Today, Murcia City is a busy, modern urban area that has mushroomed in recent years and now has a population in excess of 400,000. Unlike many Murcian towns, such as Cartagena, Cehegin, or Mazarrón, it can claim no extended history. True, prior to the arrival of the Romans in Spain, there was a native Iberian settlement at the base of the El Valle hills on the south east outskirts of the city. A remarkable temple from this time has been excavated with the remains visible at the side of the La Luz Visitors’ Centre in El Valle, but the founding of Murcia City as such, had to wait the best part of another 1000 years. However, it is this foundation and the subsequent history and remains from the time when the whole of southern Spain was under the Moors that proves remarkably interesting.
Of course, the beginning of the Moors’ invasion of Spain dates from 711 when the Visigoth King Roderic was defeated by the Moors at the Battle of Guadalete. Yet it was not until 825 that Murcia City was founded. An interesting tale hangs thereby. In the years between these two dates, many people of Arab origin settled in Spain, whether from North Africa, Egypt or Syria. The large area of the Guadalentín Valley became the home to numerous such tribes and groups, who soon began to fall out with each other. The infighting became so bad that the Emir of Cordoba felt it necessary to send out an armed force to pacify the area and establish a new city on the site of present day Murcia to maintain the peace. We can even tie down the actual day of this event – Sunday 25 June, 825.
Even so, the development of the city was quite slow, and we have to await the 12th Century, when the Governor of Valencia, Ibn Mardannis, seized power, for the initiation of one of the most brilliant periods. It was probably at this time that the city was strongly walled and the fortified palace-castle of Monteagudo built nearby. It is said that Murcia City was the effective capital of the whole region of al-Andalus and may have had a population of about 28,000. A second period of splendour occurred in the early 13th Century, when an individual by the name of Ibn Hud, who has been described as the leader of a group of bandits, attracted various dissidents and moved to end the rule of the then predominant Arab faction, the Almohades. He entered Murcia City in August 1228 and by the following year controlled a large area of southern Spain. Murcia flourished but only temporarily, and, by the time Ibn Hud was assassinated by one of his own officials in Almeria in 1238, things had become very unstable indeed.
This was the time of the progressive Christian Reconquest of Spain, although it would be 1492 before the process was completed with the fall of Granada. In Murcia, it was rather quicker. The Emir of Murcia sent envoys to Toledo to negotiate a treaty with the Christian Prince Alfonso (later King Alfonso X, the Wise). Prince Alfonso entered Murcia on 1 May 1243 to take possession of the city, with the Moors, temporarily at least, being permitted to retain their properties and social systems. This was the effective end of Arab Murcia, though there was, for example, a significant uprising against the Castilians about twenty years later.
Nevertheless, we have over 400 years of Arab Murcia. What can we see of it today? If you go to the city, try the following selection:
First, there is the Cathedral Museum at the side of Murcia Cathedral. This is well worth a visit in its own right but, as you walk in over the glass floor, you will see beneath, the remains of masonry. This is in fact the remnants of Murcia’s Central Mosque! After the Christian Reconquest, many mosques were transformed into parish churches with the main one in the city being Saint Mary’s, later the Cathedral.
Then, there are remains of the walls which surrounded Murcia City itself in the Arab era, though not surprisingly these are few and far between today. Two important locations are, first, the Santa Eulalia Visitors Centre in the Plaza Santa Eulalia to the east of the Cathedral. This houses remnants of the old wall including the lowest floor of one of the 95 towers which once were dotted around its circumference, and the remains of one of the gates. Then, a preserved remnant of the old walls can be found in the Muralla de las Verónicas just across the road from the market of the same name. Here, viewed from the street, you can make out the various structures – ditch, ante-wall and main wall with one tower. This gives you a good impression of what the wall would once have consisted when it stretched for perhaps two kilometres to defend the city.
However, undoubtedly our favourite remains from this long past era are to be found in the Santa Clara Convent, off the Gran Vía Alfonso X el Sabio. Guided tours in English are possible. The palace here was originally built by Ibn Mardannis in the 12th Century as his second palace, then just outside the city walls. It seems to have been very similar in design (though on a much smaller scale) to the Alhambra Palace. A rebuilding took place in the 13th Century by Ibn Hud with remnants of this period still clearly visible. Some of the arched decoration is visible in the rooms at one end and there are many artefacts to be seen. After the suppression of the Arab rebellion in 1266, the palace was converted into a royal residence for the Kings of Castile, until, in 1365, King Pedro I gave it to the Order of Santa Clara. You really have to see this building, together with its tranquil patios and water area to understand why we regard it as one of the jewels of the city.
In the future, another “star” may be added. During preliminary work to create an underground car park at the back of the San Esteban Palace and by one of the Corte Ingles stores in the city centre, the remains of a large 12 and 13th Century settlement area including houses, palaces and possibly a mosque were inconveniently discovered. After long continued arguments, there now seems a prospect of an Interpretation Centre being built and the remains preserved. Before that, the remains need to be safeguarded against deterioration as a result of their being newly exposed to the elements. However, if you are in this part of Murcia City, it is well worth looking through the fence which has been put around the site if only to appreciate the vastness of what has been found. Some believe that this is one of the most exciting discoveries of its kind and they may well be right.
Of course, there are many other remains from Arab Murcia to be seen in the other museums in the city and we would particularly recommend the City Museum (which has a huerta dating from these times to its rear) from this point of view. Occasionally there are short guided tours arranged of Arab Murcia on foot – if this appeals to you, you can always check whether one is planned with the tourist office in the square by the Cathedral.
Taken from “Exploring Murcia – Murcia City”, by Clive and Rosie Palmer, which is available, from www.lulu.com (price £8.98 plus p&p), or contact email@example.com. Copies may also be available from the Best Wishes bookshop on the Camposol Urbanization.
© Clive and Rosie Palmer