The city was founded by the Romans in 137 BC on the site of a former Iberian town, by the river Turia. The city has been occupied by the Visigoths, Moors, and the Aragonese. The Moors occupied the territory peacefully in 714 A.D. When Islamic culture settled in, Valencia – then Balansiya – prospered thanks to a booming trade in paper, silk, leather,
ceramics, glass and silver-work. The architectural legacy from this period is abundant in Valencia and can still be appreciated today in the remains of the old walls, the Baños del Almirante bath house, Portal de Valldigna street and even the Cathedral and the tower, El Micalet, which was the minaret of the old mosque. Following the Second Punic War, Roman legionaries settled down and built up a city on the banks of the River Turia that they named “Valentia,” a name which obviously bears resemblance to the current “Valencia.”
Known for their mastery of design and flawless architecture, the Romans set up and developed the region’s first irrigation system- a series of canals and dams that the Moors would further elaborate a few years down the road. Head to the Plaza de la Almoina in Valencia to explore the extensive Roman archaeological ruins that have been discovered- it doesn’t take much to realize that the Romans knew how to construct things that lasted!
With the collapse of the mighty Roman Empire, the Visigoths – tribes who were of Germanic origin – moved in and played a major role in national affairs for over two centuries. Unfortunately, as the end of the Visigoth reign neared, the society was plagued with internal conflicts, epidemics and other crises that chipped away at the Visigoths’ political and social unity. The Moors, seeing the very obvious opportunity for a take-over, took advantage of the chaos and took the reins with little, if any, opposition.
Arriving in 711 A.D. and subsequently taking control of practically the entire Iberian peninsula, the Moors made Valencia an agricultural and industrial center- a role it would continue to play long after the Christian reconquest. Under Islamic rule, ceramics, glasswork, paper, silk and leather industries became major, thriving commercial enterprises and the network of irrigation canals that the Romans had first installed was extended and fine-tuned to perfection.
The Moors ruled Valencia unopposed until the brief six-year interruption resulting from the triumphant rampage of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, more commonly known as the famed El Cid. He descended upon the city, took it under his control, turned nine mosques into churches and installed a bishop before he died in 1099. His wife, Doña Ximena, maintained control for two years following El Cid’s death, but would eventually be backed into handing the power back to the Moors in 1101. They would maintain control for another 150 years.
In 1238 King James I of Aragon the Conqueror, with an army composed of French, English, Germans, and Italians, laid siege to Valencia, and on 28 September in that same year forced a surrender. 50,000 Moors were forced to leave. He immediately kick-started a new system of urbanization, as churches and Christian architecture quickly replaced Moorish mosques and buildings.
While the 14th century saw its share of epidemics and political problems as the new Christian city of Valencia tried to find its footing, Valencia soon found itself in its golden age. Lasting from the 15th until the 16th centuries, Valencia became one of the Mediterranean’s strongest trading center as well as an economic and cultural nucelus of Spain. Architects, painters, sculptors and writers provided the city with flourishing artistic activity -in fact, Spain’s first printed book can still be seen in the library of the Antigua Universidad- and turning the city into a cultural haven with an exponentially flourishing population.
The 17th century was not a positive epoch throughout Spain, and in Valencia the reality was equally harsh. The 1609 expulsion of the Moriscos – Moors that had converted to Christianity – saw the loss of Valencia’s talented populace of artisans and agriculturists; the crisis continued to worsen as political corruption and economic strife wracked the formerly affluent city.
Following the death of Spain’s heirless king Carlos II, the War of Spanish Succession broke out across the country and proved to be a crippling defeat for Valencia. Valencia supported the wrong guy – Carlos of Austria – and as revenge, the victorious Felipe V abolished the autonomous privileges (called “fueros”) that Valencia had enjoyed. Meanwhile, in cities like Salamanca, which had supported him, he constructed grand plazas and buildings as a sign of gratitude.
The 18th century started off on a bad note for Valencia, but then was marked by post-crisis, post-war recuperation. Valencia expanded its port and its industries, and advances in agricultural techniques led to a thriving export of fruits, wine and rice. Plus, with new means of transportation linking Valencia to other major cities throughout Spain, its industries and economy steadily grew. On 24 January 1706, Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough, 1st Earl of Monmouth, led a handful of English cavalrymen into the city after riding south from Barcelona, capturing the nearby fortress at Sagunto, and bluffing the Spanish Bourbon army into withdrawal. The English held the city for 16 months and defeated several attempts to expel them.
English soldiers advanced as far as Requena on the road to Madrid. After the victory of the Bourbons at the Battle of Almansa the English army evacuated Valencia and the city subsequently lost its privileges including important civil rights called furs by the way the Bourbons decided to burn important cities like Xativa, where actually is still the picture of the Spanish Bourbon turned back as protest.
The War of Spanish Independence, lasting from 1808 until 1814, was the result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s ever-ambitious scheme to essentially take over all of Europe. His troops tried to invade Valencia early on, in 1808, but the city was able to hold them off until the very end, when French troops took over the city from 1812 through 1814. Today, you can still see cannonball pockmarks spread across El Carmen’s Torres de Quart, lasting reminders that attest to the invading troops’ intensity.
The 20th century started off well, but the good luck would run dry with the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 until 1939. Valencia had sided with the Republicans, who had moved their government headquarters to Valencia after future dictator Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces took Madrid. During the Spanish Civil War, the capital of the Republic was moved to Valencia, and the city suffered from the blockade and siege by Francos forces. However, the postwar period was hard for Valencians. During the Franco years, speaking or teaching Valencian was prohibited (in a significant reversal it is now compulsory for every child studying in Valencia).
Unfortunately, they once again sided with the losing team and would pay for it for decades to come. To worsen matters, in 1957 Valencia fell victim to severe flooding of the River Turia, which sent up to two meters of water rushing through the streets and damaging much of the city. The river was re-routed and now passes around the southern and western Valencian suburbs. The riverbed is now a seven-kilometer park leading to the brand-new City of Arts and Sciences.
In 1957 the city suffered a severe flood by the Turia River, with 5metres (16ft) in some streets. One consequence of this was that a decision was made to drain and reroute the river and it now passes around the Western and southern suburbs of the city. A plan to turn the drained area into a motorway was dropped in favour of a picturesque 7km (4mi) park which bisects the city. Valencia was granted Autonomous Statutes in 1982.
Following Franco’s death after an oppressive 35-year reign, Valencia enjoys a high degree of autonomy and is a prospering hub of commerce, industry and tourism.