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Cadiz has an amazing history because of its position facing the Atlantic Ocean with a natural harbour so suited to sailing ships and being close to the entry to the Mediterranean, and within a short sail of the African coast. 3000 years ago it was host to the Phoenician sailing ships who were the great traders of the Mediterranean.
At one time the city was separated from the mainland. Gradually a narrow strip of land provided access when the Atlantic tide was out. The old harbour Portus Gaditanus (present day Puerto Real) was known to the Romans since around 237 BC and would have used it to transport the soldiers and cavalry to subdue the native tribes. The Phoenicians had long since been overtaken by Rome as the dominant power in Spain. They used Gades, as they called it, as their base to control the waters and the lands towards modern day Seville. The Roman theatre/ amphitheatre in Cadiz is probably the most important recent discovery within the city and can be visited. It lies close to the cathedral next to the Atlantic shore.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Cadiz became a backwater and even the arrival of the Visigoths and later the Moors did not give any real impetus to the development of the city. However, after the ‘reconquest’ or Reconquista by Alfonso X known as “The Wise”, the Spanish king of Castile and León (1252–84) of Cadiz in 1262, the gradual development of the city emerged until the fantastic years of Exploration.
A route to the riches of the ‘East’ was being pioneered by Spain given impetus by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain – Ferdinand and Isabella – who gave encouragement to the new expeditions most notably by Christopher Columbus. It was from the coast of Cadiz that vessels embarked to search for spices and precious metals, and 1492 is the year when the new Age of Discovery and Spain really began.
By 1493 Columbus is back from his first foray and sails for the second time with a fleet of 17 ships towards the Caribbean, this time making Cadiz as the departure point. Over the years that follow, Cadiz becomes one of the most important cities in Western Europe attracting explorers, colonists, merchants, businessmen, boat builders, entrepreneurs and thousands of families seeing Cadiz as the place to be in Spain and to find employment.
Great houses were built many with a tall watch tower enabling the owner to spy on the activities of the port and to watch for shipping movements. There are many in evidence with one of the most interesting being open to the public called Torre Tavira.
The Spanish navy had developed and maintained an important strategic base in Cadiz Bay with Puerto Real as the ‘Royal Port’. The significance of Cadiz was realised when Francis Drake, the famous English sailor in the 16th Century known by the Spaniard as ‘El Draque’ or the ‘DRAGON’ , attacked the harbour in 1587 destroying 30 Spanish vessels. This did not deter Spain from amassing an armada of ships which sailed for the English Channel the following year.
The beginning of the 18th century marks the time when Cadiz really prospered as a result of the great Andaucian River Guadalquivir getting silted up and the larger trading vessels, which had been able to navigate all the way to Seville, making Cadiz their home. This century saw the building of the Cathedral. In fact it took well into the 19th century before the great building was complete. During the early years of the 19th Century, Napoleon of France had managed to install his brother Joseph as ruler of Spain which naturally created enormous tensions and Britain too was interested in the containment of Napoleon and went to support the government of Portugal who had seen the French army occupy Lisbon in 1807. This was just 2 years after the famous naval battle off Cadiz between the Royal Navy of England and the Combined Navies of France and Spain known as The Battle of Trafalgar.
There followed the so called Peninsula War that eventually saw Napoleon retreat and be defeated in the Iberian Peninsula. During this period of revolution and change, Cadiz was the centre for debate and political thinking which resulted in the first Constitution being formulated known as the La Constitución de 1812. Today Spain is served by the Constitution of 1978