Begastri may not mean much if anything to most people, even in Murcia. However, it has been described as the most important historic town in the interior of the region. It is not just in Roman times that Begastri has a claim to fame – it goes back still earlier into Iberian times pre-Christ, and comes forward as a very important settlement indeed in Visigothic times, before its final abandonment in the 13th Century. Quite a pedigree as we shall see!
First, where is Begastri? It is just down the road from Cehegin, about 3 kms from the centre of the town and just by the Via Verde used by many walkers and cyclists. The centre of Begastri was on top of a hill, the Cabezo de Roenas, at a height of almost 550 metres. It seems that the town was founded by the Iberians and was certainly in existence in the 4th Century BC. The Iberians were the people, probably formed of different groups, some of whom had Celtic ancestry, who occupied especially the southern and eastern part of Spain in the centuries before Christ, often settling in defended hilltop sites. Pottery finds, in particular, have confirmed in abundance the Iberian history of the site. Today, there is little evidence of these earliest times, although as you walk around the remains of the external walls of the town, the very lowest layer of stonework is Iberian. There are large blocks of stone (conglomerate), some weighing as much as two tonnes, which were brought from nearby areas. Internally, of course, the Iberian town was built over in the centuries of Roman occupation. However, it is thought that Begastri would have conformed to the norms of an Iberian hilltop town with irregular streets, broadly rectangular terraced houses and a walled surround with intermittent towers.
It is quite possible that Begastri could have been the administrative capital of an extensive territory in Iberian times, which would explain Roman interest in the site, though it appears that not everything went entirely smoothly. When we were being shown round the site by our extremely knowledgeable guide from the Archaeological Museum in Cehegin (another place to visit!), we were referred to a small area in one corner where many burnt pottery remains had been found from what appeared to have been a burning of the town in the 2nd Century BC.
Economic and social development continued in Roman times and in the first Century AD, the town was given the formal title of a “Municipium”, and would have had typical structures such as a forum, amphitheatre, baths, temples and other public buildings. It was at this time that an impressive aqueduct was built to bring water to Begastri, parts of which still remain today and are used for irrigation. The settlement would soon have outgrown the limits of the hill, although it did not reach its maximum splendour until the 4th Century AD, and following an intervening decline. At the end of the 3rd Century it is said that further fortifications were raised, delimiting a small central urban area of around 150 by 50 metres, with a gate in the extreme east. At this time, the town would be the point of reference for the interior lands of Murcia – Cartagena was just too far away. In the 4th Century a further defensive line was constructed around the city and Begastri was the religious, political, economic and military centre of the region.
Finally, after the Roman Empire fell away under attack from outsiders, we have the final main stage of Begastri’s history – as a Visigothic city and an Episcopal See. It has to be admitted that the history of Spain can be just a little confusing at this time to those of us from North-Western Europe. The Visigoths were a Teutonic people broadly from the Baltic area who, after sacking Rome in 410 AD, allied themselves with the tottering Roman Empire and agreed to rid the Iberian peninsula of the other “barbarian” tribes which were by then invading Spain from the north. This they did and established a Visigothic nation with its capital at Toulouse, before they were pushed out of France (or Gaul) by the Franks. Spain (or Hispania) then became their kingdom, with Toledo the capital. They took over the Roman cities and in the absence of anything else (the Visigoths were massively outnumbered by the several million Hispano Romans), the old Roman framework survived. Nevertheless, it was not all straightforward – only 15 of the 34 Visigoth Kings died naturally. Not only that, but, by the mid 6th Century, armies of the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople were seeking to retake Spain and established themselves in the South East of Spain, with Cartagena becoming their capital. Only in 624 did the Visigoths succeed in ending the Byzantine incursion.
Where did Begastri stand in this confused situation? In fact, overall, it appears to have done rather well. The frontier between the Byzantine Province and the Visigothic Kingdom is not at all clear. It is, therefore, difficult to say whether Begastri ever came within the Byzantine zone. In any event, it seems never to have suffered the same fate as Cartagena, which was sacked and destroyed when the Visigoths retook it in the 7th Century. Instead, it was further fortified in the 6th Century and became the seat of a Bishop. We know the names of some of the Bishops of Begastri who attended the Church Synods (the Councils of Toledo) during the 7th Century, from Vigitinus in 633 (Council IV) to Proculus (Councils XII to XV between 681 and 688). This was at a time when the bishops exercised financial, political and judicial authority as well as religious. There is, for example, a reference to Bishop Acrusminus of Begastri consecrating a basilica devoted to San Vincente. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Begastri was, at this time, a major settlement in Visigothic Spain.
Soon, however, there was the great change in sovereignty when, in 711, 7000 or so Moors invaded Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar and defeated (not without some treachery among the Visigoths!) King Roderic at the Battle of Guadalete to usher in several centuries of Arab rule in Spain. The Visigothic noble who ruled the south east of Spain (Teodomiro) managed to agree a treaty with the invaders by which, in return for the payment of tribute and agreeing not to support any enemies, the Christians were allowed to remain and practice their religion. Seven cities were named in the relevant treaty in 713, including Begastri.
Nevertheless, Begastri began to decline, especially when a neighbouring hill was settled from the end of the 9th Century by a Berber tribe which gave its name to that settlement – Cehegin. Begastri was still mentioned in an Arab text of the 12th Century, before it was completely abandoned at the beginning of the 1200’s.
From then on, the ancient and important city was a useful quarry for building materials and even in the 20th Century there was further depredation, when the now-closed railway line was built between Caravaca and Murcia City. Although, fortunately, the line bypassed the hilltop on which Begastri was built by means of a curving viaduct, parts of the old settlement were clearly cut through with workmen talking of stones with carved inscriptions which they cleared out of the way! It is only relatively recently that Begastri has been recognised as being of immense archaeological and historical significance and it has been given the necessary legal protection from further despoliation.
Today, the remains of the main walls are clearly visible (with a width in excess of 5 metres in places), together with the principal access gate. Internally, as the archaeologists continue their work, the remains of houses and streets are becoming clearly visible. A new visitors’ centre has just been built below the main hill and by the site entrance in the form of a Roman house. It is currently hoped that it may be open for visitors. It may possible to arrange a guided tour of Begastri by ringing the Tourist Office in Cehegin or, especially for groups, the Archaeological Museum. The remains are well worth seeing – at its height, Begastri had a population of around 12 to 15,000 people!
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. These can be seen at, and obtained from, www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copies of some of the books may also be available from Best Wishes, Camposol and Cosas y Cosas, Cehegin.