“We’ve found a really thick wall.” Ana Arancibia will never forget that statement, made by her colleague María del Mar Escalante when she hurtled up from the catacombs of the Buenavista Palace, like somebody possessed, to give her the news. “Thick?” she asked, hardly daring to mention the word which immediately sprang to mind. “Yes... thick!” answered her fellow archaeologist, also reluctant to say what they were both thinking.
The word was ‘Phoenician’, and they hardly dared to say it because it would mean that they had made one of the most important findings in Malaga in the past two decades: the origins of Malaka in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. - what Ana refers to as “the founding fathers of this city.”
This subterranean Malaga can be seen close to the entrance inside the Picasso Museum, and anyone interested in following a route through more than two thousand years of archaeology can continue on to the Roman port of Malaca and the maritime wall of the Nasrid Malaqa which was found at the Aduana, the Customs building, and can be seen below the glass floor of what is now the new Museum of Malaga.
This wall shows precisely the ‘elbow’ of the third line of defence of the Alcazaba fortress, which changes direction and heads towards the area where the Rectorado building now stands, and where years ago another stretch of the same construction was found.
“It is a point at which the wall joined the medina and, although we haven’t found it, there was also a gateway between the city and the Alcazaba,” explains archaeologist José Suárez, who has led the excavations and soundings at the Museum of Malaga. He explains that the remains we will be able to contemplate over a cup of coffee or drink - the café at the Museum is not open yet - is just the tip of the iceberg of this site, where the first necropolis from the high mediaeval period (9th century) was discovered in the sand in front of the wall, together with some Roman salting troughs which match others found in the area and some valuable imperial thermae.
The glass floors with views of the foundations of our past have multiplied in the historic centre of Malaga in recent years, and they show a change of mentality towards archaeology.
“We had our backs turned to this heritage for a long time, but luckily it is now possible to reconcile the city of today with the one of 2,000 years ago,” explain Pedro Sánchez Banderas and Alberto Cumpián, of Arqueosur, who are used to “fighting” with developers and construction companies because the discovery of ancient remains delays their works.
One project which was affected was when the Roman port of Malaga was discovered below the Vincci hotel group’s new establishment in the old Posada del Patio. We pass through the door of this new hotel with the archaeologists to visit the remains, which can be seen through the glass floor.
“What we have here is unique in Spain because it is not just a jetty; it is a port, designed by the important Roman architect and engineer Vitruvio,” explains Alberto Cumpián, pointing out that the breakwater and the wall of the port were “remarkably well preserved.” It is not difficult to imagine how the ships at this wharf would have been loaded with the garum that was produced in the troughs which have been found in Calle Alcazabilla and at the Rectorado.
Pieces of the same puzzle
Archaeology is like a large jigsaw puzzle in which most of the outside pieces are usually missing. That is why, when one is found, it not only provides information on its own, but also helps the archaeologists to understand the history of a city or an era.
“This port shows how commercially important Malaga was in the 4th century, after having declined somewhat during the century before,” says Alberto, who also explains that the resurgence was not only in the city’s industrial power but also in its strategic location as a safe and alternative route to the piracy in the Straits.
“This archaeological site doesn’t just make this an unusual hotel. I am convinced that its fifth star is partly due to what lies underneath it,” says Pedro Sánchez Bandera, nodding towards the other remains which have been found in the same place - the Moorish wall which can now be seen below the transparent floor of the Vincci’s charming bar.
The remains of a skin treating industry were also discovered, although to see some Moorish tanneries it is best to visit the Andrés Olivares shop in the Plaza de las Flores.
“They are from the caliphal era and show that this was the tanners’ district of Malaga of that time,” says the owner of the shop where, below the clothes hangers and accessory displays, remains can be seen which date back several centuries.
Other private establishments, such as the Tribuna hotel in Calle Carretería and La Cueva de 1900 restaurant in Alcazabilla, have also incorporated pieces of Moorish wall into their premises, making them an inviting place to rest for those who follow this route through the subterranean Malaga.
It is a trip which shows us how each civilisation which arrived in the city after the Phoenicians superimposed itself upon the foundations of the other. Every time there is a new discovery, it is like “looking through the keyhole” at our past, as Sánchez Bandera puts it. He says he hopes that a solution will soon be found to the water leaks in the basement of the Carmen Thyssen museum so that other major archaeological evidence which has been discovered in recent years can also be put on view again.
He is referring to the discovery of a Roman villa, whose owner worked in the fish industry and turned his house into “a propoganda machine to show off his economic power.” With large ashlars, luxury details on the façade and lower-quality materials at the rear part of the property, this was a type of posturing which may have impressed his neighbours but not the archaeologists who are continually finding new profiles of the city.
“About 20 years ago, Malaga had a general history of the peoples who have passed through here, but as we make more progress in studying the sites, new signs of the city’s identity are being revealed to us, explains Ana Arancibia. “Nobody believed us 17 years ago, when we said we had found the Phoenician Malaga,” she says.
Once thing is certain: there are plenty more treasures to come. “At present we only know about four per cent of what lies below,” explains Ana, who is especially keen to find the Roman forum which lies somewhere beneath the city.