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Caravaca de la Cruz (literally ‘Caravaca of the Cross’) is one of a number of delightful small towns in Northwest Murcia, some 40 miles from the City of Murcia itself.  While the town can boast a long history of settlement, the modern town has developed around its castle, built in the 15th Century which, with the magnificent Church of the Vera Cruz, dominates the surrounding lands and the main area of the town below.  It is the events associated with this church and fortification which have given Caravaca an importance out of all proportion to its size and which are reflected in the museum which is housed in the extensive buildings to one side.  Like all the towns in the area, it is extremely interesting and revealing to have a quick trip through Caravaca’s history as a whole!

Church of the Vera Cruz

We found an excellent way to gain an appreciation of Caravaca was through a look around the Archaeological Museum there.  The story begins with the Stone Age (Palaeolithic) and the Neolithic eras.  The first inhabitants of Caravaca were nomads, inhabiting caves in the region between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.  Such was the Cueva Negra beside the nearby Río Quipar.  Among exhibits we saw were two canine teeth from Neanderthal man!  From the Chalcolithic or Copper Age, around the third millennium BC, we saw pottery including an almost complete decorated jug and various cooking pots from Casa Noguera de Archivel together with arrow heads (including a metal one) and an axe head.  The Cueva de Los Alcores, which was excavated in 1975, was the site of a multiple burial with skeletons of 21 human beings discovered of both sexes and various ages.  With the bones were grave goods, normal for this type of burial, including axes, copper and bone daggers, marine shells used for personal adornment and various pieces of pottery.

The Bronze Age and the Argaric civilisation follow and the museum had a massive burial pot (a Pithoi), probably dating from around the middle of the second millennium BC, as well as other item such as axes, a hand grinder, various hooks, daggers and fragments of ceramics.  From the succeeding Iberian period (immediately before the Roman occupation), we were enormously impressed by an earring in yellow gold which had come from the necropolis found at the nearby Los Molinos de Papel on a terrace above the Río Argos.  All this attests to the variety of human occupation before that momentous time of Roman incursion and settlement.

Inevitably, Roman society and remains figure importantly in the history of Caravaca even if the present site of the town itself had little to distinguish it at that time.  The area around the town was, however, vital to the survival and development of the Roman Empire as the exploitation of the countryside to feed the town populations was an essential pillar of society.  Rural estates around a villa in the countryside were a central element in this with their function being to produce cereals, oil and wine.  Such villas also brought some of the luxuries of the town to the countryside.  Not surprisingly, there are numerous villas situated in the Caravaca area, the majority near the rivers Argos and Quipar, though not so near as to be in danger from any flooding!  They were generally situated near to a communication route, though never next to it.  One such villa was that to be found on the Cera de la Ermita de Singla which dates from the 2nd Century AD and near to which was also found a necropolis.

In addition, nearby, in the Estrecho de la Encarnación, are to be found the remains of the two oldest temples to be discovered, not only in Spain, but also in the whole of the Western Mediterranean.  The remains are to be found about 8 miles away from Caravaca itself.  They are located in what is described as one of the most significant historical enclaves of the Iberian Peninsula, with remains from the Palaeolithic and more recent prehistoric eras to the present.  To get to them, we took the road from Caravaca to Lorca and turned off down one of the roads which goes to La Encarnación.  The temples are to be found off the road which runs through La Encarnación, a little way to the north (the Caravaca side) of the village.

Ermita and Roman Temple remains

The main feature at the temples was the large ermita (church), standing in glorious isolation on the hillside and amid the trees.  Apparently, after the Castilian conquest and the formation of the Kingdom of Murcia, the Order of Santiago had a church complex built in this location.  The first documented mention of the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Cueva comes from 1494, although the construction was undertaken in the second quarter of the 15th Century and it seems that the stones of the Roman Temples were used for this work.  The temples seem to have been constructed on the site of earlier Iberian worship deifying a goddess of the subterranean world associated with the fertility of the fields, although no associated building has been identified.

Remains of the Roman Temples

The small Temple of Jupiter (Temple A) was constructed around the 1st Century BC. Today, it is just the foundations of Temple A which survive, but you can see the outline of the two rooms which formed it.  The ‘cella’ was a rectangular internal room measuring 5.96 by 4.94 metres.  The second room, known as the ‘pronaos’, stood in front of the cella and was 3.53 metres square.  It is said that the pronaos was used as the Treasury where offerings to the gods were kept.  This temple had only two columns in its façade and two lateral passages.   The remains of the larger temple (Temple B) are at the other end of the ermita, but with the majority of them, unfortunately, built over by the church.  Construction may have begun in the first half of the 2nd Century BC, though a little later this building was replaced by a grander structure, unlike its predecessor, constructed entirely of stone.  Indeed, this temple was expanded on at least three separate occasions.  It was also dedicated to Jupiter and had a wide portico of eight columns at its ends and ten to the side which was built around the BC/AD change of era.  Today, you can see the positioning of some of the columns but, in truth, the visible remains are again very limited.  In addition, very close to the site is the place where the Romans excavated some of their stone.  The steps in the rock show the excavated area where work is said to have continued until the 2nd Century AD.  It is thought that experts from Carthago Nova (today’s Cartagena) were brought in at the outset.  In the middle of the 16th Century, the stone was again extracted for use in building Caravaca’s churches.

Based upon extracts from the book “Exploring Murcia – A Days Out Compilation” by Clive and Rosie Palmer, who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia.  All the books can be viewed at and obtained from www.lulu.com, or contact clive.palmer5@btinternet.com.

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