Spain Guide

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Valencia History

The rich tapestry of Valencia's history is woven from some fascinating tales the stuff of which legends are made and Hollywood blockbuster movies are created. This is the home (allegedly) of Christendom's most cherished relic, the Holy Grail used by Jesus at the Last Supper. And this was the city where Spain's greatest national hero, El Cid, had his finest hour after ousting the Moorish invaders in the 11th century. It was also one of Charlton Heston's finest hours when he reconquered Valencia on behalf of movie fans worldwide in the epic film El Cid in 1961.

The area now known as Valencia was originally occupied by the Iberians and later colonised by Greek and Carthaginian traders. It flourished more than 2,000 years ago in the reign of Caesar Augustus. The town of Saguntum (present day Sagunto, 23 kilometres north of Valencia) was an ally of Rome when Carthaginian leader Hannibal besieged and captured it in 218 BC. The Romans recaptured it four years later and built an amphitheatre which still exists today; live performances at the theatre resumed in 1993 for the first time in 1,500 years.

The Moors took control of the area in the 8th century and in 1022 Valencia became an independent Arab emirate after the fall of Cordoba, which at the time was the capital of the mighty western Islamic empire. It was this Moorish occupation which paved the way for the legendary triumph of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, otherwise known as El Cid Campeador. His status in Spain, even today, overshadows that of kings and emperors despite the fact that he was a soldier of fortune (who at times was also willing to fight on behalf of the Moorish invaders).

El Cid (whose posthumous title comes from the Arab word 'Sayyid', meaning chief) laid siege to the city in 1093 until the Arab leader Ibn Jahnaf finally surrendered. El Cid signed a pact promising mercy to Jahnaf, then promptly burned him alive after the Arabs laid down their arms. Spain's Christian hero nominally held Valencia on behalf of Alfonso VI but in fact was the region's independent ruler in all but name until his death in 1098. According to legend (and the Hollywood silver screen version) El Cid died a hero after leading his knights into what was to be his final attack on the Moorish armies. Despite being mortally wounded, he insisted that he should be mounted in full armour and sent into battle once more. He died, rigor mortis set in and he was duly strapped to his horse and sent into the battlefield bearing the Spanish flag. The enemy fled to their ships in the face of this apparently invincible warrior who had come back from the dead. The story may have been exaggerated over the centuries but it took Hollywood by storm and gave Valencia a new glamour and mystique in the eyes of the world.

Even more appealing is the story of the Holy Grail, said to be housed in the Sala Capitular of the city's Gothic cathedral where it was placed in 1437. The story (never proven nor disproved beyond doubt) is that St Peter took the sacred chalice, used by Jesus at the Last Supper, to Rome where it was used by various popes until the 3rd century. At that time the Romans ordered the confiscation of all church property so the pope of the time gave the chalice to the Spanish St Lawrence who in turn entrusted it to a Spanish soldier for safekeeping.

The Holy Grail was brought to Spain where it was kept in various hiding places until the King of Navarre, Don Juan, placed it in the cathedral where it still lies a never ending source of mystery, fascination and dispute for historians, theologians and the general public. In 1982, Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral and became the first pope to celebrate mass with the Holy Grail in 1,724 years.