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Ruins of Bobastro

Nowhere are the remains of Moorish Spain more visible than in Andalusia. But amongst all the countless crumbling piles of stone that litter the region, few are as unexpectedly impressive as the fortress of Bobastro.

 
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By:  Ben Cooper
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Ruin of an ancient Moorish stronghold
Birth: 880 A.D.
Arquitect: Umar Ibn Hafsun
Location: las Mesas de Villaverde, Sierra de Pizarra, Ardales, Málaga
Stands out for: the last stand of the Mozarab Rebellion occurred there

The road winds, first one way, then the other, though a landscape dominated by massive rock formations; huge monolithic boulders jut out like the tips of icebergs from the dusty earth or sit squat atop massive, bulbous protrusions of smooth ochre. Las Mesas de Villaverde nestles amongst the misshapen hills and valleys of whispering pine trees, wild olives and stunted holm oaks of the Sierra de Pizarra. High above, against the brilliant blue of the sky, the odd bird of prey can be spotted lazily surveying the scene as it rides the currents of warm air.

After countless twists and turns, a slight indent of a parking place signals that it’s time to pull in. A small sign is the only indication of one of the less well-known – and yet oddly atmospheric – Moorish monuments of Andalusia: the complex of Bobastro. A flight of rough stone steps worn smooth by weather and footfall runs away from the parking space. Like so much of the surrounding landscape, the sense of the wearing influence of time hangs heavily over the place.

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Advancing towards the centre of the complex, the squat foundations of the outer ring of what were once great walls can still be seen. Large chunks of masonry lie everywhere on the ground, swallowed up by the slow advance of the undergrowth. Other vague evidence of construction (guard towers, possibly?) are also visible, in spite of the thick covering of scrubs. At times it’s hard to distinguish between them and the outlandish rock formations; shaped over the ages by the elements, they make the imagination race. Either way, what strikes you immediately as you clamber over the outer walls, is that Bobastro was no small affair, and it’s clear that there’s much more still to be uncovered. (Out here in the middle of nowhere, whether or not it will ever be excavated is another matter…).

A dusty path clings to the contours of the hill, following it around the brow. Eventually a clearing of sorts opens up, marked by a weather-beaten, rusting sign which rather sums up the forgotten about, even neglected, feel of the place. In the centre of the clearing stands a well-worn structure. Remarkably, considering that they have stood in the baking sunshine of summer and the whistling winds of winters for over 1000 years, a series of exotic looking horseshoe arches can still be clearly made out.

Carved out of the sandstone they make for an impressive spectacle. Despite its scale (little more than 16m by 10m) the rock church of Bobastro is a unique archaeological site. Along with (arguably) the Church of Santa de Melque in Toledo, it’s one of the only churches in Spain that can truly be considered an entirely ‘Mozarab’ structure. Alongside the remains of the walls of the church, there’s a crypt, and, elsewhere around the site, a cemetery and then… only scattered pieces of an intriguing jigsaw puzzle – tantalizing hints of what once stood there – remain of the rest of Bobastro.

In some ways Bobastro is just another of the many crumbling piles of stones that litter the Andalucian countryside. And, undoubtedly, other than the striking arches, there’s precious little to actually see. But at least some of the spirit of futile resistance can be felt here, out in the wilderness. As is the case in so many parts of the region, the whole site has just a whiff of Byron’s ‘Ozymandias’ about it: timelessness mixed with transience and (particularly given Ibn Hafsun’s story) hubris… And it’s this heady, evocative atmosphere that clings to Bobastro, rather than anything tangible, that makes it so special.

 

Facts


History

Hardly any easier to decipher is the story of its master, Ibn Hafsun. Umar Ibn Hafsun (or Omar Ben Hafsun) was the leader of a dissident movement that tried to wrest control of the region from the Umayyad Emir of Cordoba, Abdullah Ibn Muhammad, in the 9th and early 10th century. Ibn Hafsun managed to mobilize various dissatisfied parties from across the Emirate. After years of disruption, in 891 he suffered a heavy defeat, however, at the Battle of Poley (modern-day Aguilar de la Frontera), and retreated to Bobastro in the desolate hinterlands of the Sierra.

After the death of Ibn Muhammad, it fell to his grandson, the great Abd el Rahman III (who was responsible for the glories of Medina Azahara), to crush the resistance. First, he defeated Ibn Hafsun’s allies in Seville in 913 before turning his attention to Bobastro. Meanwhile Ibn Hafsun made the grave strategic error of converting to Christianity while at Bobastro, a move that alienated many of his Muslim allies. He died in 917, leaving it to his son to continue the faltering resistance. Bobastro fell in 928, and with it the Mozarab Rebellion finally came to an end. Ibn Hafsun’s body was dug up, and as a sign to other would-be rebels not to resist the might of the Umayyads, it was crucified next to the Mezquita in Cordoba.

It’s hard to tell precisely what sort of a figure Ibn Hafsun really was, as resistance to any central power inevitably becomes heavily mythologized. Now he stands as one of the many highwaymen, robber barons and assorted Robin Hood characters that dot the history of Andalusia.

 

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El camino del Rey
A crumbling walkway clinging to a cliff edge, the Camino del Rey was used by railway workers in the early 20th century. Despite being closed off by the Junta de Andalucia and slipping into further disrepair with every passing year, it remains a major draw to climbers.

The Ardales Cave
One of the most important and extensive examples of Palaeolithic cave paintings in the whole of Europe. Visits are strictly monitored, and are by appointment only. (July-August: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays; the rest of the year, Saturdays and Sundays only.) 952458046.

Complejo Turístico la Garganta
Accomodation near the ruins.
Bda. El Chorro, s/n
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Camping Parque Ardales
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Getting there?


Ruinas de Bobastro
From El Chorro follow the MA-448 until reaching the ruins, in the Mesas de Villaverde, Sierra de Pizarra

Opening hours: Guided Tours, Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 15:00. Closed on Mondays (except public holidays).

Price: €3.


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68 comments

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El 8 February 2009 a las 11:31 AM, Amanda Hamilton dijo...

What a brilliant article! Very informative - thanks so much


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El 18 February 2010 a las 5:02 PM, Anthony dijo...

La visita a este lugar es algo mágico, no solamente por el entorno natural en el que se encuentra, si no también y sobretodo por las ruinas de esa antigua ciudad cuyos habitantes, fuera de la ley, edificaron una iglesia desgastando la roca de la misma montaña. Sus arcos permanecen todavía después de mil años y narran la vida de un rebelde y de una población que vivió para y por sus creencias enfrentados al gobierno que deseaba eliminarles.

Unos guías ofrecen la posibilidad de conocer toda la historia del lugar. Bobastro y su iglesia mozárabe es hoy día un recinto arqueológico protegido y hay que pagar un módico precio por adentrarnos en sus secretos.

Hay una página web desde donde se ofrece mucha informacion. Es esta: http://www.redpatrimonioguadalteba.com

Muy buen artículo y hasta pronto.


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El 7 June 2010 a las 3:07 PM, Carlos J.Galán dijo...

Fascinante el sitio y fascinante la historia que encierra.
Se acaba de publicar el estudio más completo sobre Bobastro, del que es autor Francisco Ortiz Lozano. El libro es un estudio minucioso, pero a la vez de muy amena lectura.
En http://www.vimeo.com/12308187 tenéis una interesante entrevista con el autor, donde cuenta algunas curiosidades sobre Bobastro y Umar ibn Hafsun.
Un saludo.


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El 17 June 2010 a las 9:19 PM, Carlos J. Galán dijo...

En http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcDgZQ0BJ9M está la misma entrevista a Francisco Ortiz sobre Bobastro pero dividida en varias entregas.


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