Jaen City - History

Mirador Santa Catalina Castle, Jaen Cathedral  © Michelle Chaplow
Mirador Santa Catalina Castle, Jaen Cathedral ( click to enlarge images)

The Story of Jaen

Jaen is also known – by historians – as the “Holy Kingdom”. This is because more or less the very same area we know today as Jaen Province, was long ago a kingdom, ruled first by Moors and then by Christians.

There is evidence that Jaen was civilised as early as the Copper Age with important archeological sites and rock paintings to prove it. The Iberians and the Carthaginians left their marks as well with the Romans taking over in 207 BC – relieving the local Carthaginians of their duties entirely.

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Roman historians described their new acquisition as quite an impressive – even “opulent” –  city. The new rulers kept Jaen under military rule for the first couple centuries, but then sometime during the first century A.D. it was granted full Roman status and became a municipality known as Flavio Aurgitano.

As is to be expected, not much is left from the glorious days of Roman rule in Jaen, just scattered mosaic and bits of ceramic and other relics of the past. You’ll find some of these in the provincial museum. Many more are certainly waiting to make the next builder cringe when excavators uncover their buried faces.

The Visigoths were next on the scene, but they didn’t make a huge impact on the city as it was only a peripheral possession for them. It was up to the arabs, then, to make the next big mark on Jaen with five centuries of dominion that only ended in 12 46 when the Christians most certainly raised their flag with pride over the city they had just conquered.

The modern face of Jaen is mostly marked by its moorish and Christian past with most monuments standing in testimony either to the great moorish rulers who reigned for 500 years or the Christians who have been building the city since.

The beginning of the 19th century was a traumatic time for the people of Jaen as the French invaded and took over during what is known in Spanish as the “War of Independence”. Today, at the press of a button, in a display at the Santa Catalina castle prison you can hear a lifelike figure in chains retell the story of what it was like to be under French rule – but “ojo” (warning), as they say in Spanish, the figure in chains tells a very one-sided tale, to the detriment of our French neighbours. Possibly the idea is to get back at the invaders (even after all these years), for we mustn’t forget that the French troops took it upon themselves to blow up the castle before the left the city as Spanish King Jose I took back Andalucia.

During the Spanish Civil War the situation in Jaen was about as tragic as it got anywhere in the country. The majority of the city’s residents were on the republican side and according to history, at one point non-republicans were loaded onto a train and sent to Madrid where they were shot mercilessly by communists as soon as they reached the south of the city. And if you visit Jaen’s cathedral, you might take a moment to imagine the desperate souls who were imprisoned there – people who were brought from all over. Yes, there were so many prisoners the prison reached the point of overflowing and the House of God was called into service for such tragic purposes. Executions were carried out almost daily, according to reports.

Thankfully, the Spanish Civil War is well behind us – but it’s good to have that story tucked into the back of your mind as you make your way around the city and get to know it’s inhabitants. Even today, the grandchildren and great grandchildren listen to the stories of their forebearers and the suffering both during and after the war. The postwar period, as you can imagine, was especially harsh for Jinienses (as locals are knowns) as supporters of the vanquished republicans.

Today Jaen city is doing very well and will certainly go down in history for its olive production. That and tourism promise to be the hallmark of this era when future generations look back in time to see what things were like at the beginning of the 21st century. Thankfully, they’ll see peace, prosperity and a city where culture, education and modern technology thrive.