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Bobastro: the rebel's refuge

View from one of the cave houses at Bobastro.
View from one of the cave houses at Bobastro. / P. CANTALEJO
  • The rebel leader moved to the Mesas de Villaverde area in the year 880 and built what became the general headquarters for his battle against the Ummayad emirate

  • It is 1,100 years since the death of Omar Ibn Hafsún, the insurrectionist who almost overthrew the Umayyad emirate of Cordoba

Leaving behind the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes gorge and the Caminito del Rey walkway, one approaches the remains of Bobastro. This location in Ardales was firstly the refuge and later the general headquarters of Omar ben Hafsún's rebellion against the Umayyad emirate in Cordoba.

This year marks 1,100 years since the death of the rebel, whose passing left a story which is as intense as its association with what are today the archaeological remains of his battle headquarters. A visit to Bobastro is like going back in time and entering an almost impassable refuge.

One of the historians who has delved most deeply into the story of Omar ben Hafsún is Virgilio Martínez Enamorado, a professor at Malaga university and the author of several works about this figure and the remains of the town he founded.

The reasons why the guerrilla fighter took up arms against the emirate are not clear, although several authors believe it was due to an incident with the authorities after being accused of a murder.

“In the year 880 he installed himself at Bobastro, which had not been populated since prehistoric times,” says Martínez Enamorado. The reasons for choosing that specific site have not been documented either, but it is “completely unassailable and very difficult for an army to conquer,” he explains.

At that time, Omar ben Hafsún began to build a town which then expanded alongside his political reputation. Nowadays you can see numerous remains of the city's military, civilian (the famous cave houses) and religious buildings. One of the most striking is the large fortress built with ashlars, whose interior contains ben Hafsún's palace and several turrets which acted as a defensive circle in the surrounding territory (the Pico del Convento, in the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes gorge, above the Caminito del Rey, was one of these bastions).

Bobastro grew quickly and with a clear objective. “Ben Hafsún's objective was to compete with the emirate and create a new capital,” says Martínez Enamorado.

The problem the rebel faced in this strategy was the lack of legitimacy of his government compared with that of the Umayyads, who were direct descendents of the prophet Mohammed. For that reason, during the war that ben Hafsún led against the Emirate of Cordoba, he sought support from other dynasties, even approaching the Shia in the north of Africa.

This rebellion took place at a time of serious political crisis in the Emirate of Cordoba, so it was easy to find other rebels such as himself to carry out the insurrection. The participants included Moors, Berbers and the indigenous Christian population, among others.

The violent conflict (called 'fitna' in Arabic) lasted nearly 50 years and the troops from Malaga arrived at the doors of the emirate in a decisive battle in which the legitimate powers inflicted a serious setback to the rebellion.

Conquering spirit

“Ben Hafsún had a great wish to expand and be known,” says Martínez Enamorado, “so he designed a policy which was based on conquering other territories”. This war took place in a historical context in which “everything was ruled by pacts, agreements between tribes, bartering and marriages of convenience”.

At the height of their splendour the rebel's lands, with Bobastro as the capital, stretched to Elvira and Jaén in the east and as far as the region of Seville in the west. When he died in 918, his four children took over from him: “He left a real dynasty; he was much more than a rebel,” explains Martínez Enamorado.

Nevertheless, his sons were beaten by the Emirate of Cordoba, which began to smoothe things over with the other insurrectionists, offering them public positions to bring an end to the conflict.

When the dynasty of ben Hafsún fell, in the year 929, Abderramán III declared the Caliphate of Cordoba (the caliphate is the highest category a state can have in Arab culture). “The end of the rebellion significantly raised Abderramán III's status, for the Umayyads,” says Martínez Enamorado.

After the death of ben Hafsún, his story and the remains of what was his refuge, general headquarters and political base live on. This was a major historical capital and it has been excavated three times by archaeologists in the past 100 years, says Pedro Cantalejo, the head of the Heritage Department at Ardales town hall.

This is an important site in the history of the mediaeval period, but there are also signs from prehistoric times.

“The council has asked the Malaga provincial government for financing from the European EDUSI funds, because that would allow us to extend the guided tours around the remains, including the cave houses, the quarries, the shrines and habitats in the large caves,” says Cantalejo, who believes a large archaeological park needs to be created to preserve the remains.

Ardales council wants the history of the area to be included as part of the cultural and environmental aspect of the Caminito del Rey project. If this were to be done, it would also be a further attraction for cultural tourism, which is being developed in the region.