Due to its well-preserved old town centre, still partially enclosed by medieval walls, and a large number of monuments dating from various historical periods, including a Roman Temple, Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network.
Évora is ranked number two in the Portuguese most livable cities survey of living conditions published yearly by Expresso. It was ranked first in a study concerning competitiveness of the 18 Portuguese district capitals, according to a 2006 study made by Minho University economic researchers.
Évora has a history dating back more than two millennia.
The etymological origin of the name Ebora is from the ancient Celtic word ebora/ebura, plural genitive of the word eburos (yew), name of a species of tree, so its name means "of yew tree." The city of York, in northern England, at the time of the Roman Empire, was called Eboracum/Eburacum, named after the ancient Celtic place name Ebora Kon (Place of Yew Trees), so the old name of York is etymologically related to the city of Évora. Other two hypothesis of the origin of the name Évora is that the Romans had extensive gold mining in Portugal, and the name may be derived from that oro, aurum, (gold) and also may be named after ivory workers, but these two hypothesis are much less likely than the first one, because the name Évora has no relation with gold or with ivory in ancient Celtic, latin or Portuguese languages or other languages, there is no etymological ground for these two hypotheses. It may have been capital of the kingdom of Astolpas.
The Romans conquered the town in 57 BC and expanded it into a walled town. Vestiges from this period (city walls and ruins of Roman baths) still remain. Julius Caesar called it Liberalitas Julia (Julian generosity). The city grew in importance because it lay at the junction of several important routes. During his travels through Gaul and Lusitania, Pliny the Elder also visited this town and mentioned it in his book Naturalis Historia as Ebora Cerealis, because of its many surrounding wheat fields. In those days, Évora became a flourishing city. Its high rank among municipalities in Roman Hispania is clearly shown by many inscriptions and coins. The monumental Corinthian temple in the centre of the town dates from the first century and was probably erected in honour of emperor Augustus. In the fourth century, the town had already a bishop, named Quintianus.
During the barbarian invasions, Évora came under the rule of the Visigothic king Leovirgild in 584. The town was later raised to the status of a cathedral city. Nevertheless, this was a time of decline and very few artifacts from this period remain.
In 715, the city was conquered by the Moors under Tariq ibn-Ziyad who called it Yaburah يابرة. During the Moorish rule (715–1165), the town, part of the Taifa of Badajoz, slowly began to prosper again and developed into an agricultural center with a fortress and a mosque. The present character of the city is evidence of the Moorish influence. During that time, several notables hailed from Evora, including Abd al-Majid ibn Abdun Al-Yaburi عبد المجيد بن عبدون اليابري, a poet whose diwan still survives to this day.
Évora was wrested from the Moors through a surprise attack by Gerald the Fearless (Geraldo Sem Pavor) in September 1165. The town came under the rule of the Portuguese king Afonso I in 1166. It then flourished as one of the most dynamic cities in the Kingdom of Portugal during the Middle Ages, especially in the 15th century. The court of the first and second dynasties resided here for long periods, constructing palaces, monuments and religious buildings. Évora became the scene for many royal weddings and a site where many important decisions were made.
Particularly thriving during the Avis Dynasty (1385–1580), especially under the reign of Manuel I and John III, Évora became a major centre for the humanities (André de Resende - buried in the cathedral) and artists, such as the sculptor Nicolau Chanterene; the painters Cristóvão de Figueiredo and Gregório Lopes; the composers Manuel Cardoso and Duarte Lobo; the chronicler Duarte Galvão; and the father of Portuguese drama, Gil Vicente.
Évora also held a large part of the slave population of Portugal. Nicolas Clenard, a Flemish tutor at the Portuguese court, exclaimed in 1535 that "In Evora, it was as if i had been carried off to a city in hell:everywhere I only meet blacks." A testament from 1562 shows that D. Maria de Vilhena, a Portuguese woman in Évora, owned many slaves, including Indian (Native American), mourisco, black, white, mulato, Chinese and other slaves. Maria's husband before she was widowed was Simão da Silveira who was involved in trading slaves. Her Chinese slave was used to take care of her mules.
The city became the seat of an archbishopric in 1540. The university was founded by the Jesuits in 1559, and it was here that great European Masters such as the Flemish humanists Nicolaus Clenardus (Nicolaas Cleynaerts) (1493–1542), Johannes Vasaeus (Jan Was) (1511–1561) and the theologian Luis de Molina passed on their knowledge. In the 18th century, the Jesuits, who had spread intellectual and religious enlightenment since the 16th century, were expelled from Portugal, the university was closed in 1759 by the Marquis of Pombal, and Évora went into decline. The university was only reopened in 1973.
The Battle of Évora was fought on 29 July 1808 during the Peninsular War. An outnumbered Portuguese-Spanish force tried to stop a French division commanded by Louis Henri Loison but it was routed. Led by the hated Loison, known as Maneta or One-Hand, the French went on to storm the town which was defended by soldiers, militiamen and armed townsmen. Breaking into the town, the attackers slaughtered combatants and non-combatants alike before thoroughly pillaging the place.
In 1834, Évora was the site of the surrender of the forces of King Miguel I, which marked the end of the Liberal Wars. The many monuments erected by major artists of each period now testify to Évora's lively cultural and rich artistic and historical heritage. The variety of architectural styles (Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance, Baroque), the palaces and the picturesque labyrinth of squares and narrow streets of the city centre are all part of the rich heritage of this museum-city.