Opinions differ over the origins of the castle, with dates of its construction ranging from the 10th to the 12th centuries
Nowadays, Sohail Castle is one of the most important emblems of Fuengirola. Many cultural events are held there and it has become almost an icon in the music world in Andalucía. It is outstanding because of its excellent condition, especially as it is thought to date back to the 10th century.
The castle stands beside the mouth of the Fuengirola river, on a small hill just 38 metres above sea level and beside the dual carriageway. This location gives it very good views along the coast below the Sierra de Mijas and over the town of Fuengirola.
Until the Moors invaded in the 8th century, the municipality was called Suel. However, it quickly became phonetically adapted and known as Suhayl. Historians say that during the Moorish era Suhayl was as important as it had been during the Roman period, and it continued to be a town in which most of the population lived from fishing.
It was around this time that Sohail Castle was built. Opinion differs about its exact age, with dates ranging from the 10th to 12th centuries. According to some historians, the caliph of Cordoba, Abderramán III, decided to build a castle on this hill because attacks were being carried out on coastal communities by Christians and Normans.
It is generally agreed that the castle was built for defensive purposes, although other historians claim that it was constructed in the early 12th century, during the Almoravid era. It included features normally found in a ‘ribat’, located close to the maritime shore. It also provided control over the river, which at that time was the main means of communication between rural areas, and formed a shelter for boats navigating in the nearby area. The castle’s strategic location also meant that the overland routes between the towns of Malaga and Marbella could be continually monitored.
As part of its defence system, square towers were built on each of the castle’s sides; one of them is larger and higher than the rest, and is known as the Torre del Homenaje. It is accessed through a large iron archway and, as was common in those days, once through the arch, the path was angled in a dog-leg shape, as an additional protective measure.
There used to be homes for soldiers inside the castle, as well as rooms for travellers and traders. It reached the peak of its importance between the years 1025 and 1027, according to experts. About 150 years later, around the year 1175, Suhayl was the scene of numerous battles between the Marinids from north Africa and the Nasrid kingdom of Granada. The Nasrids finally gained control of the area.
On 7 August 1485 –the day of San Cayetano, patron saint of Fuengirola– the castle was seized by Christian troops and became one of the best-equipped economically in Malaga. Its effectiveness in terms of defence later became questionable because the first mayor, Álvaro de Mesa, paid little attention to its upkeep. This meant that the condition of the castle gradually deteriorated.
In the early 18th century, Gibraltar fell into British hands and became the nerve centre of contraband in southern Spain. The continual entry of goods for which tax was not paid, and the prohibition on trade, put the economy of the kingdom at risk. To put a stop to this new phenomenon, a series of changes were made to the defence system along the coast and in 1730 the general commander in the area, the Count of Montemar, remodelled the Moorish fortress so a squadron of cavalry could be housed there. Around that time the castle lost another of its towers, leaving only six.
The final chapter before the present situation, where the castle has been converted for public use, took place in the 19th century. When the Confiscation occurred in Spain, the fortress was auctioned off and it became the property of the widowed Countess of San Isidro, Bárbara de Obregón y Puente. After passing into private hands, the castle progressively deteriorated still further. Once it was finally abandoned, people who were living nearby dismantled and looted everything which they thought could be used for other constructions.
In recent years, especially since the turn of the century, Sohail Castle has become the epicentre of culture in Fuengirola. As well as its famous medieval market, dozens of concerts and other events have been held there and it has made a name for itself as an iconic music venue. The latest performance took place earlier this week, when it was the setting for Sting’s only concert in Malaga province (see page 28).