Marbella’s Early History
Archaeological excavations carried out in the mountains around Marbella indicate human habitation in the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. Some historians believe that the first settlement on the present site of Marbella was by the Phoenicians in the 7th Century BC. They are known to have established several colonies along the coast of the Malaga province.
During the period of Islamic rule, after the Normans had laid waste to the coast of Malaga in the 10th Century, the Caliphate of Cordoba fortified the coastline and built several lighthouse towers along it. They also constructed the Alcazaba and a wall to protect the town which was then made up of narrow streets and buildings. It’s 3 gates opened to Ronda, Malaga and the sea. The most notable buildings were of course the citadel and the mosque. The village was surrounded by orchards and the most important crops were figs and mulberry trees for silk cultivation.
Historians cannot make up their minds how the name Marbella came about. Some believe it was named after a Carthaginian captain called Maharbal and by corruption it became the present day name. Others favour the Roman name Salduba which meant salt city. Or it may have developed from the name the Arabs gave it, which was Marbil-la.
During the time of the first kingdoms of Taifa, Marbil-la was the subject of a dispute between the Taifas of Algeciras and Malaga. It eventually fell into the orbit of Malaga, and later became part of the Nazarid Kingdom. In 1283 the Sultan Marinid Abu Yusuf launched a campaign against the Kingdom of Granada. Peace between the Marinid dynasty and the Nasrid dynasty was achieved with the signing of the Treaty of Marbella on 6 May 1286.
In 1485 the town passed without bloodshed into the hands of the Crown of Castile. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Catholic monarchs, gave Marbella the title of city and capital of the region and made it a realengo (a Royal protectorate). The Plaza de los Naranjos was built along the lines of a Castilian urban design. Sugar cane was introduced to Marbella in 1644, the cultivation of which spread along the Malaga province coast. Consequently, numerous sugar mills were constructed, one of which was the Trapiche del Prado de Marbella.
In 1828, a Malaga businessman called Manuel Heredia founded a company called La Concepción to mine the magnetite iron ore of the Sierra Blanca at nearby Ojen. This was due to the availabliity of charcoal from the trees of the mountain slopes. These operations ultimately produced up to 75% of the country’s cast iron.
In 1860, the Marques del Duero founded an agricultural colony in what is now the centre of San Pedro de Alcántara. The dismantling of the iron industry disrupted the local economy and much of the population had to return to farming or fishing for a livelihood. This was compounded by the crisis of traditional agriculture and the epidemic of phylloxera (a blight) in vineyards which contributed to Marbella’s high unemployment, an increase in poverty and starvation for many of the labourers. The associated infrastructure for a foundry built at El Angel in 1871 temporarily relieved the situation and made the city a destination for immigrants, thus increasing its population. However, the company did not survive the worldwide economic crisis of 1893 and its doors closed during that year.
In the late 19th century, Marbella was a village composed of three areas: the main districts, the Barrio Alto or San Francisco and the Barrio Nueveo. There were smaller nuclei arranged around the old ironworks and the farm colony of San Pedro de Alcántara as well as isolated dwellings in the orchards and farms. The general population at this point was divided between a small group of hierarchy and working people. The middle class were practically non-existent.