A ‘Dramatic’ Discovery
The Roman Empire loved their Roman Theatres. As the Empire grew, they built theatres in exotic places – a symbol of a prosperous Empire making its mark on the world. So it is not surprising that the Romans built one in the tropical town of Málaga in the first century AD. Except that, for centuries leading up to 1951, the people of Málaga had no clue that such a magnificent piece of history lay buried under their feet.
Let’s give you a quick summary. Soon after the fall of the Roman empire, Málaga was taken over by dynasties from Arab kingdoms. Having no use for the Roman theatre, it was plundered for construction material and finally abandoned. Over centuries, dirt and rubble settled in, filling and covering the theatre, until there was no sign of it at all. Just a hill where it once stood. Out of sight, out of mind. Málaga’s Roman Theatre was forgotten.
Fast forward to 1951. As luck would have it, Málaga’s Casa de la Cultura, the House of Culture, located on the very same hill, decided to dig up the ground to build a new garden… and voilà! Columns and foundations of the theatre were discovered during landscaping. Consequently, the entire theatre was excavated and the House of Culture was shifted to a different site. Thus, giving back to Málaga an important symbol of its complex identity.
It makes one wonder, how much of our history is still lying underground, waiting patiently to be discovered!
The Secret of Sweet Oranges
One thing you notice wandering around Málaga is the abundance of orange trees with mouthwatering oranges just asking to be plucked. I was dumbfounded as to why no one was picking these by the bucketloads. Just as I was contemplating plucking one, our guide Alex belted out a warning, “Be careful when trying the beautiful oranges on those trees. There’s a high chance that the one you pluck will be unforgivingly bitter.” Alex then shared a local secret with us. “Look out for stems with double leaves, one little and one big. Trees with such leaves overwhelmingly produce bitter oranges.” I looked and looked and looked some more but didn’t have any luck finding a tree with sweet oranges. So if it looks too good to be true, it probably is!
A Salty Name
2800 years ago, around eight-hundred BC, the seafaring Phoenicians founded a colonial settlement called ‘Malaka’ around an excellent natural harbour with huge possibilities of trade. The name Malaka derives from the Phoenician word ‘Mlh’ for salt, as the area was known for sea-salt production.
Fun fact: Salt was a major trading currency in ancient times (used for preservation of meat and fish). In fact, the universal gesture for money, the rubbing of your thumb with your index and middle fingers, actually comes from the method used to check the quality of salt!
The One-Armed Lady
Málaga’s magnificent unfinished Cathedral took over two centuries to build. The construction came to a halt in the 1780s when funds were redirected to build roads. Given its unfinished status, locally, the Cathedral came to be known as “La Manquita” which literally translates to ‘the one-armed lady.’
Interestingly, a Mosque once stood where this Cathedral stands today. When Málaga was conquered by Christian troops in the late 1400s, they wanted to make the most of their existing resources by repurposing the Mosque into a Cathedral. But there was a challenge! The Mosque’s prayer area was facing towards Mecca, whereas the altar of the Cathedral required a completely different orientation. How did they solve it? They built new Cathedral walls around the old Mosque. In fact, because the Cathedral’s top is left unfinished, you can still see the domes of the old Mosque if you view the Cathedral from above.
Hop, Skip and Jump To Africa
Málaga is very close to the Strait of Gibraltar – the narrowest point between Europe and Africa. It is said that on a clear day you can just about glimpse the northern coast of Morocco.
The Decadent Breakfast
Our Airbnb host recommended some cafes for tasting authentic local food so we visited one for breakfast on our first morning in Málaga. Oh my God! Saying the breakfast was delicious, would be an understatement. First up, there was a classic ham and cheese toastie followed with a couple of coffees. And then there was the showstopper: sweet and salty Málaga churros with a dark-hot-chocolate dipping sauce. These churros were slightly different to the ones we had had before: for one, these were smooth on the outside, without the usual ridges, secondly, they were circular rather than long, and third, the batter was thinner, lighter and crisper compared to the normal. And of course, having a good chocolate dessert for breakfast can lift your mood like no other! Yay to Málaga churros!
When Arabic rulers captured Málaga, they built a palatial citadel ‘al-qasbah’ to protect the town and the rulers from any incoming invasions. The fortress served that purpose so well that it was never captured by force. Multiple ring-walls, narrow entrances, paths with sharp turns, ceiling doors for pouring hot liquids on enemies and other such features made it impenetrable.
The only time it got conquered was through a siege that lasted three months and signalled the end of Islamic rule in Europe. That’s right. In 1487, Málaga was the second-last city of importance to be captured as part of the Christian reconquest of Europe. By 1492, the Church’s domination of Europe was complete and absolute.
A feature with more interesting stories about the Alcazaba coming soon!