On the trail of the Arab and Christian populace in the Madrid of the Middle Ages.
During the Middle Ages, Madrid was a small town established on the banks of a brook. From these humble origins it started to encroach on the area at the foot of the old fort (alcázar) which was ordered built by the emir of Cordoba, Mohamed I. For decades, it was the frontier between the Christian and Arab kingdoms and as a result, was constantly laid sieged to and subject to armed incursions.
It is said that when the emir of Cordoba arrived in Madrid in the year 865, he set his eyes on the hill on which the actual Royal Palace stands today and from which one can clearly look out on the Sierra (mountain range) of Guadarrama. He decided to erect on the heights a series of watch towers going from Somosierra to Guadarrama (two parts of the range) right next to a small stream running down to the Manzanares. This defensive structure was used to signal, with smoke and fire, the incursions covming from the Christian north, thus protecting Toledo lying to the south.
This defensive line was completed towards the end of the 9th century, with the building o a wall around the settlement that grew up at the foot of the fort, on the orders of Mohamed I. While there was some tolerance shown towards their Christian neighbours as far as religious observance went, they weren't allowed to live within the wall, but instead were settled on the other side of the brook, where a mozárabe (Christian culture under Arab rule) suburb was established around the chirhc of San Andrés.
Remains of the Arab rampart were uncovered during the tearing down of the Palacio de Malpica in 1957 on the calle Mayor, next to the cathedral of the Almudena. Made of a mixture of silex and adobe, it bore four swuare towers on a Cordoban lay out, beginning and ending at the fort, which occupied an area of 900 square meters.
Both the areas reserved for Christians as well as the other terrain around the rampart received a gradually increasing population. Several Mosques were raised and it is believed that they were later turned over to Christian worship, as was the case of the parish of San Pedro, the church of San Salvador and the church of San Nicolás de los Servitas. The latter is tohught to be the olderst church in Madrid. Its wall trace and tower go back to the 12th century while the interior still conserves polylobulated arab style arches. The walls have been witness to a great deal of Madrid's history. For instance, it was the burial place of Juan de Herrera, the architect who built the Escorial palace. The churhc was also used to lodge Napoleonic troops during the French occupation.
Not far away from the church of San Nicolás lay one of the entrances to the walled precinct. Known as the Gate of Santa María, it was taken down during the reign of Felipe II. This passage into walled town owes its name to the nearby church of Santa María, which was next to the calle Mayor up until the 19th century. In 1868 it was demolished in order to widen the street, part of which it blocked. Some remains can still be seen, behind a glass casing, in the cathedral of the Almudena.
According to the legend surrounding its origins, the people of Madrid held adoration for the image of the virgin. Afraid that the Arabs might steal it, they hid it in a part of the Arab rampart. This knowledge was handed down from generation to generation until the reign of Alfonso VI The Conqueror when the city was taken back by the Christians and subsequently the image was sought after.
Faced with this worship by the Madrilenians, the king decided to have a fresco painted in the church of Santa María, faithfully reproducing the description of the image handed down by oral tradition. This reproduction is now in the crypt of the cathedral. After having organized a search of the original model in vain, a procession was put together, which wound its way aorund the old Arab wall. According to the legend, once the procession reached the Puerta (gate) de la Vega, a thunderous noise was heard and stones started to fall from the wall, thus revealing the hidden virgen. It was named Our Lady of La Almudena in memory of the muslim population that lived within the walls.
The Christian mozárabe neighborhood was separated from the Arab population by a creek. The quality of its waters had long been recognised, going back to the days when the Romans had named it Matrice, rooted in the word for mother, since its flow was the strongest of all the nearby water courses. When the king Alfonso VI arrived to this area, the Arabs went to live in what was to be called the Moorish district, which was exactly where the Christians had once resided. The called the creek Mayra, which later was corrupted with the iberian suffix ‘it', which gave way to Mayrit, and successively became Magerit, Matrit and finally, the name of the city itself: Madrid, which once translated from Arabic gives running water.
This stream was in the place were the calle Segovia is today. Next to it were the Arab baths, which in the times of Alfonso X the Wise (el Sabio) was used by both Muslims and Christians. After the expulsion of the citizens of Moorish extraction in the XVIIth century by Felipe III and Margarita of Austria, the baths were finally closed.
When Alfonso VI came to Madrid there were two different peoples living there, one within the city walls and one on the outside. He thus decided to build a second wall which would protect both groups against the constant attacks the city suffered in the Middle Ages. The christian rampart met the Arab one in the area known as the Cuesta de la Vega, and extended beyond to the plaza de Carros, the cava baja, the cava of San Miguel and today's calle Mayor, winding its way up to the area where the Opera exists today, near the Plaza de Oriente, uniting with the fort. Few remnants are extant, although in the area known as Costanilla de San Pedro, one can still see some of the original Christian wall.
The district of the Moors was included in the perimeter of this new rampart and could be reached by corssing the river Mayra, in the place where the Shepherd's House (Casa del Pastor) used to stand, and whose sole remaining sign is a stone carved with the city shield of a bear and a tree. It was where the house of a priest of certain means called Jose used to be. He left all his property to the first person to cross through the Cuesta de la Vega on the morning following his death. By chance, the person to first come through was a shepherd who had sheltered the priest when he was being pursued by the Inquisition.
This district is noted for the Plaza del Alamillo, where the old Arab court of justice had once stood. The Costanilla (slope) of San Andrés offers a unique view onto the tower of the Old Church of San Pedro and the Plaza de la Paja (straw), which earned this name for being the place where farm labourers would leave the tithe of straw for the horses of the parrish of San Andrés and the Capilla del Obispo.
In the Plaza de los Carros, next to the house-museum of San Isidro, was the place where one of the gates in the Christian rampart stood, giving into the Moorish district and next to the Plaza de la Cebada, where the Arab cemetery of Uesa del Raf used to stand.
The rampart continued down to the cava baja, where the gate called Puerta Cerrada (Closed Gate), used to be. Its nooks and corners were havens for thieves, which sheltered the assaults and assassinations which later prompted the authorities to close it, giving it its current name.
All the restaurants which nowadays are in the Cuchilleros street have bits of the christian rampart in them, right up to the calle Mayor where the Puerta de Guadalajara was located. It had been the main entrance into the town and was guarded by two grand towers decorated with patternd motif as well as a clock. From this part of the wall, the extension went by the Cava Escalinata, which gave unto the current plaza de Opera and closing the circle with the Alcázar. It is said that nearby was the Puerta de Valnadú, whci owes its name to the fact that there were probably other Arab baths in the area.