Spain Guide

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Zaragoza's location at the head of the mighty Ebro River in the centre of the north eastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula has given it strategic importance for more than 2,000 years. Originally settled by ancient Iberian tribes, it became a magnificent Roman city named after the Emperor Augustus Caesar and a powerful Arab kingdom under the Moorish sultans. In its glory days of the 16th century, Zaragoza was one of Spain's most important commercial centres, bigger in size than the current capital Madrid.

The Iberian Peninsula takes its name from the tribes who settled along the banks of the River Ebro (once known as the Iber). They were ousted by the Romans who started laying the foundations of Zaragoza in the year 24 BC. It was an important city in the days of the Roman Empire, with 30,000 inhabitants, a huge amphitheatre, a sophisticated sewerage system and public spa baths. Even today you can still see some of the excavated remains of that ancient city the Roman Forum, theatre and baths and archaeologists are uncovering more evidence of its scale and might. Its importance at that time is evident from the fact that it was dedicated to Caesaraugusta (Augustus Caesar) which is the derivation of its current name.

With the decline of the decadent Roman Empire, the barbarian Visigoths were the next civilisation to hold sway here, ruling for 300 years until the arrival of the Moors in 719. The Arabs named the city Saraqusta and it flourished as an important artistic and cultural centre, the capital of an independent Taifa Kingdom during the Islamic era. It was also a major trading centre and had a thriving slave market. The magnificent Aljaferia palace cum fortress was constructed to house and protect the Moorish rulers, rivalling the fabulous Alhambra Palace in Granada with the dazzling beauty of its intricate architectural details. King Abu Yafar al Muqtadir is said to have addressed his sumptuous castle with the words: "Oh palace of happiness! Hall of gold! With you I have reached the summit of my desires. Even if my kingdom contained nothing else, with you all my desires would be satisfied."

In 1118 the Christian armies, under King Alfonso I, defeated the Arabs and reclaimed the city which became the capital of the new kingdom of Aragon. Tolerance was extended towards Jews and Muslims who lived peaceably alongside the Christians allowing the different cultures to flourish along with the arts and philosophy. It was only after the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition, introduced by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's in 1478, that Jews, Muslims and all other "heretics" were tortured, murdered and driven from their homes.

The 16th and 17th centuries were Zaragoza's glorious era in terms of economic prosperity. It became the fourth largest city in Spain (after Valencia, Seville and Barcelona) and the nobility poured their wealth into splendid renaissance homes and palaces, many of which survive today. One of the most impressive legacies of that era is the beautiful Lonja exchange where cattle and agricultural products were bought and sold (it was built to stop tradesmen profiteering in the city's churches and other religious buildings).

The people of Zaragoza distinguished themselves in the Peninsular Wars at the beginning of the 19th century with their valiant though ultimately unsuccessful stand against Napoleon's armies who laid siege to the city in the summer of 1808.

Today the city is a bustling and prosperous university town the capital of the autonomous community of Aragon where 21st century commerce thrives amid the ancient buildings which provide us with a fascinating glimpse of Zaragoza's rich past.


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