Forgotten Moorish Sites in Murcia Hold Treasures Yet to Be Discovered
The city and Taifa (emirate or petty kingdom) of Murcia were founded during the period of Moorish occupation in Spain. When the Moors occupied the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD they were able to hold their rule for 500 years. However, when the Christians conquered the area again, the Taifa of Murcia and many of its treasures gradually became lost over time and space. Nonetheless, the modern city of Murcia was built on top of old dwellings, and some fragmented remains of Moorish buildings can be seen at various points of the city today. In its essence, Murcia is a city with over a thousand years of history and some architectural unification.
The Foundation of Murcia
When the city of Murcia was the capital of the Kingdom of Murcia, it was a great city that included a huge settlement, defensive and fortified towers, and as many as nine gates on the banks of the river Segura. The city could have been called a Kingdom in its own right and it was deeply interrelated with the Moors.
The city of Murcia was established in 825 AD by the emir and Umayyad Caliph, Abd Ar-Rahman III, as a provincial capital of Cordoba. The Umayyad Caliphate claimed to be descendants or relatives of the prophet Muhammad. They were the first powerful and second of the four major Islamic Caliphates. Initially establishing their Capital in Damascus (in Syria), they were successful from 661-750 AD until they were overthrown by the Abbasids in the 8th century. Strategically, they went on to establish their rule in other regions after being exiled, including the Iberian Peninsula and parts of northern Africa.
Abd Ar-Rahman III, an Umayyad Caliph, established Murcia as a provincial capital of Cordoba. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Murcia’s Political Role
Though merely a provincial capital of Cordoba to start with, Murcia gained distinction on two separate occasions - in the 11th century after the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate, and when it gained its independence in 12th century due to Spanish Muslim turmoil with the Almoravids.
Yusuf ibn Tashfin (of the Almovarid Caliphate) controlled various Moor kingdoms in Spain and eventually went on to govern Murcia towards the end of the 11th century through the early 12th century. Murcia only gained independence once again in 1144, under Abu Jaʿfar ibn Hud, after an internal revolt against the Almoravids.
Murcia also played a major role as a negotiator between the Castilians and the Almoravids. Murcia came under the rule of the North African Almoravids again after 1168 and the Christian Castilians conserved its autonomous administrative system when they took possession of the territory in 1243, almost without quarrelling.
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Archaeological Remains in Modern Murcia
Throughout the Moorish occupation in Murcia, planners created a complex network of irrigation channels that made the city’s agricultural system very prosperous. Traveler and writer Muhammad al-Idrisi described Murcia to be “populous and strongly fortified.”
The city was thus able to enjoy the fruit of its labor and flourished splendidly. This richness spilled over into marvelous architecture. The 92 meter (301.8 feet) high Cathedral of Santa Maria is one of the most impressive structures in modern Murcia. Though it was built from the 14th to 18th centuries, there is an amalgamation of styles that also reflect Moorish occupation in Spain visible at the cathedral.
For example, the Cathedral of Santa Maria was built on the foundation of an old mosque—parts of which can still be seen in the Cathedral Museum. The recycling of existing buildings for a new purpose is a common occurrence in religion. Thus it is not surprising that throughout Murcia a number of Christian churches were built on Muslim mosques. These buildings therefore reflect different religions and peoples that occupied the Murcia.
13th Century Moorish arch. Santa Clara Museum, Murcia, Spain. (CC BY SA 3.0 )
Whilst Granada and Cordoba are renowned Moorish Kingdoms that see a plethora of visitors annually due to their architectural treasures, Murcia has been greatly overlooked. Archaeologists and historians have attempted to conserve the area in recent years, but there is still a lack of interest and financial aid due to the finds of primarily incomplete Moorish remains.
The San Esteban Site
Nevertheless, the San Esteban site (known for its housing settlement), near the Palace of San Esteban, is the greatest Moorish Murcia archaeological area to be unearthed to date. This archaeological area has also caused many arguments since it was recovered. This has been due in part to the fact that it was discovered during the construction of a parking lot in a location that severely lacked parking space.
In Murcia, the Moors used a construction style that can easily become damaged once its exposed to the elements and therefore many of the sites must be “covered and protected” or reburied if they are to be conserved.
The union Porgresso y Democracia en el Ayuntamient o de Murcia has complained about the ways in which the San Esteban site have been majorly neglected. In response, there are those who state that the remains are of very little interest to visitors and that converting some areas into a museum will add little to the tourism of the city. Without sufficient finances, there is no money to proceed with a project to protect the site correctly at the moment and arguments are raging over what to do with it.
The San Esteban archaeological site, Murcia, Spain. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
One suggestion that has been provided for the San Esteban site, to ensure “its adequate protection and to avoid the image of procrastination that is given to residents and tourists,” is to simply cover it over again - and in the location “create a green space with public amenities for the use of residents.”
Though the Ayuntamiento of Murcia has invested approximately €50,000 ($53,806) for further renovation and treatment of the archaeological ruins, the longer the site is left uncared for, the more significant the disintegration of the architectural remains will be.
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Discovery of Silver and Gold
On the other hand, archaeologists have focused their attention on preserving some of the other Moor artifacts found in Murcia. One example is evident in the treasures that were buried deep in the ruins of the old Moorish capital and rediscovered in 2012.
The department of culture showcased a large quantity of gold and silver coinage that were concealed at the center of the old quarter of the city underneath the streets. 423 pieces were found within a ceramic pot unearthed under a niche, an alhania, of a Moorish house that had been occupied during the 10th to 15th century. 347 were fragmented or intact gold coins, 76 silver coins, 2 dinars (currency in some Islamic countries), and as many as 5 pieces of gold may have been originally joined to a “jewelry ensemble.” Such Moorish treasures from Murcia are slowly being gathered and fully examined so that they can be displayed and conserved at the Monastery of Santa Clara.
Presentation of the gold and silver coins by Murcia’s department of culture in 2012. Murcia, Spain. ( Murcia Today )
According to Watson, after the Moors left Spain its history and culture was mostly “ignored,” both by the Arab world and by Europe, with the Jews who were expelled facing the same treatment. For a long period, the Moor occupation in Spain was merely demoted to exquisite “legends” in the archives of history.
The history following the Moors departure of Spain, was left and forgotten under dust and buildings that were built on top of the ancient Kingdom of Murcia. Whilst Moorish territories such as Granada and Cordoba in Andalusia may now be more popular and thus admired, with enough perseverance additional remains of the great kingdom of Murcia and its treasures will too be rediscovered, studied and chronologically organized, as a means of grabbing the public’s attention (both locally and internationally) and not forgotten in centuries to come.
Featured image: (Top L-R): San Esteban archaeological site ( CC BY SA 4.0 ), Presentation of the gold and silver coins by Murcia’s department of culture in 2012. ( Murcia Today ). Bottom (L-R): Muralla de Verónicas (12th Century Moorish Wall) ( CC BY SA 3.0 ), 12th Century Moorish Arch, ( CC BY SA 3.0 ) All are found in Murcia, Spain.
By: Gisele Santos
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