Maro's history... Prehistoric Romans Moors Reconquest
An area inhabited for 30,000 years or more...
Maro's first residents in the Nerja Caves...
Maro can date its first residents to the prehistoric settlements found at the Cueva de Nerja, dating back at least 25,000 years, with some finds suggesting possibly 40,000 years.
According to Professor Jordá Cerdá, the remains at the Cave constitute one of the most important Paleolithic settlements in the Mediterranean area, and has the largest and richest cultural sequence in eastern Andalucia. Finds are still being unearthed, just recently (in 2018) another funerary pot was unearthed in the tourist galleries.
The early cave residents wouldn’t have lived 24/7 in there, but used it as as a centre for religious or cultural activity. There would have been sporadic camps outside, where they would have perfected techniques for manufacturing hunting and work utensils, and then around 5000 BC, during the Neolithic period, there starts to be evidence of stylised ceramics. Thus, the cave was home to different cultures for many millennia, occupied continuously right up to the Bronze Age.
Were the Romans here?...
One of the common tales told around the area is that Maro was once the Roman village called Detunda, however this was exploded in 2012 with the publication of an official document by the Nerja Council called (in English) ‘Special Plan of Protection for the Historic, Picturesque Site of Maro‘. One of the ideas behind the plan was to dynamize and disseminate historical and archaeological research, and to that end two eminent local historians were asked to contribute, D. Antonio Garrido Luque and D. Francisco Capilla Luque. What follows then is in part a summary of what they argue in the document.
During the first decade of the 20th century, Alejandro Bueno, a Nerja historian, pronounced that Maro was the Roman settlement of Detunda. This was based on various local finds in the area, such as Roman coins, amphora, building material, tiles and even a melting furnace.
However, his identification of the place with Detunda was based on the writings of the Spanish history writer from Granada, Francisco Guillén Robles (1846 – 1926), as well as Enrique Lafuente Alcántara (1817 – 1850), who had both simply copied the theory of another 19th century historian, Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez. Unfortunately, Bueno hadn’t also taken into account the celebrated Miguel Cortés y López, elected academic of Spain’s Royal Academy of History from 1847, who, three years after Bermúdez’s assertion, had produced the ‘Diccionario Geográfico-Histórico de la España Antigua’. In it, López rejected Bermúdez’s theory and identified Detunda not with Maro, but with a place located on the left bank of the Guadalquivir, according to his study of various Latin text including by Pliny. In fact, in the Latin texts there is no mention of any significant Roman settlement between Caviclum (or Mansio at the mouth of the river of Torrox), and Sexi (present day Almuñécar), apart from the possibility of Sistifirmum (identified with Frigiliana).
Nevertheless, the remains that have been unearthed, firstly at a farmhouse known as ‘Frontana‘ and also at a site called ‘El Lugarejo‘ (east of Maro and south of the old N-340), certainly suggests that there was Roman activity in the area, including some amount of mining. While there is a lack of consensus among researchers about what El Lugarejo was (part of the excavation in photo right), some arguing that it was a villa, others either an industrial olive plant or perhaps a hostel for travellers, it is certain that mining was going on in the area given the presence of the Via Castulo to Malaca.
This Roman road near to Maro, which was detailed in the ‘Antonine Itinerary’ document made in the 3rd century, was used for the carrying of ore, and also linked such important ports as Sexi (Almuñecar) and Malacca (Málaga). About 35 metres of the road is preserved near the ‘San Joaquín’ sugar factory, as well as smaller fragments of cobblestone and the start of a bridge in the Barranco de la Coladilla, (almost lost now). The quality of the layout of this Roman road allowed it to continue to be used as Camino Real (a Royal road) right through up to the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Moorish periods...
In 2004, works on the Nerja to La Herradura section of the new Mediterranean motorway were interrupted several times when archaeological remains were found. [Again, the ‘Special Plan of Protection for the Historic, Picturesque Site of Maro‘ (see above), contains many details about this and much more, in relation to the history of Maro].
The excavation revealed a walled enclosure with at least one tower at its eastern end, and ceramic remains found in it dated to the Emirate Period (756-929). It was undoubtedly a defensive structure, but was in use for a relatively short period of time, afterwards abandoned and destroyed quickly. It was probably linked to the uprising led by Ibn Hafsun against the Caliphate of Cordoba from the mountains of Ronda to the Alpujarras. Hafsun had acquired castles and lands in a wide area, including in the Málaga and Granada provinces.
The first village of ‘Maro’ (no one is absolutely sure of the settlement’s name), was founded during the period of the Caliphate of Cordoba (929–1031), just as many other villages elsewhere in the Axarquía were, when rural communities were abandoning the mountains and descending to the plains to form stable settlements.
The collection of properties that formed early Maro – possibly better described as a farmstead – was located somewhere in an area between the rivers Rio del Sanguino and Rio Maro on its western and eastern sides, and the Autovia Mediterraneo and the old Málaga to Almuñécar road, north to south; in other words to the north-west of the present day village, undoubtedly not far from an important local spring (el Manantial de Maro, photo left). Indeed, this spring that bubbles up with some force from the mountains behind, still supplies the village (and the Nerja Caves) with all its water, and its overflow contributes to the waters that cascade over the cliffs, creating the so called Cascada Grande de Maro.
Maro belonged to the Taha (administrative district) of Bentomiz at the time of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada (1230 – 1492), although at the time of the Castilian conquest it was part of the Taha of Frigiliana, along with Nerja and Torrox. Its inhabitants subsisted on agriculture, growing a mixture of rain fed and irrigated crops. One plant that needed a lot of watering was the mulberry, used for the production of silk, an economic mainstay of many Moorish villages then, which was grown in well irrigated fields and terraces. Another agricultural activity was the exploitation of the pine forests in the nearby mountains, which were the property of the Nasrid state. One theory about how Maro’s name eventually arose is that it came from Marum, a very white plant abundant at that time in this place.
By the 14th century, Maro must have had a population of some size since it appears on the so-called Catalan Atlas, that was made in 1375 by the Jewish Mallorcan cartographer, Abraham Cresques. The picture below is a detail from it on which we’ve put red boxes around Málaga and Almeria; between these two towns apparently lies Maro, but which of those marked on the map it is, we’re not yet certain!
In a second emergency excavation in 2004 archaeologists discovered a cemetery on a hillside belonging to Moorish Maro (see photo top right). This cemetery, or maqbara as it would have been known, comprised of 442 graves that are typical of the type found in the necropolises established alongside the new settlements at the end of the 10th or early 11th centuries, just like the Caliphate era cemetery in nearby Nerja, or Narixa, as it was called then. The very simple and orthodox burials pointed to the ‘Maliki’ school of Islam – during this period Andalucia was ruled under this Maliki jurisdiction, a severe interpretation of Islamic Law. The demarcation of some graves with bricks and tiles suggested different types of burials, which were probably dependant on sex or social class. A high number of tombs contained the bodies of very young children, which experts have said was normal given the high infancy mortality rate at the time.
On April 27th, 1487, the Catholic Monarchs conquered Vélez-Málaga, and just a few days later, on May the 4th, thirty-seven villages and farmsteads in the eastern part of the province of Malaga, including Maro, swore their obedience to the new conquerors. The settlements were placed under the jurisdiction of the city of Vélez-Málaga. As long as they paid tribute to their new rulers the Mudejars of Maro, like the those in the other villages, could in principle preserve their language, religion and customs…
After the Reconquest...
The ‘gifting’ of Maro to Maymón Levi
Maro as a settlement in its own right is first recorded on March 28th 1490, when the conquering monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel (left), ‘awarded’ it to Maymón Levi in a ceremony in Seville. Levi was a Jewish financier, and possibly a Nerja resident given that it is known he owned property there.
According to an article by the Royal Academy of Spanish History, it is argued that Levi must have collaborated with the Catholic Kings in the conquest of Vélez-Málaga in 1487, given that Royal grants to Jews and Moors were rare. However, it’s not known exactly what services he did provide to the Crown, although it is possible (as was the case with other Jews known at the time), that they were related to financing certain business interests of the monarchs. Moreover, the property and lands that were gifted over to Levi were quite extensive, not just in Maro, but in and around Frigiliana, Nerja, Torrox, Corumbela, Archez, Rubite, Arenas, Daimalos, Salares and Torre del Mar.
In Maro, according to a study by José Ignacio Moreno Núñez, Levi received six pieces of arable land that brought in four fanegas* and ten celemines* of dry crop when harvested, (the type of which isn’t specified). The fact that Levi was awarded roughly the same in Frigiliana and Torrox, and in fact six times this amount in Nerja, but far less in the other locations mentioned, lends still more credence to the assertion that Nerja must have been Levi’s home town. All of this land had belonged to Moors who had fled or who had been stripped of them for acting against the Catholic Kings, (which could even have been for handing out bread to the Moors). Therefore, by giving over these various estates as ‘rewards’ the Monarchy was effectively resettling them with placemen, individuals that hopefully could be trusted to look after them in the crown’s best interests. However, in this regard, Levi didn’t prove to be so.
Less than two years after taking charge of his new land and property, the Edict of Expulsion was issued by the Catholic Monarchs from Granada on the 31st of March 1492, ordering the expulsion of any Jew still practicing their faith. Levi refused to accept the order – to in effect convert to Christianity – and consequently was compelled to sell up and leave Spain. He sold his property to the then warden of the Vélez-Málaga castle, Sancho de León on the 5th of June who shortly after 1493, gifted it to his niece Leonor Ponce and her husband, the first governor of the Nerja fortress, García de Guzmán.
[*The fanega was roughly equivalent to about 55 litres, and the celemine was a twelfth part of a fanega.]
A new frontier
From the moment that the Catholic Kings effectively conquered the Axarquia in 1487, the coast became a new frontier. It was an insecure and dangerous place that was constantly hit by Berber piracy, and at the same time was an escape route for illegal emigration to the African Barbary Coast. Thus, by regulation in 1497, a guard post was established in Peña Horadada de Maro.
The outbreak of the Mudejar uprising in the year 1500, caused by a hardening in the policy of the Crown towards them unless they converted to Christianity, resulted in the mass flight and the depopulation of the Taha of Frigiliana. The first place in the Taha to be abandoned by its inhabitants, who could no longer stand the harsh living conditions, was Maro. This was unfortunate as it had some demographic importance in the area. In 1497, according to the requested return of the Moorish Medina (council) in Frigiliana to the Catholic Monarchs, the recorded population for Maro included 135 men over the age of 16, whilst the figure for Nerja was just 122, and less than 100 in total for all the remaining villages, (excepting Frigiliana with 720, and Vélez with 200 men).
The point of the Moorish census was to see how many could fight in battle, pay taxes and contribute to a levy imposed to meet the cost of coastal defences, in particular the urgent need to build a proper tower next to Maro; however, by the time Don Inigo Lopez de Mendosa, the Count of Tendilla and Captain General of the Kingdom of Granada (pictured above left), had arranged for its construction in 1504, he was too late. The depopulation of the area had caused such a decline in the tax revenue, that there was no money in the coffers to finance the construction and maintenance of the coastal fortifications and towers of the Kingdom of Granada, let alone the army that had been set up to man them. Moreover, in February 1505, Queen Juana was in need of funds to pay for the expenses incurred by the funeral of her mother, Isabel, who had died in November of the previous year.
The only ‘fortunate’ thing for the new Queen was that all the lands and houses that the Moors left, automatically became the property of the Crown…
So Maro was sold to her secretary, Gaspar de Gricio, turning it into a territorial lordship. Immediately, the Count of Tendilla contacted Gricio informing him that he had already given part of the money that was budgeted for the tower to be constructed at Peña Horadada, near Maro, and the work was carried out sometime between July 1505 and October 1509. The exact location of the tower is not known precisely, but it was somewhere between La Caleta beach and Maro beach, and remains of it could still be seen in the 18th century.
In 1592, this first tower was in such a state of deterioration that they were forced to build a second one, the Torre de Maro (photo right), the one we can see today at the eastern end of Maro beach.
The village proper arises
A few years before, in December 1582, Felipe de Armengol, lawyer of the Royal ‘Audiencia de Granada’, had bought Maro’s place from Juan de Gricio, grandson of Gaspar de Gricio. Vélez-Málaga, the chief town of the area, gave Felipe possession of the settlement of Maro which was then just a motley collection of “ancient walls and fallen houses, and an old and battered tower”, according to the official document witnessing the transfer. What few residents there were left apparently lived in a cave called ‘Cueva Grande‘ and in some huts scattered across the fields. [Photo left is of a fairly large cave next to the Maro spring, now a shepherd’s dwelling – possibly the ‘Cueva Grande’?] However, what Felipe was more interested in, was what else came with the deal – the lands around Maro, that began west of the Barranco de Maro ravine and stretched as far east as the Rio de la Miel.
Felipe wanted to become part of the group of owners who controlled the cultivation and production of sugar, which had already been greatly developed on the Granada coast, and after 1571, led by Vélez-Málaga, was now expanding fast into the territories under its jurisdiction. This date of 1571 is particularly significant as it was when the Alpujarras revolt of the Moors was put down, which had just taken place after the bloody battle at the Peñón de Frigiliana in 1569. Hernando el Darra, the outstanding Moorish military figure in the area who had fought in both conflicts, attempted to cross to Africa from Maro, but without success as the boats which had been built in readiness for him were destroyed by a Captain of the Royal Granada force. After these events, a significant portion of the Moorish population was expelled. The land left free by their expulsion was shared out; settlers were supported until their land began to bear fruit, and to men like Felipe de Armengol, various fiscal advantages were promised including tax concessions.
It wasn’t all straight forward from that point for Armengol, though. Upon hearing that in Nerja the San Antonio Abad sugar mill (photo right), is being proposed to be built in 1591 by Juan de Briones – and being a lawyer – Armengol threw down a lawsuit saying that it should not be constructed “because it was just a resting place for cattle and other things”. More likely though, Felipe was just trying to scupper the competition before it started.
It’s interesting to note that according to the deeds of the land lease to Felipe, his tenants were required not to damage or cut down the ‘Morales’ (white mulberry) trees that were on his land, and to in fact to keep them in perfect condition. This is of course proof of the other main industry of the Moors – silk production – must have existed in the area before the Reconquest, and evidently carried some importance right up to this period. (Mulberry leaves, particularly those of the white mulberry, are the sole food source of the silkworm, the cocoon of which is used to make silk). Just like elsewhere along the coast, the production of silk slowly disappeared, just as most of the remaining Moors did after their final expulsion (Expulsión de los moriscos) was decreed by Philip II on April 9th, 1609. However, the only game in town now was sugar, not silk, and in Felipe’s deeds, despite its warning about harming mulberry trees, it is specified that his lands should be planted entirely with sugarcane.
With his purchase, Felipe de Armengol effectively founded the modern village of Maro we know today, repopulated with ‘old Christians’ from other villages. The importance of this sugar mill in Maro (El Ingenio de Maro, or Armengol, photo left) was enormous, because for almost four hundred years, from the moment the mill came into full production in 1586, right up to the mid 20th century, the cultivation of cane and sugar production in this area was to be the principal economic activity for its people. Furthermore, the economic, social and power relations established between the owners, their intermediaries and the settlers, have marked and defined Maro society until very recently.
So, at the very end of the 16th century, with homes for the sugar mill’s administrators and workers, the new village of Maro came into being, on the land now occupied by the Casa de la Marquesa.
1700's and 1800's - the sugar mill inside the village...
At the beginning of the 17th century, according to the Vélez historian Juan Vázquez Rengifo, Maro was a hamlet complete with a sugar mill and a church. However, in an era when people lived in constant fear of attack from the sea, the settlement was enclosed by a continuous exterior wall, with just a single entry point. From the outside the settlement would have resembled a four-sided fortification, with the terraced houses lining the south and east walls, possibly part of the north too, while the mill and the church were enclosed by the perimeter wall on the eastern side.
The priest that conducted the services in Maro’s first church (which was more of a converted barn), was actually the chaplain at Nerja’s Castillo Bajo (the so-called lower castle where the Balcón de Europa now is). In addition, he was also required to bless the sugar mill before work began at the beginning of March each year.
Throughout the 18th century, the rivalry between Maro and Nerja (that had finally built its San Antonio Abad mill) would continue, largely due to the shortage in the area of raw materials, principally sugar cane. This was partially solved by municipal laws issued from the authorities in Vélez-Málaga, such as one passed in 1705 which obliged farmers to take their cane to the Nerja sugar mill, even if Maro’s was more profitable for them.
In 1752, a century and a half later, contained in an official document called ‘El Cadastro de Ensenada‘ there is a drawing of Maro, (picture, above). The rectangular enclosure around the houses and the mill can still be seen, with towers on the southwest and northwest corners. The church has a bell tower with a small crenellated wall by the side. Thanks to the picture, the entrance door to the church which is still visible today in the north wall of the sugar mill, has been identified. Also can be seen is the main gateway to the village which is now the entrance to the Casa de la Marquesa. Furthermore, there’s a stream that was split into two – a section that went into the sugar mill to turn the water wheel, and the other in front of the settlement, almost like a mini moat; there’s even a little bridge over to the village’s gateway. As for the future village of Maro, there’s just a row of houses and huts where Calle Real and the current church will be.
According to this 1752 Cadastral of Ensenada corresponding to Maro, there were 86 inhabitants plus the administrator of the mill, a miller, a potter, a muleteer and 14 day labourers, all of them with their respective families. All the houses were owned by the ‘Señor de Maro’ (ie, the Lord of the Manor), who leased them to their occupants. However, ever since the beginning, virtually none of the landowners directly exploited the mill, they simply leased it to a ‘director’ who was then in charge of equipping and repairing it for grinding, as well as paying the personnel who worked there. It certainly needed someone focussed on the mill, because it was a big, expensive business, given that it operated continuously, day and night, for several months of each year.
Throughout the years the ownership of Maro and its sugar factory passed through the hands of various families, and even a convent, the religious order of Santa Paula based in Seville (pictured, above right), who claimed it when two of their nuns inherited it from their father, Julián Gilberto, who before his death had been the Lord of Maro. Eventually it passed to the Pérez del Pulgar family who would make such great changes in the Maro area in the 19th century.
19th and 20th centuries - a new Maro emerges...
The 19th century
In 1807 there was a fire that destroyed the old village and church that were contained within the boundaries of the old walls. So, it was probably after this date, (and more likely after the Spanish War of Independence had finished in 1814), when the new church was built, along with the gradual expansion of the village on the site we see today. Very little was transferred from the old church except the beautiful brass church bell (photo left), which had been cast in 1767 and paid for by José Miguel Cañaveral, Marques de Araceli, then Lord of Maro. It is possible that it was through the influence of the Marques de Araceli’s family that the new church was named after the Virgen de las Maravillas, (plus the declaration of her as patron saint of Maro).
However, the new church – plus the sugar mill this time – fell to flames in the 1870’s. As a result in 1879, the mill’s then owner, Joaquín Pérez del Pulgar y Ruiz de Molina, Marqués de Salar, built the modern ‘San Joaquín’ factory outside Maro, equipped with steam machinery, to completely replace it. Also done at the behest – and financing – of this Lord of Maro and his family, was the construction in 1888 of what was effectively Maro’s third church, built partly on the ruins of the previous one, but also, in order to enlarge the building, where a couple of houses that were previously attached to it were demolished. The church was formally blessed in 1893 as Nuestra Virgen de las Maravillas, with the Bishopric of Malaga approving that it be the centre of a newly created parish for Maro, with the limits of its jurisdiction as the Barranco de Cantarriján in the East, and the Barranco de Maro in the West.
Indeed, since 1858, when Joaquín Pérez del Pulgar inherited the estate belonging to his family in Maro and Nerja, he had greatly expanded it with the acquisition of land in the west with the Tablazo de Maro, which had been transformed by irrigation thanks to the construction of an aqueduct, the Acueducto del Águila, and to the east as far as the Rio de la Miel and the paper mill (Molino del Papel). By the end he owned some 2,000,000 square metres of land around Maro. After the Maro’s old mill burned down, he set about building the modern steam powered San Joaquin factory (photo above), to take its place on some of his newly acquired land. The rest of the land was given over to growing sugar cane for the factory, which at its peak, was 96 per cent of Maro’s cultivable land.
From the first decades of the 19th century, as Maro grew in size, more and more of its citizens were being buried at the Nerja cemetery when they died, rather than in the vault or crypt of Maro’s little church, as had been custom. In fact, by 1875, Maro had experienced such a population growth that the mayor of Nerja complained that Maro needed to provide itself with a cemetery, (by this time many of the streets we know today had been constructed). However, for one reason and another, work was delayed for nearly a decade until in 1884 the terrible news came of a epidemic spreading across the Málaga and Granada provinces, causing people to die at an alarming rate. Nerja’s council said its cemetery would not be able to cope. Unfortunately, just as work on Maro’s cemetery was about to start, a great earthquake hit Andalucia on Christmas day that year, with tremors continuing during the following two months, so all energies had to focus on rebuilding the villages. Ten years later, in 1894, the priest of Maro’s newly created parish, Francisco José Ramos, asked the mayor of Nerja to finally build the cemetery. He agreed, but construction didn’t start until 1901, and the cemetery was not completed until 1903, (photo above). Finally, after nearly 30 years, the installation and blessing of the Catholic cemetery of Maro, (now known as La Ermita de San Isidro) took place on January 2nd, 1904. For some cause not yet known, Maro’s cemetery was in use for perhaps only 6 years, and in the 1950’s all the remains were moved to the cemetery of Nerja.
Joaquín Pérez had had to take out a very large loan to achieve all that he had in the Maro area, and in 1883 after he passed away, his four children could not afford the upkeep of the new San Joaquin factory, and so in 1893 the bank sold it to Joaquín’s son-in-law, Rafael de Chaves, Marquis de Tous.
The 20th century and beyond
More misfortune fell for the San Joaquin factory in the early years of the 20th century when the falling price of sugar caused a series of confrontations between its workers and the employers, and the place was closed in 1911. In 1918 another attempt was made to resuscitate the factory when Joaquín Chaves, a grandson of the Marquis, instituted another ‘society’ to run the factory. However, in the 1920’s, again with economic problems, the factory was returned again to the Bank of Spain, which sold it on to the Larios family in 1930, who kept it active until its final closure in the 1960’s. It can be no coincidence that this decade also marked a shift in Spain’s economic policy for its Mediterranean coastline – it had discovered a new industry which was much cleaner and with enormous revenues potential, tourism.
Of all the dates that are mentioned when discussing the history of Maro, surely one of the most important has to be January the 12th, 1959. This was when five local lads entered through a narrow sinkhole known as ‘La Mina’ in search of bats (click here for more on the re-discovery of the caves). Furthermore, this was more than just the opening up to the world of a fairy-tale like grotto full of colourful stalagmites and stalactites, but something that has actually significantly increased the knowledge of the origins of man and his settlements in Andalucia, going possibly as far back as the Neanderthals (some 40,000 years ago).
Of course the Nerja Caves had to become more than just one of the most important cultural and scientific attractions in southern Europe. For a start, there was a rather large loan for more than two million pesetas from the Provincial Savings Bank of Malaga to be paid back. This had been taken out in order to carry out the necessary works for the lighting up of the cave, as well as for the laying out of the exterior – like the ticket office that would hopefully recoup the loan! [Photo above, work starting on the entrance to the cave in 1959].
The other money spinning venture was the inauguration of the 1st International Festival of the Nerja in June 1960, an annual festival that has subsequently become, without a doubt, one of the big events in the Málaga calendar. This has in turn worked to the favour of the archaeologists, for the money received from entrance ticket sales has been used in part by the Nerja Cave Foundation to sponsor, support, fund and publish many of the archaeological studies that have taken place in the caves over the years.
While undoubtedly benefitting from being so close to the Caves of Nerja, now one of the most visited tourist sites in Andalucía, Maro is always looking for new ways to encourage tourists, so in 2009 it inaugurated a new festival, ‘Maroween’. With more than just a passing nod to the culture of their Northern European visitors, Maro decided to combine Halloween with the chestnut and sweet potatoes fiesta they traditionally held at this date. Surely a classic synthesis between the old Maro and the new.
So, with its many fiestas and festivals throughout the year, as well as all of the places to visit around it, there are many reasons for visitors to come to Maro, ensuring life will continue in this ancient area for generations to come.