The remains of the historic town of Begastri are just down the road from Cehegin, about 3kms from the centre of the town and just by the Via Verde (Green Way) used by many walkers and cyclists.
We visited this site over four years ago when we wrote a short article about it for the Costa Cálida Chronicle. In mid-2015, we decided to pay a further visit, if only because we wanted to see inside the “new” visitors’ centre and, among the guided tours advertised for weekends, there was one scheduled for the second Saturday in the month in English.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found that the English tour had been discontinued, but there was considerable flexibility over a personal one, in Spanish, by the extremely knowledgeable lady in the centre at a cost of 2€ each. The Visitors’ Centre itself is an extremely spacious building with explanatory boards around the walls describing the history of Begastri in both English and Spanish. There is also a large area of seating for video presentations.
First let’s reiterate briefly the town’s remarkable history.
Begastri was founded by the Iberians and was certainly in existence in the 4th Century BC and probably conformed to the typical Iberian hilltop settlement type. Today, there is little evidence of these earliest times, but the very lowest layer of stonework in the defensive walls is Iberian and many pieces of black and red glazed pottery have been discovered from the 5th and 4th Centuries BC. An Iberian sanctuary, dedicated to the horse, has been found nearby with votive offerings including items of bronze, iron, silver and gold. The Iberians were renowned warriors and you will see in the Visitors’ Centre considerable detail about this aspect of their society. In addition, some Iberian remains can be viewed in Cehegin’s Archaeological Museum. Nevertheless, the suggestion now is that a relatively rich Iberian settlement at Begastri was disturbed, but not destroyed by the Roman invasion and findings of pottery in the Roman strata in the town indicate a continuing Iberian influence into the 3rd Century AD. Economic and social development continued in Roman times and, in the first Century AD, Begastri became a “Municipium” and would have had typical structures such as a forum, amphitheatre, baths, temples and other public buildings. By the 4th Century the town 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 Visigoth city and an Episcopal See. This lasted until the Moors invaded Spain at the beginning of the 8th Century. The Visigoth noblemen who ruled the south east of Spain (Teodomiro), however, agreed 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. It was only in the 13th Century that the old settlement was abandoned with the present town of Cehegin by then well established.
The main entry gate in the east (one of three in the town) was wide enough in Roman times for a carriage to go through and is where you enter the settlement, but with some impressive reconstruction having taken place of the walls here in the past few years. This was the least steep entry point to the city with the other sides having much more difficult slopes. In consequence, this entry area was well defended with high walls and two towers, which would have made unwelcome entry into the town both difficult and hazardous! By the time of the Visigoths, two entry doors had to be negotiated at this point, arranged in the shape of a bent elbow and with one of the doors (the Visigoth one) much narrower than the other to aid the defenders. One interesting feature as you go up to the entry point to the remains above the Roman and Visigoth entrance, is the original Roman sewer/drainage channel leaving the settlement. Now uncovered, it would once have had stone capping.
One point stressed by our guide, and which had been made clear to us on our earlier visit also, was the successive changes through which Begastri passed during its long lifetime. Thus, around the 3rd Century AD, part of the acropolis in the city was destroyed and the stone used to reinforce the walls and defend Begastri against invaders penetrating from the north. Inscriptions have been found on stone used for other building work showing their reuse, including on Carrera marble, which, we were told, had come from a first half of the 4th Century sarcophagus showing that Christianity was by then present in Begastri. The Visigoths undertook further construction work in Begastri, including an internal wall. Under the Visigoth King Leovilgildo, it appears that Begastri was a major settlement on the frontier with Byzantine Spain and a gold coin has been found containing the effigy of King Recardedo, who reigned at the end of the 6th Century and was the son of Leovilgildo. Then, the Christian population which remained in Begastri after the Moors invaded, raised the walls still further, probably in the 9th Century, and the horizontal joint and colour difference with the previous fortifications appeared quite noticeable.
As you walk around Begastri, you will see the remains of an impressive well which has been excavated. This would obviously have been a necessity especially in times of insecurity and siege. Within the main walls of Begastri would have been found only more important buildings and people. The area of the wider city extended well beyond the walls themselves and was considerable with many houses and farms located in the surrounding countryside in a broad circle which was pointed out to us and which, indeed, went through what is part of the present town of Cehegin itself at one point. It was suggested to us, that during Roman times, the population of Begastri would have reached 9,000 and rather more at the time of the Visigoths.
Begastri is a fascinating and extremely important site and it is abundantly clear that the voyage of discovery there remains still at an early stage. Indeed, shortly after we visited there was due to begin a two week international excavation supervised by the University of Murcia. We suspect that another visit in a further four years’ time, if not before, will see much new information having been discovered.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia which are available, from www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com. “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” and “Exploring Murcia – Cartagena” are available to buy from the Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books), or phone Patti on 968 433 978.