Cehegin municipality covers some 300 square kilometres and lies between the towns of Bullas and Caravaca de la Cruz. Like so many settlements in this part of the world, Cehegin can look back on several thousand years of history and occupation.
Cehegin’s story begins in the Neolithic era of prehistory, a time of major development when the domestication of animals progressed as well as a more sedentary form of agriculture, though hunting remained prevalent. The first items of pottery also appeared. Remains from this era have been found in several locations around Cehegin. The subsequent Chalcolithic period (covering much of the third millennium BC) is represented by findings which can be seen in Cehegin’s Archaeological Museum. There was a continuing development of prehistoric society and from a cave near Cehegin, pendants and bone figures have been discovered.
Moving on to the Bronze Age, which covered much of the second millennium BC, urban societies began to form with social stratification and some trading as economic development also moved ahead. More sophisticated pottery was produced and metalworking developed further. A distinct culture can be identified at this time in south east Spain – that of the Argaric civilisation of which the area of Cehegin can boast several remains.
It is, however, in the first millennium BC, when things start to become particularly interesting in the area, especially from the 6th Century BC, with the Iberians, a redoubtable warrior people with a clearly defined culture which had characteristic ceramics, burial customs, armaments and social organisation with nucleated settlements. It was at this time that the town of Begastri on a small hill near the present Cehegin developed. Certainly, Begastri would have exercised an authority over a wide area of surrounding countryside during its peak in the 4th and 3rd Centuries BC. But if Begastri was important in Iberian times, it was even more significant after the Roman invasion. It was nevertheless arguably the most important Roman settlement in the interior of Murcia, surrounded by a relatively rich agricultural countryside. Begastri became a Roman municipium in the 3rd Century AD and had a period of some splendour in the 4th Century AD, when it also became the seat of a Bishop and was the political, economic and military centre of a considerable zone.
It is unclear where Begastri stood in Byzantine times after the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian took Cartagena and began to expand his influence in the south east of Spain from the mid-6th Century, but the town would certainly have been on the frontier between Roman and Visigoth influence. Whatever its precise position however, Begastri was never sacked in the struggle between the Byzantines and Visigoths. Indeed, it seems to have gone on to greater things and there are various references to the town in the Visigoth Councils of Toledo between 633 and 688. Moreover, Begastri was sufficiently important to be named in the treaty between the Visigoth noble, Teodomiro and the victorious Moorish invader Abdalaziz in the early 8th Century as one of a handful of towns which would maintain its autonomy, although under overall Arab sovereignty. Even so, the decline of Begastri was now beginning, as the new settlement of Cehegin was later established by the invaders very close by.
Following the Christian Reconquest of Murcia in 1243, Cehegin passed to being under the control first of the Knights Templar and then, in the first half of the 14th Century, the military-religious Order of Santiago. Remember that the Moors were not finally defeated in Spain until 1492 and for many years before then, Cehegin would have been part of an uncertain frontier zone between Christian and Arab. The town does not seem to have fared particularly well at this time and there is reference in 1352 to its temporary depopulation with privileges being offered to new settlers. Attempts at repopulation were hard hit by Plague in 1348-9. However, the growth in the town’s population, which began at the end of the 15th Century, seems to have accelerated in the 16th Century despite occasional bad harvests and the inevitable visitations of the Plague, especially in 1507 and 1525. Following the capitulation of Granada in 1492, the population of Cehegin began to expand outside the old walls of the town and along the road towards Caravaca. From perhaps about 1000 inhabitants in total in 1468, by 1591 Cehegin was approaching a population of 5000, out of a total for the whole of Murcia of between 80,000 and 120,000.
Gradually, Cehegin was becoming the residence of minor nobles and of religious orders which no doubt helped its growth substantially. Unfortunately, around 1600 problems began to arise. First, economic difficulties started to appear. Then, that old enemy, the Plague, returned with various epidemics causing significant mortality. Indeed, it is held that the 1648 epidemic saw Murcia’s population reduced by 30%, although some places were affected far more. Cehegin’s population may have been halved to about 2,400 between 1646 and 1717. One interesting feature uncovered in the Census of 1787 is that Cehegin appeared to have 560 ‘hidalgos’, or minor nobility, which was the second largest total in Murcia after Caravaca de la Cruz. Other than agriculture, Cehegin had a notable wool textile and leather industry. Although the town had grown noticeably in terms of its number of inhabitants over the two centuries, by the end of the 18th Century, Murcia’s total population had soared even more to over 370,000 compared to around 7,000 in Cehegin.
The 19th Century saw progressive growth of Cehegin. This was also generally the case throughout Murcia though with some geographical differences. Murcia’s population remained nevertheless very largely rural at the end of the 19th Century and only a handful of towns could boast over 10,000 inhabitants by 1900, with Cehegin just making it! During the century, agriculture developed in the Cehegin area with apricots and potatoes, as well as viticulture, assuming greater importance. By 1900, electricity and public lighting were established in the town.
The 20th Century saw mixed fortunes. Modest growth at the beginning of the century gave way to outmigration in the middle decades. It was only in the last quarter of the Century that inmigration began to reverse earlier trends. There were also other positive developments in Cehegin as fruit conserve and small scale footwear factories were established from mid-Century. The Murcia-Caravaca railway which opened in 1919 was something of a mixed blessing and only lasted until 1971 before it was closed, but at least today this has been turned to positive effect offering a via verde (green way) for walkers and cyclists through the countryside.
Most recently, there has been a small fall in Cehegin’s population perhaps reflecting its location and the opportunities which a small town can offer. Thus, in 2015, according to the Spanish National Statistics’ Institute, the population of Cehegin had fallen to 15,794, which may not be many more than Begastri at its height! However, the town has a marvellous offering for tourists as was recognised by the Spanish Ministry of Culture which declared the area of the old town to be of Historic Artistic merit in 1982. It certainly is that!
Part taken from ‘Exploring Murcia – Cehegin’, by Clive and Rosie Palmer. Clive and Rosie have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia which are available, from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. ‘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 646 005 017.