Situated in Murcia in northern Andalusia, Cartagena's past and its destiny are inseparable from its port. The setting is extraordinarily beautiful, sheltered from the winds (except the "African" wind, as the Roman historian Polybius noted) and admired by many visitors, starting with Cervantes. This area seems to have been occupied for nearly 3,000 years but apart from various legends the town was probably founded around 227 BC, after the Iberians were defeated by Hasdrubal, Hannibal's brother-in-law.
Under the name of Qart Hadasht (New town) it controlled the important silver mines on the south-east of the Iberian peninsula and was the base from which Hannibal set off in 218 BC in the Second Punic War. The Romans, under Scipio Africanus, conquered it in 209 BC, changing its name to Carthago Nova. It rapidly became one of the most important Roman cities on the Iberian peninsula: under Augustus a forum and theatre facing the sea were built; under Tiberius it became the seat of local administration and at the end of the 3rd century AD the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Carthaginensis
Sacked by the Vandals early in the 5th century, the city recovered and in 461 sheltered a fleet on its way to attack the Vandal kingdom in Africa, but the battle of Cartagena was a disaster for the Roman fleet. For a time the town was occupied by the Germanic people, then re-conquered in 550 by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who made it capital of the province of Spania under the name Carthago Spartaria. Taken by the Visigoths in 662, it soon afterwards fell under Arab control. They fortified it and built a mosque.
In 1245 it was taken by the Castilians, who awarded the town the Order of the Star for the naval defence of the Crown of Castille. They also restored the diocese of Cartagena. During the Reconquista the loss of the episcopal seat to Murcia was a deep blow, slowing down the town's development at every level: urban, economic and demographic.
At one time annexed by the crown of Aragon, Cartagena passed definitively to Castille at the beginning of the 14th century; it became an active commercial port and as from the reigns of Charles V and Philippe II an important naval base for the royal fleet. Its walls were strengthened and coastal fortifications (Fuerte de Navidad) built. However in the 17th century, like many Spanish towns, Cartagena was hit several times by the plague. Despite these set-backs the port was the main military base in the Spanish Kings' Mediterranean policy; it occupied a strategic position in their relations with their Italian possessions and their fight against the Barbary (Berber) pirates.
In the 18th century Cartagena's naval facilities were again strengthened; it became the key to Spanish Mediterranean military thinking and was given new buildings such as the arsenal and the Sailors' Hospital.
In the 19th century Cartagena experienced many difficulties; faced with unrelenting poverty many people from the town went to Algeria; in 1873 the town formed a federalist government and in what is called the Cantonal Revolution, rose against the First Spanish Republic, but a year later was crushed by government troops. The loss of Spain's last colonies and its navy following defeat against the United States in 1898 had dire consequences for the local economy, although mining activity in the Sierra minera de Cartagena-La Union increased early in the 20th century.
During the civil war (1936-39), Cartagena was the only naval base controlled by the Republicans and the last town to be occupied by Franco's forces (March 1939). After the Second World War industries grew up round the port's harbours (naval shipyards, chemical industries), helping the town to develop, but by the end of the 20th century the town was going through a difficult patch again. Cartagena which has 212,000 inhabitants is trying to create a new economic life for itself by opening up resort and tourist facilities; the naval museum and the national underwater archaeology museum both remind visitors how long these shores have been occupied and the strength of the links between the town and the port.
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