Traces of the Moors in Murcia Complement the Appeal of El Mar Menor'a Resorts
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“The city of Murcia with its resorts on Coasta Cálida combines history and modern leisure. This is why tourism has become our number one industry.” The pleasant Mercedes Garcia, Commercial Advisor for the city Murcia seemed proud of her town’s achievement. Yet, tourism is a relatively new industry in this part of Spain. For centuries, Murcia was, in the main, known for its silk and agricultural products.
The rich strips of greenery, surrounded by barren land, edging Murcia, remind the traveller of southern California. Even though it is one of the driest regions in Spain, large sections of the land are made productive by the skilful methods of irrigation, first introduced by the Moors. However, in the last few decades, the vast increase in fertile land has produced an extreme water shortage. Talk of expensive desalination plants on the Mediterranean is now on everybody’s lips.
Today, much of Murcia’s countryside is covered with market gardens, orchards and rice fields, giving rise to its name ‘Le Huerta de Europa’ (Europe’s orchard). The man-made canals, nourishing the fields of fruit and vegetables have created from this part of Spain a virtual garden.
What made all this possible were an Arab-introduced e irrigation system and a whole series of food plants, like artichokes, eggplants, apricots, lemons, oranges and others – all still carrying their Arabic names. Historians have asserted that in the days of the Moors, the Huerta around Murcia was called al-bustan (the garden) due to its countless orchards and gardens.
Enhancing the vestiges of the Moors are a series of Arabic words in the Murcian dialect and the many villages of the huerta like Albatalia, Alberca, Alcantarilla, Alfardde, Aljorra, Aljucer, Aljufia, Alquibla, Benitucer, and countless others still retaining their original Arabic names.
From this flourishing countryside, one enters the city of Murcia, first established in 831 A.D. by the Arab ruler of Moorish Spain, Abd al-Rahman II, on the site of a Roman settlement. The Arabs called it Misriya (Egyptian) after the Egyptian contingent of the Arab conquering armies that settled in this part of Spain. In the subsequent centuries, through usage, the name changed to Murcia.
During Moorish times, the city thrived on the produce of its countryside and a well-developed silk industry, becoming one of the richest cities in Muslim Spain. After the Christian armies occupied the city in 1243 A.D., its prosperity continued for a number of centuries. However, after Murcia lost its skilled artisans and farmers when the Moors were expelled from Spain in 1609, there was a sharp decline in the city’s affluence. Only in this century has the handicraft industry been somewhat revived and the production of the Huerta increased.
Today, Murcia with a population of some 400,000 is a town of churches, the capital of the province of Murcia, an important commercial and industrial centre, the seat of a Bishopric and a bustling university city. Built on the banks of the Segura River, the spacious modern avenues encircle the narrow streets of the old Moorish town where most of the monumental structures are to found.
For visitors, the most important of these is the Cathedral, erected in the 15th century on the remains of a mosque. A masterpiece of an architecture mixture, it incorporates a Baroque facade and an impressive Gothic interior. The clock on its bell tower was for hundreds of years important to the peasants of the surrounding Huerta. Its chimes regulated the irrigation times of the land before the noises of the modern city drowned out their sound.
Not far from the Cathedral is the Casino, fronting Trapería, the top-shopping street in the city. Its members meet to socialize, play cards or billiards, but not gamble. One of the most sumptuous buildings of its kind in Spain, it has a neo-classic attractive patio and a splendid ballroom reminiscent of the palace of Versailles. However, its most exquisite part is its Arab patio, a carbon copy of a room in Granada’s Alhambra, built in memory of the Moors in Spain.
The lure of the churches of the old city is complemented by the El Santurio de la Virgen de la Fuensanta, located 5 km (3 mi) from town on a high point overlooking the city and a large part of the fertile gardens and orchards of the huerta. The Santurio houses the patron Saint of Murcia – the Virgen de la Fuensanta. Every Easter the statue is taken out and paraded then displayed in the Cathedral for a few days before being returned.
When visitors tire of orchards and history, an hour’s drive from Murcia is the sunny Costa Cálida, one of the foremost tourist areas in Spain. The choice spot of this coast is El Mar Menor, a 170 sq km (66 sq mi) shallow lagoon called El-Edrisi in Muslim times. Here, where once Moorish nobles relaxed, one can luxuriate in its salt heavy waters – no more than 8 m (26 ft) deep – with the surprising pleasure of not having to swim very vigorously.
The lagoon is separated from the Mediterranean by a 21 km (13 mi) sandy tongue of land, 100 to 800 m (328 to 2,624 ft) wide, with double beaches, called La Manga (the sleeve). It is crammed-full of towering apartments, luxurious villas, hotels, restaurants, discos, boat-renting establishments, a casino and other tourist facilities devoted to leisure-time activities. Also, for golfers, a few minutes drive away is La Manga Golf Club Resort with three 18-hole championship courses set in a palm-studded carpet of green.
This tourist wonderland, the hospitable inhabitants, a fine cuisine – much of it inherited from the Arabs – and nature’s attributes, make this part of Spain an inviting holiday mecca. Amid the sun-soaked sands, towering tourist-drawing structures and holiday relaxation amenities, one can enjoy a seaside life while dreaming of the Moors and their rich legacy.
These attributes have propelled tourism to overtake agriculture, in the province of Murcia, as the top industry. Our guide summed it all up when she said: “We have the modern facilities, a pleasant climate, a land full of history and a people who love strangers. Why should tourism not be our number one industry?”