When I first started walking to Santiago de Compostela, I was aware of the legend of Saint James, one of Jesus’s disciples; of his preaching in north-western Iberia; of his eventual return to Jerusalem, his arrest and beheading; of his two faithful followers taking his body to Galicia, and his interment there. But to me, it was just a legend, an interesting tale, but bearing little relevance to any historic events. To me, Galicia seemed a long way from Jerusalem.
But until I went there, I had not realized how developed and sophisticated was that part of Europe in that era, with its nearly 1000 km of straight paved road, running from south to north, allowing the rapid movement of armies and the transportation of gold, silver, other minerals and crops to the waiting ships in the south, and on to Rome. I had seen Roman ruins in Astorga in the north and Sevilla in the south, but walking on the former Roman road for day after day, and seeing the remains of the Roman city of Mérida, caused me to change my view: perhaps there was some credence in the legend of Saint James.
We walked across the Puente Romano on a beautiful early autumn afternoon, past the Muslim fort, and up the hill to the old town. I had reserved the same hotel, where two years previously I had become stuck in the elevator, and was eventually hauled up and out by the owner. It was no surprise that he had no hesitation in remembering me, when we checked in. And he assured me that he had had no further problems with the elevator since my incident, but just in case, he gave us a room on the ground floor.
The modern city of Mérida has been built on top of the walled Roman city of Augusta Emerita, originally founded in 25 BC, in the reign of Augustus. Hence the origin of the name.
The original Roman street and block layout has been maintained, and there are several places in the city where one can see the original street surface.
Mérida had an impressive amphitheatre and an adjoining theatre, the latter which has been partially restored and is still used for productions.
Throughout the city there are several other impressive Roman remains, including Trajan’s arch, the Temple of Diana, the aqueducts, and outside the original walls, the well-preserved circus used for chariot racing.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Visigoths replaced the Romans, and they in their turn were conquered, in the 8th century, by the Muslims from North Africa. The Islamic control of Mérida lasted until the 13th century, when they were defeated by the Christians. At Granada, in 1492, the last resistance of the Muslims in Spain was eliminated.
In the legends of Saint James, there is no mention of the route he may have taken on his return to Jerusalem, but it is likely that such a traveller from North-western Iberia would have passed through Mérida on the way south, to continue by boat to the Eastern Mediterranean.
I remain to be convinced that the legends of Saint James are anything other than legends, but I need no convincing that Mérida is a most interesting city.