Today, Alhama de Murcia appears a prosperous town which you pass on the Autovía del Mediterráneo or on the railway line from Lorca to Murcia, with the extremely large ‘El Pozo’ meat processing factory a major landmark.
Its modern name is said to come from the Arabic al-Hamma, which means a thermal bath, for reasons which will be clear shortly. In population terms, Alhama has seen fairly constant if slow growth over the last century or so, from about 8500 inhabitants in 1900 to just over 20, 000 in 2010. In 2015, official statistics gave a population of 21,351 about 70% of the figure of neighbouring Totana, though the areas of the two municipalities are very similar.
For Alhama, the first known settlements were in the Neolithic period (third millennium BC) with various archaeological finds made including pottery fragments and stone axes. Defensive sites on hills, but with access to water, were often favoured at this time, including the hill on which the castle was subsequently built. It appears that, from the 8th Century BC, major developments took place as the native Argaric and Late Bronze Age settlers came into contact with Phoenician traders and a true Iberic culture is regarded as having developed. This is said to have reached a high level of development on “Castle Hill” by the 5th and 4th Centuries BC. It was, of course, not long after that the Romans arrived. Alhama was particularly favoured in Roman times because of the medicinal springs which allowed thermal baths to be built. These are generally regarded as being the municipality’s most important archaeological remains and they are of national and not just local importance. This is quite clear from the marvellous Archaeological Centre, inaugurated in mid-2005, which has been built over them and which now is a fascinating museum to which any visitor to Alhama really ought to go and spend some time.
The Roman Baths were constructed in the 1st Century AD and appear certainly to have continued in use until the beginning of the 4th Century, when it is suggested that they were largely abandoned except for the medicinal rooms as crisis enveloped the Roman Empire, but during the intervening period, they would have been very important indeed to the inhabitants of the area. As well as for massages and exercising, people would go to meet others and talk. Use was encouraged by generally low prices (if not free use) and all levels of society would be found there. For some time men and women shared the facilities, though at different hours, but following a decree by the Emperor Hadrian, separate facilities had to be used by the two sexes. Although the baths are generally referred to as Roman Baths, it is important to realize that their history of use stretches over some 2,000 years. Thus, the fall of the Roman Empire was not the end of the baths. As one description states, for the Moors, the baths were an essential feature, combining a religious character (they were often constructed next to the mosque) with social and hygienic functions. In particular, the domed areas that dated from Roman times were used and improved by the Moors and it is in this area, to which you descend from the Roman remains above, that you can regard yourself as being in a medieval Moorish setting. Other parts of the Roman area appear to have been used as a cemetery, with corpses facing Mecca found during excavations.
Not surprisingly, abundant Roman remains have been found throughout the area, including villas. Indeed, a watch tower is believed to have been built at this time to control passage through the Guadalentín Valley. The site was subsequently used by the Moors following their invasion of Spain in the 8th Century, for a castle, the remains of which tower above the town today. Alhama was incorporated in the old territory of Al-Andalus. Then, after signature of the Treaty of Alcaraz in 1243, the castle was handed over peacefully to the Castilians and King Alfonso the Wise as the Christian Reconquista began to gather pace.
The excellent strategic position of the castle meant that Christian monarchs saw advantage in maintaining it in a good state of repair, given the constant threat of Moorish incursions from the south. Alhama Town Hall’s history recalls that in 1338, King Alfonso XI ordered the repair of a number of castles, including Alhama. The castle is an important part of Alhama’s patrimony and considerable work has been undertaken over recent years to restore and conserve the remains as a remarkable feature of the 11th to 16th Centuries.
Although the years after the Christian takeover were not entirely straightforward with, for example, a falling out between the Castilians and Aragonese (the two kingdoms which were united in 1479 by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabel, the Catholic Monarchs under whom the Moors were finally overcome in 1492), Christian resettlement of the area was encouraged. From 1370, the Fajardo family (the Marqueses de los Vélez) was entrusted with the control of the castle and surrounding area which they exploited ruthlessly to the extent that local inhabitants sought redress and recognition of their rights through a legal process that occupied the whole of the second half of the 16th Century. The true nature of Alhama’s development over these years, however, is not altogether clear. There are various references believed to relate to Alhama in Arab writings from the mid-11th Century and there may have been the beginnings of a settlement below the castle, but it is said that Christian documents of the 14th and 15th Centuries reflect a lack of population in the area in a period of economic and political difficulty, while, in 1494, a German traveller noted that, as well as a castle and thermal baths, Alhama had some 30 houses. Thereafter, one interesting event at the beginning of the 18th Century (which, more generally, was a century of economic progress for the town), saw Alhama’s inhabitants going to the aid of Cartagena when it was menaced by British and Dutch forces!
Although Alhama was not immune from some of the economic forces which led to emigration, by the end of the 19th Century the population of the municipal area as a whole was approaching 10,000 with three-quarters living in the town itself. The thermal baths, enjoying a renaissance, were one of the economic motors at the time with the railway coming in 1885 and the first street lights in 1904. From the Middle Ages, it appears that the baths had continued in a semi-abandoned state. However, the construction of the 19th Century Balneario (Spa Hotel) de Alhama was undertaken in 1847-8, re-utilizing the old arched areas. People, generally professionals and well-to-do merchants, came to the baths from such places as Murcia, Almeria, Alicante, Madrid, Cadiz and Valencia. In the late 19th Century, it is said that you could leave Madrid at 20.15 in the evening, arriving at Alcantarilla at 07.55 to take the Lorca train and arrive at Alhama at 09.56 with carriages waiting to take you to the hotel and baths. These prosperous times did not last and the baths closed in the 1930’s. Then, in the 1940’s, the buildings served as a hospital for the wounded from the Spanish Civil War, being completely abandoned later in the decade and the hotel was finally demolished in 1972. Excavation, restoration and the building of the fine modern Archaeological Centre followed from the 1980’s.
Part taken from “Exploring Murcia – A Guide to Totana, Alhama de Murcia, Aledo, Pliego and the Sierra Espuña”, by Clive and Rosie Palmer which is available from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.