Zalia Detailed

 Zalia castle, situated in the arid uplands 30 Km north of Velez-Malaga in southern Spain, will not be familiar to many. It is a site without spectacular upstanding remains, it is far from popular tourist sites and routes, but it is of immense interest.

Zalia castleZalia castle is an Islamic period settlement, which in this region of Spain, the Kingdom of Granada, lasted until the end of the 15th century. Zalia castle and associated village were abandoned at the reconquest of the area by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1485 when the Muslim occupants were forced to flee eastward towards Granada itself or were assimilated into other communities nearby. The settlement was certainly abandoned by 1568 and has never been reoccupied since, nor has it received any form of archaeological excavation.

The stonework of the castle and fortified enclosures has largely been robbed away over the intervening centuries, leaving just a few stretches of curtain wall and some towers. The site of the castle and the remaining structures, the associated deserted medieval village and the wider worked landscape do however present us with a rare Spanish example of an important medieval castle complex, with some very interesting features, undisturbed by later workings.

Zalia comprises of an inner enclosure at the highest part of the site. Within this inner section are the remains of a large water cistern below ground and the base of a rectangular lookout tower at the summit. Zalia gatewayThe entrance gateway to this inner enclosure is flanked by a pair of large square section stone built towers, forming an impressive inner gatehouse.

This gatehouse, and several of the mural walls at Zalia, are made of stone along with the rest of the castle, but are capped with an upper section made from tapial or rammed earth. This material, commonly used by the Muslims in Spain, is often employed as the main building material but this use, for the crenelations and highest part of the walls from the wall-walk upwards, is unusual. Zalia tapialThis material, easier and cheaper to form into the decorative shapes of Islamic crenelations than stone, also requires that in order to disguise the two materials of construction, stone and tapial combined, the walls and towers would have been uniformly plastered and painted thereby masking the underlying fabric. Significant remnants of this original plaster on the mural walls survive.

Beyond the inner circuit of walls was another roughly concentric outer enclosure encircling the hill lower down the slope and forming a second bailey. As the gradient between the two walls is quite steep and irregular the ground between is terraced with stone walls and containing house platforms on the terraces. This area is strewn with medieval building rubble including roof tiles, pottery shards, bricks and building stone, suggestive of a substantial occupation towards the close of the medieval period.

Zalia wallsThis second, outer enclosure wall also has a number of mural towers of rectangular and semi-circular construction. They all are of solid construction without any internal chambers with the most impressive stretch of wall and including an outer gateway, faces the large plateau to the south which was likely to have been the Medina or village. Zalia towerThis area, also covered in demolition rubble, appears not to have been walled in stone as the main castle was but may have relied on the steep slopes on three sides for protection. The stone, brick and rooftiles on the ground here do imply the buildings within the Medina were substantial in their construction.

The two towers facing the Medina are interesting in showing Islamic construction techniques. For example circular holes of about 15cm in diameter are where now-rotted timbers were used to bind the walls. One tower has remains of an external staircase to the rear leading to the platform on the top and also rainwater drainage holes at floor level.

The large open landscape to the west of the castle of Zalia is also an archaeological protection area, as is the main castle site and Medina, as it preserves a medieval landscape and cultivation zone associated with the Islamic settlement. Many ditches and earthworks present in this wider landscape are likely to be remnants of the medieval past.Zalia landscape

Zalia is a fascinating site that it is to be hoped, will one day be the subject of intense study and interpretation that will reveal its secrets and its full history. It should be carefully protected and preserved as a rare abandoned medieval settlement.

There are more photos of Zalia castle and landscape here.





Photos on this page: Zalia castle. From top to bottom: twin towered gateway showing tapial upper section; wall and towers of lower enclosure with inner courtyard towers at the top: landscape to the west of the castle.