Haughtily from Atop a Mountain Plain Ronda Guards Its Moorish Remains
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the late 1990s, we left Algeciras, on the southern coast of Spain, in the early morning hours and were soon driving on a highway twisting through fantastic mountain scenery, until we reached a high point overlooking the city of Ronda, perched atop gigantic pillars of rock amid green fields. One of the most spectacular towns in Andalusia it glittered in the sunlight like a treasured jewel hidden by the surrounding mountains. Like most travelers who have seen this once impregnable Moorish citadel we were enthralled with its unforgettable picturesque setting.
This time, almost two decades later, we had come in by train and our entrance was mundane – there was no spectacular scenic approach. From this side of town, the city appeared like any other southern Spanish urban center – whitewashed homes, edging neat and clean streets. Yet, Ronda is somewhat different from any other city in the Iberian Peninsula.
Encircled by rugged hills, the city is located on a high plain in the midst of the Serranía de Ronda Mountains. The town is divided into two sections by the chasm, Tajo de Ronda, from where there is a spectacular view over the valley below and the distant hills. Spanned by three bridges, the gorge is an awesome chasm, at places up to 152 m (500 ft) deep, through which runs the river, Guadalevín.
A city of some 40,000, Ronda owes its importance to the Moors who made it a center of culture, trade, and commerce. They filled the town with majestic buildings – remnants of which still survive. Today, the Arab/Muslim character of the majority of Ronda’s monuments along with its setting is the town’s top drawing cards. Only 48 km (30 mi) by an excellent highway from Costa del Sol, it is easily accessible to travelers. In the medieval ages and long afterward, rebels and ruffians infested the serpentine roads to Ronda. Today, modern highway accessibility has made Ronda the fourth most visited city in Andalusia.
The southern part with its historic aura is the old Muslim city, now called the Ciudad, while the northern section known, as the Mercadillo is the large and lively modern sector. However, it is not modern in the sense that we use the word but was built after l485, the year Ronda was captured from the Arabs.
The remains of the splendid Moorish age are, in the main, to be found in the old Arab section of the town. A short distance to the right after crossing from the Mercadillo sector by way of the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is the Plaza del Campillo. From here, a footpath leads down to the bottom of the ravine where, edging the Guadalevín River, are a small Moorish gate and the ruins of Arab mills.
To the left after crossing the bridge is the Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King), boldly leaning on the rim of the Tajo hundreds of feet above the river. A charming structure, it was rebuilt in the 18th century on Moorish foundations. Its terraced tree-filled gardens afford a breathtaking view of the gorge and countryside. A short distance away stands the palace of the Marquis de Salvatierra, a furnished 18th century home still occupied, but on the circuit of city tours.
Past a bridge built after the Spaniards occupied the town, then another built by the Arabs on Roman foundations, a road leads to the bottom of the gorge where the 13th century wonderfully preserved Arab Baths are located. Once heavily patronized by the bath-loving Moors, they were allowed to decay after the Christian conquest, but they have been restored. Impressive in size, the Baths consist of three naves with barrel-vaulted ceilings, divided by octagonal brick pillars that support 16 horseshoe arches.
Along the western edge of the Ciudad is the Mondragón Palace, built in the eighth century by the first Arab governor of Ronda. It has been renovated many times and there is very little left from the Moorish age. Only a delightful Arab patio with its beautiful garden overlooking the sierra, a few horseshoe arches, some superb mudéjar filigree work, and mosaics remain from Muslim times.
To the south are the ruins of the Alcazaba – the citadel of Ronda. This former fortress of the Moorish kings was destroyed by the French occupying army in l809 and has not been rebuilt. Nearby, there still stands a Moorish gate known as the Puerta Arabe or Puerta Almocábar with a horseshoe arch and two matching towers.
Back toward the center of the Ciudad is the Church of Santa María la Mayor that incorporates parts of a former 13th-century mosque. There remains as part of the church four Moorish domes, the lower section of the mosque minaret that is now a part of the church steeple and part of the mihrab that retains in readable Arabic the words `There is no deity but God’ and `The Beneficent, The Merciful’.
A few hundred feet away, stands Alminar, a minaret of a mosque after the Christian conquest was converted into the Church of San Sebastián. In later centuries the church was destroyed but for some unexplained reason, the minaret was saved. Within a short walking distance, one comes to the Casa del Gigante, an 11th-century Moorish palace with horseshoe arches, arabesques, and a Moorish ceiling that has survived from Muslim times.
In the new section of Ronda, two sites that should not be missed are the historic Bull-Ring, the oldest in Spain, where bullfighting was invented, and nearby, the Parador Nacional de Tourismo hotel, offering a fantastic view of the gorge and the countryside below. However, the Ciudad with its narrow and secretive Moorish-type streets and whitewashed homes with their Arab introduced ironwork balconies is in the main intriguing section of Ronda. Surrounded by large sections of ramparts erected by the Arabs, its narrow cobbled streets and hidden courtyards with their tiled patios, twinkling fountains and perfumed flowers takes one back to the days of the Moors.
The inspiring home of poets, sung about by musicians, and a mecca for painters and writers, the city, for those who love history and romance, has been an inspiration. The 13th-century Arab-Andalusian poet al-Rundi, from inside its ramparts, lamented the loss of most of Moorish Spain, Ernest Hemingway wrote that honeymooners should all go to Ronda and Orson Wells had his ashes brought back in this city, sitting like an eagle’s nest atop an awe-inspiring abyss.