The very name, Antequera, suggests, in English, an ancient place due to the name's similarity with the English word antique. In fact antique, ancient or old has nothing to do with the origin of the name. The town was first named by the Romans, Antikaria and later by the Moors, Medina Antaqira. Perhaps this is the first disappointment when visiting this town that receives such great revues in any information supplied by the Andalucian tourist office.
When you look closely at the information you realise that there is not that much there. The dolmens, some of the finest in the Iberian peninsula, rate a mention, as does the nearby limestone massif called El Torcal, but the town itself receives little attention. There had to be a reason for this omission. Like any other place Antequera had to have a past, and a reason for being where it is.
A glance at a map of Andalucia will show you that Antequera is situated on a rock buttress north of Malaga at a crossroads between the natural routes from Malaga to Cordoba and Seville to Granada. The surrounding valley of the Guadalhorce river is one of the most fertile areas in Andalucia. It's situation is probably the reason for it's existence, even in 2500 BC when La Menga, the first of the three great dolmens were built, there was a trading network through the region consisting of metallic ores from the Seville region and copper and bronze tools and weapons from the Almeria area. Food cultivated in the valley travelled in all directions to support other communities. When La Menga was filled to capacity with over 500 bodies, the bronze age communities built Viera in about 2000 BC and then Romeral around 1800 BC.
Having established the reason why the town is where it is a visit to the museum should have filled in the historical gap between 2500 BC and today. Unusually for Spain there is an admission fee of 3 Euros, the entrance is through a huge door where you ring the bell to gain entry and you have to be accompanied by a guide (English speaking) throughout your visit. This augured well, great things must be hidden here. The first exhibit is that of a bronze statue of a teenage servant boy. A farmer found this first century AD work of art, now called El Efebo de Antequera, in 1955. It is thought to have been taken from a Roman villa discovered near Antequera a few years ago that is still being excavated. El Efebo has been exhibited around Europe as an outstanding piece of Roman art. The guide then takes you to the next section, a display of paintings, figures, crosses, and vestments dating from the 16th Century to the present day and still used in the Santa Semana street processions at Easter. The entire collection is from the churches in the town and fills the vast majority of the imposing and impressive Palace of Najera in which the museum is housed. Where did the intervening 1400 years go, what about the Visigoths and Moors? For that matter what happened between 1800 BC and 100 AD? El Efebo stands there as a solitary monument, caught in a time warp with no discernible past or future.
It is obvious that tracing Antequera's heritage is going to be more difficult than first thought. A visit to the oldest part of the town may provide some clues.
Overlooking Antequera is the 13th Century Moorish Alcazaba and Homenaje tower. Both are reached via the gate called the Arch of Giants, built in 1585, so named because at one time the arch had a huge statue perched on top of which only the feet now remain. Nearby is the recently excavated Roman bath house. As far as Roman and Moorish remains go, that is about it, but even that is instructive. It is likely that the town under the Romans and Moors was very small and centred on the hill on which the remains sit with villas and farms scattered around the valley, its main purpose would have been to provide a focal point for the market. The Moors had been in occupation for some five hundred years before they felt sufficiently threatened by the Christian kings to build a small fortress.
From the fortress you can see over the whole of Antequera. Almost within stones throw of the walls are 12 convents, 24 churches and a dozen palaces, all built in the styles known as Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries) and Baroque (17th and 18th Centuries). This again tells us much. Following the taking of the town by Don Fernando in 1410 the wealth generated by the trade through the town attracted the rapacious attention of the church and then the nobility who all built to impress each other and, at the same time, subdue the serfs. The small houses crowded round these fine buildings all date from this period. In typical Christian manner, most traces of previous civilisations were eradicated, thereby explaining the lack of remains today. A wonderful remnant of the church's methods of domination by fear lies in the names of two streets, Calle Del Infierno running parallel to the Calle Purgatorio. A more lasting means of control is through the 19 fraternities in the town. Fraternities are religious bodies that also wield great political power and possess enormous wealth. Membership is exclusive and passed from father to son. Their wealth is paraded annually during the religious processions. A silver cross, owned by one such fraternity, on display in the museum, takes 90 men to carry.
Today Antequera is a busy town. The authorities are belatedly trying to produce more information and attract more tourists but they have a way to go. There is enough to retain interest for a full day within the town itself, more if you are interested in Renaissance and Baroque architecture or religion. The people, perhaps because they have not been inundated with tourists, are friendly and cheerful. For the same reason the many tapas bars and restaurants are traditionally Spanish with traditional low prices. The Restaurante Plaza de Toros, in the bull ring, where else, is definitely worth a visit, as is the Meson Juan Manuel, hidden away down Calle San Agustin.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.