The oldest cities in Spain are the echo of a past time. An indelible imprint that has been marked on the current maps, representative of a past that saw them born and grow. No matter where the compass points, because Spanish geography offers magnetic stories that magnetize present and past. Like two poles loaded with millions of days and nights passed, whose legacy remains.
It is possible to approach these ancient cities in the north, flying over gray and compact clouds, contemplating the millenary stones that erect the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, crossing the ocean to the Balearic Islands. You may also find yourself brushing your fingertips against the white outline of the Bay of Cadiz. Continue the journey gliding over the rooftops of the Basilica of El Pilar in Zaragoza, or reaching the Aran Valley, in Catalan lands, exploring Lleida. Romans, Phoenicians or Celts, ancestors of iron or bronze, were in charge of planting seeds that have traveled in the wind. Flying among sand and dust, until they germinate in the words of this text.
This magical place, even capable of transforming rain into art, became a city thanks to the intervention of Teodomiro, bishop of Iria Flavia. This, after meeting with Pelayo, a hermit who lived in those lands, learned of the presence of the tomb of the Apostle Santiago, and immediately brought it to the attention of the Church.
It did not take long for Alfonso II of Asturias to arrive and he climbed to the top of Mount Libredón to verify its existence in person. After corroborating it, Santiago became the Patron Saint of the Kingdom of Asturias. It became a major pilgrimage center, and was given an urban character, although there was evidence of earlier Roman settlements, and a mausoleum of the first century, to which some believers already went.
The religious and almost divine spirit that threads the history of Santiago is also responsible for the coincidence of the date of the official foundation of the city, with the construction of the first church, in the year 830. Later, a Muslim attack that left the city practically destroyed, saving only the tomb of the Apostle. It was Diego Gelmirez who promoted, in the eleventh century, a reconstruction carried out around it. And the construction of a beautiful temple, with the consideration of Metropolitan Cathedral. Also responsible for the Codex Calixtinus and the Compostelan History, he was a visionary, able to guess the importance that this city was going to have. In the whole world, in all times.
In the 12th century, the Way of St. James was officially recognized through the declaration of 1122 as the first Jubilee Holy Year. That was but the beginning of the way to Santiago, in every sense. For the meaning of the pilgrimage has transcended the very terrain through which it passes.
Reaching Santiago de Compostela, walking it and even imagining it, is almost a spiritual feeling. Just like reaching the compostela, contemplating the façade of the cathedral from the center of the Plaza del Obradoiro. To approach, face to face, the Santo dos Croques. To inhale the incense from the smoke of the botafumeiro, to attend the pilgrims’ mass, to cross the Puerta del Perdón… By closing your eyes you can conjure up the layout of the old medieval wall, although you should open them to appreciate the Arco de Mazarelos (Mazarelos Arch). Or the tower and the moat that are preserved behind glass in Rúa Senra, number 18.
Walking through this city means getting lost in a time tunnel. Surround yourself with pasts that float among the tiny drops of the Galician orballo, or are reflected in the brightness of the medieval stones that populate its streets. Before saying goodbye, it is a must to contemplate the cathedral one last time, a dream that Master Mateo materialized for posterity, wishing to return to contemplate it again.
History is reflected in the blue of the Bay of Cádiz as in a mirror. It fluctuates in the waves, the coming and going of different settlers and eras. Tradition, in the words of the historian Patérculo, tells that it was founded in 1104 B.C., only 80 years after the Trojan War. According to the Roman geographer Strabo, it was founded by the Phoenicians who arrived from Tyre, today’s Lebanon, following the designs of an oracle. The name, Gadir, referred to the wall that surrounded the city, as this is what the Phoenicians called the walled enclosures. Its shape was very similar to that of other Phoenician settlements linked to water, such as Asido Phoenicia, the current Medina Sidonia, also located in the province of Cádiz.
An island, separated from the Peninsula by a narrow channel, the current Caño de Sancti Petri, which also had access to the Guadalete or Iro rivers, was the ideal place for strategic, defensive and commercial purposes. Grateful for the favorable conditions, the Phoenician sailors built several temples in the city. To the Goddess Astarte and to the God Melkart, eventually mimicking the Roman figure of Hercules. Their faith is demonstrated by different religious figures that today can be seen in the Museum of Cádiz. Its marine character was represented in the natural port between the islands of Eritheia and Kothinoussa, San Fernando and San Pedro. It was similar to nearby Phoenician settlements such as Cerro del Prado or Doña Blanco.
The Phoenician footprint goes beyond the words narrated in ancient texts, and becomes solid in the ancient necropolis, rediscovered as Phoenician in the early twentieth century by the archaeologist Pelayo Quintero. A female anthropomorphic sarcophagus was discovered on the site of his house, together with a male sarcophagus found earlier.
These, together with the daily objects found during the construction of the Teatro Cómico, in addition to the historical substrates preserved in the space between cathedrals, are indispensable clues to pursue the Phoenician past of Cádiz. The site of the Calle Ancha serves as a final coup. With its sardines from Tunis, Carthage and an inscription of Phoenician characters found on a plate. All this was waiting, dozing, for Gadir to be rediscovered.
The geography of this island city hosts the easternmost point of the Spanish territory, and treasures one of the most important natural harbors in the Mediterranean. This is the reason why Mahón became a disputed area and desired by so many people throughout its history.
As with the rest of the island of Menorca, the first settlements in Mahon are linked to the Bronze Age, the Argaric culture and its representation in the talayots. But it was the brother of General Hannibal who, after taking Menorca, previously in the hands of the Greeks and Phoenicians, placed it on the map of the most disputed places of antiquity.
From that moment, in the third century BC, began a parade of pretenders who tried and sometimes succeeded in adding Mahón to their territories. Thus, in 123 B.C., the troops of Quintus Caecilius Metellus made it Portus Magonis, part of the Roman Empire, and a privileged and prosperous enclave. But the desire for Mahon, on the part of other peoples, did not cease and it was the victim of successive attacks.
The fall of the Roman Empire placed it in the hands of the Vandals from North Africa and, later, of the Byzantines, thanks to the intervention of Flavius Belisarius, in 534. It was finally annexed to the Caliphate of Cordoba and, in the 13th century, conquered for the Kingdom of Spain by Alfonso III of Aragon.
The vicissitudes of Menorca and the port of Mahón followed one after another, intermittent and insistent. On September 4, 1535, the locals found themselves the protagonists of a pirate attack when Barbarossa’s troops assaulted the city, taking revenge for Charles V’s victory in Tunis. The pirate and his cronies deceived locals and strangers by dressing their fleet with the emperor’s flag, and taking the local inhabitants by surprise.
With the city devastated and the local resistance annihilated, the authorities of Mahón sold the town to his executioners, in payment for a promised respect for their property. In the end, this decision came at a high price for those who traded with the ownership of the town, who were publicly executed, and also implied the decision to fortify the town in fear of future enemy incursions.
Philip II ordered the construction of the Fort of San Felipe, an enormous work of military engineering that did not manage to avoid the transfer to English hands of the Island of Menorca, first during the War of Succession and, later, voluntarily, as a result of the Treaty of Ultrech. The British turned Mahón into a commercial and military capital.
Under his tutelage it lived a splendor appreciable, at the present time, during a walk through the city. It is enough to contemplate the City Hall and its clock, the first of mechanical type that the island had, acquired in the XVIII century by Richard Kane, governor of the island. The British influences are perceived in the architectures that dress the streets, narrating epochs of opulence and prestige. Although it is also possible to guess an earlier past in the Bastion or Pont de Sant Roc, where the entrance and exit of the city was located.
After various conquests and reconquests, in the midst of which Carlos III ordered the demolition of San Felipe, was built, by order of Isabel II, the Fortress of La Mola. It can still be visited. Its enormous size turned it into an armor that enveloped Mahón in a postcard of peace and calm. Now it is possible to tour the city without fear of a pirate assault, or an attack by anxious conquerors.
Strolling through its markets, the Fish Market or the Cloister, Isabel II Street or visiting the Church of Carmen, next to the cloister of the same name, is always a pleasure. But the Port imposes its presence, shelling its islands in the waters, each one with its history, the King’s, the Lazaretto, the Quarantine and the Pinto. More than five kilometers of a coastline that penetrates the island, inevitable, indecipherable. Even for those who stop for a moment to think about everything they have experienced.
The life of the oldest of the Catalan cities dates back to the 6th century B.C. With the name of Iltrida, populated by the Ilergetes, under the command of the chiefs Indíbil and Mandoni, it allied with the Carthaginians. It sought to defend itself from the Roman army. But the victory of these, in the battle of the Ebro, was inevitable and the territory was renamed Ilerda. There were several attempts of revolt by the natives that ended with the death of the warlords and, at the end of the Second Punic War, with the indigenous adaptation to the Roman culture. Even the city walls were the scene of a battle, immersed in the Roman Civil War, between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus.
The chronicles refer to Ilerda as a province created in the time of Augustus. It is described as a fortified city, with fertile lands and a stone bridge. The barbarians razed it to the ground, leaving it barren and plunged into a time of darkness and fear for a long time. Later, the Muslims took it, as they did Monzon and many other territories of the Iberian Peninsula.
There is evidence that, during that time, other religious cults coexisted in the city, since the existence of a Mozarabic quarter located to the right of Cavallers Street is known. The presence of a certain Jewish population is verified by the fossar dels jueus, existing in a Muslim Lleida, which began its decline with the death of its last king, Sulayman.
Already in the 12th century it was granted the Charter of Population as a Christian city, surrendered to the troops of Ramon Berenguer IV and Ermengol VI. From that moment the development of the city is continued in many aspects. Beginning, in the 14th century, with the creation of the first higher education center of the Aragonese crown, the Estudi Generali. Up to the transformation of the Palace of the Sanajüa in Palay de la Paeria, as governmental headquarters. Or the construction of the Hospital of Santa Maria, still standing.
Years went by, times of wars and diseases passed for a city that was losing its luster, until it was completely in ruins. This is how Philip V found it on his entry. It was not until the eighteenth century, with the construction of the New Cathedral, under the regime of Charles V, to see Lleida rise again. An undertaking that had to be undertaken once again after the Napoleonic invasion, and which he promoted, clinging tightly to the arrival of the railroad in 1860. Lleida did not let his train pass and grew, stronger and improved, adorned by the gardens of the Camps Elisis, two cathedrals and a guardian, the King’s Castle, vigilant to the whispers of the past, brought with the breeze from the Aran Valley.
Thinking of Zaragoza leads, almost automatically, to outline, with closed eyelids, the silhouette of the Basilica of El Pilar. But the city was born, grew and breathed long before hosting this baroque treasure, the first Marian temple of Christianity, according to legend.
The territory of present-day Zaragoza was already inhabited around the 7th century BC, as attested by the archaeological remains of a Bronze Age settlement. The name of this Iberian settlement, located at the confluence of the Ebro and Huerva rivers, was Salduie. As the coins they began to mint in the middle of the 2nd century BC say.
They became socii, allies of the Romans, and fought alongside them during the Second Punic War against the Ilergetes, followers of Carthage. Romanization materialized in the creation of a communication road to connect the Ebro Valley to Calahorra, and the fight of Salduie horsemen, together with the Roman army.
Zaragoza became a Roman colony during the reorganization of the provinces of Hispania. It held the name of Caesar Augusta and became part of the Aniense tribe. During this period it lived moments of great splendor, translated in the realization of diverse works that today are still waiting for visitors. The thermal baths, the river port and various fountains and cisterns speak of the strong link that the city has always had with water. The forum, the theater and the amphitheater tell the story of Roman influences.
They are preserved among the remains of the walls, next to the Torreón de la Zuda and under the Convent of the Holy Sepulchre, declared an Asset of Cultural Interest in 1933. On them, according to legend, the citizens carried the tunic of Saint Vincent Martyr, in order to stop the Frankish siege of Zaragoza, which already belonged to the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse.
The Monastery of Santa Engracia became the epicenter of a cultural flowering, born within the walls of its library, where the Liber Iudiciorum was forged. But the real artistic flowering of Zaragoza came with the Muslims, who made it the capital of the Upper Mark of Al-Andalus. They embellished the city with the Aljafería Palace, the glazed ceramics and tiles of the churches of La Magdalena or San Miguel, the Torreón de la Zura or the wall of the Cathedral of La Seo.
After the conquest of the city from the Muslims by Alfonso I El Batallador, Zaragoza experienced complicated and convulsive times, uprisings and battles. But the 16th century also brought moments of splendor. They were reflected in the Palaces of the Counts of Arjillo or Sástaga. The Lonja, the Church of Santa Engracia or the Patio de la Infanta. And, in the 18th century, with the Basilica of El Pilar, by Ventura Rodríguez. It is possible to travel back in time, stroll through the streets of Zaragoza, pull up the collar of your coat and let yourself be guided by the breeze, listening to its whistling among the stone streets.
Concludes this small review of some of the oldest cities in Spain, only five, only the fingers of one hand. But the other five are necessary, forced to start the count again and again for Huelva, Úbeda, Ibiza or Granada… For Avila, Seville or Salamanca…
Spain is full of vestiges of ancient cities in the form of settlements, walls that loom between asphalt and buildings, toponymies loaded with meanings and, many times, legends. A skein of days to unravel and discover, to understand them and understand, perhaps, a little better, the present.
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