If you have a look around Calasparra’s Archaeological Museum, you will quickly appreciate that this part of Murcia, admittedly like so many others, has a very long and interesting history.
Indeed, the human record goes back at least to Stone Age times and there are prehistoric cave paintings some 4,000 or more years old from the Neolithic era in the Abrigos del Pozo next to the Río Segura nearby. Today, the paintings have been declared a World Heritage Site (Patrimonio de la Humanidad) by UNESCO. They represent human and animal figures but in a symbolic way and without any anatomical details. One painting has animals depicted between people in this schematic style, where men are thought to be represented by a vertical line and women by two. The Archaeological Museum also has numerous remains from the Stone Age (Palaeolithic) up to Roman times. Thus, among exhibits found locally and dating from the Middle Palaeolithic are various knife-like tools and scrapers. From the New Stone Age (Neolithic) there are scrapers, arrow heads, an axe, the tooth of a wild boar (jabali), fragments of pottery, knives, a hand grinder for grain and idols/small figures.
There were also settlements in the Bronze Age, in the 2nd Millenium at local sites such as La Presa I and II and the Archaeological Museum again has exhibits from Iberian times, while in Roman times several nearby populations have been identified in areas such as the Cortijo de los Panes in Gilico. You can see such Roman items as a large ‘dolia’ (clay jug), an amphora, various weights, necklace beads, rings, a bronzed jug, votive figures, small metal bells, a fragment of a herringbone (opus spicatum) mosaic floor and even a medical instrument in the Museum.
It is in the time of Arab domination of this part of Spain that archaeological remains proliferate and give an excellent idea of the way of life. The Arab geographers, al-Idrisi and al-Zuhri, refer to a ‘hisn Qalashbarra’ which is regarded as certainly being Calasparra. Also, the town’s Archaeological Museum holds all the excavated remains from the Arab settlement nearby known as the Villa Vieja. This settlement was occupied from the 11th Century until it was abandoned after the failed Arab uprising of 1264-66, following the Christian takeover of Murcia through the Treaty of Alcaraz in 1243. It is thought that those who settled here at the outset, may have been Berbers from the Maghreb in North Africa. You will, for example, be able to look at a large ‘tinaja’ (earthenware jar) from the 13th Century, as well as one of the most prized finds, a decorated double-handled vase – the jarra esgrafiada – also from that century and many other items recovered from the settlement. More than 20 houses have been identified of the 60 or so that are thought to have once existed here, giving a population when the village was at its largest, of perhaps some 240 people. If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit the site, as you walk around, you can clearly see the foundations and the plan of the various houses together with the path of the narrow streets. Most of these internal roads just seem to end, with only one apparently continuing through the entire settlement. The main street, which had an east-west orientation, was 2.5 metres wide. Unfortunately, parts of the site have been destroyed in more modern times.
Calasparra Castle was built by the Arabs some time after the village of Villa Vieja was in existence, perhaps to protect this and any other nearby isolated settlements. According to one local guide book, the castle remained in use after the Christian Reconquest of the 13th Century for use by the Order of St John who were responsible for Calasparra and the surrounding area. Today, little of the castle remains, but there are parts of defensive walls and towers which still dominate the town and are visible from much of the surrounding countryside. It is thought that there was little internal building with the principal aim of the Arab structure being to act as a fortified enclosure for people from the surrounding areas in times of trouble.
After the Christian takeover, the area covered by Calasparra was promised to the religious–military Order of Santiago (St James) in 1281, though it came into the hands of the Order of St Juan (John) only some eight years later. At this time, of course, this whole area was a frontier zone with the southern Arab Kingdom of Granada and, not surprisingly, the area’s new inhabitants preferred to settle by and under the protection of the castle in Calasparra itself, beginning the development of the present town.
It seems that from the early years of the 15th Century, land in and around Calasparra was given to new Christian settlers and the urban nucleus of the present Calasparra began to grow. By the following century, the area’s economic development accelerated spurred by the relatively peaceful environment following the surrender of Granada in 1492. Not surprisingly, progress thereafter very much mirrored that of Murcia as a whole, although with the added complication for Calasparra that it remained under the control of the Order of St John until the mid-19th Century. Only then was it able more fully to integrate itself into the life of the rest of the region and, indeed, of Spain more generally. Even so, it is said that, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century, Calasparra remained somewhat isolated, aggravating recession, with this being even worse after the Civil War.
Of course, there are other features and sites in Calasparra which also reflect on its history. Thus, Calasparra has a long history of rice cultivation with reference made to it in a document of 1634, although a leaflet on Calasparra rice suggests such activity in the 15th Century. However, it seems that, especially in the 18th Century, growth of the crop immediately adjacent to the populated area caused disease and epidemics which were sufficiently severe to decimate the population before the local authorities prohibited cultivation so close to the town. Today there is even a dedicated Rice Museum in the town.
Perhaps Calasparra’s best known attraction is the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza (the Sanctuary of our Lady of Hope), situated about 5 kilometres away from the town itself to the north by the Río Segura. The site of La Esperanza is in a deep gorge carved out by the Segura with sheer cliffs which bound the incised valley. The magnificent church is to be found in the natural cave in the rock at the side of the valley. From the outside, it looks a little bit like a building made of shells and inside it is quite magnificent with rock walls and ceiling. The church was founded at the beginning of the 17th Century by one Alonso Benitez of Munera. Although the history of the location goes back no further than this, it is said that there was a cult of the Virgin in existence here well before then.
There is much else besides, both ancient and modern, in this attractive small town today. It is well worth a visit.
Article based on extracts from “Exploring Murcia – A Days Out Compilation” by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. All are available, from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.