© Michelle Chaplow Ronda became known as "the Eagles' Nest". There was deliberate irony in the name.
Ronda became known as "the Eagles' Nest". There was deliberate irony in the name.

History of Ronda

Somewhere along the way, Ronda became known as "the Eagles' Nest". There was deliberate irony in the name. On the one hand a simple, mildly poetic reference to its perch high in the mountains above its famous gorge; on the other an ironic reference to its inhabitants' reputation for canny ferocity.



They may have had their reasons, for before we get too misty-eyed about supposed lost golden ages when the world was a quieter, safer place where the sun shone, peace reigned, and front doors could safely be left unlocked all night, we should remember that as far back as history can take us, our ancestors' pre-eminent consideration in choosing the site of any permanent settlement was the ability to defend it. Not from wild animals, which were little more than a nuisance, but from other human beings. They lived on their nerves - forever on their guard for the next attack. They chose high, inaccessible ground, from which they could stare out over the landscape and monitor the approach of sinister strangers. And all strangers, by definition, were sinister.

The site chosen either by the Iberians or the Bastulo Celts for the settlement that would one day become Ronda was perfect. Rocky, protected by nature and so easily defended that even the most nervous members of the tribe could get a good night's sleep. Naturally the Romans, whose paranoia was unparalleled but understandable, given their penchant for treating non-Romans with brutal disdain, liked what they saw and were determined to have it. Even the stoutest fortress is only as invincible as its defenders, and the Iberians, damned forever by the historian Strabo as "unable to hold their shields together", proved no match for the determined invaders, who most certainly could. The supposed Iberian stronghold was easily taken, and rapidly "Romanised".

It is a euphemism as mealy-mouthed as today's "collateral damage", but in the wake of its "Romanisation" the town received its first recorded name: Arunda. Less a name, really, than a description, since the word means simply "surrounded by mountains". Although it does not appear in the historical record until Roman times, it is possible that its use extended as far back as the settlement's Iberian or Celtic founders.

© Michelle Chaplow The remains of Acinipo.
The remains of Acinipo.

Arunda was not the Romans' most important town in the area. That distinction rested with its close neighbour, Acinipo, "Land of Wines". This, too, had begun life as a tiny Iberian settlement, but had fared well by establishing a lucrative trade with the itinerant Phœnicians. But Acinipo was destined to disappear, and Arunda to flourish beyond its dreams.

Despite the relative strength of Acinipo, Arunda steadily grew to prominence in its own right. Both Pliny the Younger and Ptolemy mentioned it in their writings, associating it firmly with the Bastulo Celts, though of the two, only Pliny had direct experience of Roman Spain.

Many of the Roman buildings were destroyed or clumsily adapted by later occupants, particularly the Moors, but excavations have uncovered considerable evidence of the town's liveliness in the Roman period. It is said that chariot races were once held on the flat ground beyond its defensive walls, though the name of no local Ben Hur became celebrated enough to survive into legend.

It took the disintegration of their empire to dislodge the Romans. During the vicious civil war involving Sertorius, Pompey and Julius Caesar, Sertorius, for reasons which are not entirely clear, attacked and all but destroyed the place, although in 45BC a temple was built there to commemorate the decisive victory of Caesar over Pompey's sons, Gnaeus and Sextus.

After the Romans, the deluge. In the lawless years that followed their collapse, Arunda and Acinipo were both flattened and pillaged. The Byzantine Greeks discovered the ruins of both towns. Since they were in ruins, their supposed invulnerability should have been immediately exposed as a myth, but hope never kow-tows to experience. The remains of Acinipo were in markedly better condition than those of Arunda, and that was where they decided to put down their roots. But perversely, they renamed Acinipo as Runda. The Visigoths, who ousted the Greeks, moved everybody out of Acinipo/Runda and demolished it, leaving the original Arunda in proud and nominally unchallenged isolation. But Acinipo was not entirely forgotten; its ruins are today referred to as Old Ronda - Ronda el Viejo.

Then came the Moors. Ronda's heyday was about to dawn. It was taken in the year 713 by Abd al-Aziz, son of the Moorish general Musa Ben-Nusayr. In 132BC, the Roman commander Scipio had ordered the building of a castle, in the town. This had long been destroyed, but al-Aziz ordered the construction of a new fort on its ruins and gave the town a new name - Izna-Rand-Onda (the town of the castle). The Moors divided southern Andalucía into five distinct districts, known as coras, and made Izna-Rand-Onda the capital of the cora of Tacoronna.

They were turbulent times. The Moors were continually fighting among themselves, and the volatile ethnic mix in the mountains was a sure recipe for rebellion and conflict.

Within a century the Umayyad Caliphate had crumbled, and the land was shattered into dozens of taifas - independent kingdoms, each with its own monarch. In Izna-Rand-Onda, an opportunist named Abú-Nur seized control and founded the Kingdom of the Banu Ifrán, which corresponded roughly to the old cora of Tacoronna. Incredibly, he survived in relative peace and productive prosperity for forty years - a period of time known before that date as "eternity". And, as befits a king, he renamed the town yet again. It was to be known henceforth as Madinat Ronda.

Abú-Nur's tenure was a time of much expansion and rebuilding. The town's defences were much improved, and the gates of Almocábar in the south and Xijara in the east were created.

Sadly, he was unlucky with his heirs. How often that song has been sung down the centuries. His son, Abú Nasar, was a comparative weakling, and it wasn't long before the ruthlessly ambitious king of Seville, al-Muthadid, had him assassinated, along with the kings of Arcos and Morón, so that he could add their kingdoms to his burgeoning portfolio. In 1066, while the English were busy fighting the Norman invaders on the sands somewhere near Hastings, Madinat Ronda became the jewel in al-Muthadid's crown. Given to eulogising himself and his conquests in execrable verse, which his fawning courtiers fell over themselves to hail as works of genius, al-Muthadid wrote: The best fortified, you are the best gem in my kingdom. Oh, Ronda mine!

His pen was stilled 35 years later when, in 1091, Ronda changed hands again. The Christian upstarts were becoming steadily more irritating, and the thirty or so squabbling Moorish kings stretched across Andalucía could not, between them, organise a night of revelry in a tavern. They needed help. To put the infidels once and for all in their place, they imported from Africa a fearsome army of thugs called the Almorávids. It was a classic own goal. The thugs arrived, took one look around, and immediately concluded that under the Iberian sun, their Moorish brothers had become decadent, effete buffoons. In no time they had swatted the lot of them like flies and taken complete control.

It didn't last. The Almorávids were accused in turn of all manner of corruption and immorality and the Almohads, a new breed of fighters dedicated to restoring family values, arrived in the peninsula in 1146, determined to repair the damage. Within fifty years they were in charge of virtually all of what remained of Moorish Spain.

The Christian tide was flowing, and the Moors became steadily more isolated and entrenched. The king of Jaén, Muhammad Ibn al-Alhamar moved his court to Granada and founded the Nasrid dynasty -the last great dynasty of the Moorish era. Ronda formed a significant part of the western reaches of the Nasrid kingdom, and its last Moorish governor was the ill-fated Hamet el Zegri.

The Christian reconquest of Spain was a far more complex affair than is generally perceived. Never a straightforward Arab versus Christian struggle, it involved centuries of unlikely alliances of convenience, where the cross and the crescent were as likely to fly side by side as to face each other across the field of battle. But as the 15th Century moved inexorably to its end the writing was plainly on the wall - and the writing was in Castillian Spanish. The Moors were losing their grip, and the end of their long tenure was in sight. The most decisive year was undoubtedly 1485. Across the length and breadth of Andalucía their towns fell to the Christians like skittles in a bowling alley.

Even Ronda was unable to halt the onrushing tide. Making much use of new and terrifying weapons - gunpowder and the cannon - the Christians mounted a ferocious assault on the citadel. Neither natural cliffs nor man-made ramparts were a match for their deadly missiles. Nor did it help the Arab cause that most of their troops, led by Hamet el Zegri, had gone to the defence of Málaga after reports, probably deliberately planted disinformation, that the Christians intended to concentrate their attack on the port. An inexperienced interim governor, Abraham al Haquim, was left in charge of Ronda.

The water supply to the town was cut, leaving only whatever could be raised from the old 'water mine' (Casa del Rey Moro). Even that was lost when, on Friday 13th of May, despite fierce resistance by its Moorish defenders, the mine was taken.

Hamet el Zegri, belatedly recognising that he had been duped, attempted to return and save the day, but it was too late. Inside Ronda, his punch drunk lieutenant, Abraham al Haquim, was out of his depth. After a week-long siege, he and the town capitulated.

El Zegri denounced Haquim and the people of Ronda as traitors who had betrayed their brothers and dishonoured their country, but it was impotent rage. Ronda was gone forever. El Zegri died in battle near Málaga a couple of years later, a bitter and broken man.

In Ronda, bloody reprisals by the victors on the vanquished might have been expected, but if history is to be believed, King Ferdinand instead offered the surrendering Arabs their lives in return for their immediate abandonment of the city. Most surprisingly of all, those prominent citizens of Ronda who had formally arranged its surrender were not instantly betrayed and beheaded, but were escorted to the town of Alcalá de Guadaira in the province of Seville, and given houses and land which had been confiscated from unfortunate Jews by the Inquisition. Their own houses and property in Ronda were in turn distributed among the incoming Christians.

Where the now destroyed octagonal defensive tower had stood, Ferdinand ordered a church to be built and dedicated to the Holy Spirit, Espiritu Santo, since the town had fallen to his forces on the feast of Pentecost.

Ronda rapidly developed into three distinct sections.

The original citadel became known prosaically as La Ciudad - the town. To the west of this, considerable expansion and development took place in the area now called El Mercadillo - the street market. This area was and is linked to the original city by a number of bridges spanning the famous ravine that divides the present town in two. It is the "modern" area, containing the bull ring as well as the main shopping zone. Finally, as a means of avoiding the trading tax imposed on merchants bringing goods into the city itself, another small market developed to the east of the old medieval gates of La Ciudad. In time it became a permanent feature and acquired the name of Barrio de San Francisco.

In 1570, Ronda's few remaining Moors were expelled after an alleged uprising. Anyone seeking evidence of the somewhat delayed wrath of Allah might point a soothsayer's finger at the earthquake of 1580 which destroyed many of Ronda's buildings, including its main church, which has only been partially rebuilt. The loss profoundly and permanently altered the physical aspect of the town.

When Pedro Romero Martínez, a sometime carpenter born in Ronda on November 18th 1754, decided to abandon his chisel and follow his father and grandfather into the altogether more exciting and dangerous world of the bullring, he could not imagine that he was laying the foundation of the town's tourist-fuelled affluence two centuries hence.  For the whole story behind Ronda's famous bullfighting industry

Ronda suffered another major re-shaping during the Peninsular War, though this time the destruction was man-made, and did not require the assistance of an earthquake. On February 10th 1810, Joseph Bonaparte, who had reluctantly allowed himself to be declared King of Spain by his headstrong brother Napoleon, took his troops into the town and settled them down for the winter. When they left two years later they blew up the castle and other defences.

In the 19th century Ronda was still isolated from the coast. The journey from Ronda to the coast for both goods and people could only be made safely under the guidance of 'Caballerías' (chivalry men or horse men). Naturally the people of Ronda were asking for a road, so by 1877 they built one suitable for horse drawn vehicles for 20 km down to a point near the current entrance to the Sierra de las Nieves park. Mr Henderson's Railway reached Ronda in November 1892 and a road to the coast not until 1939. Read about the history of the Ronda Road

Wilful destruction of what we would now call the infrastructure returned in the early days of the Civil War (1936-39), the targets being mostly churches. Ronda's sympathies were fiercely Republican, and with the Catholic Church perceived as allies of Franco's rebels, violent outbursts of anti-clerical feeling were sadly common. As Málaga and Ronda became steadily more isolated, frustration and resentment increased. Ronda fell to the nationalist forces of General Varela on September 16th 1936. Prominent Republicans who had not fled to Málaga became the victims of brutal reprisals. Daily courts martial took place in the casino, followed by immediate public executions.

Some who escaped formed guerrilla bands and lived as bandits in the mountains for years afterwards. Even as late as 1952, buses passing through the hills were regularly accompanied by armed Civil Guard protectors.

© Michelle Chaplow By the 1960s, Ronda was already beginning to attract tourists.
By the 1960s, Ronda was already beginning to attract tourists.

By the 1960s, Ronda was already beginning to attract tourists. Its association with Pedro Romero and the origins of bullfighting, helped immeasurably by the enthusiasm of Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles, and the opening of the new road suitable for modern coaches in 1980 rapidly made it one of the most popular non-coastal destinations in Spain. Its almost unique separation into its two distinct halves - ancient and modern - connected by its celebrated bridge across the famous gorge and its unchallenged reputation at the heart of all that is Andalucían, and therefore Spanish, seem set to keep it near the top of the list for a long time to come.


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