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Sancti Petri Castle
Written by Andrew Brown   
Tuesday, 10 February 2009

 

 

Castillo de Sancti PetriPhoto by David Bosque

Sancti Petri Castle is one of the iconic images of the Costa de la Luz, but how much do you know about it? When was it built? Why is it of such archaeological and historical importance? Why did Hannibal and Julius Caesar visit it? 

The island of Sancti Petri is located at the mouth of the Sancti Petri Channel which runs between San Fernando and Chiclana. In the past it was connected to the mainland by a spit of land which has now disappeared under the water, although parts of it are sometimes still visible, especially at times of very low tides.

History

According to ancient historians the island was the site of the famous Temple of Hercules, known as Heraklion in Phoenician mythology. It was one of the most important religious buildings of the Ancient World.The Roman historian Pomponio Mela claimed that beneath the temple were buried the remains of Hercules, the mythological God, and this is why the temple became so famous. Classical sources state that many important people, famous for their exploits or social status, visited the temple. Tito Livio narrates that Lourdes de VicenteHannibal came to the island to offer sacrifices to the God Hercules before embarking upon his conquest of Roman Italy. Also in its sanctuary Julius Caesar had a dream which foretold his domination of the world. Caesar had earlier wept in front of a bust of Alexander the Great in the sanctuary, frustrated that he had not yet achieved any major success to compare with that of Alexander, even though he was by then the same age as Alexander was when he died.

Estrabón, in the first century BC, claimed that the Tyrians (people from the city of Tyre) had founded Gadeira (the Greek name for Cádiz) and built a sanctuary to the East of the city.

The sanctuary he referred to was probably a collection of buildings on the island of Sancti Petri, with the temple being the oldest having an open courtyard which was flanked by two huge columns. Its famous doors showed scenes depicting the labours of Hercules in bronze.

It was believed that the temple had been founded in the time of the Trojan Wars at the beginning of the second century BC. According to Silio Italico in the first century BC “the great beams of the original temple had only ever been touched by the workers who built the temple.” He adds that on the façade were carved the twelve labours of Hercules, but that as a God he became invisible, there being no image of him in the inside of the consecrated building. He also refers to the fact that, unusually, human sacrifice was prohibited. A permanent flame burned on the altar and was never allowed to go out, being constantly tended by the priests.

Castillo de Sancti PetriPhoto by David Bosque

Silio Itálico also records that “The high priests, who are the only people to have the honour of entering the inner sanctuary, did not permit women to approach it and they themselves took care to keep the temple clean. To approach the altar they wore plain robes made of linen and a polished metal band around their heads. When making offerings they generally wore an ankle length robe and when making sacrifices these robes had a purple border, as in the ancient tradition. Their feet were bare and their heads were shaved. All were celibate.”

According to Estrabón, at the foot of the columns at the side of the gates, which were of bronze, sailors would make their offerings to the God and pray for safe passage. He says there were several bronze altars inside the sanctuary with sacred flames burning, some showing scenes from the life of Hercules. As well as the remains of Hercules there were other equally famous relics to be found in the temple, such as the Belt of Teucro (a Greek hero and the son of Telamon), and the Tree of Pygmalion whose fruits were said to be emeralds and which has mythological links to the Dragon Trees in Cádiz – themselves several centuries old. Of the temple’s treasures nothing remains nowadays due to looting during over the years.

Also famous were the wells of pure water within the temple. The water in them would rise and fall at opposite times to the rise and fall of the tide and they were studied for centuries prompting the first ideas of a link between the tides and the phases of the moon.

During Roman times the temple retained its splendour and was at its most magnificent during the reign of the emperor Trajan. Since the beginning of the 20th century significant archaeological remains have been discovered which confirm the importance of the sanctuary. These include a large imperial Roman statue, a small bronze statue of a figure driving a horse and chariot and a large bronze bust found in the area known as “Rompetimones” in 1925. (Rompetimones means, literally, ‘rudder-breaker’ and was the name given to the rocks just off the island which were frequently the cause of shipwrecks.)

 

The Castle today

Sancti Petri Castle

The major decline of the castle began in the 12th century. It had already lost its former grandeur during the time of the Visigoths. It is rumoured that the Berber admiral, Ben Maimin, who conquered Cádiz in the 12th century, dismantled most of the temple searching for its famous treasures. Subsequently, it suffered from further attacks and destruction, erosion by the sea, the removal of stones by stonemasons and builders and successive military occupations, all of which resulted in the gradual demolition of the buildings to such an extent that the temple itself practically disappeared. Details of its existence and history are only known of thanks to archaeological discoveries and Greek and Roman writings, which were themselves reaffirmed by the writings of historians in the 16th century.

Diario de Cádiz 01-05-2008 © Lourdes de Vicente 

Currently the castle is a conglomeration of buildings built at the end of the 16th century and during the 17th century. These buildings themselves are now in a state of almost complete disrepair. Over recent centuries it has suffered attacks by pirates and cannibalisation of building materials to make fortifications elsewhere. During the Peninsular Wars the castle was heavily shelled while Cádiz was under siege by the French between 1810 and 1812 and also later in 1823 during the second French blockade.

A detailed report prepared recently on behalf of la Demarcación de Costas de Andalucía Atlantico Cádiz described the castle as being in risk of collapsing even further due to erosion by the sea. Nevertheless it proposed that work should be carried out to repair the castle, the cost being justified due to its historical and archaeological importance. The report, which took some 18 months to prepare, sets out in detail the work required.  It envisages rebuilding the main parts of the structure of the castle, the construction and fitting of new wooden roofs, reinforcement of the rocks to prevent further damage by erosion, and the building of an embarkation point to make access easier. All works are to be carried out in a manner, and using materials, compatible with such of the original materials as remain.

Castillo de Sancti Petri

The point on the mainland opposite the island is one of Chiclana’s “puntos magicos”. At the spring and autumn equinoxes people gather on the cliff just beyond the bottom of Avenida de Barbar to watch the sun set behind the highest point of the Castle. A stone marks the best spot for viewing. If the weather is good you may find groups of people holding an impromptu party as the sun sinks behind the island.

Photo by David Bosque

 

Andrew Brown – Jan 2009-02-04

Sources: San Fernando website http://www.laisladelsur.com/

Solicitadas las obras de recuperación del Castillo de Sancti Petri

 

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