Alhama de Murcia is a small town in the Guadalentín Valley picturesquely situated with the Sierra de la Muela immediately behind it. Towering over the town are the remains of the 11th and 12th Century Arab Castle. Although the area has a long history of settlement dating back to the third millennium BC, it was in Roman times that its history took off because of the medicinal springs which allowed thermal baths to be built and in which much of Alhama’s subsequent history and changing fortunes are reflected.
All this can be seen, as part of a trip through 2000 years of history, in the marvelous Archaeological Centre, “Los Baños”, which has been built over the remains of the baths. It is located on Calle Sánchez Vidal at the top of Calle de la Fería. Entry to the Centre is free (January 2013). When we were last there, the Centre opened between 10am and 2pm every day except Mondays (closed) as well as early evenings on Tuesday to Saturday. Exhibits and remains are well explained in leaflets and on boards in the Centre and some of the information is in English.
The entrance to the Centre is through a courtyard-type garden which is a very pleasant space intended to be reminiscent of old Andalucia, with fountains playing between small hedges. The first display which you will probably see on entering the museum, though Roman, was not part of the old baths. Just by the entrance, parts of a Roman floor mosaic are displayed. Around five years ago, work outside the almost adjacent church of San Lázaro uncovered elements of Alhama’s past history, including the remains of an important Roman house from the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD. It is from this important urban house, or “domus” that the mosaic floor was recovered, dated to the beginning of the 2nd Century AD. The mosaic is commonly known as an “opus tesselatum”, which essentially means that it is composed of small pieces of coloured stone. After restoration and conservation in Alhama’s Cultural Centre in the nearby Plaza Vieja, the mosaic floor was placed where you now see it in the museum.
From the reception/entrance area in the Centre, you go down some stairs to the Roman Baths, looking first at one of the recreational bath areas. Around you, there are also various remains, especially ceramics, in glass cabinets, from the Iberian and Roman periods, covering the 4th Century BC to the 4th Century AD. There is abundant explanatory material, mostly in Spanish but with some English. It will tell you that the baths were very important in Roman times with a social function to meet friends as well as to provide a source both of exercise (including massage) and relaxation. The Roman Baths in Alhama consisted of two separate areas. First, there were the medicinal baths, using water from the thermal springs, which consisted of two domed rooms and a pool, with holes in the ceiling that could be opened or closed to regulate the temperature. In addition, there were the recreational baths, consisting of a changing room, a cold room (frigidarium), a warm room (tepidarium) and a hot room (caldarium). Additional steam heating was provided by an oven and passages or “canals” for the steam under the floors and in the walls. After being utilized in the baths, the water was taken through a subterranean gallery to the outskirts of the town where it was reused for irrigation. The Roman Baths were constructed in the 1st Century AD and appear to have been in use until the beginning of the 4th Century when they were largely abandoned except for the medicinal rooms as crisis enveloped the Roman Empire.
However, the fall of the Roman Empire was not the end. For the Moors, the baths were an essential feature, combining a religious character (they were often constructed next to the mosque) with social and hygienic functions. The old Roman baths were used and improved by the Moors, with, for example, new skylights being incorporated, and it is in this area, to which you descend from the Roman remains above, that you can regard yourself as being in a medieval Moorish setting. Other parts of the Roman area appear to have been used as a cemetery, with corpses facing Mecca found during excavations. It is in one of the domed rooms that you can see where the thermal waters entered – at a temperature of 45˚C.
Various artefacts from the time of the Moors are displayed in this part of the baths. Among the ceramics are some which are highly decorated, and there are also tools dating from the 11th to 13th Centuries, a cooking pot from the same era, a storage jar with manganese decoration, a necklace, various pins and two bone chess pieces.
After the Christian re-conquest, the baths suffered neglect and had to await the 19th Century for their revival. The construction of the 19th Century Balneario (Spa Hotel) de Alhama was undertaken in 1847-8, re-utilizing the old arched areas. The façade stretched for 32 metres. However, there was much more inside and in the basement area, were bath-rooms, showers, steam baths and pools, with a luxury hotel on three storeys above. It is said that the baths and hotel hosted quite a social gathering in the mid-19th Century onwards. Many of those who came were professionals and well-to-do merchants, from such places as Murcia, Almeria, Alicante, Madrid, Cadiz and Valencia. In the late 19th Century, it is said that you could leave Madrid at 8.15pm, arriving at Alcantarilla at 7.55am to take the Lorca train and arrive at Alhama at 9.56am with carriages waiting to take you to the hotel and baths. There are many displays from the period to look at. Panels on the wall show information about the luxury and facilities offered by the baths. Tariffs are shown for different categories of accommodation and treatment.
However, the prosperous times did not last and the baths closed in the 1930’s when new water extraction nearby caused the level of the thermal waters to fall and the hotel’s supply to fail. Then, in the 1940’s, the buildings served as a hospital for the wounded from the Spanish Civil War, being completely abandoned later in the decade. The structure of the hotel continued to deteriorate and was finally demolished in 1972. Excavation, restoration and the building of the fine modern Archaeological Centre then followed from the 1980’s.
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. Clive and Rosie Palmer have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia.
Copies of some of the books may be available from the Best Wishes, Camposol and that on “Exploring Murcia – Days Out” also from the Costa Cálida Chronicle Office, Camposol B.