Calatrava la Vieja Detailed

photo calatrava vieja aerialCalatrava is one of the most important castle sites in Spain and has one of the longest histories. The first reference to Calatrava is in the year 785 AD and was an important Islamic site within the Cordoban Caliphate and today looked upon as one of the oldest Islamic foundations in the Iberian peninsula.

Calatrava was located on the road between Cordoba and Toledo, the two major cities of al-Andalus. It has been proposed that the site (being on the location of an even earlier pre-Roman settlement) was initially developed as a ‘Caravanserai’, the resting places often built along trade routes all over the Muslim world at this time (8th – 10th century).

It was a location of significant strategic importance and trade routes in many different directions intersected at the river crossing here and so Calatrava grew into a substantial town and became the Islamic capital of the La Mancha region.

For nearly 300 years, until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1031, it maintained its importance, but from the mid 11th century became somewhat autonomous and a site of dispute as the fragmentation of al-Andalus resulted in much internal calatrava vieja

The location of Calatrava became a significant frontier in the Christian reconquest of the 12th century. At this time Calatrava was first taken by the Christians in 1147 to become a Christian outpost on the Islamic frontier, was then retaken by the Almohads in 1195 during the battle of Alarcos and, finally, taken again during the Christian defeat of the Muslims at the battle of Tolosa in 1212. Calatrava remained in Christian hands from this date onward.

photo calatrava viejaDuring the first Christian period in the middle 12th century the castle was given to the military order of the knights Templar by King Alphonso. At the dissolution of the Templars later in the century the site became first a Cistercian house and quickly became the birthplace of a new Spanish military order – the Knights of Calatrava. A few years later, in 1217, the Order moved to a stronger, more defensive site on the top of a hill nearby and taking the name ‘New Calatrava’ with our site from that time being known as ‘Old Calatrava’



Description of the castle

Calatrava is essentially a Muslim stronghold and walled town or Medina. The occupation by the Christians in the 12th century was with a much reduced number of inhabitants and although some structural alterations were made to the castle the site was largely left as it had been.

Positioned on low lying ground, Calatrava is not primarily built as a defensive structure. The River Guadiana runs alongside the castle to the north providing a wide marshy defence, but the rest of the 5 hectare site was protected by a wide hand cut ditch all around, flooded with water from the river, and strong walls with interval towers. Within this circuit was the Alcazar or castle in the apex of the site to the east, and the enclosed town or Medina that occupied the majority of the site. Little of this vast area of the Medina, some 4 hectares, has been excavated to date.

photo tureganophoto tureganoThere are some interesting and significant design features at Calatrava that makes it one of the most original Islamic Spanish castles. One of the earliest of these are the ‘corachas’ or defended water towers. Four such towers remain as archaeological features, the oldest being from the 9th century at least. Corachas were an ingenious way of bringing water from the river, situated as it was, below the level of the castle, into the castle walls. This was done by using a hydraulic water-wheel in the river flow at the base of the tower that was used to pump water upwards and into a canal like structure to flow from a height above the castle walls, into the castle itself. The towers, with intermediate relay wheels, connecting wall and canal, all being integrated within a defensive structure. It has been suggested that these corachas were the forerunners of the purely defensive albarrana towers of the later Almohad period.

photo calatrava albarranaCalatrava contains several detached albarrana towers of the Almohad period (12th century) but actual dating of these towers is difficult. If constructed after the reoccupation of the site in 1195 they fall within the declared period of their introduction at Badajoz. If on the other hand these albarrana towers were constructed before the Christian capture of the site in 1147 they would push back the time when these towers were introduced. (see wider discussion on detached albarrana towers here).

The Christian occupation in the mid 12th century would see some rebuilding within the main fortified area including the creation of new building such as a church and other coventual buildings required by the military orders.

Many features of Islamic fortification, some very early or unique to Spain, can be found at Calatrava, making it a must see site for those interested in this period. Calatrava is located to the north east of Cuidad Real in the La Mancha region.



Photos on this page: Calatrava la Vieja.