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Guide to Some of Spain’s Oldest Cities

By Julie Day

We live in a beautiful country steeped in history that dates back thousands of years. Evidence indicates that the first continuously populated urban settlement was in Greece, and was founded 7,000 years ago. However, historians and archaeologists have discovered remnants of life on the Iberian Peninsula dating back to approximately 800,000 BC.

People from many other parts of the world came to Spain and settled here. Some came peacefully, while others in battle to conquer this beautiful country and make it their own. The first wave of settlers, the Phoenicians, crossed the Mediterranean Sea and arrived in 1100 BC. It is believed that they founded Spain’s oldest continuously lived-in city – Gadir (Cádiz) – as well as many others along the coast near Malaga. Many believe that this south-western sea port is actually the oldest city in Europe.

After the Phoenicians, the Greeks came in around 600 BC and settled in the northeast of the peninsula, also preferring to populate coastal areas. The Carthaginians followed, in 228 BC, and they founded Cartagena in southeast Spain.

The Celts also invaded the Iberian Peninsula, who together with the native tribes, battled against the invading Romans around 200 BC. The Romans took over Gadir and Cartagena and established their empire across Spain. Even though the Romans were expelled in the 5th century, they still managed to develop infrastructure, farming methods and leave their mark. And didn’t they invent taxes, too?

The Visigoths came from the north, but their reign didn’t last long, and they were soon usurped by Arab and Berber tribes from Northern Africa in 711. The Moors christened Spain ‘Al Andalus’ and brought with them science, mathematics, architecture, the power and art of water and gastronomy.

It wasn’t until the 11th century that the Christian kings from the northern half of the country began to reclaim their land and started what was to become a massive holy war between Moors and Christians, which finally ended in 1492 when Granada, the last city under Muslim occupation, fell.

Over the years, since the first invaders landed on the peninsula, various tribes have established their own settlements in different locations. The following is a brief description of some of these very first continuously inhabited cities in Spain, which are amongst some of the oldest in Europe.

Cadiz

As mentioned previously, Gadir, the original name for Cadiz, was colonized and established by the Phoenicians, who were an ancient maritime population from around the Mediterranean Sea area, today comprised of Syria, northern Israel and Lebanon. Due to its location between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Cadiz flourished, becoming an important and prosperous commercial port, which it still is today.

Huelva

Huelva is perhaps a slightly less well-known modern city to the non-Spaniard. It lies in southwest Andalusia, partly along the Gulf of Cadiz coast rising up to between the Guadiana and Guadalquivir Rivers. It is thought that Huelva is the site of the settlement called Tartessus, which was known as Onoba by the Phoenicians, trading partners of the Tartessians. When the land was conquered by the Moors, it was renamed Walbah, yet in today’s modern world, the inhabitants from Huelva are known as ‘Onubenses’ in Spanish. Huelva, or Onoba, was founded more than 3,000 years ago, and its rich mineral deposits have been the main reason why so many settlers came this part of Spain to live – and exploit this wealth.

Seville

Seville was founded in the 8th century BC by the Tartessians, who are thought to have come from Huelva and the area around the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. Today Seville is renowned for its Moorish architecture, as well as being the birthplace of Flamenco and the Sevillana, and bullfighting. It is a land of colour, culture, dance and song and tourists from all over the world flock to this magical city in their millions.

Malaga

Malaga, or Malaka as it was referred to by the Phoenicians, and Malaca, during Roman times, has been one of the most important cities situated on the Mediterranean coast since its foundation in 8 BC. Today, with more than half a million inhabitants, it is the second most populated city in the region of Andalusia, and the sixth in the whole of Spain. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations with international visitors, who are mainly attracted by its idyllic location on the southern Mediterranean coast, its climate and its gastronomy.

Granada

Granada, another one of Spain’s major cities in the region of Andalusia, was founded in the 6th century BC. It has been populated by the Romans, the Visigoths, and most famously, by the Moors, who built the stunning Alhambra Palace, the symbol for the whole of the city, and the most visited historic monument in the country. Granada was the last kingdom in Spain to be reconquered by the Christians in 1492, and therefore, the one that has been most influenced by the Muslims during their 700-year reign. However, while the spectacular Moorish palace is well worth a visit, there is so much more to see and experience in Granada. Many visitors immediately fall in love with the city, situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, because of its rich culture, art, architecture, modern shops, and not forgetting its great tradition of tapa-eating, also referred to tapa-hopping. It is possible to hop from bar to bar across the city, ordering a drink and filling up on free tapas!

Roses

The less well-known holiday resort of Roses is located on the Costa Brava in the northeast of Catalonia, just 30km from the French border and 160km from Barcelona. It is an important fishing resort and tourist destination. This is another city where the year in which it was founded is in doubt. Some say that it was founded as early as the 8th century BC by Greek settlers from Rhodes, however, a greater majority believe Roses was first populated in the 5th century BC by the Greeks from Marseille.

Cartagena

When discussing the oldest cities in Spain, one cannot omit the beautiful, ancient city of Cartagena, located on the Mediterranean coast in the region of Murcia, in southeast Spain. This port city and naval base was founded by the Carthaginians, led by Hasdrubal, around 223 BC, and it was named Quart Hadas, or ‘New City’. It wasn’t long, however, before this strategic settlement was invaded by the Romans, who took the city in 209 BC and renamed it Carthago Nova. It flourished under the Romans, and also during the Muslim reign from the 8th century to the 13th century. It was the Moors that began the industry of building warships in their city, which they called ‘Cartajana’. The construction of ships eventually declined, yet today, Cartagena is an important naval base, and tourist activity thrives in the port area where many important ships and cruise liners come to dock for several days at a time. One of the most impressive sites in Cartagena is the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, which was built in 2,000 BC.

Tarragona

This settlement on the Mediterranean Costa Dorada was first occupied by the Romans, who, in 218 BC, christened it Tarraco. This was the capital of Tarraconensis, the base from which they masterminded their plan to conquer the whole of the peninsula, which practically covered the whole of modern-day Spain. The Romans were expelled by the Moors, who arrived in 714 A.D., but they too were ousted by the Christian conquerors in 1089. Today many Roman remains and ruins are still standing in Tarragona, which has been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site for its patrimonial and artistic heritage, which, as well as the numerous Roman ruins, also include the 12th-century Cathedral or the Modernist Central Market.