Madrid reveals the secrets of its origins

This crumbling bit of wall doesn’t look much, I’ll give you that, but it’s one of the oldest bits of Madrid, providing the evidence on which the city’s history is based – until now, that is. It’s on the Cuesta de la Vega, the hill next to the Royal Palace and the Almudena cathedral, which leads down to the Manzanares river. This was the site of the Puerta de la Vega gate, and is actually sections of the 9th and 12th-century city walls, built by the Arabs and Christians respectively.

Until now, it had generally been accepted that Madrid was founded as a town in the year 852, after the Emir of Cordoba, Mohammed Ibn Abd al Razhman, decided to build a fortress on the promontory where the Royal Palace is now. Inside the flintstone and adobe wall, it was believed there was a jumble of shacks linked by winding paths, with a mosque and a small marketplace.

But now the experts have changed their minds. A huge new structure is being built behind the palace to house the royal collections, which has enabled a lot of excavation to take place and turned up some surprising finds. The archaeologist in charge of the project, Esther Andreu, has now concluded that Madrid wasn’t founded by the Arabs at all, but by the Christian rulers in the 12th century. She told EL PAIS that the Arab presence was no more than a barracks alongside the fortress.

Royal Palace

The excavations behind the palace, and under the square that divides it from the cathedral, have revealed the remains of six houses that date back to between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th. There is no evidence to show that people lived there before that. Time to tear up the history books.

Esther Andreu says that vestiges of small-scale farming activity, including wells and bits of pottery, but no houses, have been found from the time of the Arabs.

What they have found, however, is a lot more of the walls that protected the fortress, a stretch of around 70 metres that was built in the 9th and 10th centuries and is eight metres high in some places. These discoveries, complete with the remains of several watchtowers, will be on view when the new museum is complete.

The site has also revealed that Christians, Arabs and Jews all lived together in those early days of Madrid. But there have been discoveries from much earlier settlements too, including a Visigothic tomb from the 8th century, and even pottery fragments from 1BC. What with this and the major work going on to develop the banks of the Manzanares, it looks like we’re going to be finding out a lot more about the origins of Madrid in years to come.

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