The Iberian Peninsula has been a great area of historical transit. Over the centuries, civilisations have flourished here, whether they came from outside or emerged within the region. As a result, a rich and varied culture has emerged. A large number of cities have also appeared, some of which have not been able to resist the vicissitudes of history. These 13 old abandoned cities in Spain are a good example of this. Once flourishing places that today are nothing more than ancient ruins.
Founded by the Visigoths, the existence of Recópolis extended from the 6th to the 9th century. Specifically, the year of foundation of this Spanish abandoned city is 578. It had a palace, olive groves, gardens and walls. As its name indicates, it is related to the well-known monarch Recaredo, who was responsible for the fact that his kingdom ceased to be Arian and became Catholic. However, it was not him who promoted it, but his father, Leovigildo. The most accepted theory is that he executed it in honor of his son. He would also found Victoriaco, the future Vitoria.
The remains of this city are in the province of Guadalajara, in the municipality of Zorita de los Canes. This town is known for its citadel and the Zorita nuclear power station fence. The Arab castle of Zorita was responsible for the disappearance of Recópolis. The Gothic crisis prior to the invasion affected the town and its palace complex. Thus, when the Muslims took it, its importance continued to be reduced until it ceased to exist. A village that was the result of the Christian repopulation was built on the site during the 11th century and also ended up being abandoned. The same thing happened to a 15th century hermitage, which in the mid-modern age ceased to be used.
The Vía de la Plata was one of the biggest highways of the ancient age in Spain. Known as a Roman road, it was a passage that was used before by peninsular or Punic peoples. Be that as it may, it saw the emergence of great cities such as Augusta Emerita (Merida) or Asturica Augusta (Astorga) at its southern and northern ends respectively. In an intermediate point there was Cáparra, whose ruins are the only witness of its existence. It entered the history of Rome in the first century B.C. as a stipend city, although it is believed that it was once a Veton settlement. It would later become a thriving Municipium. However, the crisis of the empire and the Arab invasion led to its disappearance.
The Ambroz River controls the plain on which this small city was built. Although its walled perimeter was not too large, it is believed that the urban hamlet extended beyond it. Its central axis was and still is the aforementioned Via de la Plata, which ran from south to north. Its central street is still travelled today by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, who pass under its square-shaped arch. This monument is the most recognizable and remarkable of the Roman site. In fact, it is unique in Spain and serves as a symbol of the route the road follows.
Located in the current province of Burgos, near Gumiel de Izán or Peñaranda de Duero, this town had a very turbulent history. First it was part of the Arevacos’ domain. The Roman takeover meant moving its urban centre from a hill to the position where its ruins stand today. However, shortly afterwards it had the bad luck of being a resistance base for the Roman rebel Sertorius. In his fight against the Senate, personified in Pompey, it ended up being razed to the ground after defeating the latter.
The refounding of Clunia Sulpicia would have to wait almost a century, already in the imperial period and with Tiberius on the throne. It became very important because of its situation on the road that joined east and west of Hispania. This town went from Tarraco (Tarragona) to present day Astorga. It also stopped at Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza). Important events took place there, for instance the self-proclamation as Emperor of Galba during 1st century A.D. However, as in the case of Cáparra, it was a victim of the decline of the Roman Empire. Although it was not greatly damaged by the Gothic and Arab invasions, its dominance gradually declined until it was depopulated.
It is time to go to Santibañez de Vidriales, in Zamora, to see the next of Spain’s ancient abandoned cities. It is located in the district of Rosinos de Vidriales and has an excellent musealization, which recreates structures of the original Roman camp. The foundation was in charge of Legio X Gemina, which established a permanent post there after the Hispanic campaign that began in 25 BC. It was Julius Caesar’s favourite unit and his soldiers were the ones who started the history of Astorga.
The population, a walled barracks with many houses around, saw the Legio X Gemina leave, suffered a hard blow. It recovered with several cantonments, but its military character did not allow it to overcome the barbarian invasions. Because of this, it disappeared in the 10th century.
Not all the ancient abandoned cities of Spain were going to be Roman, Visigoth or pre-Roman. In this case the population was Arab, as ambitious as it was ephemeral. It served as the capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, an entity that replaced the emirate to which the city itself gave its name. Abd ar-Rahman III was the monarch who decided to move to the Caliphate to maintain control in the Iberian Peninsula in the face of pressure from his enemies based in North Africa. While the people of Cordoba were Sunnis, their Arab rivals practiced Shi’ite Islam, both being the two main doctrines of Islam.
Alongside this internal pressure was a tense relationship with the Christian kingdoms. The games of alliances and betrayals were continuous. For this reason, as a sign of the power that he had, Abd ar-Rahman III ordered the construction of a new palace capital in 936. It would be called Medina Azahara and would be next to Cordoba itself. The name possibly comes from his beloved, Azahara, whose name derives from the Arabic name for the white flowers of the orange tree. The whole was lavish and the chronicles of the time, like the Aragonese ones, narrated the existence of great luxury and sophistication. However, it would not be long before it withered away. The civil war between the Muslims led to a Berber invasion that devastated the place. The beautiful city ceased to exist in 1010.
This ruined city is an essential part of Spain’s folklore. The heroic resistance of the Iberians led to the survival of Numancia as an example of tenacity. The first settlements date from around 1800 BC. It evolved into a fortress. During the 2nd century BC, it decided to side with one of its peninsular allies instead of Rome. As a result, the Celtiberians would suffer the wrath of the Republic. This happened in 153 BC and was his death sentence.
After almost two decades of defeat, the Romans put Publius Cornelius Scipio Emilianus in charge. He was the adopted grandson of the general who managed to defeat Hannibal, conquer Cartago Nova (Cartagena) and introduce Rome into Hispania. He had just finished the work started by his grandfather when he destroyed Cartago. That is why he achieved the nickname of “Minor African”. He left Italy with an army of volunteers and managed to finish with the allies of the Numantines before putting siege to the city.
Already with a formidable army, he fortified his position and trapped the Celtiberians in their own home. 15 months after the beginning of the siege, in 133 B.C., the besieged set fire to their city and later committed suicide. Scipio added “Numantine” to his nicknames. A village was built on the ruins, which was razed to the ground during the Sertorius conflict mentioned above, and later another, which was purely Roman but was populated by locals. This one resisted only until IV A.D. In its surroundings the municipality of Garray would emerge much later, which has endured until the present day.
The oldest of these Spanish abandoned cities is the one that occupied the current site of Los Millares. These remains can be seen in the province of Almería. They belong to the Bronze Age. The first phases of this prehistoric city are from the 33rd century B.C. and the last ones from, more or less, the 23rd century B.C. During this time a complex with three concentric walls was developed. On a masonry base, walls of mud and vegetal materials were built. Its height reached more than six meters. At the top there was a fortress as a citadel.
Of the various periods that it lived, the most prosperous occurred during the second half of the second millennium BC. At that time they had various external defenses that dominated the surrounding territory. At the beginning and end of its existence, however, the occupation was limited to the citadel. In addition to the remains of the walls, dwellings, ovens and shops, the cemetery associated with Los Millares stands out. Some 80 tombs, circular and semi-subterranean, make up one of the most important ancient necropolises in the Iberian Peninsula.
The tensions between Cantabrians and Romans during the beginning of the Roman Empire were the reason for the first emperor, Augustus, to found Julióbriga. The name is a direct tribute to his mentor, Julius Caesar. Thanks to the influence of the place the situation calmed down. Its construction was commissioned to the Macedonian Legion IV. After the first century, several of its citizens obtained civil offices in different places, as it has been recorded in several documents. Then it began to experience a continuous decline that ended in the third century. Small villages and temples began to emerge in its ruins. However, there was never a real repopulation and today its vestiges populate the interior of Cantabria.
One of the best known on the list, Segóbriga is a classic as far as Spanish Roman ruins are concerned. Its good state of conservation makes it possible to continue using its theatre even today. Although it is associated with Rome, its name is of Celtiberian origin. The suffix “briga” means city, while “sego” is victory. This is a confirmation of its more remote past, associated with the indigenous peoples of the central peninsula. On the mountain where it is located, near Saelices in Cuenca, pre-Roman remains have been found that place the beginning of the town at least five centuries before Christ.
After passing into the hands of the Republic of Rome, it benefited from the war in Sertorius, as it became the nerve centre of the area. The move to the empire also came in handy, as in 12 AD it achieved the title of Municipium. This meant that patricians settled there relatively quickly. From then on, its great monuments were developed. The economic and political crises of the 3rd and 4th centuries, which laid the foundations of the future medieval feudalism by strengthening the rural environments and the villas, seriously affected Segóbriga. Its importance declined and a large part of its buildings were ruined before the Visigoths arrived. In spite of a small Gothic revival, the Muslim invasion was a definitive blow and it languished until it was totally depopulated in the 11th/12th century.
Saelices took the place of Segóbriga and it fell into almost total oblivion. Thanks to this, its remains were not too much plundered. Although Uclés benefited from the stones of his buildings, his plan is still recognisable. The mentioned theatre or amphitheatre are the best examples. Since the 19th century it has not stopped being excavated and today it offers a recommendable visit.
In La Rioja awaits this ruined Spanish city. It is a town that still has a lot to discover. Its roots are Celtiberian, from the Bronze Age. It was the end of the second millennium BC, approximately, when it began its journey. This is demonstrated by the burial of the Cave of Lakes. Later, the settlement was developed during the first Iron Age, until the arrival of the Celtiberian peoples from Europe. Expanding the place around the river Alhama, they were the main force until the arrival of the Romans. The Romans reinforced the walls, the remains of which can be seen today, as they suffered greatly during the continuous fighting before the seizure. After being Romanized, it managed to remain inhabited until the 9th century.
City of emperors, since it saw the birth of Trajan, it was one of the first Roman foundations outside Italy. It was born as a result of the action of Publius Cornelius Scipio, the adopted grandfather of the aforementioned Scipio, during the Second Punic War. On a pre-Roman settlement, in 206 BC, a town was established to provide shelter for war veterans. A space that had the approval of the capital from the beginning, which allowed it to develop a powerful economy. Thus, it prospered both in the republic and in the empire. It had all the luxuries and received several expansions, especially under Hadrian’s imperial rule.
The imperial decline led to the new branches being abandoned. However, the Visigoths gave it great importance. So many centuries of prestige were enough for it to survive, despite the fact that it did not manage to overcome the Arabs. Uninhabited, a monastery was located in the territory of Itálica in the 14th century. Due to some floods, the inhabitants of Santiponce settled on the Roman ruins of the old area. However, a large part of the heritage has been preserved. Large houses with mosaics and infrastructures make up what can be seen there today. A great addition is its proximity to Seville city.
Of Greek origin, Ampurias owes its existence to the Greek expansionist eagerness. Built for commercial purposes to exploit the goods obtained from Iberia, it soon prospered. The primitive nucleus dates from the beginning of the 6th century BC. It was a utilitarian port that expanded inland in just a couple of decades and a half. The ups and downs suffered by the Greeks in their adventures around the Mediterranean allowed its wealth to increase even more. However, if it is known for anything, it is for its role in the Second Punic War. The Scipio used it as a spearhead to confront the Carthaginians. Ampurias’ loyalty was key to the Roman victory in that conflict.
Despite retaining its status as an ally right up to the empire. During the previous two and a half centuries Romans and Greeks lived together in equality. Already with the Roman citizenship, its preponderance declined in favour of Tarraco. Little by little it became smaller and the population went to the area of the old port at the end of the third century. Thus, it became a Visigothic town, base of the current San Martín de Ampurias. This town managed to become the county seat, although the difficult defence of the area made it move. In this way, it remained as a village until our days.
To finish this list of old abandoned cities in Spain you have to travel to Soria, to the municipality of Montejo de Tiermes. This city was on the verge of avoiding its destiny, as it had a remarkable development during the Visigothic period. At that time it was able to develop a basilica, a monastery and even a couple of necropolises. However, being in a border area condemned it. The no man’s land that this area of Soria was caused its population to languish during the High Middle Ages. Although once the area was recovered by the Northern Christians, attempts were made to reclaim it, it proved impossible. Only one village remained there until the sixteenth century. A chapel in the area is the only living legacy it has, as it is still the site of many pilgrimages.
Before, it was an important Roman centre. It had a good infrastructure and thermal baths. The basis of its economy was livestock farming. Before the arrival of Rome, there is evidence of Celtiberian settlements as well as of cultures previous to them. One of the great curiosities of Tiermes, apart from the variety of its remains, is that it is located in an area of sandstones. Thus, the caves and large cuts in the terrain are an interesting addition to the ruins themselves, which show that the urban layout was adapted to this peculiar terrain.