History of Valencia

Map of valencia antigua panorama

The recorded history of Valencia begins in 138 BC when a Roman garrison founded the city on the banks of the Turia river, but the city was built on a much older Iberian settlement that stretched back millennia (artifacts from that prehistoric era can be seen at the Archaeology Museum of Valencia).   Prior to that there was a human (and neanderthal) presence in the Valencian basin during the Ice Age, as mammoths and woolly rhinoceros roamed the area (as can be seen in the Valencian Museum of Natural Sciences).  The Greek settled here by 500 B.C., centering themselves around Sagunto, 20 kilometres north of Valencia, erecting a massive hilltop fortress which still stands next to a fine Roman amphitheatre.

Spain was considered part of the core of the Roman Empire, and the city of Valencia was a large, thriving metropolis with a forum, baths and temple complex, all of which have been unearthed and are on display at the Almoina Museum beside the city’s main square, the Plaza of the Virgin.

To the south of the city was a large freshwater lake which edged up to the Roman defensive walls.   The area surrounding this lake provided fertile lands for agriculture.   Later, under Arabic rule, much of the lake would be drained, converted to farmland and extensively irrigated, creating a hugely productive agricultural region still in use today.  Here around the lake, using locally abundant ingredients such as rice, rabbit, snails, eels and frog’s legs, the world-famous paella was first made.

The Roman Empire collapsed around 450 A.D. in western Europe and Valencia was overrun by marauding Vikings,  Vandals, and Byzantines.   Eventually in 625 A.D. the Visigoths took control of the city.  Though their architecture was heavy and somewhat artless, these Christians from the north built a truly massive cathedral adjacent to the central square that the Romans had laid down 700 years previously.   The foundations of this structure can be seen in the Almoina, and most spectacularly, at the Visigoth crypt, housed beneath an administrative building near the Plaza of the Virgin.

The rule of Valencia by the Visigoths was shortlived, for in 714 A.D. it is recorded that Arab forces from north Africa swept across nearly the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, taking firm control and transforming, for the first and only time (along with Sardinia and Sicily), a part of Europe into an Islamic area.   Much can be said of the deep influence upon the culture of Spain that was made by the 500 years of Muslim rule that followed.  The Moors (as they are sometimes refered) developed an advanced irrigation system which enriched the entire Valencian basin and which is still in use today, and many of the place-names in the region that were given at that time are also used.  The world’s oldest institution of justice, Valencia’s famed Water Tribunal, still meets every Thursday in the city centre to resolve irrigation disputes – 1300 years after the Tribunal was founded. The Moors built an enormous mosque on the site next to the Plaza of the Virgin (which would later be destroyed and used as the site for the Cathedral).  Valencia in Arabic at that time was called ‘The City of Gold’.  The entire layout of the old city was constructed during this period, with thriving Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters.  Later Moorish Kings of Valencia built defensive walls around it which are still able to be viewed.  Architecturally, only slight echos of Arabic influence still exist around the city, and there is even less evidence of the Jewish population (expelled around 1400, 170 years after the Reconquest), which during Muslim rule was said to be around 2000 people.

After 500 years of Muslim rule the tides turned, and in 1238 King James 1st, leading an army of assorted Christian fighters, retook the city of Valencia after a short siege.  50,000 Moorish troops surrendered and the flag they used to signal that surrender is now housed in the City Museum.  It is reverently paraded around the City once a year during the annual festival of Christianos and Moros.

It cannot be overestimated how profoundly that reconquest moment still vividly lives in the minds of Valencians.  It is commemorated graphically in the ubiquitous symbol of the city, celebrating an event that happened nearly 800 years ago.   When King James entered the city for the first time in triumph, the people witnessed a bat fly around him and so the bat became the symbolic protector animal of the city- a friend to the surrounding farms because they eat insect pests and protect crops, and as a living symbol of the victorious King. Images of bats in Valencia are so numerous they require an entire webpage on their own to describe, with a detailed description of the overall crest of Valencia, which it forms the top of.  The bat remains an enduring emblem of Valencian pride.

A few short centuries after the Reconquest Valencia entered into what is called its Golden Age, in the 15th century.  With prosperity came the building of many of the magnificent monuments which adorn the city- the UNESCO world-heritage site, La Lonja (the Silk Market, the worlds finest example of secular late-Gothic architecture), the Cathedral (which was built on the site of the Mosque) and its famous belltower, the Migelette, as well as the defensive gates: Torres de Serranos, Quart and 10 others gates to the city, since demolished.  The imposing Palace of City- seat of Government, and uncountable numbers of monasteries, cloisters, hospitals, churches were also built at this time, all of which remain in splendid condition, still vital institutions of city life.

The city of Valencia continued to prosper, yet it also experienced some minor upheavals as well.  In the early 1800’s Napoleon’s troops invaded the city and managed to destroy the outlying Palace of the Queen, the ruins of which 150 years later now beautify Viveros Park– a popular and entertaining public venue housing a natural history museum, various cafes, a botanical gardens, a huge flock of wild parrots, concert venues, peacocks, horseriders and of course, at sunset, bats.

Valencia Today

So much has NOT been said about Valencian history, culture, language, dress, food, music and festivals which I hope will be brought to life elsewhere in this website, on the Sights and Festivals page, or better yet, if you, dear reader, come for a visit!   Please visit the About Valencia page of this website for few words about Valencia as it is today with the hope that you come to better understand and perhaps love as I do this fascinating city.

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Jewish History of Valencia

Though there is a long history of Jews in Valencia, dating back over 1000 years (at the time of the reconquest of Valencia from the Muslims in 1238 A.D. there were about 2000 Jews living here), very few remains exist here that show this long relationship.  On July 9th,  1391 a large group of youths attacked the Jewish Quarter (see maps) and killed over 250 people, ransacking their homes and raping the women of each household. Though over 90 people were eventually arrested this event essentially ended the Jewish presence in Valencia, with the exception of visiting businessmen. The land where the main synagogue of Valencia once stood became reconsecrated as the Church of San Cristobal (on Calle Poeta Bodria) just a few years after the attacks. The Jewish cemetery now is the location, incredibly, of Valencia’s largest department store (see picture below) El Corte de Ingles.

The Jewish community didn’t re-emerge here until the 1970’s.

The area where the Jewish quarter once was has only intriguing echos of its Jewish history.  The Calle de los Gallinas (Chicken Street) is where the old Jewish kosher market used to be….but now it’s a dead end.  Calle Luis Vives is named after the famed theologian whose family was killed for refusing to convert to Christianity and who later fled to Belgium.

The Jewish Quarter of Valencia is most understood by the violence of its absence. In the centre of the Jewish Quarter is a large modern residential complex dating from the 1960’s.  No effort was made during that time to document the archaeological remains that no doubt were unearthed beneath it during its construction.  It is notably the largest modern residential complex within the old city. This is an indication of the relative limbo the area was thrust into after the removal of the Jewish community, especially after the expulsion of 1492.

A walk around the former Jewish Quarter (centred around Calle del Mar) is certainly evocative and astonishing in its own way.

further resources about Jewish History in Valencia can be found here: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14628-valencia

and here: http://www.travel-watch.com/jewsofvalencia.htm

and here:  http://culturalvalencia.blogspot.com.es/2012/10/visit-to-medieval-jews-district-of.html




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Decorative drainpipes of Valencia

Walking the streets of Valencia there are limitless details that whisper and astound the visitor. Keep on the lookout for the decorative faces which protrude from many of the drainpipes on the historic buildings of the city. Their character and beauty transport you through time. See how many different ones you can find.  As always, enjoy this magnificent city to its fullest!

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The Valencian Library

This truly is a hidden gem.  Located on the edge of the city, surrounded by farmland, is this enormous structure. First built in 1381 as a Cisterian monestary it was later a prison, a school and finally, after extensive reconstruction in 1995, a library. Even Valencians I spoke to didn’t know what this was, but to see the beautifully restored courtyard is well worth the visit. If you are around near sunset, the bats flying around the farm fields will entertain you too!


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More posts below…

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Muslim Traces in Valencia

…..Though Muslim rule ended in Valencia in 1238 A.D. nearly 800 years ago, that period left a deep cultural impression here- most notably in much of the vocabulary of modern Spanish, but also in the local place-names around Valencia such as the town of Alboraya and lake Albufera.

…..In fact, it was the Muslims who built and maintained the extensive irrigation system which enriched the Valencian basin and is still in use today.   A connected cultural aspect of that huge public works project, which has remained a vital component of the Valencian agricultural economy, is the Water Tribunal, the oldest institution of justice in Europe, which still meets every Thursday in the Plaza of the Virgin to resolve water disputes, just as it has done every week for the last 1000 years!

…..Scattered around the city are hints of Islamic influence.  For example, the entire layout of the old city was first constructed by the Muslims, which can especially be seen in the winding streets of El Carmen.  In many places it is still possible to view sections of the original defensive walls that were built in the era of Muslim rule from 714-1238 A.D.:  at the Gallery of Tossal, at the Museum of Illustration and Modernity, and at other odd places, in the lobby of a local university and in the basement of a restaurant!

…..Other sites around the city showcase archaeological findings from the Islamic Era:  an Muslim-styled courtyard at the Cultural Centre of El Carmen and most impressively a Muslim-period Governor’s house at the Almoina Museum next to the Plaza of the Virgin.  In fact, the entire Cathedral was built after the reconquest on what was Valencia’s mosque (mesquita in Spanish).

…..In addition, Muslim style has also affected elements of Valencian architecture which are still enthusiastically used today, in the shapes of many windows and doors, in the star-shaped fountains which can be seen throughout the city, and also in the extensive use of patterned tiles in residences, churches, restaurants, lobbies and even on roofs- that entire industry was developed during the Muslim period to a high level of complexity.

…..Some Arabic funerary sculpture can also be seen (and read!) at the Museum of Fine Arts, which has a small collection of Koran inspired carvings which are over 900 years old!

…..One curious echo of Muslim rule is the Arabic-styled Bath-House, actually built during the Christian period around 1300 by a wealthy knight who simply enjoyed this aspect of Arabic culture.  Amazingly, these baths remained in public use (presumably men-only) for the next 600 years before being declared a public monument and turned into a museum.

…..Other small items from the Muslim time-period can be seen at the Visigoth Crypt, at the National Museum of Ceramics and at the Museum of Valencian History.



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Festival of Saint Vicente

…..The only festival in Valencia which takes place at Malvarosa Beach, the Festival of Saint Vincente has some curious and yet hugely fun traditions which thousands of Valencians participate in every year.   Every July 25th over 100,000 people gather at the beach at night for a party of music, bonfires, BBQ’s, dancing and drinking which culminates at midnight when, as is the custom, everyone runs into the sea and jumps over seven waves…..for luck.

…..It is a truly unforgettable experience to watch, or be part of, 100,000 people running from a beach into the sea at midnight at the same time and having them all try to madly jump over approaching waves.   The party doesn’t stop until sunrise.

(more pics in 2016!)

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