Category Archives: Spanish History

Spain is awash with historic cities, so what makes Toledo special?
Barcelona, SevilleGranadaCórdoba, for example, all have their historic quarters, but these are swallowed up by the modern city. 

Toledo, on the other hand, is all history with its narrow, winding, cobbled streets (that sometimes lead nowhere), steep gradients, and ancient buildings, all circumscribed by the old city walls.

Anything else?  Well, you might also hear that  “Toledo captures the essence of Spain,” or that “Toledo is the soul of Spain.” The city has been compared to Jerusalem and its landscape called biblical.  Like Jerusalem, it was a city of three religions, with Muslims (more commonly called Moors in Spanish history), Jews and Christians all adding to the mosaic that made up Toledo.

However, it is the Christian churches, monasteries and convents that now dominate, although Moorish influences are everywhere, and there are two historic synagogues. 

Overshadowing the city, and almost in the centre, is the huge Gothic cathedral, built on the site of the former Grand Mosque. Not far away (nothing is far away in old Toledo) looms another massive building, the Alcázar (fortress, now military academy).

Cross to the other side of the river Tagus, where the Parador (state-run hotel) of Toledo stands, and look back and you can see how the cathedral and the fortress dominate the skyline. They symbolize perfectly the decisive role the church and military had in shaping Spain’s history.  And Toledo was at the centre of much of that!

Toledo: View from the Parador. Cathedral to the left; Alcázar to the right.

Early History of Toledo.
Toledo stands virtually in the centre of Spain.  It is strategically situated on a rocky bluff dominating a gorge, and surrounded on all sides but the north by the fast-flowing Tagus.

The Romans captured it in 192 BC, but it was the Visigoths who launched it into prominence when they established it as their capital in middle of the 6th century.  By doing so, they located political power in the centre of the peninsula for the first time in Spanish history.  A series of church councils in Toledo from 589 also established the city as the country’s religious centre. 

This, together with Toledo’s political status, set in motion the symbiotic relationship between Church and State that has –with some exceptions in modern times—been a constant of Spanish history. 

It‘s here that we have the beginning of the myth that identifies Toledo with the “soul of Spain.”  But not all Spaniards are happy with that generalization. Many Catalans, Basques, Galicians, even Andalusians and Extremadurans equate Toledo with Castile and Castile’s historic penchant for centralization to the detriment of their cultures.

Toledo was taken by the Moors (who called it Tulaytula) in 712, but a significant number of Jews and Christians remained and enjoyed freedom to practice their religions. The Christians (Mozárabes) continued practicing their Visigothic church rites, a pre-Latin liturgy that is still celebrated today in the Capilla Mozárabe of the Cathedral.

With the collapse of Córdoba, capital of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), in 1031, Toledo enjoyed a brief period of relative independence as a small Muslim kingdom (taifa) before being reconquered by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085. As the southernmost Christian city, jutting into the heart of al-Andalus, Toledo’s strategic position made it the most important city in Christian Spain.

Its conquest meant that the centre of the peninsula was back in Christian hands for the first time since the early 8th century, and it was the return of Visigothic Spain’s capital and spiritual centre. Under Alfonso it now acquired the title of Imperial city (a designation that it has claimed ever since); he styled himself Emperor of Toledo, King of the Three Religions and as if that were not enough, Emperor of all Spain.

Christian Toledo.
The tradition of tolerance continued under Christian rule and a famous school of translators was soon formed in the city, taking advantage of the wealth of Arabic libraries and its established Jewish population, which was fluent in Arabic. Indeed, the role of the Jews was so significant at that time that Toledo was even called “the Jewish city.”

Although the Christians tolerated the Muslims and Jews who remained after the conquest, they quickly established their authority converting mosques into churches, and then adding monasteries and convents.

Toledo: The Church of Cristo de la Luz, converted mosque (under repair, 2008)

Their biggest undertaking, however, was the great Gothic Cathedral, begun in 1227.  Built on the site of the former Great Mosque, the cathedral was the definitive statement that Christianity was back to stay in the heart of the peninsula.

Other impressive buildings followed, including the late 15th–century monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, intended by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, as their burial place (they are actually buried in Granada).

Flamboyant Gothic cloisters of San Juan de los Reyes.

Charles V, their grandson and Holy Roman Emperor, made the city his main residence and rebuilt the massive Alcázar as a royal palace. A surge of building –palaces and hospitals as well as more monasteries, convents and churches– confirmed the city’s imperial status, especially appropriate now that Spain had an empire stretching across much of Europe and into the New World.

El Greco. View of Toledo.

During the 16th century, Toledo enjoyed its most prosperous period and built up an enviable reputation. 

Its swords were the best anywhere, its silk and tile industries the finest, its women the most beautiful and cultivated, its men ascetic, proud and gallant, and the Spanish spoken there the purest. 

The painter El Greco arrived in 1577 and his visions of tortured saints and his other-worldly views of Toledo have indelibly linked the city with mystical fervor.  Perhaps so, but it also had a lively red light district, and conspicuous clerical wealth and corruption to judge by the comments of 16th-century contemporaries.

Decline of Toledo.
In 1561 Toledan pride suffered a blow when Philip V named lowly Madrid (only 70 kilometers -43 miles- to the north) as capital of his empire.  Many reasons have been put forward for Philip’s decision, ranging from his dislike of the arrogance of the Toledan clergy to the tortuous narrow streets, steep gradients and cramped location that  made it unsuitable for Philip’s imperial vision.

Toledo was still a centre of intellectual activity –El Greco painted there, an Academy of Mathematics was founded in 1582 — and as late as 1619 the perceptive economist (arbitrista) Gonzalo de Cellórigo could still comment favorably on Toledo’s condition compared to other towns in the country.

But in the long run Madrid’s gain was Toledo’s loss. By 1640 Toledo had lost half its population; by the 18th the Church enjoyed a virtual monopoly with almost a quarter of the city’s population being ecclesiastics.

The 19th century brought no improvement. The French ransacked it during the Peninsular War, monasteries which had been forcibly closed in the 1830s were sold and converted to other uses, and the population dropped to about 13,000.  The city was dead, observers said, and its inhabitants buried in the past.

Toledo limped into the 20th century and remained a provincial backwater until 1936 when it suddenly hit the headlines after General Franco diverted his Nationalist forces from their advance towards Madrid during the Civil War.

Symbolically it was important that the city, indelibly linked with Spain’s Catholic soul since the times of the Visigoths, be saved from the “godless” Republicans and remain in Catholic hands.

And so, in cinema newsreels across the world, people were informed of the heroic defense of the Alcázar in the face of fierce Republican attacks and of Toledo’s salvation by the Franco Nationalists.  In 1940 the city was declared a national monument, a move that probably spared it the building atrocities that many towns suffered under the Franco regime.

Toledo Reborn.
Toledo is now the capital of the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha and, as such, has recovered some of its political lustre.  But it’s not for its political role that we go there. Toledo thrives on tourism. In 1986 it was named a World Heritage Site.

Thanks ironically in part to its easy access from Madrid, sightseers flock by day through the twisting streets visiting its national monuments, purchasing imitation swords, damascene shields, El Greco reproductions and Talavera tiles; by night Toledo recovers its silent magic, and its brilliant past is easily evoked by shadows cast in those dimly lit laneways and by the echoing footsteps of some lonely night owl.

By El Greco – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Useful English web site:

The Phoenicians (from Tyre, in southern Lebanon) were amongst the greatest Mediterranean traders from approximately 1,500 to 600 BC. Tradition has it that they founded the city of Gadir/ Cádiz in south west Spain in 1100 to exploit the natural resources in the area.  There is, however, no hard evidence to substantiate such an early date. Based on archaeological remains, the consensus now is that colonisation began around 800, when settlements were founded along the south coast of the peninsula. The most important besides Gadir, were Malacca (Málaga), Sexi (Almuñecar) and Toscanos (Vélez Málaga, in the province of Málaga).

Phoenician Trade Routes in the Mediterranean.

Under the protection of their powerful, military neighbours, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians expanded throughout the Mediterranean and beyond in search of raw materials and metals for the Middle East market. Although their voyages took them as far as Cornwall (southern England) in pursuit of tin, they found an ample supply of gold, silver, copper and iron in southern Spain.

Silver was particularly important to the Assyrians since their currency was largely based on it, and the Phoenicians were expected to provide it.  This is why the Río Tinto mines north of Huelva were so important to the Phoenicians; the area contained large deposits of silver.  While excavations show that mining in this area goes back to the early Bronze Age, the Phoenicians exploited the deposits of silver more efficiently than ever before.

Excavations of Phoenician settlements show a general lack of weapons, which suggests peaceful coexistence between the Phoenicians and the indigenous tribes. In fact, amongst the outstanding features of these Phoenician coastal towns, e.g Toscanos, are the remains of factories or foundries to create manufactured goods which were then traded with the local inhabitants. 

It is likely, too, that the Phoenicians introduced the manufacture of iron, a particularly valuable commodity, for making not only swords etc, but also agricultural tools. The art of ceramics was revolutionised by the Phoenicians with the introduction of the potter’s wheel around 700 BC, followed almost immediately by painted decoration on pottery products.

Judging from animal bones that have been excavated, beef husbandry appears to have been especially encouraged. Fish caught off the coast –especially tuna, mackerel and sturgeon– were eagerly sought after in the markets of the eastern Mediterranean.  The discovery of a high number of Phoenician amphorae also suggests the cultivation of olive oil and wine as barter goods.

The Phoenicians also discovered in the waters off the coast the murex mollusc, the source of the famed purple dye of Tyre. The value of this discovery was incalculable given that some 12.000 molluscs are required to produce only about 1.5 grams of dye.

The pre-eminence of the Phoenicians as a Mediterranean trading power collapsed after the conquest of Tyre by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar in 573 BC (the Babylonians had overthrown the Assyrians in 612 BC Collins 9).

However, their influence did not disappear entirely, because they were succeeded by the Carthaginians whose capital city, Carthage, had been founded as a Phoenician trading post about 800 BC.  After the fall of Phoenicia, Carthage soon developed a considerable trading presence of its own in the Mediterranean.

Anderson, James   Spain: 1001 Sights Calgary 1991
Blázquez, Jose María and Castillo, Arcadio del  Prehistoria y edad antigua  Madrid 1988
Collins, Roger   Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide Oxford 1998
Curchin, Leonard   Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation  London 1991
Domínguez Ortiz, Antonio ed., Historia de España: Desde la prehistoria hasta la conquista romana  Madrid 1990
Harrison, Richard   Spain at the Dawn of History,  London 1988
Map of Phoenician trade routes in the Mediterranean: By User:Rodrigo (es), User:Reedside (en), CC BY-SA 3.0,
April 26, 2022. For an interesting article on a very recent discovery of a Phoenician burial site in the town of Osuna (Andalusia), see the Guardian newspaper:

19th Century: The Peninsular War or War of Independence.

The early years of the 19th century were messy and humiliating for Spain.  The activities in 1808 of the king, Charles IV, and queen, María Luisa, their son Ferdinand, and Manuel de Godoy –prime minister of the country and the queen’s supposed lover– are the stuff of comic opera.
Goya: The family of Charles IV

But to get an idea of what happened, we have to go back to 1806 when French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, ordered a continental blockade to prevent France’s main enemy, England, from trading with European countries.  Portugal, a long-time ally of England, ignored Napoleon’s command and continued trading with the English.

In October 1807, France and Spain signed a treaty at Fontainebleau (France) to jointly attack Portugal. Spain, still smarting from the destruction of a joint Franco-Spanish fleet by the English at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, saw practical benefits in the treaty: it projected the partitioning of Portugal and its overseas territories between Spain and France.

Godoy, too, would share in the spoils. Having participated in the negotiations, he was to receive an independent principality in the Algarve (southern part of Portugal).

Goya: Manuel de Godoy

In November 1807, Napoleon’s French troops marched into Spain and on to Portugal.  Portugal was soon overrun by French and Spanish troops, but instead of returning to France, on March 9, 1808, Napoleon ordered his army commander, General Murat, to advance on Madrid. Shortly after, Charles, María Luisa, Ferdinand, and Godoy withdrew to the royal summer residence in Aranjuez. Rumour had it that Godoy was arranging for the royal family to leave Spain and flee to South America.

Prince Ferdinand, who hated Godoy, conspired to get rid of the unpopular prime minister who by now had alienated just about everyone. On March 17, peasants and soldiers, egged on by Ferdinand and the royal guard, rioted and forced Charles to have Godoy (who had hidden in a rolled-up carpet!!) arrested. But Charles himself had also lost widespread support, and continued disturbances in Aranjuez persuaded him to abdicate in favour of Ferdinand. In late March, King Ferdinand returned to Madrid to popular acclaim.

Complicated enough? There’s more! Charles, unhappy with having to abdicate, appealed to Napoleon for assistance. In April, 1808, Napoleon summoned Charles, María Luisa, and Ferdinand to meet him at Bayonne, on the French border (Godoy, rescued from captivity, also accompanied them!). There, Napoleon compelled both Charles and Ferdinand to renounce all rights to the throne. The final humiliation came when Napoleon unilaterally offered the throne to his older brother, Joseph, and kept the royal family and Godoy in France.

In Spain, reaction to what had happened in Bayonne was fast. It was clear by now that the French were no longer allies but occupiers, with French troops also moving south into Andalusia. In addition, a letter from Ferdinand, smuggled to Madrid, left little doubt that he was held captive. On May 2, 1808, a popular uprising in the capital was crushed by the French. The event was immortalised in two paintings by Goya: The Second of May, 1808, and The Third of May, 1808.

Goya: The Third of May, 1808

Spanish authorities, however, did little to support the uprising. The Council of Castile and a Junta (Assembly) that Ferdinand had left in charge while he attended Napoleon in Bayonne had strict instructions to cultivate the friendship of the French since Ferdinand sought Napoleon’s support for his position as king. In addition, in the face of superior French military power, both the Spanish army and civilian authorities felt order was wiser than insurrection.

Members of the Council advised calm even after the May 2 rebellion was brutally put down. But as news of the slaughter in Madrid spread unrest grew until finally, towards the end of May, outbreaks throughout the country signalled the beginning of widespread opposition.

These outbreaks were headed by local juntas (committees) of citizens  which initially acted very much as independent states, going so far as to declare war on the French. For example, on May 25, 1808, the General Assembly (Junta) of Asturias (an area of historical significance as a centre of resistance, e.g. against the Romans ca. 29 BC or against the Moors ca. 720 AD.) declared war against Napoleon.  It was only after these popular demonstrations against the French that the Spanish army finally rose. So began the War of Independence (or the Peninsular War).

Quite soon, the need for more cooperation saw the establishment of a larger, central representative body to govern in the king’s absence, the Junta Central. This had a chequered history and proved incapable of organising effective opposition.

Following French advances into Andalusia, the Junta Central withdrew in January 1810 to the one city that –thanks to its location, and protection offered by British troops– offered relative safety against the invaders: Cádiz. Here members of the failed Junta resigned and were replaced temporarily by a Regency of Five.

It soon became apparent, however, that a more substantial body was required to articulate the nation’s identity and safeguard its unity in the absence of its king. The vehicle for this was the Cortes, a representative body whose long history gave it legitimate authority. The Cortes met in Cádiz between 1810 and 1812. By the time it finished its deliberations, it had changed the political face of Spain for good.

The church, too, added its weight to the resistance.  Most of its members –whether secular or regular– resorted to an historical appeal: a holy crusade. Verbal cannonballs were tossed from the pulpits against the Napoleon, the new Attila, and his heretical hordes! The Spanish response was in a way a new reconquest, marking the first time since the late Middle Ages that Spaniards were forced to drive out an alien force that had taken control of most of the peninsula.

Although the occupying forces in Spain in May 1808 did not make up the elite of the French army, little was expected in opposition from Spanish soldiers. Napoleon did not even bother to accompany his troops. Nevertheless, against the odds, the Spaniards did score some small victories.

José Casado del Alisal: Spanish victory at Bailén (painted in 1864)

Then a major victory was achieved in Bailén (Andalusia) on July 19, 1808. It was the first defeat suffered by Napoleon’s armies in open battle, and the news quickly spread throughout French occupied Europe.  If the Spaniards could defeat the French, then why not other countries? Predictably, the defeat at Bailén infuriated Napoleon, who could see the implications.

There was also another threat to Napoleon. On August 17 1808, the English, fearful of total French control of the peninsula, entered into battle for the first time in the Peninsular War. Joining forces with Portuguese soldiers, they forced French troops to retreat at the Battle of Rolica and four days later from Vimeiro. By the end of August, French troops were out of Portugal.

In November 1808, Napoleon himself arrived, at the head of a large force. The Spanish and English were to be taught a lesson! The Spanish, carried away by their victory at Bailén, were blind to Napoleon’s determination and to their military inadequacies.  And British help stumbled badly when in January 1809, English forces led by Sir John Moore were forced to retreat to La Coruña (Galicia).

In the ensuing battle, Moore was killed and his soldiers forced to evacuate by sea. Seven months later, following the Battle of Talavera de la Reina (central Spain), the Duke of Wellington had to retreat to Portugal, fuming at what he considered to be total Spanish incompetence. In this both he and Napoleon were of like mind. By this time, Napoleon had returned to France to attend to problems arising in Austria.

French military superiority culminated eventually in the battle of Ocaña (east of Toledo) in September 1809. After Ocaña the Spanish army was to all intents destroyed, with some 18,000 Spaniards killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The initiative was now with France, with French troops reinforcing their occupation of Andalusia.

For the next three years, battle for the peninsula seesawed back and forth over much of Spain (the south east was the least affected).  What swung the pendulum back finally in Anglo-Portuguese-Spanish favour was Napoleon’s decision to transfer soldiers to the Russian front in mid 1812. It allowed Anglo-Portuguese troops to take the offensive again in Spain.

Victories over the weakened French in Ciudad Rodrigo in January, Badajoz in April and Salamanca in July 1812, were followed by the liberation of Madrid in August. Another victory in Vitoria (in Euskadi/ Basque Provinces) in June 1813 prompted the French to withdraw from all the peninsula except Catalonia**.

**In 1812, Napoleon had annexed Catalonia and
divided it into four departments: Ter, Montserrat,
Segre and Boques d’Ebre.

But the end was now in sight, and by the end of 1813, the War of Independence was over. At the Treaty of Valençay in December of that year, Napoleon renounced all rights on Spain; in March 1814 the man on behalf of whom the War had been fought, Ferdinand VII, El Deseado (the “Desired One”) finally returned to reclaim his throne.
A combination of factors helps explain Napoleon’s defeat in Spain: 1) the commitment of the Spanish people to rid themselves of the occupier, 2) extensive use of guerrilla warfare, 3) assistance from the English and 4) Napoleon’s decision to withdraw thousands of troops in 1812 to invade Russia.

It is unlikely that the guerrillas would have been able to defeat the French on their own. It is equally unlikely that Wellington could have conquered the enemy without the guerrillas, whose unorthodox methods –harassment, sabotage, attack and run etc.– constantly bewildered and undermined the French. The constant sabotaging in turn led to frequent starvation and disease in the French camps.

It was during the Penisular War that the
term “guerrilla” warfare (from the Spanish
guerra = “war”) entered our  idiom.

The guerrilla fighters were made up of remnants of the Spanish army –after its dispersal following the defeat at Ocaña– and groups of armed citizens, sometimes led by army officers, sometimes by local civilians (including a miller, a shepherd, a charcoal burner, bandits and in two cases, priests). Part of a widespread rural phenomenon, the guerrillas frequently fought on their own initiative.

The war was not just a war of liberation. It was also a defence of traditional Spanish values of God, King, country, church against heretical, republican France. The absent Ferdinand –still king in the public mind—was the embodiment of those traditions. To the people he was El Deseado (“The Desired One”).

Still, we should be cautious about seeing the rebels as a homogeneous group.  There were social as well as political grievances to settle. For example, some sought freedom from long held seigneurial/ feudal privileges and entitlements enjoyed by nobles over their territories. On the other hand, there were those who fought to retain those privileges and resisted the very idea of reform. Yet others attacked and pillaged monasteries and convents in pent-up anticlerical rage**.

**There was, too, a fairly substantial minority –known as afrancesados “Pro-French”—who accepted and even supported French intervention.  Their reasons were many, e.g. belief that reforms were best achieved under French guidance, fear of the dangers to social security posed by the guerrilla fighters, admiration for French sophistication etc.

But whatever the cause, the War of Independence ironically demonstrated what the people could do in the absence of strong national leadership.  In other words, the war contained seeds of a destabilising social process that would eventually lead to political parties, workers’ unions, anarchism and reawakened regionalism.

What is ironic about the War of Independence is that in fighting to safeguard tradition and  preserve the purity of Spain against heresy, it deployed the power of the people, and demonstrated what they could do in the absence of king or strong national leadership.

Its intent was conservative but the result was potentially subversive. As long as the French, the common enemy, were the target, the country was united and the danger of subversion was contained. But the subsequent instability of the 19th century shows how difficult it was to keep the subversive genie bottled once let loose.

Through its call to a crusading patriotism, the Peninsular War revived the cult of the strong leader and the long dormant idea of the medieval man of action. Guerrilla warfare also “romanticised revolution and regularised insubordination, sanctifying that preference for violent individual action that was to bedevil the politics of nineteenth-century Spain” (Carr 1, 109).

Goya: Disasters of War. At the bottom we read: Esto es peor: “This is worse.”

At the same time, the war also unleashed the baser instincts of mankind, with atrocities being committed on both sides. The horrors of unrestrained viciousness are graphically captured in Goya’s etchings The Disasters of War (mainly done between 1810 and 1814).

Goya: Ferdinand VII

Ferdinand was greeted ecstatically on his return, but he had been away for six years and monumental changes had taken place beyond the battles against Napoleon. The most fundamental was the writing of a constitution in 1812, the first in Spain’s history.

The 1812 Constitution was a liberal creation which set the stage for conflict between traditionalists and progressives throughout the 19th century. It was, together with the political and social fallout of the War of Independence, the key to Spain’s instability in the 19th century.


Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Carr, Raymond  Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966
Esdaile, Charles J. Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Gates, David  The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War Cambridge, MA 2002
Phillips, William D. and Phillips, Carla R. A Concise History of Spain Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2010
For a good chronology of the Peninsular War, see
Image of Charles IV’s family:
Image of Godoy: “Manuel Godoy Spain” by Francisco Goya:
Image of victory at Bailén:
Goya: The Disasters of War:,_con_muertos.jpg 
Image of Ferdinand VII:

The Iberians and the Celts have always posed a problem, but more so the Iberians.  Who were they?

It has been argued that they were migrating tribes who arrived in the peninsula between 3000 and 2000 BC. But where the Iberians came from and how they got there is open to dispute.

Some believe they crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from Northern Africa, others favour a European provenance, which sees them entering via the eastern end of the Pyrenees and proceeding down the Mediterranean coast.

Some suggest that –like the Tartessians– they were survivors of the lost continent of Atlantis, or that they came from America!  Some historians now propose that the Iberians may indeed have been descendants of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age people who earlier inhabited the coastal regions of Iberia.

One scholar, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, questions even the very existence of the Iberians, suggesting that there is “lack of evidence that the “Iberians” ever existed” and adding that sculptures such as the famous damas (“ladies.” See below) could have been the result of  “the interplay of eastern Mediterranean influences on indigenous culture” (201).
What seems reasonably certain is that the people first identified by the Greeks as Iberians (we do not know what they called themselves) were made up of different but related tribes whose presence stretches from the south of the peninsula and runs in an arc along the east and into the south of France.
Some scholars argue for a general division between the Iberians of the north east and those of the south west, the former being more influenced by the Greeks, the latter by the Carthaginians.

What is probably true is that what we now identify as “Iberian” reflects contact with the two trading nations to such a degree that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish any original Iberian feature. For example, the town of Ullastret to the east of Gerona (Girona in Catalan) was once thought to be Greek but is now believed to be an Iberian settlement later modified through trade by the Greeks.

What we can deduce about the Iberians is that they showed a preference for urban life and were a remarkably cultured and artistic people who liked to adorn their sculptures and vases with animals (including bulls), flowers and natural objects.

There are, too, pieces of pottery with human figures dancing or playing musical instruments or bearing arms, many with marked Hellenistic characteristics.  Hundreds of little bronze statues of soldiers, women wrapped in shawls, and figures bearing offerings in their hands can be found in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. We have numerous inscriptions on pottery, lead plates, stones and coins, but the script is not Iberian but taken from Greek or Phoenician lettering and has yet to be deciphered.

The high point of their culture is the Dama (Lady) de Elche (Dama d’Elx in Catalan) which, although probably influenced by Greek art, is a magnificent sculpture that reflects a cultured appreciation of beauty. Although likely to be a bust of a young woman, there is some thought that it may actually be of a young man.

The Dama de Elche.

Another statue discovered in a tomb near Jaén in 1971 is an equally remarkable sample of Iberian achievement. 

Called the Dama de Baza, this full length statue enthroned in a wide-winged chair looks  more like a matriarch –with her simple, rounded headdress and serenely enigmatic look– than the elegant Dama de Elche. 

From the Dama de Baza’s ears hang weighty earrings, and her neck and chest are adorned with heavily carved jewellery.  A full length robe adds to the matronly quality. Her down-turned lips suggest a tinge of sadness, perhaps even of slight disapproval. In any case, it is a more expressive face than that of her more famous companion. The reddish colour on the robe and on the chair suggests that originally the entire statue was richly painted; the same was likely the case for the Dama de Elche.

Cavities at the back of both statues now make it almost certain that these damas were in fact funerary statues which contained the ashes of the person buried in the tomb, in both of these cases probably of someone important. The normal Iberian practice for disposing of the dead was to place the cremated ashes in ordinary clay urns which were then buried in simple graves or sometimes in underground caverns.

The Iberians (and Celts) may have disappeared as identifiable groups, but in the 19th and 20th centuries historians and sociologists unearthed their ashes from the past in an effort to fit them into the history of Spain. 

They became part of the post Franco dictatorship (ended 1975) search for regional identity which led to demands that artefacts displayed in national museums be returned to their region of origin; for example, both  Elche (Valencia) and Baza (Granada) respectively reclaim their damas presently displayed at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid. It’s a fascinating story of how we attempt to make the past fit ideas of nationhood at particular times.

Anderson, James   Spain: 1001 Sights Calgary 1991
Collins, Roger  Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide Oxford 1998
Fernández-Armesto, Felipe Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past  Oxford, New York 1992
Ruiz Zapatero, Gonzalo  “Celts and Iberians” in Cultural Identity and Archeology eds Graves-Brown, P, Jones S, Gamble C, London 1996
Vincent, Mary and Stradling, R.A  Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal  Oxford 1994

Popular Greek mythology showed an early fascination with the western Mediterranean, its distance endowing it with a semi-mythical quality. It was over the straits of Gibraltar that the Greek hero Hercules raised the famous pillars that bear his name; another hero, Ulysses, was said to have founded a city in the Sierra Morena while the Trojan heroes were rumoured to have landed in the area after the fall of Troy.

The Greek historian Herodotus (5th C BC) provided the first clues about Greek visitors to Spain. According to Herodotus, the first Greek to land in Iberia (as the Greeks called the peninsula) was a sea captain, Kolaios, around the year 640 BC. 

Kolaios, from the Aegean island of Samos, was ostensibly on his way to Egypt when a storm blew his ship off-course and he landed eventually in Tartessus. Here he and his sailors were well received by the king, whose name –Arganthonius, man of the silver mountain– gives a clue to the mineral wealth of the area. 

They exchanged goods and Kolaios returned to Samos with a vast cargo of silver, the like of which had never before been brought back by any Greek ship. What remains uncertain is whether Kolaios was really bound for Egypt or whether some Phoenician rumours of great wealth in the western Mediterranean spurred him to make the journey. It could well be the latter.

These early contacts with the south west of Spain suggest an active commercial contact with the Tartessians, and Greek ceramics dug up around Huelva, Málaga and near Seville seem to confirm those interests.  Still, there is no evidence of Greek settlements, and it is possible that Greek goods found in the area were carried there by other traders dealing in Greek articles.

It is also quite possible that Greek interest in Tartessus was checked by the aggressive arrival of the Carthaginians who filled much of the area abandoned by the Phoenicians during the 6th C BC.  In addition, a treaty between the Carthaginians and the Romans towards the end of the 6th C carved up large areas of commercial influence between them. In that treaty, Tartessus was reserved for the Carthaginians and the Greeks were excluded.

Greek commercial expansion, however, did find an opening along the north eastern coast of the peninsula. As early as 600 BC, Corinthian traders had established a major colony at Massalia (Marseilles) in the south of France, and about 25 years later an offshoot was founded at Emporion (Ampurias, Catalan Empúries, on the coast, north east of Gerona).

Although Emporion was never to acquire the status of Massalia, it became the principal commercial settlement for all the north east, and Greece’s major town in the peninsula.  A small settlement called Rhodes (Rosas) across the bay from Emporium played a similar trading role.

Empúries. Ampurias near Gerona.

Like the Phoenicians, the Greeks did not penetrate far inland, but neither did they sail much beyond the straits of Gibraltar, possibly put off by tales the Phoenicians brought back of thick mud, choking weeds and sea monsters. And again, like the Phoenicians, the Greeks did not mingle much with the Iberians who inhabited the Mediterranean coast.  

On the contrary, the ancient plans of the city of Emporion reveal a wall that divided the Greek district (which extended inland for about 1000 feet) from the native section. Only one gate opened from the wall and this was guarded around the clock.

It’s difficult to calculate the influence that the Greeks had on Iberian culture. From what we know of the Iberians from vases and pieces of pottery, they appear to have enjoyed a sophisticated appreciation of beauty.  But there is some similarity with Greek artefacts so that the line is not always clear.

The two most famous pieces that we have of Iberian art are two funerary sculptures, the Dama (Lady) de Elche and the Dama (Lady) de Baza, but both are said to have pronounced Hellenistic features.

It is inevitable, given the years of trading between the Greeks and Iberians, that the Greeks would have left some evidence of their presence. These are mainly in the form of artefacts such as jewellery (earrings, necklaces, combs, rings), other personal effects (glass objects, drinking cups, little clay figures) and household goods (pottery, ceramics, pitchers, vases).  Many of these are found in cemeteries adorning the dead or presumably seen as accompaniments for the deceased in their passage to the next life.

We do not know what the Iberians called themselves and the land they lived in. It is to the Greeks that we owe the name Iberia, which at first seemed to refer to the east coast and later to the whole peninsula; hence Iberian peninsula. 

Some argue that the name “Iberia” derives from a possible Iberian word “iber” meaning “river”; others say it is related to the Basque word “ibar” meaning “valley.”  Just to complicate matters, the Greeks also gave the name ‘Iberia” to an area east of the Black Sea, roughly modern Georgia. Again, the origin of the name is disputed.

Anderson, James   Spain: 1001 Sights Calgary 1991
Collins, Roger  Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide Oxford  1998
Domínguez Ortiz, Antonio ed., Historia de España: Desde la prehistoria hasta la conquista romana  Madrid 1990
Harrison, Richard  Spain at the Dawn of History  London 1988
Ruiz Zapatero, Gonzalo  “Celts and Iberians” in Cultural Identity and Archeology eds Graves-Brown, P, Jones S, Gamble C, London 1996
Vincent, Mary and Stradling, R.A  Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal Andromeda Oxford Ltd, 1994
Image of Empúries/ Ampurias:

Picking our way through the history of our earliest predecessors, including those who roamed the Iberian Peninsula, is a search through the scattered skeletons of prehistoric times.

We depend on the evidence of bone fragments, which together with primitive flint tools and animal fossils, give tantalising glimpses of what earth’s earliest hominid forms may have looked like and how they may have survived.

They appear to have been nomadic, probably hunters who sought refuge in caves or any protected retreat.  There are plenty of conjectures, but theories about these early hominids are constantly undergoing modifications as new finds challenge earlier ideas.

Although early hominids contributed little concrete to the development of Spanish cultural history, their existence feeds universal curiosity. They predate modern humans –homo sapiens– by hundreds of thousands of years, but archaeological finds constantly remind us of their presence, and our need to know and to look for links or patterns with our past is deep-rooted within us.

We’ll move quickly through the earliest periods, pausing only at the most notable features: the Palaeolithic Age 2.5 million years – 10,000 years ago (Earliest inhabitants, Neanderthal man and homo sapiens, Cave paintings: Altamira, La Pileta), the Mesolithic Age** 10.000 – 3.000 BC (Dolmens, i.e. burial chambers, Rock face paintings), Neolithic Age 5,000 – 2,500 years ago, the Copper or Chalcolithic Age 2500-1700 BC (More dolmens), and finally the Bronze Age 2000-700 BC. [** We have nothing written about the Mesolithic Age, but for those interested there is a very interesting article with good photos about a recent discovery near Huelva in south west Spain:]

By around 700 BC we have the testimony of trading cultures from the eastern Mediterranean that native communities existed in the Iberian Peninsula. These communities left no written records so we don’t know what they called themselves or what they thought of the newcomers.

What we do know of them comes to us through the prism of the new arrivals.  The Phoenicians were the first to arrive, establishing their outposts along the southern coast. Their main trading partner was Tartessus, a territory or possibly kingdom which has acquired mythical status because its exact location has still to be determined. 

The Phoenicians were followed by the Greeks who settled in the north east in an arc running from approximately Valencia to Marseille, in France. Later came traders from Carthage, the North African city founded by the Phoenicians but now flexing its own muscle and dominating the Phoenician settlements along the south coast.

Evidence of commercial activities along the coastline is provided by archaeological artefacts: agricultural tools, amphoras and so on. But with whom was the trading activity carried on besides the Tartessians?  The Greeks, for example, certainly had limited contact with them because of the Phoenicians. 

The main trading partners of the Greeks were, in fact, a tribal group known as the Iberians who had settled along the Mediterranean coast and inland (there are those who feel the Tartessians might, indeed, be an Iberian tribe). 

And further inland and running along the north coast other tribal groups, the Celts, had established themselves.  Some historians believe that, somewhere in the middle of the peninsula, a possible commingling of both Celts and Iberians produced the Celtiberians, a hybrid culture.

The impact of these early traders on the development of Spanish culture is limited, certainly in comparison with the next arrivals whose appearance was prompted not by trade but by war.

The Romans came because of Carthage, their bitter rival and enemy.  They came, they saw, and they conquered, not only Carthage but in time the entire peninsula (with the exception perhaps of the Basques). They remained for some 600 years, a time during which they changed the course of Iberia’s history and established the founding blocks of the many modern communities within the peninsula.

Although there is uncertainty regarding the origins of the Iberians, there is agreement that another significant group, the Celts, formed part of a general European migratory phenomenon which, in Spain, is marked by two waves, the first traditionally placed around 900 BC and the second around 700-600 BC. 

Recent investigations, however, tend to identify the early arrivals as Indo-European tribes and argue for a process of infiltration over an extended period, from around 1000 to 300 BC, rather than invasions.

The first arrivals appear to have established themselves in Catalonia, having probably entered via the eastern passages of the Pyrenees. Later groups (more identifiably Celtic) ventured west through the Pyrenees to occupy the northern coast of the peninsula, and south beyond the Ebro and Duero basins as far as the Tagus valley. Why the Celts did not continue down the Mediterranean coast is not known, but probably the strong Iberian presence was an inhibiting factor.

What happened along common borders is conjecture. Some believe that the Celtic and Iberian tribes mingled and formed a separate culture, especially in the vicinity of the Middle Ebro, the basin of the Duero and the eastern Meseta as far as the upper Tagus. 

Others argue that tribal identity was so strong that they would have remained apart.  The Romans simply identified them all as Celtiberians, and the name has since been used as a convenient way of describing the confusing medley of tribal groups that inhabited the hinterland.

Two settlements that have been identified as Celtiberian by proponents of a fused culture are Cabezo de Alcalá (near the village of Azaila, Aragón), and Castro de la Coronilla (near Molina de Aragón, Aragón).

According to Roman sources, the Celts were a warlike people, fiercely independent and courageous in battle, if somewhat lacking in discipline. Despite tribal rivalry amongst themselves –and there is a long list of tribes, e.g. Lusitanians, Cantabrians, Asturians, Carpethans, Arevaccans etc.–  they proved a handful to the highly trained Roman legions. 

In war, they favoured guerrilla tactics, moving swiftly on horseback or adopting hit-and-run action according to the terrain. To facilitate speed, they bore small round shields and armed themselves with short double-edged swords, bows and arrows, double-bladed axes and javelins. Those killed in battle were left on the field to the vultures and other carrion birds which, apparently, would transport their souls to heaven.

Celtic lore, even nowadays, is full of magic and mystery, with a strong bond to nature. Like other European Celtic tribes, those of Spain revered the sun and the moon, and attached great significance to forests, rivers, wells, and mountains.

The oak tree was particularly venerated (still a common feature in most Celtic societies), and worship was carried out in natural sites or clearings rather than temples.  In Galicia, many still believe in the power of witches and druids, in the transmigration of souls and in animals with special powers. They practice rituals similar to those in parts of the British Isles and Brittany.

The Celts were pastoral by nature. The Greek geographer and historian Strabo (ca 64 BC- ca 23 AD), describes them as eating goat’s meat and ham, and butter rather than olive oil. Largely spurning urban niceties, they left little that reveals their presence, especially in the interior, although the original sites of some Celtic settlements may be identified by the ending -briga

What does remain is to be found in the north west of the peninsula, especially in Galicia and Asturias. 

Celtic palloza in O Cebreiro.

Here archaeological digs and reconstruction show that the Celts built their villages on hills for strategic defence, and that the houses were circular with low stone walls and conical, thatched roofs of straw and broom; there were probably no windows.  The buildings –arranged somewhat haphazardly– housed both family and animals. These are common features of Celtic style in other Celtic lands: Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, or Brittany for example.

Ruins of Celtic castro or village. Wikipedia.

Modern day pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia can get a good feel for a Celtic village when stopping at the hamlet of O Cebreiro. 

A kind of time warp exists on this windy hilltop pass where a number of restored  circular Celtic dwellings –called pallozas– evoke a distant time, especially when the mists and rains –so common in this area– are swirling around.

Relatively little remains to show the artistic side of the Celts.  Simple clay pottery is widespread and we know they practised metalwork, and probably introduced ironwork in the north at about the same time that the Phoenicians spread it in the south (i.e. the 8th century).

In the centre of the peninsula, in the vicinity of Avila, there are a series of heavy, granite animals called the toros (bulls) de Guisando, generally attributed to the Celts (although there are also those who favour an Iberian source). A lesser known example can also be seen further west in Ciudad Rodrigo, earlier known as Miróbriga. The shapes of these animals, however, are so amorphous that they have also been viewed as pigs, an identification that would not be amiss, given that pork was a favoured meat of the Celts and lard was widely used.

Toros de Guisando:  Wikimedia

Celtic Spain is now almost exclusively reduced to Galicia.  It may come as a surprise to visitors that many Galicians are fair-skinned and that the green, mist-laden, hilly countryside is reminiscent of Ireland or Scotland. 

And they may be forgiven if they think they have landed in the Scottish Highlands if they hear the swirl  of the bagpipes –the gaitas, Galicia’s native instrument– or witness the jig that often accompanies them.  They may also be lucky enough to be present at dusk when a genuine queimada –a traditional fiery brew– is being prepared to ward off the winter chills.  Accompanied by the wails of the bagpipes, a bruxo or sorcerer dressed in skins and wearing a horned helmet will call on the powers of heaven and earth and the spirits of the sea and fire as he stirs and ladles the flaming, potent drink. The witches of MacBeth would be at home here!

Collins, Roger  Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide Oxford, 1998
Santos Yanguas, Juan  Los pueblos de la España antigua Madrid, 1989
Trutter, Marion ed.  Culinaria Spain Cologne 1999
Vincent, Mary and Stradling, R.A  Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal Abington Oxfordshire, 1994
For an interesting article on the stone bulls/pigs, see,and type “toros de guisando” in the Search Box.
Image of Celtic castro:
Click here for the significance of the Celts (and Iberians) in 19th and 20th century Spain.
A useful general survey of the Celts in Europe  can be found in
An interesting article on Galicia’s relationship with other Celtic nations can be found at:

Carthage was founded as a North African trading outpost by the Phoenicians about 800 BC.  Located on a peninsula close to present day Tunis, Carthage rose to prominence following the fall of Phoenicia in 575 BC. Soon the Carthaginians established colonies along the south coast of Spain, the north coast of Africa, and in Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balearic island of Ibiza.

For about three centuries the interests of the Carthaginians was restricted to trade in the same goods that had been the hallmark of Phoenician activity: silver, salt, fish, olive oil and wine.
The situation changed dramatically and assumed a much more militaristic tone after Carthage’s defeat at the hands of Rome in the first of the Punic Wars, 265-241 BC. Carthage not only lost Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, but was also encumbered by having to pay Rome financial compensation.
The clash between the two rivals was inevitable in view of the expansionist mood of the Romans. Three earlier treaties between the two nations (348, 306 and 279 BC) had intended to establish their spheres of influence in a civilised manner. But the presence of Carthage in Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, and its influence along the eastern coast of Spain threatened to abort Roman progress in the Mediterranean.

After the loss of Sicily and, shortly after, of Sardinia and Corsica , Carthage called on its most experienced general, Hamilcar Barca, to establish a military presence in Spain to compensate for those humiliating losses.

Accompanied by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, and his son Hannibal, Hamilcar landed at Gadir (Cádiz) in 237 BC.  Immediately the centuries of commercial exchange were transformed into military occupation, as Hamilcar ruthlessly subjugated the coastal and inland towns. Spanish silver was now used to pay for soldiers and mercenaries, and conquest of local tribes signified a rebuilding of Carthage’s power in preparation for another confrontation with the Romans.

Hamilcar’s ambitions ended in the winter of 229-28 when he drowned as he fled a counterattack. He was succeeded by Hasdrubal who promptly founded a new naval base and capital at Cartago Nova (Cartagena), and set about moving inland. Such blatant expansionism alarmed the Romans who negotiated a treaty with Hasdrubal in 226 BC, limiting Carthaginian activities to the south of the River Ebro.  Hasdrubal’s plans came to a violent end when he was assassinated in 221 BC and command passed to the most famous of Carthaginian leaders, Hannibal.

Only 25 years old and apparently indoctrinated by his father to hate the Romans, Hannibal quickly moved to bring as much of the peninsula under his control as possible, advancing inland as far as Salamanca. 

Nevertheless, the real trigger that was to unleash the Second Punic War was the siege and conquest of Sagunto 219-18 BC. Although Sagunto was situated south of the Ebro and technically under Carthaginian command, it had placed itself under Roman protection sometime between 225 and 220.

An attack on Sagunto was, therefore, a sign that Hannibal was ready to confront Rome directly. Only after the fall of the city, following a siege of some 8 months, did Rome declare war on Carthage, by which time Hannibal’s plans to cross the Ebro and invade Italy via the Alps were well under way.

Rome’s reaction following the fall of Sagunto was immediate.  At the same time that Hannibal was crossing the Alps, Roman soldiers landed near Emporion (Ampurias, Catalan Empúries), north east of Gerona (Girona) thereby cutting Hannibal’s line of communications before moving down the Mediterranean coast. The struggle for Iberia lasted some 12 years (218-206 BC).

The Romans claimed to come as liberators, but local tribes fought on both sides. By 209 the Carthaginian stronghold of Cartagena had fallen and three years later Gadir (Cádiz) was in Roman hands.  Carthage was now finished in Iberia, but the Romans, ever suspicious of their long time rivals, were bent on completing the job.

With the defeat of its armies in Italy and Iberia, the city of Carthage itself was exposed; it did not take long for the Roman legions to land on the north shores of Africa and defeat Hannibal who had returned to North Africa. Hannibal was exiled and shortly after committed suicide.

By 201 the Second Punic War was over and the power of Carthage was no more.  That was not the end of the story.   The Romans, needled constantly by the senator Cato the Elder (who apparently ended every debate regardless of its subject with the words Delenda est Carthago “Carthage must fall”) finally besieged the city and razed it to the ground.

With the Carthaginians gone, a new and significant chapter in the history of Iberia was about to begin. The Romans had come, and seen, and decided to stay!

Anderson, James   Spain: 1001 Sights Calgary 1991
Collins, Roger   Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide Oxford 1998
Curchin, Leonard   Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation  London 1991
Domínguez Ortiz, Antonio ed., Historia de España: Desde la prehistoria hasta la conquista romana  Madrid1990
Harrison, Richard   Spain at the Dawn of History,  London 1988

Vincent, Mary and Stradling, R.A   Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal Abbington, Oxford 1994

The name Tartessus (sometimes Tartessos) has long been surrounded by myth.  It is associated with the south west of Spain, and is likely to have been a kingdom. Nevertheless, different sources have referred to it as a city, a mountain, even a river –the Guadalquivir.

It is said to be buried under the Coto Doñana (the combined marshlands and dunes at the mouth of the Guadalquivir that are now protected as a National Park), others claim it is under Seville… or Huelva and so on.

There is consensus that it existed somewhere in the area between Huelva, Cádiz and Seville, but who the inhabitants were we do not know.  They may have been descendants of the Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants, but it has also been argued that they were survivors of the mythical empire of Atlantis.

A recent thesis proposes a link with the Basques, an argument based on perceived similarities between the Basque language and early transcriptions found on stone, lead and bronze artefacts. This controversial thesis has provoked heated debate to say the least.

What does appear certain is that there existed a civilisation in the south west of the peninsula that enjoyed reasonably friendly trading relations with the Phoenicians, the earliest of the Mediterranean trading nations to appear on the shores of Iberia.

The origins of Tartessus are as elusive as its location. First, a Greek myth tells us that the founding ruler of Tartessus was the three-headed, three-bodied king, Geryon.  Although Geryon was a peaceful king who tended his oxen on the banks of the Guadalquivir, he was killed by Hercules as part of the latter’s twelve labours.

A different myth informs us that Tartessus was established by King Gargoris whose incestuous relationship with a daughter produced a son, Habis. Habis was abandoned in the wild and raised by wild animals. He was later recognised by his father and went on to become an enlightened monarch. He “discovered” agriculture by tying oxen to a plough, introduced laws and divided society into seven social classes.  He did not, however, permit the nobles to work!

The first historical reference to Tartessus comes from the Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) who describes the cordial trading relations between Greece and Tartessus, and in particular to the generosity of their king, Arganthonius who, apparently, lived for 120 years (and ruled for 80)!

The Greek tales of a kingdom blessed with fabulous wealth in the western Mediterranean appear to be corroborated too by biblical references. There are several mentions in the Old Testament of the city of Tarshish which, it has been argued, is the Aramaic form of Tartessus.

Although there is no unanimity in the identification, the reference for example in Ezekiel xxvii, 12, to the Phoenician city of Tyre receiving silver, iron, lead and tin from Tarshish suggests that Tartessus and Tarshish were one and the same.

The south western part of the Iberian Peninsula was enormously rich in minerals, and Ezekiel’s reference reflects a common association of the metal with the western Mediterranean.  (Tin came primarily from Cornwall in the British Isles, and was brought back by the Phoenicians; it was combined with copper, abundant in south west Spain, to produce bronze. The Rio Tinto mine just north of Huelva was first worked by the Phoenicians and still produces copper. It is reputed to be the oldest mine in the world.)

Coincidentally, there is a town named Tharsis 50 kilometres north of Huelva; the “th” combination, however, is a linguistic curiosity and alien to the Spanish language. A possible explanation is the influence of British mining concerns which owned the giant Rio Tinto Company with mines between Huelva and Tharsis in the 19th century.

Ironically, where mining activities have been long established, we might expect some certainty about those who live in such areas.  But in the case of Tartessus we have little more than a name, although continuing archaeological digs may yet unearth solid evidence that will allow us to identity this mysterious kingdom. 

An article in the Spanish newspaper El País on May 6, 2007, offers the tantalising possibility that Tartessus may indeed lie beneath an area of the Coto Doñana known as the Marisma (Marsh) de Hinojo. Aerial and satellite photos taken some years ago revealed unusual circular and rectangular forms beneath the marsh. In 2003 and 2004 German scientists speculated that these forms might pinpoint the lost civilisation of Tartessus or even possibly Atlantis. 

The problem was that it was assumed that the Coto Doñana had always been covered with water (although some areas do dry out during the summer).  Now, however, scientists from the research institute CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) in Madrid and from the University of Huelva have reported –based on large amounts of sand in the subsoil where there should only be clay— that the unusual forms visible from the air could indeed be the ruins of a buried city. 

If it is a city, then it was likely buried by a devastating tidal wave (tsunami), not at all impossible since there is evidence of huge tidal activity in the area in 1500 BC and in the 2nd century AD. What is surprising, if such devastation did occur, is that no record has come down to us.

Tartessus and the 20th century.
Since the decentralisation of Spain following the death of Franco in 1975, there has been much interest amongst Andalusians in their roots, similar to what has happened in the other autonomous communities. Not surprisingly, Tartessus has attracted attention.

In 1983 the Andalusian dramatist Miguel Romero Esteo published a verse play, Tartessos, which he describes as an epic poem dealing with the “protohistory” of Andalusia. He even includes fragments of supposedly Tartessian language. The play received the Premio Europa in Strasbourg in 1985.  In 2002 Romero returned to the theme with a book Tartessos y Europa (Tartessus and Europe).

Probably more appealing to readers is the recent and highly successful comic series Tartessos.  The first album appeared in 2005 with the title La ruta del estaño (The Tin Route). It deals with the rivalry between the Tartessians and the evil Arkabala, the high priest of the Temple of Hercules in the Phoenician city of Gadir (Cádiz), for control of the tin route to las islas Casitérides (the British Isles.) Control of this precious metal which the Tartessians combined with copper to produces bronze, allows the Tartessians to live in great comfort. 

The basis of the trade is a long standing agreement between the Tartessians and the Celts from the British Isles, but it was now due to be reconfirmed. Arkabala, however, has other ideas! A second album, La espada de Crisaor (The Sword of Crisaor) appeared in May, 2006.  Not surprisingly, given the general tenor of the plot, Tartessos has been compared to the famous French series, Asterix of Gaul.

May 16, 2019: For the latest about Tartessus, see an article in English in the newspaper, El País:

Anderson, James   Spain: 1001 Sights Calgary 1991
El Mundo (Newspaper) Feb 28 1996
Jacobs, Michael  A Guide to Andalusia London 1990

THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR: War Breaks Out. Overview.

Salvador Dalí: Construcción blanda con judías hervidas. Premonición de la guerra civil (“Soft Construction with boiled beans. Premonition of the Civil War”).

The Spanish Civil War was a tragic tearing apart of a society where civil discourse had failed and given way to violence. The war lasted from July 1936 to April 1939. It was initiated by a rebellious group of disaffected army generals frustrated by what they saw as the failure of Spain’s Second Republic, 1931-36.

After the election of a left-wing government in February 1936, Spain entered a period of extreme volatility and discontent. The Cortes (Parliament) was subject to polarizing language full of threats and accusations.

The social dissatisfaction of the left was channeled into strikes, churches were burnt and there were threats of revolution. The right responded with its own creed of violence with gangs wearing paramilitary uniforms cruising Madrid on the lookout for the enemy.

The military followed the events closely and with great unease. Although there were members loyal to the Republic it was no secret that many of the most powerful figures were more than uneasy with the disorder and fragmentation of the country, and some had begun to sound out the possibilities of a coup as soon as the results of the February elections were known.

Most of the hardliners were dispatched to minor posts to neutralize their influence. Even so, this did not prevent collaboration and it only required an incident to galvanise the disaffected generals into action. The trigger was pulled on the night of July 12, with the murder of Calvo Sotelo, the leader of the Bloque Nacional a militant, authoritarian, monarchist party.

The shocking circumstances of the murder — Calvo was shot in the back of the head between two policemen in a government car— convinced the leading hardliners, headed by Generals Mola and Franco, that it was time for action.

On the evening of July 17th, rebel soldiers in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco (aka the Rif) –fearing that loyalist troops were about to arrest them– seized control of their garrisons in Ceuta, Melilla and Tetuan. Early next day, Franco declared a state of war and that afternoon took a chartered plane  from the Canaries to Tetuan. The objective at this point was Madrid. In the north, General Emilio Mola (who coined the phrase “fifth column”) headed the northern army, with the same objective as Franco: Madrid. There was no turning back.

By July 19th, several garrisons on the mainland had also fallen to the insurgents. In Andalusia, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano –head of the frontier police– arrived at Seville on July 17th ostensibly on an inspection tour of the city’s customs offices.

On the following day, the general –a former pro-Republican– supported by only some 200 rebels audaciously took over the garrison at gun point.  He then terrorised the working class by “recycling” his soldiers in rapid and brutal machine gun raids into various quarters of the city, which gave the impression of widespread attacks by a large military contingent.

Queipo followed this with perhaps the first effective radio campaign of terror, in which he conjured obscene images of what his Moroccan mercenaries would do to republican women if there was any resistance. Within a few days other major southern cities –Córdoba, Granada, Cádiz, Huelva– fell, following swift and ferocious attacks on working class quarters.

In the rural areas, however, where resentment was deeper and opposition fiercer and initially harder to pin down, the peasants quickly collectivised the land and prepared to defend it. The cities of western Andalusia (with the exception of Málaga) were firmly controlled by the rebels but the rural areas were dangerous territory for them.

In the conservative north the uprising encountered little opposition, except along a coastal fringe from Asturias to the Basque Provinces (Euskadi). Here, the rural areas supported the insurgents and in the ancient ecclesiastical cities of Old Castile –Burgos, Salamanca, León, Avila and Segovia—anti-republican hostility ensured enthusiastic support for the rebels.

In Carlist** Navarre, General Emilio Mola enjoyed widespread support and the streets of Pamplona rang to the joyful cries of Viva Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King!). There was brief union resistance in Valladolid and Zaragoza, and some heavy fighting in the larger towns of Galicia, but republican support was quickly and brutally crushed.

**Carlists: conservative supporters of the claims to the throne of the descendants of the 19th-century pretender, Don Carlos de Borbón. Don Carlos was excluded from succession after the death of King Ferdinand VII in 1833 in favour of Ferdinand’s three-year old daughter, Isabella (II).

By the end of July, some clear patterns were emerging from the attempted coup. For example, it was evident that a country-wide uprising had failed. Only a minority of the military high command and just over a half of the regular officers actually joined the coup.

The navy (and much of the small air force) remained loyal to the Republic. Equally important, the well-armed Assault Guards and the Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) had split their allegiance. Where they joined the insurgents as, for example, in western Andalusia or Galicia, the government lost; where they remained loyal, the government generally prevailed.

At this point, the rebels controlled about one third of the country, primarily those northern, central and western areas with an historical affiliation to the church and a vision of a unified country: Old Castile, León, Aragón, Galicia, northern Extremadura.

Civil War Map: September 1936.
The failure to achieve a rapid, country-wide coup had the makings of an embarrassing military bungle. What saved it was the arrival of Franco’s army of legionnaires and Moroccan mercenaries (aka the Army of Africa), which had been isolated on northern Morocco by a navy blockade of the Straits of Gibraltar.

Given the insurgents’ lack of naval power, the answer to the blockade was an airlift, but Franco had hardly any planes available to transport over 40.000 troops gathered in Morocco. The solution was found elsewhere, beyond Spain’s borders. Appeals were made to the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for assistance, giving the conflict an international dimension. Both Hitler and Mussolini agreed, calculating that Europe’s other powers, Britain and France, were unlikely to intervene and that a right wing power at the doors of the Mediterranean would be a useful ally.

On July 28th, Mussolini sent 12 bombers and 2 merchant ships (only 9 of the planes made it, with 3 crashing en route!). A day later, Hitler dispatched 20 transport planes, 6 fighter planes, pilots, and a supply of machine guns. It was the first step in foreign aid that would help transform a botched coup into a prolonged civil war.
In the first week of August, 1936, the first major airlift of men and equipment in history — some 20.000 soldiers– was under way. This was followed by a breach of the blockade off Gibraltar, allowing the rest of the African army to cross by boat.

The whole manoeuvre was a psychological boost for the insurgents, while news of the landing of the ferocious legionnaires (whose anthem was Los novios de la muerte “The bridegrooms of Death”) and the equally bloodthirsty Moroccan mercenaries sowed fear amongst republican supporters. By August 7, Franco was installed in Seville. The war was about to heat up.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd. ed. 2009
Carr, Raymond Spain 1808-1939  Oxford 1966
Casanova Julián & Andrés, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014
Ellwood, Sheelagh  Franco  London and New York: 1994
Hodges, Gabrielle Ashford Franco: A Concise Biography London 2000
Jackson, Gabriel A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1974
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
Salvador Dalí’s painting from
Map: “Map of the Spanish Civil War in September 1936” by NordNordWest, modifications by user:Sting, Grandiose (talk) – File:Iberian Peninsula location map.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – Civil War map