Almería is an exceptional city in Europe. It is the driest city in mainland Europe, has the warmest winters, and was one of the last to fall to the forces of the reconquista, meaning the city spent longer under the period of Moorish rule than it has under the unified Spanish monarchy by quite some margin. The city’s hinterland is home to the only “true” desert in mainland Europe, which has proven a popular draw for everyone from film crews (the setting is suitably arid that it was felt a great location to shoot Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) to military planners (NATO held various war games here, simulating invading Iraq – assumeably with more success than the real thing).
Nowhere, however, is this Moorish presence more noted than in the sprawling Moorish Alcazaba, a large combination of palace, fortress and refuge for the city citizens that has expressed royal and state power in the city for centuries. Largely overlooked by tourists drawn to the better preserved stuccowork of it’s cousin in Granada, Almería’s alcazaba is still the best preserved example of Moorish defensive architecture in Europe. In it’s heyday, Moorish writers and travelers gushed that it’s lavish decoration and wealth of treasures was the finest in Al Andalus.
Almería city at it’s height was one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean world, and the second greatest city in Al Andalus after Cordoba itself. The broad gulf and sheltering mountains made the location a good natural harbour, whilst the twin capes of Cabo de Gata and Roquetas de Mar, combined with the imposing mount within the city, upon which the Alcazaba sits, made the port relatively easy to defend against both attack from both sea and land. As anyone approaching the city by land today will note, from the east the city is effectively unreachable – the coast road winds along terraces before passing into numerous tunnels through mountains that tumble straight into the sea. From the north, the railway twists and turns though the narrow valley of the Andarax river – navigable as far as Pechina in Roman times, but now almost dessicated except in times of flash-flooding.
As it turned out, the awkward geography held the key to Almería’s resurgence, following centuries of decline under Christian rule. The Industrial revolution was kind to Almería, when the region’s large reserves of coal, iron ore, alum and many other minerals (including gold) catapulted the city forward, and giving rise to numerous gems of 19th century iron architecture that still grace the city, including the Cable Inglés, the old train station, and Mercado Central, as well as the mansions of merchants and industrialists that today dot the city, and cluster around Puerta de Purchena.