Belém lies on the bank of the Tagus on the western edge of Lisbon. Its historically important buildings document the most important epoch of Portuguese history. The name "Belém" is a typically Portuguese shortening of "Bethlehem". The village, which was independent until 1885, suffered very little from the effects of the earthquake of 1775; thus its historic buildings are amongst the oldest in the Portuguese capital.
The origins of Belém's importance lie in the earlier harbor of Restelo. The harbor served as the departure point for the voyages of discovery undertaken by Portuguese sailors. They also returned here after their voyages with their booty from far off lands. The direct combination of political and religious interests in large-scale ocean navigation is clearly recognizable in Belém.
A former small hospice chapel standing on the site of the current Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was used as a place to pray before the Christian journeys of discovery and conquest. The fortresslike Torre de Belém, a more secular symbol, stands at the place where the mouth of the Tagus opens to the Atlantic. Both the monastery and the old tower of Belém were commissioned by King Manuel "the Happy", during whose reign Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route to India and Pedro Alvares Cabrals journeyed to Brazil. During this time many members of the nobility as well as prosperous business people moved to Belém.
After the devastating damage caused by the earthquake in Lisbon had temporarily paralyzed the life of the city, brief thought was given to beginning reconstruction not in present day Baixa but to creating a new city center in Belém. During the time of the estado novo under the dictator Salazar, Belém was given the role of reviving the resurgence of awareness of Portuguese history and the former greatness of the nation.
On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of independence from Spain (December 1, 1640) a pompous "Exhibition of the Portuguese World" was staged on the land between the Hieronymite monastery and the bank of the Tagus. The area was laid out in a completely new way, with architectural direction assumed by Cottinelli Telmo, whose work also includes the glorified Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Memorial to Discovery).