Travelling down the Autovia del Mediterraneo (A7) past Alhama de Murcia, there is one unmissable sight (other than the enormous “El Pozo” meat processing factory!) – the remains of the castle towering over the settlement below.
The castle is situated on top of its hill at an altitude of 298 metres and can only be approached up a very steep slope by paths and numerous steps – (we were told 300!) mostly going at an angle across the slope. There is, in fact, a higher area of land to the north of Castle Hill, las Paleras, with important archaeological remains of its own, but it does not dominate the land and settlement at the foot, in the same way as does the site of the castle itself.
Although remains from the general area have been found from well before the Christian era, from Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iberian times and the Roman Baths below, attesting to Alhama’s importance at that time, the history of the castle is somewhat more modern. It is thought that the Islamic Castle was first constructed around the end of the 11th Century AD, although the exact date is unknown. It was continuously occupied until the 16th Century. The reason for its construction was probably purely strategic. As well as providing a central defensive structure for the surrounding population which was localised in small settlements with greater resources including more abundant water, cultivating the fertile soils around the base of Castle Hill, in a much wider sense the castle controls a highly strategic route between the cities of Murcia and Lorca down the Guadalentin Valley. Indeed, Alhama was sufficiently important for its head to be a signatory of the Treaty of Alcaraz in 1243, whereby much of Arab Murcia accepted the sovereignty of Christian Castile in exchange for being allowed to continue with their own way of life. Alhama’s castle opened its doors peacefully to its new overlords.
Alhama was very much involved in a rebellion by Murcia’s Moors in 1264 and gave refuge to a convoy of 800 soldiers and 2000 mules carrying supplies sent from Granada to help the uprising. However, once the city of Murcia fell in February of 1266, the rebellion quickly faltered. Thereafter, many people of Moorish origin left for the south and some were replaced by Christian settlers.
However, Alhama castle still saw action subsequently. The Christian takeover was most certainly no guarantee of peace and, just as the Moors had seen infighting among themselves, so was the case now among the Christians. In April 1296, the Aragonese army entered Murcia. Alhama and its castle was one of the towns which resisted the Aragonese advance, having been repopulated by Castilians in the early years of the Christian takeover. In January 1298 Alhama finally fell after a siege in which catapults were used, with evidence of the projectiles’ impact still recognisable on the northern face of the keep (Torre de Homenaje). The territorial disputes between Aragon and Castile appear to have been settled, at least for the immediate future, in 1304, under the Treaty of Torrellas, when Murcia and Alhama passed back to Castile.
Responsibility for the castle passed through various hands in the succeeding years, being handed by the crown of Castile to the church of Cartagena for several years before being given to one Juan Manuel and then apparently having no clear person responsible for it until, in 1338, King Alfonso XI of Castile ordered a Gonzalo Rodríguez de Avilés to repair several castles in the area, including that of Alhama. This was, perhaps, not surprising, as, during the 14th Century, Alhama had a relatively sparse population, but was in a very strategic zone on the borders of the Christian territories and those of the Moorish Kingdom of Granada further south with incursions always a threat from the latter. In 1387, King Juan I of Castile gave the castle and the surrounding lands to a particularly powerful noble, Alonso Yáñez Fajardo. The Fajardos, as Marquises of Vélez came to control vast areas of Murcia in subsequent years.
Thereafter, however, there seems little of great significance to recount. True, it appears that King Ferdinand II of Aragon passed through Alhama on 6th June 1488 on his march south to prepare a campaign against the Moors of Granada. Of course, it was Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile, as the Catholic Monarchs, who finally succeeded in taking the Kingdom of Granada in 1492 and uniting Spain under their rule. At the same time, this sowed the seeds of disuse for a castle such as that of Alhama. No longer had it a strategic function in the Christian Reconquest of Spain and Alhama was hardly a major town. Indeed, a German traveller reported in 1494 that the settlement consisted of 30 houses, a castle, thermal springs and a glass factory! By 1530, the population of Alhama, despite the new found peace, was said still to be under 400 people. The focus of the settlement, however, had now moved down the hill to around the Plaza Vieja (Old Square). As a result, the castle was allowed to decay and even used as a source of raw material especially for construction of new houses in the land below. From the 18th Century, the materials from which the walls had been constructed were also demolished for their saltpetre content for use in the manufacture of gunpowder in factories in Murcia City!
It is really only since the 1980s that attention has been directed to the remains of Alhama’s castle with archaeological investigations and restoration (using local, national and European funds) taking place. In 1985, the castle was recognised, as being of National Cultural Interest. The work appears to have some way still to go and it will be extremely interesting to see what restoration works are completed in future years as further parts of the castle are “rebuilt” in traditional style and by traditional methods.
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 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.