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La Basilica de Vega del Mar

José Perez Barradas (standing left) in carefully prepared 1930 photo
José Perez Barradas (standing left) in carefully prepared 1930 photo at La Basilica Vega del Mar

La Basilica de Vega del Mar

La Basilica de Vega del Mar was a Paleo-Christian (early Christian) church and necropolis (burial site), located near the coast just east of the mouth of the Guadalmina river, in San Pedro, Marbella. The area used to known as Vega del Mar, and is now known as Linda Vista.   The site now houses the unique and expansive remains of the Basilica including its foundations and evidence of the burial site. Items discovered on the site were deemed so important to Spanish history that they are now exhibited in the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid.

It lies on or near the Roman road Via Aurelia and Roman settlement of Cilniana, the second station on the Antonine itinerary from Malaca (Malaga) to Gades (Cadiz). The exact location of the Roman town of Cilniana is unknown, posibly on the west bank of the Guadalmansa river. Although many Roman villas have been discovered along this stretch of coast, no municipal buildings indicating a town have been unearhted.

The original church on the Vega del Mar site, was built in the mid-fourth century, and is said to have been destroyed in the ruinous earthquake that occurred in the Mediterranean in the year 365 AD.

The present visible ruins largely relate to the church that was built in the year 572 AD by Bishop Andrea of Ira Flavia during the Byzantine tenure of the coast which was from 552 AD until the Visigoths reconquered in 621 AD. 

A tombstone coloured "Constantine Crimson" after the Emperor Constantine discovered on the site is arguably the oldest tombstone found anywhere in Spain, demonstrating the site´s considerable importance in Spanish history. 

 

 

DISCOVERY

The relics were uncovered in the early 20th century when eucalyptus, as part of a general reforestation project, was being planted. As the beds were being dug out, artifacts and evidence of the structure were uncovered along with evidence of human remains, suggesting the site of a necropolis. The first excavation by the San Pedro Colonia Company was authorized in 1916. Artifacts we sent to Madrid and the important ones are in the National Museum of Archaeology. Others are thought to have been lost or sold to private collectors.

Archeologist José Perez Barradas became interested in the site, and excavated in 1930. His work is still the principal reference for the site. He recorded 148 tombs. After his excavations the baptism font was covered with a steel plate, and the site surrounded by barbed wire which was later removed, probably during the civil war.  Further excavations took place in the summers of 1978 to 1981 and artifacts being sent to the Malaga Archeological Museum.  The site remained largely unprotected by a low fence as noted when Andalucia.com first visited the site in early 1990s. By the late 1990s is was fenced and a key could be borrowed from the tourist office. In mid 2000s the site was extensively renovated with elevated wooden walkways, a permanent perimeter fence and information boards. See below for the limited opening hours.  

FLOOR PLAN

The present ruins clearly show the rectangular plan of the building that once stood at the site and the internal floor plan. Within the outer walls there is clear evidence of three naves; the main nave is separated from the two adjacent by three stone pillars. The church is unusual in that it has two apses (semi-circular recess usually with domed roof), one on the east side and another on the west side of the building. Even more unusual the west apse is the principle; it sits between two small rectangular rooms; one is the baptistery and the other the sacristy.  

Layout plan, Basilica del Mar and Necropolis
Layout plan, Basilica del Mar (blue) and Necropolis (orange)

Baptism

The north chamber (baptistery) contains a font in the shape of a fish, at 1.1m deep enough to immerse a mature adult. Today is protected by a glass plate. Inside the font are seven steps, which represent the seven degrees of mystery attributed to the Holy Spirit by Saint Isidore - three of decline, one central, and three of ascension. It is often recorded as being carved from a single stone but is actually constructed of brick and lined with a hard lime mortar.

The baptistery had two doors, one internal and one external, so designed to prevent anyone from entering the Church without first having been baptized. Here a baptism ceremony would start in the northern patio, proceed into an anti-room and thus the believer would enter the baptistry from the east and leave to the west. This contrasts with the normal layout of an entrance in the Kingdom of Darknest (west) and exit to the Kingdom of God (east).

The full imersion baptism would probablty take place in private along with the priest. In the VII century the rite of baptism changed in Catholic churches to be the sprinkling of water on the head.

The other entrances to the Church are found on the North and the South side of the building. The North entrance was used during burial ceremonies.

As with all churches of this era, the construction was poor with simple building materials and minimal masonry namely pebbles and lime mortar, and so the building has been subject to considerable decay. The pillars and columns were constructed with greater care but, as can be seen in the floor plan, they appear in unusual positions for a traditional basilica, making this one even more interesting. The roof would have been constructed from clay tiles supported on wooden beams. 

La Basilica de Vega del Mar was a early Christian church and necropolis in the heart of a eucalyptus forest.
La Basilica de Vega del Mar was a early Christian church and necropolis.

The Necropolis

The site was first used as a necropolis by the Romans under Constantine ( ruled 306 to 337 AD); evidence of this was found in the form of a pear-shaped bottle of known Roman origin, and terra sigliata ceramics, known for their use under the Roman Empire, and continued fabrication into the Visigothic rule of Liuva II.  The Necropolis survived centuries of early history (these artifacts are now on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid).

The tombs found at the necropolis were mainly constructed in brick, some lined in marble and sealed by large stones or boulders. Almost 200 different tombs have been discovered on the site, making it one of the largest Roman burial sites in Spain.

Firmana's grave

One interesting tombstone, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid is that of a young girl called Firmana who lived at the end of the fourth century or the beginning of the V. A Latin inscription on a tombstone reads "Firmana, a girl with sweet character, lived a good two years and eight months. She was received in peace on the seventh day of the calends of February [January 25] a Saturday"

Professor of Epigraphy and Numismatics at the Complutense University of Madrid, Javier Santiago Fernández published and analysis in the magazine Gerión by comparing it with others from the Iberian Peninsula and from different periods. Furthermore "it can be dated to any of the years of the second half of the fourth century (346, 352, 357, 363, 374, 380, 385, 391) or the first (402, 413) of the V", which are the ten years in which "the seventh day before the kalendas of February was Saturday".

Entry

It is free to view the site

Hours

The site is only open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holidays except 24,25,31 December and 1 January from 11:15 - 14:00. Outside of these hours groups should call the Area de Cutlura and Patrimony, San Pedro on 952 76 87 67 or email [email protected] to arrange a visit and obtain keys from either Marbella or San Pedro tourist office.

Location

Urb. Linda Vista Playa, Calle Eucaliptos, San Pedro de Alcántara, Marbella.