A Brief History of Alcalá

(a) Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Moors and Christians 
[This section is mainly taken from a very comprehensive history of Alcalá written by Bob Lloyd - read the full version here]
The site was first settled by the Romans around 189 AD, when it was known as Lascuta, and a bronze plaque from that period is now in the Louvre.  The Romans farmed the area and built a couple of water storage tanks to take advantage of a spring in the hillside. You can see the remains of a Roman bridge over the Rio Barbate, on the road to Paterna.


They were followed in 409 AD by the Vandals, but there wasn't much to vandalise and they left 20 years later.  The Visigoths came next, a Germanic tribe who peacefully occupied most of the Iberian Peninsular - or Hispania as it was then known - until the Moorish invasion of 711, when they were defeated at the Battle of Guadelete just down the road by the Straits of Gibraltar. They used Alcalá as a frontier post, bequeathing it with some impressive watchtowers such as the Mesa del Esparragal.


The arrival of the Moors in 711 signalled changes for Alcalá, as for all of Spain. The population 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, including all words those beginning with "al".

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.

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 Andalucía was a contested area, defended by fortifications and frontier lines against armies employed when political intrigue failed.

A line running north-south from Arcos de la Frontera down to Tarifa was frequently the fault-line between competing Arab dynasties. Alcalá stood on that line. During the 11th century it was part of the Kingdom of Seville, but during the 12th it was variously part of the Kingdoms of Jerez and of Arcos, and at times Alcalá stayed independent.

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. It was Alfonso who gave the town its current name.

When Alfonso X died in 1284, Alcalá was attacked and devastated by the Benimerines, yet another Berber dynasty from North Africa. It changed hands many times until  in 1427 it 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, although land disputes continued to plague the area, with disputed boundaries and contests for ownership. Alcalá had possibly the longest running land dispute in Andalucía – it lasted from 1503 until it was finally resolved in 1931, a mere 428 years! It concerned the founding of Paterna de Rivera and the pasture lands needed to support it.

In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (Henry XIII's first set of in-laws) finally completed the Christian reconquest of Spain at Granada.  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 Andalucía.  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 1609-10.

As the Christians took control of Andalucía, 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.

Most of Alcalá's 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 castle and the fortifications of La Coracha fell into disrepair, with much of the stone being re-used elsewhere.  But the maze of streets and alleys in the old town, built to fit the topography of the hill, still bear testament to that era.  In the mid 20th century children still played "Moors and Christians" in the unofficial adventure playground provided by the old  walls.


The 16th century for Alcalá was grim. In 1507 plague hit Andalucía, and returned with a vengeance in 1521 killing over 50,000 people. African plague hit in 1564, followed by 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 Spanish colonies in the Americas.

The 17th and 18th centuries weren't much better.  All the bounty from the Spanish Empire was being squandered by the nobility, who were financing lavish expenditure and debts in Europe, and they turned to the countryside for more wealth.  Andalucía 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 had turned on the Jesuits, expropriating their land and property and distributing it amongst themselves.

(b) Napoleon, Anarchists, Socialists, Fascists and Tourists
From 1808 till 1814 Spain was occupied by Napoleon's troops and undertook a fierce War of Independence.  In 1809 a mounted militia from Alcalá made a successful attack on the French, but a year later General Manbourg's troops took revenge by cutting the throats of the entire population and blowing up the castle.

The town managed to recover though, for in 1876 Alcalá was granted City status in recognition of its progress in trade and industry.  It was a major producer of charcoal, or carbón vegetal, used  for cooking and heating and exported to the ports of Algeciras and Cádiz for use in steamships.  In 1906 it had its first electric streetlights, powered by watermills at Patriste (near where the campsite is today).


The predominant source of employment in Alcalá however was agriculture.  Land was worked under the latifundio system - large estates of privately-owned land, many formerly owned by the Church but sold off in the 19th Century under the secularization programme known as desamortización.  Landless labourers were hired by the day for specific seasonal campaigns such as sowing or ploughing.  This meant that at certain times of the year, or in periods of bad weather, people had no income and relied on mutual support. Even when wages were paid, they were barely enough to feed a family.

The anarchist movement which spread across Spain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was based on the ideas of Bakunin and propagated by Guiseppi Fanelli.  It urged oppressed workers to unite and organize against their oppressors, namely the State, the latifundista landowners, and the Church.  It quickly took a hold amongst the long-exploited agricultural workers in Andalucía, who joined the CNT union or the more radical FAI and had some limited success in improving wages and working conditions.  The establishment´s attempts to stamp out such revolutionary zeal in the area came to a tragic head in 1933 at Casas Viejas, now Benalup-Casas Viejas, a few miles from Alcalá.  A small group of militants trying to resist arrest after a failed uprising barricaded themselves in a cottage, which was burned down with the anarchists and their families still inside. Soldiers and police then grabbed anyone in the village who possessed a gun, marched them to the smoking ashes of the cottage and their dead colleagues, and shot them in the back.

The declaration of the 1931 Constitution under Spain´s Second Republic brought a brief period of optimism for Spain's long-suffering working class.  It established freedom of speech and association, votes for women, allowed divorce, and promised to release education from the control of the Catholic church and redistribute land  from the absentee landowners to the people who actually worked it.  But in July 1936 a coup led by a group of Generals, including Francisco Franco, started one of the bloodiest Civil Wars in Europe´s history, ending in 1939 when Franco established a fascist dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975.  Alcalá was taken over by the Nationalists very early in the war.  Hundreds of local citizens who supported the Republic, including the Mayor, were shot or imprisoned, and many more took refuge in the mountains or left the area altogether.


The years following the Civil War, known as the Posguerra, were long and hard for Alcalá.  Basic goods, food and medicine were in short supply, and much of the land went untended, neglected by absentee landowners.  The practice of gathering free food from the land  - edible thistles, wild asparagus, rabbits, snails, berries - was never so crucial as at that time.  The black economy flourished and Alcalá was a key staging post on the smugglers´route from Gibraltar and Algeciras up into the Sierras.  Between 1960 and 1980 the population nearly halved, from 11,221 to 5,879, and it has remained at roughly that level ever since.

But all bad things come to an end, and a number of politicians from Alcalá played a key part in Spain's return to democracy after Franco's death in 1975, notably Alfonso Perales Pizarro who was involved in the reactivation of the socialist party, the PSOE.  In 2008 Bibiana Aido, daughter of a former mayor of Alcalá, was appointed Spain's first ever Minister of Equal Rights.


When Spain joined the European Community in 1986 Alcalá, along with the rest of Andalucía, benefited from an influx of cash under the regional economic development programmes. Improved transport links, educational opportunities, health and social care and a greater diversity of employment opportunities have materially improved the living standards of its inhabitants.  It received official Artistic-Historic status in 1994, and the designation of the Park and the various tourist routes which run through it have helped bring increasing numbers of visitors from Northern Europe and further afield who want to get away from the Costas and explore what rural Spain has to offer.  The A381 motorway from Jerez to the south coast, completed in 2005, has drastically improved its accessibility and a recently completed cycle path from the A381 to the town centre is used both by lycra-clad cyclists and the townspeople themselves for their daily constitutional stroll.


The global economic crisis which began in 2008 has left its mark on Alcalá, with large numbers of new spec-built flats and houses standing empty and unemployment at nearly one-third of the working population.  But government initiatives, both national and local, have taken advantage of the situation to refurbish roads, pavements, old buildings and drainage pipes throughout the town, giving employment to local people callously discarded by the capitalist market system.

Whatever the future holds for Alcalá, it retains the loyalty and pride of its townsfolk, who sing its praises from far and wide.  And for me it is the Alcalaínos, as much as the scenery and the architecture, that make it such a special place.