Despite its small population of 1500 inhabitants, Mértola is known as Portugal’s museum town. It has two national monuments and five museums – Roman, Islamic, Paleo- Christian, Sacred Art & a Blacksmith’s Forge. In 2004 a Water Museum was opened at the Convento with the practical advantage that it provides irrigation, using a system originally developed by the Moors.
Between the 10th and 13th centuries people of Moorish origins inhabited Mértola and for them gardens were sacred places used to communicate with the Devine.
Later the Franciscan monks diligently cultivated the Convento’s gardens and some of the features from that period have been restored and put back into working use, including the well.
Originally, a donkey walking round a stone circle constructed above the well powered a series of buckets, bringing water to the surface. Now instead of a living animal, artist Christiaan Zwanikken, has created the Mechanical Donkey. The continuous labor of this four-legged robot lifts water from the well, depositing it into channels in the upper reaches of the garden. From there it flows in shallow trenches dug around the cultivated areas. By the use of mud dams and sluices, water is spilled onto the land.
The system illustrates the ancient methods that were employed and the total reliance of people on water, in order to survive.