Cartagena [kaɾtaˈxena] is a port city with ca. 220K inhabitants, and a major military base and arsenal of the Spanish Navy. The city has a Punic wall, a Roman theater, many Art Nouveau buildings from the early 20th century, and several superb museums. Nearby, the village of La Unión hosts the most important flamenco event in the world, the Festival Cante de las Minas. A bit further north-east, the Mar Menor is Europe's largest coastal saltwater lagoon and also a highly threatened ecosystem.


Cartagena, a cultural Phenix through the millennia

Cartagena may or not have been the Mastia or Massia of the Tartessians, but the original Iberian settlement was conquered in 227 BCE by Hasdrubal the Fair, a western phoenician general from Qart Hadasht (Carthage), in today’s Tunisia. Hasdrubal choose the same name for Cartagena (‘new city’) and built walls among the five hills sorrounding the new capital of their domains in Ishfania (romanized as Hispania, today’s España, Spain), soon to become one of the richest and most populated European cities at the time.



The nearby silver mines helped Carthaginians to pay the onerous war compensation Rome imposed after they lost the first Punic war. It was from Cartagena that Asdrubal’s brother-in-law, Hannibal Barca, set to cross the Alps with his elephants to conquer Rome. The Roman commander Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus or the Elder left Rome to besiege Cartagena by land and sea and conquered it, ending the Carthaginian short-lived dominion in Europe 209 BCE.

The Romans renamed the city Carthago Nova (so, ‘new new city’), and it became pivotal in the Roman expansion against the Iberians, the Lusitanians, the Gallaecians and other Celts. The Roman conquest would not finish until 19 BCE, and in this period Cartagena flourished while it improved its status until it became the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Carthaginensis and one of the most important harbors in the Mediterranean.

Forced to migrate west by the Huns, the Vandals sacked Carthago Nova in 435 CE. About 25 years later, the Visigoths reconquered Hispania for Rome as a federated kingdom that, with the fall of the empire, became independent in 476. The Visigoths (from the Germanic word west, as opposed to eastern Goths or Ostrogoths) kept the Roman administrative division of Hispania into seven provinces, including the Carthaginensis, whose capital was now known as Nova Carthago Spartaria, due to their massive exports of esparto grass.

The Visigoth kings were elected and, in a nasty civil war, crown contender Athanagild asked Byzantine Emperor Justinian for help. The Byzantines conquered many coastal forts and cities in south eastern Hispania and then refused to hand them over to king Athanagild. In 555, they founded the Byzantine province of Spania, and made a rebuilt Carthago Spartaria its capital. It would quickly become an important trading post for products from Byzantine north Africa and Constantinople, and it boasted a local mint of mainly small copper coins.

The capital of the Visigoth province was moved to Toledo, and the kings slowly reconquered their former territories. King Sisebut destroyed Carthago Spartaria yet again and, ca. 70 years after it was founded, the entire province of Spania fell back into Visigothic hands except for the Balearic Islands. The city was so completely desolated that it never reappeared in Visigothic Spain. In another struggle for the crown, King Wittiza’s relatives appealed to Mûsâ ibn Nuṣayr, the Umayyad governor of the Maghreb. Mûsâ dispatched an army of 7,000 Berbers under the governor of Tangier, Ṭâriq ibn Ziyâd, who in July 711 defeated the Visigoths. Unopposed after slaughtering the king and most Visigoth noblemen, Ṭâriq marched straight on to Toledo, and the kingdom of Hispania capitulated.



Visigoth Count Theodomir, born in Tude (today’s Tui), was the governor of the south eastern Carthaginensis domain of Aurariola (today’s Orihuela). He resisted the southern invaders for a while until he signed a pact that granted peace, religious freedom, and political autonomy for him and later for another Athanagild, probably his son. Athanagild expanded his dominion to his Byzantine’s mother hometown, Cartago Nova Spartaria, whose name was translated as Qartayannat al-Halfa or, simply, Qartayanna.

The wali (‘governor’) of Al-Andalus Abd al-Malik ibn Qatan occupied the ailing but slowly recovering Qartayanna in 733. Theodomir, or Tudmir, travelled to Damascus to request justice from Caliph Hishâm ibn ʿAbd al-Malik, which he obtained. The kingdom of Tudmir lasted until 825, when it became dependent on the Umayyad Emirate of Cordova. Emir ʿAbd al-Raḥmân II built the city of Madinat Mursiyya (today’s Murcia) and, in 929, the kingdom of Tudmir was renamed Kingdom of Murcia until 1031, when it became a qura (province) of the Caliphate of Cordoba.


The crisis in the Almohad Caliphate fostered the slow Christian conquest of Al-Andalus territories. In 1245, Qartayanna fell to the troops of Ferdinand III the Saint. In 1270, his son Alfonso X the Wise created the military Order of the Star for the naval defense of Castile and established its headquarters in Cartagena. About 30 years later, James II of Aragon conquered the Kingdom of Murcia—now part of the crown of Castile—including Cartagena, in 1298. The Treaty of Elche (1305) restored peace between the two major peninsular kingdoms and returned the territories south of the Segura river, including Cartagena, to Castile. Then the city declined until the 18th century.



As far back as the 16th century, Cartagena and Ferrol, in the Atlantic north, were the most important naval ports in Spain. Spanish King Philip II the Prudent fortified Cartagena with its first polygonal bastions in 1570. In 1728, the newly-established Bourbon dynasty chose Cartagena to become the site of the Spanish Navy's Maritime Department for the Mediterranean. The city became heavily fortified with a castle, several barracks and garrisons, and a large arsenal.



During the First Spanish Republic, and following the steps of the Paris Commune, Cartagena rose up in armed insurrection and the city established a self-governing revolutionary Canton of Cartagena that lasted six months between 1873 and 1874 and then surrendered to the governmental forces that besieged the city for months. During the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), Cartagena was the main base of the Spanish Navy and one of strongholds of the government of the Second Spanish Republic that held out against the forces of General Francisco Franco longer than any other city in Spain, being the last of its cities to surrender.



The industrial activity increased in the 1950s and declined in all Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Roman theater was discovered in 1988 and the Polythecnic University of Cartagena (UPTC) opened in 1998. Both tourism and industry have yet again prompted Cartagena to raise as a cultural Phenix through the millennia, one of the most interesting cities in the Mediterranean with an excellent quality of life.