“Siyasa” sounds like “Cieza” and there is a good reason for this – it is only a handful of kilometres from the centre of the modern town of Cieza in Northwest Murcia. The area of Siyasa is located on the medieval fortified Castle Hill (Monte del Castillo), with the río Segura at its foot. But what is Siyasa? It is, in fact, a quite remarkable Arab town which only began to be investigated by archaeologists in the 1980s. Indeed, some regard it as one of the best examples of remains of an urban settlement of its time. It has provided important information about life in al-Andalus in the 12th and 13th Centuries.
The first reference to Siyasa appears to be in the 10th Century, but by the 11th Century, it was already sufficiently well established, though still a relatively minor settlement, for the Arab geographer Al-Udri to describe it as an important staging point on journeys such as that from Cartagena to Toledo. In the 12th and 13th Century it became a major urban centre in what is now the region of Murcia, with approximately 800 houses occupying terraces on the hillside down to the river below (there is a difference of over 100 metres in level between the houses at the top of the slope and those at the bottom). The town was fortified with the castle on top of the hill controlling the surrounding area as well as acting as a refuge for the town’s population in times of danger. Although in an important strategic position in the Segura valley, Siyasa’s livelihood was based on agriculture using the springs and the river for irrigation.
Today, Siyasa is an extremely important archaeological site (about which, more in a minute) but how did such an important settlement of perhaps around 4000 people in the 12th Century come to be abandoned, especially when, in 1243, it recognised the sovereignty of the Castilians when Murcia was taken by the Christians and it was allowed to retain its government and way of life with relatively little change? The reason can be traced to the major uprising in 1266 of the Arab population of Murcia which was only put down with some difficulty. King Alfonso X of Castile decided that the area should be repopulated by Christian settlers to whom various privileges were given. The Christian resettlers began to arrive in the area around 1270 and preferred to live on the fertile plain by the river, although there is some archaeological evidence (graffiti, some coins etc) that some may initially and temporarily have taken over property in Siyasa itself. Nevertheless, in June 1272, when the King spent two days in Cieza, repopulation was clearly well underway and Siyasa had effectively been abandoned by its mudejar population following the rebellion and its repression. Clearly, the town had not appeared attractive to the new settlers. This is particularly fortunate today as Siyasa remained as it had been at the time of its abandonment and without subsequent modification. The Arab population also left behind many ornaments and utensils which have added to the importance of this site as a mirror of 13th Century Arab Murcia.
Even the castle, though it continued in military use for a further 200 years, ended up being destroyed in 1457 as the result of a dispute within the powerful Fajardo family over the governorship of Murcia. Nevertheless, the new settlement of Cieza did not have things all its own way until the final ending of the Moors’ occupation of Spain with the fall of Granada in 1492. Thus, on Easter Sunday 1477, King Chico of Granada penetrated Murcia and attacked Cieza with a force of about 50,000, slaughtering some and taking the rest of the population hostage and removing them to Granada. It was not until after the fall of Granada, that Cieza began to emerge again, especially when it was given the status of a free city in 1494.
But what of Siyasa today after 750 years of abandonment and oblivion? The settlement was once walled, with towers, as well as having the castle overlooking it, and one or two traces of the walls remain. They appear in general to have been of relatively poor quality, though some stronger points have been found, no doubt in the more vulnerable areas. There were two principal entrances through the walls – one in the north below the castle and the other in the south east, near the cemetery. One of Siyasa’s unusual features is that the cemetery is actually within its walled area. However, it seems that this may have resulted from the growth of the town causing the once external cemetery area to have to be incorporated within its expanding limits. Paradoxically, it is this area which suffered the most in the centuries after Siyasa’s depopulation from treasure hunters looking for rich grave goods. Unfortunately, no one told them that it was not the tradition of the time to inter objects with the dead!
Since the 1980s, a small area of 19 house remains dated to the 11th to 13th Centuries has been carefully excavated and you can clearly see the house and street plans. Most streets were narrow and winding and, unlike some other Arab settlements where the authorities controlled development, in Siyasa the streets simply “evolved” as building occurred. All except the wider principal roads (there was one between the periphery and the centre of the town) functioned solely for the passage of individuals and perhaps a single beast of burden. The houses were of the traditional Moorish type, called “house with a central patio”. The larger houses on the higher terraces had an elbow shaped entrance to enhance privacy and the central patio was open to the air and light, and might have a small planted area in its middle. There would be a summer and winter salon with sleeping area and kitchen, and, on a second level, a room for the women to be out of sight when strangers called! A small stabling area was also quite normal somewhere in the entrance area – the position of Siyasa would make the use of beasts of burden necessary both for personal transport and the supply of goods. There were no windows on to the street, which was probably wise as the minor thoroughfares were very narrow and had effluent discharged into them. All the houses had a toilet in a corner of the patio. While external decoration was sparse, internally the houses were richly adorned. Indeed, the richness and variety of decorative arches, corbels, fretwork etc in plaster found in Siyasa has been quite remarkable. However, as Siyasa grew in the 12th and early 13th Centuries, the newly built houses became smaller out of necessity.
The overwhelming majority of this impressive site, however, remains unexcavated – for two reasons. First, there is the obvious question of money and resources. Second, the nature of the construction of the houses (“tapial”) used much loose material and exposure to the elements, especially rain, causes severe erosion without the necessary (and costly) protection. The excavations are now protected and visits are sometimes organized by the Cieza town hall (the tourist office will be able to advise on this). However, if this is not possible, there is another way of seeing something of the splendour that must have been Siyasa – The Museo Siyasa in the centre of Cieza, housed in the old Cieza Casino building, is well worth a visit in its own right. The museum concentrates on remains from Siyasa, although it contains other elements from Cieza’s history. In particular, it has two full scale reproductions of houses from Siyasa, including original arches recovered from them. The internal decoration is fascinating – one of the houses relating to the style of the late 12th and early 13th Century and the other to the mid 13th Century. Many utensils, including pots and glass items are also on display and we were particularly impressed by one, almost complete vase.
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 Cosas y Cosas, Cehegin and Best Wishes, Camposol Urbanización.