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.
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.