Layers of History in Antequera

You know a place is old when the Romans named it Antikaria (ancient city). The current town of Antequera in southern Spain, home to about 40,000 people, is known as “the heart of Andalucia” for its position midway between the cities of Seville, Malaga, Grenada, and Cordoba. We spent the week before Easter there looking after an apartment and two cats. And though it wasn’t our most comfortable housesit, it gave us the chance to immerse ourselves in Antequera’s traditional Easter Week festivities and to explore the area’s rich history.

Viewed from high on the hill above town, Antequera is another Andalusian “pueblo blanco,” like Grazalema, all white walls and terracotta roof tiles. You don’t notice the whiteness at street level, though, because of all of the shop fronts, cafes, and brick or stone churches. There are many, many churches in Antequera, as well as a lot of old convent and monastery buildings. (In the 1830s, the Spanish government abolished convents and monasteries so it could sell off their land holdings to pay down the national debt.)

Looking up to the hilltop fortress and two 16th-century churches

Not far from Antequerra, archaeologists have found evidence of a Bronze Age village, which may be what gave the Romans the idea that this place was old. Closer to town, there are small circular hills containing stone burial chambers (called dolmens) that date from between 2,000 and 3,000 BC, roughly the same era as Stonehenge. They were built from huge stones, the largest ones seven times heavier than those at Stonehenge. Through immense effort, the builders dragged the stones from the local mountains; stood them upright in a deep trench to form a long, narrow, U-shaped chamber; laid even bigger slabs on top for a roof, and covered the whole thing (except for the opening) with dirt to form a circular mound 50 meters (160 feet) wide.

The dolmens aren’t much to look at from the outside, and inside they’re too dark for photos, so we didn’t take any pictures of them. (If you want some, consult Google.) But just seeing the size of the stones and being inside such an ancient space was impressive. The dolmens have just been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, so town officials hope that will spur tourism to Antequera.

If so, visitors will find lots of other evidence of Antequera’s history. On the highest point in town, there’s the inevitable (for southern Spain) medieval Moorish fortress, taken over by conquering Christian kings who filled it with, you guessed it, churches. Just inside the walls of the fortress are the ruins of a Roman bathhouse. The surprisingly good town museum is filled with artifacts from Roman Antequera, ranging from the wonderfully mundane (bone dice that look almost exactly like modern dice) to the artistic (a large bronze sculpture of a boy).

And if that’s not enough history, you can see the changes that have occurred over a geologic time scale in a nearby limestone landscape called El Torcal. There, eons of erosion from rain, ice, and wind have turned karst hills into fantastic shapes full of lines and channels and circles. Some of my favorite formations resemble stacks of plates or giant piles of cookies. We hiked for a couple of hours through El Torcal, being careful to stay on the marked trails, because otherwise one could get seriously lost in that barren, rocky landscape. With all of the wonderful limestone cave formations we’ve seen in places such as Appalachia, the Yucatan, Slovenia, Thailand, and Vietnam, we sometimes say we’re doing a karst tour of the world. Now, when we get our tour t-shirts printed, we can add Spain to that list.

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