History of Santiago De Compostela

Mother Earth Travel > Spain > Santiago De Compostela > History

Santiago de Compostela, oddly enough for a European city, came into existence because of a cemetery, and its glory, monuments and streets are all indebted to to one deceased personage: the Apostle Santiago (St James).

But let's take this point by point. The city has been inhabited since time immemorial. The builders of its dolmens (prehistoric stone sepulchral chambers) and the Celts chose the Alameda as the location for their settlements. The Romans and the Suevos (Germanic race who invaded parts of Spain in the 5th century) lived side by side with them, and also left behind other cemeteries beneath the site where the Catedral (Cathedral) would later be built. It is often said that Galicia is the country of the dead, and its capital, Santiago, is the personification of the adage.

It all began after a hermit in the 9th century discovery of the tomb of Santiago in a forest. The news spread like wildfire throughout Europe, and within a very short time the King of Galicia and Asturias arrived to pay his respects to the apostle. From then on everything started happening in whirlwind fashion. Alfonso IX erected a basilica upon the site of the discovery. The basilica was to be extensively enlarged in the early Middle Ages to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims who travelled to Santiago de Compostela from all over the continent. The number of pilgrims travelling the Camino de Santiago (the road to Santiago) increased from the 17th century, when Pope Calixto II inaugurated the Compostela Jubilee. Counts, kings, saints, beggars, criminals, bourgeois and Vikings all travelled to Compostela, fascinated.

Some of the best and most important artistic works grew out of this cosmopolitan atmosphere, including the Portico to the Glory of Master Matthew (1188), the Cathedral, and the 18th century façade of the Cathedral designed by the brilliant architect Casas y Novoa.

Home to men and women of letters, writers, artists, warriors and scientists, Compostela is a turbulent city that typifies Galicia's long history. In the 12th century, the Archbishop Xelmírez, one of the great men associated with the city, combined the creation of schools of higher education with battles against other great Galician gentlemen. During that century and the next, Santiago welcomed many troubadours and poets like Joam Airas, Bernal de Bonaval and Airas Nunes, whose poems celebrated love, life and grief. In the 15th century, the city was witness to the 'irmandiño' movement, a powerful popular uprising that caused the warring factions of Galicia to be expelled from the city for a couple of years. The University was established at the same time, and thanks to the Archbishop Alonso de Fonseca it would leave an indelible impression on the city. University students today still comprise a significant portion of the city's population.

In the 16th and especially the 17th centuries, Santiago de Compostela experienced a resurgence in monastic communities while at the same time suffering a considerable decrease in the number of pilgrims. The churches, convents and monasteries took advantage of their agricultural wealth by raising significant monuments known as 'Compostela Barroque'. Examples include the Casa del Cabildo (Chapter House), the Convento de Santa Clara (Convent of Santa Clara), the Pazo de Bendaña (Bendaña Palace) and Casa da Parra (Grapevine House).

In the 19th century, the rumblings of the Rexurdimento gallego - Renaissance of Galician language and culture ' began in Santiago de Compostela. This incorporated a rejection of the politics of assimilation imposed by the Castilian monarchy from the 15th century, and embraced all things Galician. Figures such as Antolín Faraldo, Manuel Murguía and the great poetess Rosalía de Castro initiated a cultural, social and political movement in Santiago de Compostela that formed the antecedent to current Galician culture. Those following in their footsteps laboured for approval of the Estatuto de Autonomía para Galicia (Statute of Galician Autonomy) during the second Republic (1931-1936), which was supported by such distinguished figures as Alfonso Rodríguez Castelao, possibly the most important pro-Galician thinker.

The Spanish Civil War buried Santiago de Compostela in a secular sleep until the final years of the Franco dictatorship. After the approval by the Spanish democratic government of the new Estatuto de Autonomía in 1981, proclaiming Santiago de Compostela the capital of Galicia, Santiago experienced a revival. The traveller can appreciate this in the new concept of space and architecture visible in the city, and the opening of new cultural, financial and leisure centres.