Almayate's history... Phoenicians Romans Moors Reconquest Renewal
One of the oldest settlements in Málaga
Fortunately, Almayate didn't have to regard the onset of mass tourism in 1960’s and 1970’s as such a lifeline back to prosperity, as it was still blessed with the fertile fields which had made it so important in past times. In fact, it has again become one of the main agricultural centres of the area, this time for growing new crops such as avocados.
From the Phoenicians to the Moors...
The area around Almayate can probably lay claim to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Málaga province, outside of the capital.
There is evidence for practically every civilisation that has made the southern Spanish coast their home – from the Phoenicians to the Carthaginians, and from the Romans to the Moors. Certainly, in terms of the amount of remains, there is no other settlement that comes close to Almayate’s nearly 3000 year history.
While Almayate became a place to farm rather than live after the Moors departed, it has meant that it has held onto and developed its traditional economic base longer than other villages, that in the 21st century are more reliant on tourism. Conversely, this has also meant that Almayate’s almost uniquely deserted coastline is now very attractive to many beachgoers!
There seems little doubt that Almayate looks well set for the future as it approaches its fourth millennium.
Phoenician and Carthaginian times
At the mouth of the River Vélez lies the highest concentration of Phoenician deposits known on the Iberian peninsula, in and around the village of Toscanos. Indeed, the collection of remains are considered as an international benchmark in the study of Phoenician colonization, the most important and best preserved Phoenician remains around the eastern Mediterranean. Apart from the Toscanos remains, which stretch towards the Cerro del Peñón and Cerro Alarcón hills, several necropolises (burial chambers) have also been found.
Toscanos was founded around 740 to 730 BC, primarily as an industrial area for the metallurgy of copper and iron, but of course a surrounding village grew as the population increased. In the mid-sixth century BC, for reasons as yet to be determined, the settlement was abandoned.
The Necrópolis de Jardín was in use between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C., therefore we can say that the most recent burials are not actually Phoenician, but actually belong to the inhabitants of the Carthaginian city of Cerro del Mar, across the River Vélez.
Who were the Phoenicians?
The Phoenicians were a Semitic people, thought to be descendants of the Canaanites, whose territory was located in present-day Lebanon, from the Middle to the Late Bronze age (2000 – 1200 B.C).
The contribution of the Phoenicians to European culture is important not only economically, through its building of the first communities based on an international trade, but for their purely cultural and industrial contributions such as in urban living, the alphabet, Eastern religions, and new techniques in metallurgy and pottery (the potters wheel).
Phoenicia was organized in city-states similar to those of ancient Greece, perhaps the most notable of which were Biblos, Berytus, Sidon and Tyre.
Its expansion was due to the search for materials with which to trade. At first, they traded mainly with the Greeks, trading wood, slaves, glass and powdered Tyrian purple, a violet-purple dye used by the Greek elite to colour garments. In fact, the word Phoenician derives from the ancient Greek word phoínios meaning ‘purple’.
The Phoenicians in Spain
Around 1050 BC, a Phoenician alphabet was introduced and it became one of the most widely used writing systems, as Phoenician merchants became among the greatest traders of their time across the Mediterranean world, and settled in Sicily, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula.
According to legend, a Phoenician king was following an oracle when he ordered an expedition from Tyre to found a city near the Pillars of Hercules (straits of Gibraltar). Phoenician sailors then called the peninsula ‘i-schephan-im’, which could be the derivation of España. It can be translated as either ‘remote’ or ‘filled with rabbits’!
Based on archaeological remains, the consensus is that Phoenician colonisation began in Spain around 800 BC, when settlements were founded along the south coast of the peninsula. The most important were Gadir (Cádiz), Malacca (Málaga), Sexi (Almuñecar) and Toscanos (Almayate / Vélez-Málaga). They were primarily in search of metals such as gold, silver, copper and iron for the Middle East market.
Excavations such as at Toscanos, show a general lack of weapons, suggesting peaceful coexistence between the Phoenicians and the indigenous tribes. In fact, among the outstanding features of Phoenician coastal towns like 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.
There is no doubt that it was with the coming of the Phoenicians that the indigenous Iberians first came into contact with an advanced Mediterranean civilisation, putting the country on the road to modernity.
In the first century AD Toscanos was again reoccupied, this time by people subject to Roman rule. Also, around the hill that the Phoenician village once sat, both to the southeast and north, in the area known as Manganeto (where the Torre de Manganeto still stands), a series of pottery kilns were set up to manufacture amphorae for the production of garum, (a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment in ancient Rome) produced in the coastal town of Maenoba at nearby Cerro del Mar. The ovens were active until the beginning of the 2nd century AD.
A villa erected at the time of Caesar Augustus has also been found in the area, whose walls were built using ashlars (finely cut square stones) that are easily identifiable as coming from an original Phoenician Toscanos building.
A Roman wine amphora dating from the first century AD was discovered during archaeological excavations in the mouth of Vélez-Málaga river in 1960, (see photo above). It was actually found in the Maenoba settlement, and was still full of wine! This is a typical large ceramic wine jar that would have been shipped from Rome to the provinces to be drunk by the local nobility.
Sandstone was quarried in this area at Canteras de Valle Niza Sant Pitar and Canteras de Almayate, first by the Phoenicians for the necropolis at Trayamar, then by the Romans (photo, above right) who used it for the building of the theatre (Teatro Romano) in Málaga, followed by the Moors for the construction of the fortress (La Alcazaba), also in Málaga.
The earliest evidence we have for any occupation in the Moorish period (AD 711 to 1492), came to light during investigations into the quarry at Las Canteras de Valle Niza Sant Pitar.
Man-made cavities were found which are believed to have been created and actually lived in by a community of hermits in the 8th to 11th centuries. It is believed that they were Mozarabic monks, and a small ‘cave church’ in the San Pitar quarry that was possibly used by them has also been identified. The Mozarabs were Christians that lived in Andalucia, from the conquest to the end of the 11th century, who adopted some Arab customs without converting to Islam.
Remains of pottery found during an excavation in 2005 showed that the village of Almayate – roughly corresponding with present day Almayate Alto – was settled from the Almohad period (AD 1172 – 1212).
By the Nasrid dynasty (AD 1230 until 1492), the village was the head of a district also called Almayate, that included many other local villages like Iznate, Cajiz and Benamocarra. From historical records it seems that the district was at least on par with the other Moorish regions on the ‘right’ bank of the River Vélez, belonging to Comares and Málaga.
In fact, Almayate was then the main farmstead of the district, especially in regards to agriculture based on irrigation, from which the name of Almayate meaning ‘The Waters’ is derived. It had fertile orchards irrigated by ditches and water wheels that went from El Peñon de Almayate in the east, and reached Huertas de Almayate beach and El Cerro del Jaral in the west (now known as Valle Niza). In its drylands, olives, almonds, fig trees and vineyards were grown, and the steepest areas were populated by pine forests. Apart from this there were olive oil mills, furnaces and places for spinning silk (obtained from the several hundred mulberry trees also growing in the area).
It is known that in the late 15th century Almayate (Alto) consisted of 179 houses, much more than other local settlements, and had its own ‘castle’. The 2005 excavation showed that the old settlement was built largely on the slopes surrounding it. The so-called Castillo de Almayate (photo, right) – possibly just a tower surrounded by a wall – dates to around the Nasrid dynasty. Inside was said to be a mosque that would be sacked in order to provide building stone for a new defensive tower built nearby. Eventually, the nobleman who was given Almayate (see below) just used the fortress as a warehouse for his farmer tenants to store their produce.
At present, like the original Almayate, there are hardly any visible remains of the castle. All we are left from the Nazari period is the Torre del Jaral tower.
During the Reconquest, an order was given to evict all Muslims from coastal areas. This was based on a well-founded fear that the Muslim Ottoman empire was considering invading Spain with the collusion of the Mudéjars (Moors who had not converted to Christianity but submitted to the rule of the Christian monarchs). Nevertheless, the Catholic King Ferdinand, (pictured right with his queen, Isabel), still granted a special privilege to the Mudéjars in the district of Almayate (including its villages such as Iznate, Cajiz and Benamocarra), known as a ‘Seguro’, that among other things allowed Almayate village to be the only settlement in the Kingdom of Granada that remained located less than a league (1.25 miles) from the sea. In full, it was known as the ‘Seguro Real de Almayate’ (Royal Insurance of Almayate), granted on May 11th, 1487, only two weeks after the fall of the city of Vélez-Malaga.
But why was such an extraordinary concession given to Almayate? Because the area capitulated so quickly to the conquistadors? That isn’t thought sufficient reason. No, the Seguro was undoubtedly a recognition of the importance that Almayate had built for itself during the two previous centuries. In fact, King Ferdinand elevated Almayate to the status of ‘villa’ (town) in 1491.
What the Seguro was, was a royal guarantee to the Mudejar peoples of Almayate by which they were allowed to stay in their homes and conserve all their possessions for life. In the first instance, they could not pass on their goods with the guarantees to their children, which at death became the property of the King; however, later, in February 1496, the Crown extended the guarantee to all the descendants in exchange for the Mudejars contributing financially to the coastal defences, including building a new lookout tower called la Torre Nueva de Almayate, (the reconstructed Torre de Moya, photo left, in present day Benajarafe). It was said that they were coerced to dismantle their mosque in the Fortess of Almayate (see above) to build the tower.
However, despite the demands of its inhabitants, the limits of the town were not explicitly established, nor did it have a council. Moreover, the Mayor of Vélez-Malaga at the time, who was very keen on the expansion of his city, prevented Almayate from achieving this. Indeed, King Ferdinand himself had to intervene in defence of Almayate’s Mudejar community because of all the land encroachments being carried out by Vélez.
However, as Muslims were more and more forced to renounce their faith, customs, and even mode of dress, then between 1506 and 1507 the Almayate Moors fled to the Barbary Coast (roughly Algiers, Tunisia, and Tripoli).
This event was used by Don Inigo Lopez de Mendoza, Captain-general of the kingdom of Granada, (pictured left), to ask the Crown to ‘cease this place’, which was granted on October 28th, 1508. Don Inigo then received all the land belonging to the dispossesed Moors, and was authorized to repopulate the place with sixty Morisco citizens (Muslims who had fully converted to Christianity). He went onto build the first incarnation of the fortress that would later be rebuilt and called El Castillo del Marques, (named after him).
Ironically, much of the later military reinforcement was needed to combat Barbary pirates, whose numbers had been greatly swelled by the fleeing Mudéjars who up to a few years before had been peaceful Spanish citizens.
After the effective abandonment of Almayate Alto in 1511 the area became solely a land of crops, without any proper population nucleus, a pale reflection of what it had been during Moorish times, until the 19th century.
18th and 19th centuries
After somewhat of a slump in the 17th century, the Spanish economy started growing again in the 18th century, and a nationwide project was carried to improve road communication between centres of economic production. One of the priorities in this region was linking up Granada with Vélez-Málaga and then on to the port at Málaga. It was a difficult task given the mountainous terrain, but absolutely necessary in order to improve the economy and lift the people of the region out of poverty.
The main thing produced and exported in the Axarquia – then as now – was wine and raisins, so it was decided that Vélez, as the main town of the Axarquía, would be the hub where produce would be collected and then moved on to Malaga’s port. In order to speed up the process new roads and bridges were constructed that were suitable for carts. This included the road that passes through Almayate, and in the last quarter of the 18th century the bridge called Puente del Arroyo del Jaral was built for it to pass over.
Another important economic development was the Canteras de Valle Niza Sant Pitar quarry, and between 1727 and 1755 most of the material for the construction of Malaga Cathedral’s tower came from there. In fact not only for this, but also for the nearby Castillo del Marqués, the Casa Cervantes in Vélez, and numerous cortijos and houses in Torre del Mar. During this time up to a 100 stonemasons lived and worked in this place, which covered some 10,000 square metres. The quarry was abandoned in 1755, because of problems with the remaining quantity and quality of the stone.
After an assault on the San Pitar quarry by a Berber ship in 1735, a remodelled Castillo del Marqués (picture, below), was quickly constructed both as a defence of the coast and the quarry itself.
By the 1830’s the threat to Almayate’s coastline was less from Barbary pirates, but from smuggling. In 1829 an armed force was set up by King Ferdinando VII called the Carabineros to patrol the coasts and borders of the country, operating against fraud and smuggling. Thus Almayate’s castle, the Castillo del Marqués, now served less as a military outpost and more as a barracks for the local Carabineros.
In 1833 Almayate – along with the whole of the Axarquia – is broken from the former kingdom of Granada and becomes part of Málaga, as Spain is divided into provinces.
In the middle of the 19th century, Vélez-Málaga and its region enjoyed an economic resurgence which resulted in a remarkable population growth, and Almayate Bajo was constructed. The Sant Pitar quarry was enjoying a second revival with trellises (paseros) being laid out on its floor to dry thousands of Muscatel raisins on. From here it was easy to ship them off to their various export destinations. However, in 1877, when the phylloxera epidemic that had already ravaged French vineyards finally caught up with Spain, including the important Málaga region, the practice was rapidly abandoned.
20th century onwards
Almayate’s varying fortunes reflected much of the rest of Spain in the early 20th century, culminating in the Civil War of 1936 – 1939.
Many locals still uncomfortably recall how the Castillo del Marques was used as a jail and even a small concentration camp, but still worse memories come from one of the most infamous incidents of the Civil War that happened along the N-340, the old coast road that runs through Almayate.
On February 8th, 1937, as Málaga fell to Franco’s Nationalist forces, somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people fled to Almería, which they thought was their only escape route. It was the largest exodus in European history until the Balkan wars in the 1990’s.
Tragically, thousands lost their lives taking this course, fired at by air and by sea. Even the British newspaper ‘The Manchester Guardian’ recounted what was happening on the road to Almeria:
“The evacuation of Málaga began when the population learned of the difficulties the defensive fronts were having; but no one foresaw how this voluntary exodus would become one of the worst human cataclysms in European history, as the fleeing populace were bombed by Spanish fascist ships and German and Italian planes… The road was covered with death.”
This barrage continued day and night, unopposed by Republican forces for nearly 72 hours. Estimates of between 4000 and 6000 were killed, in one of the most tragic episodes of the Civil War, an incident known in Spain as ‘La masacre de la carretera Málaga-Almería’ or ‘la Desbanda’.
However, almost miraculously, a Canadian doctor called Norman Bethune (photo, right), who had been in Madrid heard about the unfolding tragedy and decided to help. He set up a mobile blood transfusion service and rushed down with bottles of blood in refrigerated trucks. It was practically unique at the time, and helped saving many lives.
Many of Almayate’s citizens were caught up in this incident, and so the Cruz Roja (Red Cross) professional training centre in Almayate was named after Norman Bethune, in recognition of his help.
Tourism and on into Almayate’s fourth millennium…
Fortunately, Almayate is still blessed with the fertile fields which had made it so important in past times, so it hasn’t had to regard the onset of mass tourism in 1960’s and 1970’s as such a lifeline back to prosperity. Indeed, with the introduction of new crops such as the avocado, some of it’s producers have gone onto become world leaders. So, 500 years later, Almayate has again become one of the most important agricultural centres of the area.
This has also meant that Almayate’s almost uniquely deserted coastline is now very attractive to many beachgoers. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the council, and so recently they have started to provide more diversions, such as a launch for motorboats and a free car park.
So, with nearly 3000 years of settlement in the area around Almayate, there seems little doubt it looks well set for the future as it approaches its fourth millennium.
Almayate pages guide
Use the links below to explore what you can see and do in Almayate, what festivals take place through the year, and to read about the area’s fascinating history.