Having driven back and forth past Antequera a number of times, I decided to take a day and visit this central city of Andalucía, as it bills itself.
Antequera is, like most small towns in the region, a beautiful cluster of white houses surrounding a monumental zone built on a hill, a classic acropolis. Unlike the relatively late foundation of Almería, Antequera is a very ancient city, and so it nicely fits the pattern of ancient Mediterranean urban development. It was an Iberian city, Anticaria, part of the so-called Turdetani region during the middle of the first millennium BC. But in fact, Antequera is rather more ancient than that. The city is home to three important dolmens, or megalithic tombs. One of the, the Romeral dolmen, is dated to the early second millennia BC, and is oriented towards the nearby El Torcal rock formations (more below). Two of them, the dolmens of Menga and Viera, date back to before 3500 BC, similar to other neolithic era passage tombs, like Newgrange in Ireland. The Viera dolmen is, like most other European passage tombs, oriented towards the dawn on the equinoxes. The Menga dolmen is oriented towards the nearby Peña de los Enamorados, a distinctive mountain. Sadly the dolmen site was closed, and I could not visit the tombs.
I was able to visit the old city itself, however. Not a lot remains of the Roman town. The best preserved ruins are the baths.
The rest of the Roman sites were largely built over, with the possible exception of the main gate into the alcazaba. It is known as the “gate of giants” due to the statue of Hercules and local Roman notables that used to crown it. The legs of Hercules remain.
The interior of the alcazaba contains within its walls the old Roman acropolis, and perhaps some Visigothic ruins as well, all completely ruined during the French occupation around 1810. What is preserved is the castillo itself, restored and expanded after the conquest of the city in 1410.
The siege and capture of the city was the work of Fernando, prince and regent of Castilla, who earned the epithet de Antequera for his trouble, and the crown of Aragón a few years later.
Fernando became regent of Castilla in 1406 when his brother Enrique III died. Alongside his brother’s English widow, Catherine of Lancaster, he protected the throne of his young nephew, Juan II. Fernando took control of the southern half of the kingdom, and decided to put the potentially-disruptive nobility to work eroding the frontier with Granada. The siege of Antequera began in April of 1410. The walls were breached in the southeast quadrant of the arrabal in September. After defeating a Granada relief army, the siege was over.
Fernando, unlike his namesake who would complete the conquest of the Nasrid kingdom, showed leniency, and allowed the citizens of Antequera, huddled in the alcazaba, to negotiate their surrender. All who could were allowed to decamp for nearby Archidona, or elsewhere in Granada. The city established a remarkably sympathetic monument to the expulsion of the Muslim population.
The mosque was, of course, preserved and converted into a church but was sadly destroyed along with much of the top of the alcazaba during French occupation.
Antequera remained a frontier city and military headquarters for the rest of the fifteenth century. The process of repoblacion appears to have proceeded slowly, with fewer than three-thousand people reoccupying the city in those years. The city began to expand more quickly in the sixteenth century, once the war with the Nasrid kingdom was ended, but an interesting bit of trivia in the history of the alcazaba speaks to the continued difficulty of life for the citizens.
In 1582, the cabildo (town council) decided to build a bell and clock tower onto the alcazaba, to bring a touch of modern life to the city. Clocks were, of course, an expensive novelty in the 1500s, and so the council had to raise funds to pay for their project. In order to do so, they sold the groves of Encinas (ilex oaks) that grew on the flanks of the alcazaba and the walled parts of the city. These groves were, as was customary in the medieval world, common property. The citizens of Antequera in fact relied on the oaks for part of their subsistence, gathering the acorns to prepare what must have been an unpalatable stew, papabellotas. One imagines they gathered firewood and grazed pigs under the oaks as well. Indeed, usufruct rights in the forests was a regular part of the subsistence strategy of peasants and commoners everywhere. But this was the sixteenth century, and the modern world was already beginning to vanquish the old ways. Thomas More had already written, some 65 years earlier, about “sheep devouring men” in his Utopia. Cervantes himself was doubtlessly already formulating his own epic about the changing world which left poverty and cynicism in its wake. The Diggers of England would make their own challenge to the dispossession of forest rights barely 60 years later. And so the dispossessed people of Antequera dubbed the new clock tower the torre de papabellotas. The tourist literature of 2017 presents this as a quaint nickname, though no doubt the original appellation was intended to be a cynical criticism, not a cute homage.
There is one quaint story associated with the history of the city. The unusual promontory called Peña de los Enamorados, which basically translates as “lovers’ leap” is so-called because of the story of interfaith love and suicide in the Middle Ages. In the nearby town of Archidona (on the far side of the Peña from Antequera), the daughter of a wealthy family fell in love with a Christian soldier kept prisoner in the town. She schemed to free this young man, and the two fled together away from Archidona. Her upset parents sent out search parties, and the young couple hid on the mountain. Fearing that, once they were inevitably captured, the escaped soldier would be executed, the two decided to leap to their deaths. I am sure the dolmen-builders had a more dramatic story associated with this distinctive piece of geography, but at least this story doesn’t blithely gloss over tragedy.
The sixteenth century also saw the construction of much of the city’s religious architecture. The most impressive church is the Real Colegiata, started by Fernando de Antequera, but only finished in 1550. Clinging to the side of the alcazaba, it is an impressive church.
Below in the city an impressive parish church dedicated to San Sebastian was completed, also in the middle of the sixteenth century, as the arms of Carlos V attest. The eighteenth-century bell tower is remarkably Aragonese-Mudéjar in style.
Antequera is an attractive city, truly a gem of the ciudades medianas de Andalucía, as it bills itself. Worth a visit, and I look forward to seeing neighboring Archidona in the future.
My visit to Antequera ended with a drive through the mountain range to the south, called El Torcal. The range is made of unusual and impressive weathered limestone. It was a sea floor at one point, pushed up during tectonic activity after the Jurassic period. I would love to return with more time for proper hiking and exploring.