the episcopal palace, in addition to the walls, castle towers and bulwarks, barracks, guardhouses, warehouses, customshouses, and prison.
Much of the greater devastation across the coastal and lowland regions was caused by a tsunami, which dismantled fortresses and razed homes. Almost all the coastal towns and villages of the Algarve were heavily damaged by the tsunami, except Faro, protected by the sandy banks of the Ria Formosa lagoon. With the capital Lagos devastated, Faro become the administrative seat of the region the following year, 1756.