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Home arrow History/Politics of Spain arrow Alcalá de los Gazules – a very brief history
Alcalá de los Gazules – a very brief history
Written by Bob Lloyd   
Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The history of Andalucía is fascinating and rich in examples of both conflict and cooperation between cultures.  Dig just a little beneath the surface of any town in Andalucia and you find yourself in the midst of historic upheavals, shifting populations, changes in languages, cultures and beliefs.  Much of the history of these towns is buried in memoires in local libraries or odd paragraphs in larger works, but I've tried to put my town, Alcalá de los Gazules, in the context of the major events in a whistle-stop tour and hopefully give a taste of the fascinating events that took place in these parts


 The beautiful and historic town of Alcalá de los Gazules


In the beginning...

Although Cádiz was known as a port in Phoenician times, until Romanisation in 206BC most of Southern Spain was ruled between three tribal groups, the most powerful of which the Turdestani, lived along the Guadalquivir, the river running through modern Seville to Córdoba.

The Romans called what is now Andalucia, Hispania Baetica and it provided the Empire with salt, olives, and fermented fish sauce (called garum).  It was a wealthy region populated by the up-and-coming commercial types along with freed slaves and was so stable that the Romans didn't even maintain a garrison here.  The area was so completely Roman in culture that the citizens of Baetica spoke a form of Latin and enjoyed the same legal rights as the citizens of Rome itself.  Baetica even provided two Roman emperors, Trajan and Hadrian.

During the time of Roman rule, people spoke Vulgar Latin, a dialect mixing Latin, some Berber and some Arabic.  Under the Romans, the area also became officially Christian though the countryside took little notice.

As the Roman Empire found itself overstretched and split into two, the weakness was exploited in the early fifth century by the Vandals, an east-German tribe, who being attacked from the East by the Huns, started migrating into Roman territory.

Internal political scheming in Rome in 429 led to a disastrous deal between the ambitious Roman General Boniface and the Vandal King Geiseric.  The deal was that the Vandals would help Boniface in his power struggle in exchange for land in northern Africa.  Once the Vandal army was on the move though, it was unstoppable and Geiseric invaded across the Straits of Gibraltar with 80,000 men.  Eventually Geiseric even sacked Rome in 455.  The Vandals called the area of Southern Spain, Vandalusia giving us the modern name.

As the Vandals were consolidating their power in Iberia, the Romans this time enlisted the help of the Visigoths, a tribe originally from the Balkans, to regain control of the peninsula. 

 The Visigoths liked to build

As Rome crumbled, the Visigoths pushed the Vandals into the North of Africa and took control not just of most of Spain but also most of what is now France.  The Visigoths were great builders and the only ones to found new cities in Europe between the fifth and eighth centuries.   They were initially tolerant of other faiths including Judaism and Catholicism, though their own religion of Arianism (not at all related to the ideology of the German Nazis) was based on the teachings of a priest regarded as a heretic by Rome.   In the main they tried to keep out of religious disputes and live and let live.



In Alcalá there are still remains of buildings erected by the Visigoths including the Mesa del Esparragal, the old tower at the top of the town.

A visit from the neighbours...Over the water in what is now Morocco, the warlike and independent Berber tribes had resisted all attempts at domination from the Romans, the Vandals, the Visigoths, and the Byzantine Greeks.  No-one controlled the Berbers except themselves!

In Andalucia, there were Christians of many types, jews, pagans, muslims, all living together peacefully but the state was riven by internal power struggles. By 700, the church had turned on the dissenters with furious repression as they sought to establish a single, all-powerful religious power.  In reality, far from uniting the state, they deeply divided the population.

By 711, the Visigoth rulers were seriously weakened by internal division and across the water was a muslim army of 70,000 under the command of Tariq El Tuerto (Tariq the one-eyed) who landed at Gibraltar and began 781 years of muslim rule in Spain.  To the Berbers of Morocco, Andalucia looked like paradise with plentiful supplies of water, and rich soil, and fired by the belief in their destiny of spreading Islam around the world, they quickly took control of Algeciras and swept up through the country.  By 714, the Moors controlled all of Southern Spain.

Meanwhile in Alcalá....

In amongst all these great historical changes, was a small village, almost half-way between Algerciras and Cádiz, around 50 km inland, consisting of a few dozen people, mostly working in the campo.  To the south-west of the mountains known today as Picacho and the larger Aljibe, Alcalá already had an impressive tower, the Mesa del Esparragal, built by the Visigoths commanding views towards Jimena in the East, and Arcos to the North.  To the Visigoths, Alcalá was a frontier post, a status it would acquire and again throughout the centuries.

The arrival of the Moors in 711 signalled changes for Alcalá, as for all of Spain.  The population of Alcalá was predominantly Berber in origin, spoke a dialect of Vulgar Latin and Arabic which came to be called mozarabic, and those who could write, wrote in Arabic script.  This legacy is still seen in modern Spanish with more than 30% of Spanish words coming from Arabic and even Alcalá is said to come from Al Qulat, meaning the tower.  Like much of Andalucia, Alcalá was what we would now call multicultural with a mixture of religions, paganism and atheism.  The Visigoths had made efforts to Christianise all the areas under their control but with limited success.

Muslim rule was characterised by a very liberal policy towards people of different races and cultures.  Jewish, Christian and Muslim peoples collaborated and worked harmoniously for centuries producing a flourishing of culture and science at least as great as the Renaissance in the rest of Europe.  Al-Andalus, as muslim Spain was called, boasted the most advanced knowledge in Europe and it was Arab scholars who first translated the Bible into Latin and Greek, enabling many Christian scholars to read it for the first time.

Alfonso X, El Sabio, created a centre
for learning and translation in Cordoba 








But it wasn't all harmony and goodwill.  There were Arab dynasties seeking to push their own regional interests in Al-Andalus and there were frequent invasions from the Taifas, Almoravids, and Almohads, successive dynasties ruling northern Africa.  Each had their preferred princes and the whole of Southern Andalusia was a contested area, defended by fortifications and frontier lines against armies employed when political intrigue failed.

Running North to South was a line from Arcos down to Tarifa and this was frequently the fault-line between competing Arab dynasties.  During the 11th century, Alcalá was part of the Kingdom of Seville, but during the 12th, it was variously part of the Kingdoms of Jerez, and of Arcos.  Sometimes, Alcalá even stayed independent.  It could well be that the additional “de los Gazules” indicates that uncertainty in the ownership of Alcalá though some historians say it reflected the Berber population.In the North of Spain, the Kingdom of Castille was rattling the sabres, pushing southwards, taking land from the Moors, taking advantage of the divisions in the Almohad dynasty of Northern Africa, and finally Ferdinand III took Cordoba in 1236.  For nearly ten years there was an uneasy truce until in 1246 the famous Pact of Jaén was signed.  In exchange for payment, the Moors under Ibn Alhamar retained possession of Granada, Malaga, and Almeria.

For Alcalá, that meant being on yet another frontier between the area controlled by Castille, and the new Nazarí kingdom of Granada.  In 1264, there was a revolt supported by Granada which was defeated by Alfonso X (known as “El Sabio”, The Wise) but this created a dangerous frontier between Vejer, Medina-Sidonia, Alcalá, and Arcos.  Alcalá was given a garrison, but since the town was largely the garrison, whoever owned the garrison owned the town.

The problem was the small size of Alcalá and the fact that few people wanted to move to a dangerous area.  The Kingdom of Castille needed to beef up the local population to make it stronger but few people were interested even though there were financial sweeteners like freedom from certain taxes and gifts of land.  But few relished the thought of being a target, however well-paid.

In 1279, Alcalá and Medina were given to a religious order, the Orden de Santa María de España, which was a covert way of making them garrison towns.  Unfortunately, every time there was a defeat and change of ruler, the frontier towns were affected.  By 1282, Alcalá was owned by Guzmán, El Bueno, the ruler of Tarifa; it was given to him in payment of a diplomatic debt.  A year later, he swapped the town for an olive grove near the Guadalquivir!  As soon as Alfonso X died in 1284, Alcalá was attacked and devastated by the benimerines, yet another Berber dynasty from North Africa.

Alcalá was passed around like an unwanted present for the next thirty years or so as alliances shifted, until in 1310 Alcalá was given to the Duke of Cordoba, who promptly forgot to include it in his will... so Alcalá was again given back to the crown on his death.  At the time, donating towns to nobles was a common form of court payment, even if some of them barely noticed.

And so it continued until in 1427 Alcalá obtained the important status of an inland port – a puerto seco – one of only eleven, in which special types of commercial trade could be transacted.  This gave some stability and potential wealth to the town but right into the first half of the fifteenth century, Alcalá remained formally unowned.

Land disputes plagued the area with disputed boundaries and contests for ownership. Alcalá had possibly the longest running land dispute in Andalucia – it lasted from 1503 until it was finally resolved in 1931, a mere 428 years!  It concerned the founding of Paterna and the pasture lands needed to support it.

Reconquest and Expulsions

In 1492, Jews were forced to adopt catholicism or face expulsion and the majority were dispossessed of their houses, land and wealth and forced into North Africa and Europe. Unable to accept alternative religions as the Moors had done for centuries, the Castillian rulers evicted large sections of the population of Andalucia.

Alcalá was largely Moorish and so did not experience the kind of upheaval that was to come later when the Christians turned on the Moors themselves in 1610.

The Inquisition was introduced to
force Jews into Catholicism 

As the Christians took control of Andalucia, Alcalá was developed as a religious centre, with the building between 1498 and 1511 of the Santo Domingo monastery.  It was a centre for study and culture but was also equipped for punishment and penitence in line with the decisions of the growing Inquisition.  Although it later became a training centre for priests, it also housed prisoners of the Inquisition including one Fray Domingo de Valtanás who was condemned to “unpardonable sentence for the defense of heretics” and he died there in 1568.

The sixteenth century for Alcalá was grim with frequent outbreaks of plague.  In 1507 plague hit Andalucia and returned with a vengeance in 1521 killing over 50,000 people.  African plague hit in 1564, followed by the Mediterranean plague in 1583, and the Great plague in 1599.  Little wonder then that the population was further depleted by massive emigration from the countryside to the America colonies. 

In Alcalá, the Moorish past was erased.  The impressive church that now stands in the Plaza de San Jorge at the top of the town, was built on the ruins of the destroyed mosque. The gothic church was extended between the 16th and 18th centuries and has baroque altarpieces and includes a visigothic pedestal and an icon of San Sebastian from the 12th century.

San Jorge
 San Jorge
San Jorge, built on the ruins of the mosque still has the original tower 













The original tower still stands though there is an unsubstantiated claim that within the church, somewhere behind the altar, one of the muslim builders, in stonemason's graffiti, carved Allah is Great in Arabic!

A plague on your house...

The seventeenth century saw plague devastate the population of Andalucia yet again. The combination of plague, hunger, drought, floods, failed harvests, locusts, and even earthquakes, made life desperate.  Between 1618 and 1648 Spain, along with the other European powers, was involved in the so-called Thirty Years War being fought largely in Germany.  For Andalucia, that meant even less food for families as the government drained their supplies to feed the armies.  In desperation, throughout the 1640s there were campesino revolts and violence against the land-owners, which even reached Seville in 1652, and we see the beginning of anarchist sentiment forming in the countryside.When the Spanish king Charles II died in 1700, there was no Spanish successor to the throne so there was a contest between the Austrian Hapsburgs, and the French Bourbons, the latter finally winning, and in fact the Bourbons are on the throne today in the person of Juan Carlos I.  But the contest resulted in global warfare on four continents for thirteen years, from 1701 to 1714, the War of the Spanish Succession at a cost of 400,000 lives!

All the benefits of the Spanish Empire overseas were being squandered by the nobility who were financing lavish expenditure and debts in Europe, and they turned to the countryside for more wealth.  Andalucia saw the small farms consolidated and larger scale farming introduced under very harsh conditions but it wasn't enough to satisfy the nobles.  As always in times of crisis, scapegoats were sought and by 1767, the nobility turned on the Jesuits, expropriating their land and property and distributing it amongst themselves.

In France, the revolution of 1789 raising the banner of liberty, fraternity, and equality, swept away the monarchy, but this had almost no impact on the largely illiterate population of Andalucia.  The Spanish nobles kept a tight rein on the area preventing any spread of such dangerous ideas though pamphlets did appear from priests who had fled France but were sympathetic to the poor.

 Napoleon reached even as far as Alcala


Napoleon and beyond...

The nineteenth century saw the Peninsular War, the growth of liberalism, a constitution signed in Cádiz in 1812, the “Carlist” civil wars, more plague and famine, the arrival of “pronunciamientos” or coups by the military, a failed Andalusian revolution in 1868, the rise of anarchism and the “Black Hand” paramilitary group, land reform, the caciques and señoritos, and much more.

Alcalá, just like all the towns in Southern Andalucía, was right in the middle.Perhaps in another article we can take a quick trip through these more recent events, which had such a huge influence on the development of our new home towns.






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