The most astonishing fact about Ronda’s secret water mine is that it was made in the first place. The second most remarkable thing is that it is still here 700 years later, in spite of military battles, profit-seeking owners, grave robbers, floods and centuries of neglect.
La Mina de Agua is just around the corner from Puente Nuevo, but while hundreds of thousands of tourists annually cross the bridge that spans Ronda’s gorge, most visitors miss the incredible mine carved into the rock and leading to the riverbed right below our town.
So, if you, unlike Michelle Obama, haven’t had a chance to behold this man-made inversed water fortress, let us pay it a visit.
The Legend Of The House Of The Moorish King
Our journey of legends begins as we enter the gate adjacent to la Casa del Rey Moro. In spite of its name, this palace was never the home of a Moorish king. It did however belong to various members of the eminent Marquez de Salvatierra family.
The building itself was constructed in the early 18th Century, long after the Moors were expelled from Spain. Described as a Neo-Mudejar style palace, it was the first to take advantage of the spectacular views offered by the Tajo gorge. Today, the building is in dire need of restoration. While the present owner awaits permission to do so, we can only hope it will be granted before a storm tears down the remainder of this historical edifice.
The Duchess With A Conscience
La Duquesa de Parcent purchased the property in 1911 and did the most for the preservation of the palace and the mine. The Duchess was also responsible for the gardens we will walk through to enter the mine. She hired French architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier to create a green space that would ‘evoke Paradise’.
Merging French style and classical Muslim landscape design, the garden has fountains linked by water channels and Arab style tiles set against the dramatic backdrop of la Serranía de Ronda.
The Duchess also renovated the mine’s stairway and built a jetty and even had a small rowing boat on the Guadalevín river, so she could get to a cave where she had placed an image of the Virgin Mary. Her original stone platform is long gone, but will hopefully be restored soon as part of a larger plan to clean up Ronda’s waterways.
Returning to the world of legends, some historical recounts say that the Duchess commissioned the construction of the palace in 1709, which would make her some ghostly 250 years old by the time her garden was made…
But let’s not forget our destination. Though the entire complex of palace, gardens and mine was declared a National Monument in 1943, the water mine is really the jewel in this rather unpolished crown.
The Islamic Kingdom Of Ronda
Most sources agree that La Mina de Agua was constructed during the reign of King Abomelic at the beginning of the 14th Century, and operated in the Late Medieval era. According to folk legend, he was one of the last and most infamous Muslim Kings of Ronda, said to have drunk wine from the diamond-encrusted skulls of his enemies.
What we do know for certain is that Ronda was an independent Islamic kingdom in the Al-Andalus era. The relation between the Arab and Christian rulers wasn’t as conflict-filled as one might think and both military and trade alliances were often formed between the opponents. By the 15th Century however, Ronda was on the frontline between the Nazari Royals in Granada and the Catholic Kings in the north. More of a fort than a town, its location and surrounding walls made it virtually inaccessible to invasions, but it was still vulnerable to barricades.
The primary target of any besieging army would always be the water supply, so access to water became the lifeline for the Moors during several Christian sieges. Since the old town centre only had a couple of rain deposits to count on, its rulers had to find a way of bringing water into town. The answer came through the secret water mine, accessed from the top of the Tajo gorge, yet completely concealed from the view of intruders.
Taking advantage of a natural crevice in the gorge, the ingenious construction was excavated straight into the vertical cliff side, descending a distance of 60 meters down into the bed of the Guadalevin River below.
La Mina de Agua is a marvel of medieval Islamic hydraulic engineering. Its function was twofold: to protect and access water, while defending against intruders. In addition, the mine had the added benefit of offering a secret, last-resort escape route from the town. Still virtually intact and unique in all of Spain, the mine is of great historical and patrimonial importance as a key player in the defence of Ronda and its final re-conquest.
The Question Of The 365 Steps
As we descend into the mine, let’s consider the first water mine question. Legend says that the stairs had 365 steps, dug out by Abomelic’s slaves in a single year, completing one step per day. Though this sounds like a good story, post re-conquest sources confirm the step count. Speaking to Ronda’s archaeologist Pilar Delgado Blasco, she said that it would have been quite possible to excavate a step per day in the relatively soft stone of which Ronda’s Tajo is composed.
The number of steps have been debated, counted, changed and recounted throughout history. The stairs have been restored several times, last under the renovation overseen by the Duchess of Parcent in 1911 when the present railings, as well as the uppermost rod-iron staircase were added. Today, visitors enter through the terraced gardens and are only able to look up into where the initial descent happened, so we might never know how many steps there initially were.
Water Ways And Air Ducts
I have read visitors’ accounts speaking of the dangerous, poorly lit mine, which has not been our experience. Anyone capable of walking down and up a dozen flights of stairs should be fine to venture within. Some steps will be wet of course – it is a subterranean water mine. But if you take your time, it is perfectly safe.
Included in the entry fee is an audio guide in Spanish or English, downloadable to smart phones. Otherwise, the mine has limited signage and no posters, video screens or other visual aids. Nor are there guards at every turn reminding one to mind ones step or ones head, but this makes the experience all the more authentic.
Finding ourselves right inside the mineshaft is astounding by any standard. The inner walls of the vast chamber are composed of a vertical grid of ancient arches, making an otherwise dark and damp mine interior appear airy and quite striking from both an aesthetical and an architectural point of view. In addition, numerous gaps all the way up the exterior wall offer natural illumination at every point of our descent.
Half way down the mine, about 30 meters under ground, we come to a large open vault. This used to contain an enormous water wheel, allegedly powered by eight Christian slaves instead of the traditional mule. Water was channeled directly into the mine from further afield through brick-lined waterways or acequias – the Arabs answer to Roman aqueducts. The canals made it unnecessary to leave the fortress to collect water, while assuring that it was available even in seasons when the river level was naturally low.
The vertical mine was designed to defend the lower chambers and the secret door at the bottom of the gorge from overhead. 25 meters above the river we pass the Terrace of Conquest, the mine’s first line of defence. Strategically placed below a grotto and therefore impossible to see from the outside, watchmen would keep constant lookout for signs of intruders. And should unwanted guests appear, there were ample hidden windows from where boiling oil could be poured.
A True Tale Of Slaves
An indisputable fact mentioned in many contemporary sources is that Christian slaves would carry the water in leather sacks up the stairs into Ronda. Some state that the captives passing these water bags were chained to the steps. Most water carriers were likely prisoners of war from the Catholic army, as either side of the conflict would have taken hostages. 15th Century reports describe how when the Castellan troops forced entry, they discovered that the mine had essentially been a prison. Hundreds of slaves – men, women and children – were found in a wretched state, having been kept in five rooms, possibly in the defensive tower that no longer exists. All the slaves were freed without payment, which usually was the only way to escape slavery. By royal decree, 417 former slaves walked to Cordoba to kiss Queen Isabel’s hand the following Easter. The Royals ordered the chains used on the captives to be sent to Toledo and be fastened to the walls of San Juan de los Reyes church, where they still can be seen today.
There is a saying that is said said to have originated with the slaves: “En Ronda mueras acarreando zaques,” meaning “You will die carrying water sacks in Ronda.” As one can imagine, this was used more as a curse than a statement.
We are now in the lowest section of the mine where the weapons room and la Sala de Secretos was located. The Room of Secrets has massive walls and a vaulted ceiling extending into each corner. A typical military construction of the era, it has unique acoustics. If two people stand in opposite corners facing the wall and whispering, they can hear each other perfectly well, while the conversation is inaudible to anyone standing in the centre of the room. What schemes were planned here, one wonders?
The Secret Of The Crosses
We are not done with our legends yet. Descending further while trying not to loose count of the steps, we pass some course engravings on the wall. These inscriptions of crosses and graffiti initials in the lime deposits in the stairway were discovered in the 17th Century. A story surfaced about a captive knight having scraped the initials of IHS (Jesus Christ) into the wall with his own fingernails before drawing his last breath. Though prisoners always try to signal to the outside, or in this case to the ones above, some of the crosses were likely added after the re-conquest.
Again referring to the town archaeologist, she explained that the new Christian population of Ronda might have engraved crosses out of fear of what would happen to them if they, God forbid, drank ‘Muslim’ water.
The Myth Of The Bathing Nymph
We have finally come to the bottom of the mine and as we behold the river through an arched doorway, it is time for another legend…
One of the most popular myths is that the infamous King Abomelic built the mine for his favourite and of course uncommonly beautiful daughter, so she could bathe in the river out of public eye. This is pure hogwash of course.
First and foremost, the mine was the lifeline for everybody in the Moorish town, including the royal household. Secondly, a princess in those days did nothing alone, certainly not bathing herself, which would be far beneath her. Thirdly, I am sure that the fair princess had her personal bathrooms, and would not have bothered to climb down 365 steps to bathe ‘in private’, but in view of every watchman in the tower, only to sweat when being carried up again, not that her palanquin would have fit down the stairs. Lastly, the King, however mad he might have been, would not have allowed the apple of his eye to enter a steep mine filled with suffering slaves and swarthy soldiers for a mere dip in the river.
Hence, the princess bathing in the Guadalevin river is yet another historical misrepresentation. The legend likely originated with the Catholic conquistadors after discovering the mine. By using the romantic tale to explain its existence, they simultaneously covered their ignorance of the function and purpose of a mechanical piece of engineering that was far beyond their technical knowledge and understanding.
A Missing Hole Or A Muslim Traitor?
The question of how the Castellan troupes entered the mine has also become a point of debate. One theory is that the invaders accessed the mine through a hole in the wall in the lowest chambers, though no such opening has been found.
The most common theory supported by chronicles of the time speaks of a Muslim traitor who revealed the location of the secret door leading into the mine from the river’s edge. After a long siege, it was likely here at the mine’s iron-plated back door that Castellan troops forced entry on Wednesday the 13th of May in 1485.
The traitor theory is supported by many historians who explain that sooner of later somebody from the inside will sell the secret to the enemy or disclose its whereabouts under torture. It makes sense – every exit is a potential entrance. When the backdoor to the river became known to the Castellan troupes and they took control of Ronda’s water supply, surrender would have been inevitable.
The Dark Years And The Mad American
La Mina de Agua was probably never used again after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel took over Spain. It was abandoned in the 16th Century and became a place of legends.
In the beginning of the 20th Century the mine was once again in danger. This time the threat came from a new owner. More crook than businessman, North American multimillionaire Lawrence Perin bought the palace and mine in 1909. He contacted national press, claiming to have discovered a mine that was like the new Alhambra with chests of Roman coins and hidden palaces.
Plotting to develop the mine into a lucrative centre for tourism, he informed the Spanish government that he had a thousand men working on the excavations. Not getting the reception he had hoped for, he turned to Morocco. Professing that his mine contained the tombs of several Moorish kings, he allegedly attempted to sell this non-existent Arabic pantheon to a sultan in Fez through an English resident of questionable reputation in Tangier.
Nobody in Ronda knew anything about these claims until they read about the ‘discovery’ in the national press. The writer and historian Don Juan Pérez Guzmán y Gallo was so enraged by these fabricated discoveries that he produced a 70-page document for the Royal Academy of History in 1909, setting the story, and history, straight – what one found in Ronda’s mine, he said, was water which had supplied the town, as well as the grain mills further down river, not subterranean palaces, Roman treasures and tombs of bygone kings.
The Last Unwritten Chapter
One would think that the mine had been through enough hardship, but apart from the short reprieve under the Duchess’ care, it was once again abandoned. Throughout half the 20th Century, Franco managed to practically erase the Arab era from Spanish history books, instead augmenting the importance of the country’s more Aryan Visigoth past.
Unbelievable as it may seem, as late as in the 1990’s the mineshaft was completely inaccessible, having been filled with construction rubble and garbage. Not until 1997 was this rectified, when Archaeology professor Fernando Amores Carredano took charge of clearing out the unique historical construction so we can visit it today.
An investigation team of architects and archaeologist from the University of Sevilla is trying to uncover some of the mine’s secrets. The team is presently working on surveying and mapping out the various parts of the mine, while future projects include excavating the remains of the water wheel, making the old weapon room and guard house accessible to visitors, as well as excavating the floor in the Room of Secrets, which was covered in the early 20th Century. Hopefully their work will give us some more answers as to the mine’s past and ‘The Rift that overthrew a Kingdom’.
The enigmas of La Mina de Agua continue, but there is one thing the mine has taught us – sometimes reality is better than legends.
For more information, please go to La Mina de Agua
Thank you for your enjoyable articles. We are visiting Ronda 11/28 – 12/1. Your writings have made quite an impression regarding the local history and culture. We would very much appreciate any suggestions for additional related reading or activities. We also chose to escape the urban environment, but only to Point Reyes Station, CA. where we have a small flower farm.
Regards, Jim & Peggy