A site of legends
King Alfonso XII found time to visit Alcaucín while visiting the many stricken villages in the Axarquía. During his visit a local goatherder approached him and told him of his plight; the king, it was said, was so moved he gave him the equivalent of 20,000 euros...
The village of Alcaucín is steeped in history and legends surrounding its ancient castle, and tales of lost and abandoned cities.
Alcaucín history dates back to prehistoric times judging from the number of ancient artefacts and remains found in the hills surrounding the village.
Indeed, in 1979, a cave was discovered nearby at the Boquete de Zafarraya pass through the mountains, where an archaeological dig unearthed the best preserved remains of Neanderthal man ever found in Western Europe.
The most ancient legend concerning Zalia, the first settlement in the area before Alcaucín, would be that of Odysseus who it is said visited there, and is speculated to have lived around 1200 BC, (see the story below).
400 years or so later, says another legend, the Phoenician city of Tagara was situated near the fortress of Zalia. There is certainly evidence that a village with an accompanying castle, was originally built in the area by the Phoenicians. It was said to be sited on the flat plateau near Alcaucin, (see photo left).
According to ancient tradition, Zalia was a wealthy city, a sort of a meeting point where all kind of travellers enjoyed the pleasures of life. There is a legend that in Roman times, San (Saint) Patricio, the first Bishop of Málaga, visited Zalia and thought it was an iniquitous place, and wrote that he was concerned for the souls of its citizens, (see below for the full story).
Odysseus visits Zalia
There is a tale that the mythical Odysseus visited Zalia’s castle after the Trojan war!
According to the story, Odysseus met the sea-nymph Calypso there, who welcomed him, healed his wounds and washed his clothes.
Calypso fell in love with Odysseus and would not let him go, offering him immortality if he stayed with her. However Odysseus refused, saying he needed to return to his homeland.
[Left: ‘Ulysses and Calypso’ by Italian painter Luca Giordano].
Saint Patricio and Zalia’s ‘pleasures’
According to ancient tradition the nearby town of Zalia was a wealthy place, a sort of a meeting point where all kind of travellers enjoyed the pleasures of life. In fact, it was these ‘pleasures’ that concerned San (Saint) Patricio, the first Bishop of Málaga.
Patricio is one of the most important historical religious figures in Andalucía, most notable for his presence at the famous ‘Council of Elvira’ held between 300 and 313 AD, near to the city of Granada. This council was the first known council of the Christian church in Spain and its canons still survive and provide the earliest reliable information on the development of Christianity in Spain. (The picture shown above is a depiction of the equally famous council a few years later in Nicea). These times were difficult and dangerous for Spanish Christians as they were still under the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian and hence suffered from much persecution.
One of the ways to strengthen Christianity was to encourage more conversions. Alcaucín’s legend tells that San Patricio (pictured below) decided to visit Zalia to try and convert its people. In the year 302, the bishop wrote a letter to one of his relatives concerning the folks of Zalia that he’d just met,
“My heart suffers so much when I think of those people, fond of superstitions and sorcery, blind to the light of the Gospel, who insist on adoring the gods of the corrupt Rome. It is the only part of my Church where I have not been able to get a single soul for Christ.”
Despite two attempts at conversion he was unsuccessful, no amount of preaching or divine invocation could convince the inhabitants to give up their licentious living; so finally Patricio gave up and returned to Málaga diocese. The following night, according to tradition, the ground in the town of Zalia opened up and dark snakes came out to bite the people as they slept, in punishment for their refusal to convert. Those who did not die by this supposed curse of God, fled, and Zalia was abandoned forever.
Nobody knows the true history. Certainly, the Bishop of Málaga’s letters are evidence for the existence of Zalia, but remains of the village have still to be found.
The Alcaucín we see today however, came about during the times of the Moors. Indeed, the name ‘Alcaucín’ derives from the Arabic ‘Al Cautin which means ‘The Arches.’
This perhaps refers to the existence of an aqueduct in the area, while others believe it refers to the abundance of yew trees, the wood of which was used to make ‘arcos’ (bows).
The Moors built (or perhaps reconstructed) Zalia castle because it was on an important strategic road that linked Nazari Granada to the coast of the Axarquía, along the Zalia river. Also, the fertile and irrigated land in the area was very important and well worth protecting.
The first definite reference to this castle was in AD 909 during a riot against the Cordovan state. It is also known from Islamic chroniclers that in 1082 it surrendered to the King of Granada.
The fortress was one of the most important in the Axarquía region along with the Bentomiz and Comares castles. It fell to the Catholic monarchs in 1485, two years before Vélez-Málaga itself fell.
After the Catholic reconquest it is likely that the villagers joined in the Moorish uprising in the 16th century, although there is no evidence. What we do know is that in 1569 the Moor, Andres de Xorairán, attacked Alcaucín.
The revolt was crushed by the Christians, and like other villages in the Axarquía region the Moors in Alcaucín would have been forced to leave by royal decree.
The village was later repopulated with old Christians from other parts of Spain. Thus, most of the older houses and buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The great 1884 Earthquake
At about nine o’clock on Christmas Day 1884, a great earthquake struck much of Andalucía, and was particularly devastating for the village of Alcaucín.
Not only did it cause enormous material damage to buildings and houses (30 per cent suffered serious damage), but it changed the course of the underground streams.
To make matters worse there was a heavy snowfall that year which made it difficult for rescuers to reach the village. [Left: photo taken in Alcaucín after the 1884 earthquake].
‘The goatherder and the King’
On January the 20th, while visiting many stricken villages in the Axarquía, King Alfonso XII also found time to come to Alcaucín. (Picture right, said to be of King Alfonso surrounded by distressed folk during his visit to the earthquake stricken villages in 1884).
Apparently, among the homeless victims he saw was a goat herder by the name of José Lucas, who broke Royal protocol and strode right up to the king. In a choked voice the man sobbed that his house had collapsed on his four children, leaving him bereft.
The king was so moved by the poor man’s tale he apparently gave him 1000 duros (the equivalent of at least 20,000 euros now) to alleviate his loss as much as possible.
At this, the grateful Juan asked that he be allowed to kiss the hand of the king four times, once for each one of his children.
Alcaucín pages guide
Use the links below to explore what you can see and do in Alcaucin, what festivals take place through the year, and to read about the area’s fascinating history.