When they began to refurbish a ruin a block from our house a couple of weeks back, they found eleven skeletons. Literally. Eleven bodies. The discovery neither shocked nor surprised the construction crew, nor the archaeologist who was called in for the occasion. Actually, skeletons are common in our neighbourhood, not only in closets, but also in the ground.
The discovery wasn’t the first of its kind. Ask any neighbours and they will tell you stories of similar findings, sometimes in their own campo.
These days the authorities are usually called in, though in the past people would often cover up the bones or keep the ancient treasures they had found. Hence, the many Roman column bases one sees surreptitiously placed in closed-off courtyards around the hood. Not that I will squeal on anybody…
In case you wonder, our home is in the historical Barrio San Francisco in Ronda in southern Spain. In this part of the world, one can hardly put a spade to soil without being confronted with the incredible past of the Iberian Peninsula. Celts, Phoenicians, Suevians, Romans, Visigoths, Berbers, Christians and robbers have lived and died in these parts. Everywhere you look there are signs of bygone eras, previous settlements and former empires.
I will not force you to sit through a history lesson of Andalucía’s past, but I would like to invite you to take a walk with me through our barrio (neighbourhood) to discover some of its known and not so known former secrets.
Roman aqueducts and preaching friars
Walking out of our front door, we are literally emerged in history. At the end of our unassuming, narrow street, amongst olive trees and vineyards is what was once a Roman water tower.
At el Predicatorio at the top of our barrio, one can still see remnants of the Roman aqueduct system, which brought water into the municipium of Munda almost 2000 years ago.
Today, a lonesome windswept cross tops the ruins, indicating the natural pulpit or predicatorio where the ascetic Capuchin friar Diego José de Cádiz held sermons for his followers in the 18th century.
But let’s get back to our home base, Casita 26. Walking the other way to the top of our street, we stand face to face with the old protective town wall, built about a thousand years ago during Ronda’s (then called Runda) 700 years of Islamic rule.
The Almocabar gate dated from around the 13th Century is still there today. The name comes from the Arabic word Al-maqabir which means cemetery, as the Muslims buried their dead just outside the walled-in town. Our neighbourhood is therefore an ancient Andalusi necropolis. Later, when travelling vendors began to be charged for entering the town to sell their wares, those who could not or would not pay the levy started trading outside the town walls. They eventually set up home there, thus beginning the urbanization of our small neighbourhood.
The Christians built their own, larger entrance gate shortly after the re-conquest. Everyone wants to have the last word… Today cars can drive through the same gate where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel rode from our barrio and into Ronda after their victorious battle against the last Moorish governor Hamet el Zegri more than five centuries back.
I suggest we stop for a coffee at Juan’s, just inside the town gates. We are now in the official Casco Histórico (historic quarter), though as we have come to learn, there is equally rich history outside the town gates. From where we sit, you will notice a narrow street trailing up towards downtown. This street once housed Ronda’s silver and metal smiths. If you squint your eyes, you might be able to imagine how it looked like a few centuries back.
Robbers, armies and nuns
The peace and quiet never lasted long in our little barrio. Shortly after the Christian re-conquest, the Spanish Inquisition began, during which time nobody was safe, especially Muslims, but also Jews and converted Moriscos. Later, during the Napoleonic invasion of the peninsula in the 1800s, much of Ronda’s fortifications were damaged or destroyed. The barrio’s Convento San Francisco barely survived the French armies, only to be attacked again during the Spanish Civil War a century later. Yet, somehow, it is still here.
If wars and battles weren’t enough, our barrio was often refuge for the famous Bandoleros, or robbers who raided the Serranía de Ronda. Though few were as principled as Robin Hood, some Bandoleros became folk heroes, such as the legendary Pasos Largos.
Ronda’s old May fair, now renamed Ronda Romántica, is dedicated to its bandoleros. It is not surprising therefore that the procession, with participants from dozens of Serranía villages, starts in our barrio.
La Plaza – the heart of our hood
Our neighbourhood’s square, Plaza de San Francisco is always bustling with life. Tables of at least half a dozen adjoining restaurants are full of rondeños and visitors alike, while local children play around old men who sit and gossip on one of the square’s many stone benches.
Central to the square is a fountain with a statue of St. Francis, from whom the barrio gets its name. It was from this very square that the Marquez of Cádiz gathered his troops before reconquering Ronda on the 20th May in 1485.
As we sit down for an afternoon refreshment, try to imagine how knights on horseback once jostled in this square, while the unfortunate defeated caballeros were quickly brought to the chapel of Our Lady of Grace across the street for their final rites. You can still see the façade of the chapel, allegedly soon to be reformed into a hotel.
Imagine as well, the livestock fair and market which was held here until as late as the 1970’s. According to those who lived here then, our barrio had squeaking piglets running about and clucking chickens in every yard.
Waiting for our tapas to arrive, we have an excellent view of the building site where the skeletons were recently found. According to the archaeologist, the bones were from the last centuries of Islamic rule, based on the placement of the bodies (facing Mecca), and the ceramic pieces found around the site. No tombstones or things of exceptional archaeological value were otherwise discovered, so this time the bones were allowed to rest in peace.
Does living in an ancient necropolis bother us? Not in the least. Wherever we live on this planet, we walk with our own or someone’s ancestors underfoot. To me, it is a great privilege to have our home in a place where so many people and cultures have passed through before us. It is a healthy reminder that regardless of faith and origin, spirits may soar beyond, but this temporary and most finite carcass of ours share the same fate.
And here in the square I will leave you, in the heart of our barrio, where past and present meet, and where one can only hope that the Andalusian village life will go on forever and ever more.