Off the Beach: Tarifa Castle

Off the Beach: Tarifa Castle

Tarifa Castle was built more than 1,000 years ago. 

Entering through the main gate of the Castle gives an understanding of how for 900 of those years the castle has withstood violent attacks and long sieges, from the 10thC to the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century.

Abd-ar-Rahman III, Caliph of Córdoba 960, creator of Tarifa Castle

The most southern of Spain’s castles, Tarifa Castle faces Africa and from its ramparts and towers the Rif mountains of Morocco and the Northern Maghreb can been seen across the short distance of  the Strait of Gibraltar.       

Guzman El Bueno 1256–1309,  Defender of Tarifa and its Castle

In the early centuries the attacks came from the Moors in south and from the attacks by the Christian Kingdoms in the north to reconquer the lands taken by the Moors to create al-Andalus.

In the western part of North Africa the Maghreb region stretches from central present-day Algeria and Libya westwards to Northern Morocco on the Atlantic and southward to the Atlas Mountains and Mauretania. 

The region’s inhabitants, the  Maghrebis, were known by the Romans as the Mauri and the Masaesyli and in medieval times as Roman Africans or Moors. 

The region later came to be known in Europe as the Barbary Coast, a name originating from the oldest known inhabitants of the region,  semi nomadic cattle and sheep farmers, the Berbers 

Christianity had spread to the Maghreb from the 3rdC onwards until the birth of Muhammad in 570 and the movement  of Islam westward

By the 7thC the Moors of the Rashidun Caliphate and the Umayyad Caliphate had conquered swathes of formerly Roman territory and Islam became the dominant religion.

The Caliphates

Three major caliphates, Islamic states,  succeeded each other: the Rashidun Caliphate (632–661), the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), and the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1517). The fourth major caliphate was the Ottoman Caliphate from 1517. 

The Umayyad Caliph Al-Hakam II, 961 to 976,  son of Abd-ar-Rahman III

A few other states that existed through history have called themselves caliphates, including the Ayyubid Caliphate during the reign of Saladin (1174–1193), Isma’ili Fatimid Caliphate in Northeast Africa (909–1171), the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba in Iberia (929–1031), the Berber Almohad Caliphate in Morocco (1121–1269). 

These breakaway caliphates came to be some of the most active in the history of Tarifa and its castle.

In July 710, Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber, Muslim and Umayyad general who went on to lead the conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711 sent his commander Tarif ibn Malik on a raid across the strait now known as the Straits of Gibraltar.  

The raid was intended to test the southern coastline of the Iberian peninsula for armed resistance  and the large raiding party of 12,000 troops was met with only token resistance from the Visigoth tribes in the area.

The first battles

This first expedition by Tariq consisted mainly of Berbers, who had themselves only recently come under Muslim influence. 

To conquer the area may not have been the original plan as the raid was a continuation of a historic pattern of large-scale raids into Iberia dating to the pre-Islamic period.

However, the following year, 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad again led a large army across the Strait of Gibraltar from the North African coast. This time the army of 7,000 soldiers landed further along the coast from Tarifa, in “the foothills of a mountain”.  

That mountain would become known as the Rock of Gibraltar, the name “Gibraltar” being  the Spanish derivation of the Arabic name Jabal Ṭāriq meaning “mountain of Ṭāriq”. 

Within the following seven years the Moors  went on to conquer Hispania (the Iberian peninsula) and establish the Umayyad Caliphate to replace the Visigothic Kingdom which had ruled for the almost  300 years since the Fall of the Romans’ Western Empire. 

“The destruction of the Visigoths and the establishment of the Umayyad Al-Andalus was the beginning of  Muslim rule in Europe and  of the great Muslim civilisation”

By 720 they had taken virtually all the peninsula and established a major garrison as far north as Zaragoza on the Ebro River. 

From that time until 1492, Christian Kingdoms in Europe and Muslim Moors fought a series of wars for the control of the Iberian Peninsula.

300 years later, under the rule of the Umayyad caliphate of Cordovain in the 10th century,  Muslim rule had begun to decline. 

Finally, Muslim al-Andalus ended in 1492 when Granada was conquered in the final years of the 800 years of the Christian Kings’ Reconquista campaign of and the beginnings of modern-day Spain were established.

Fortification of Tarifa 

It was not until some 250 years after the beginning of Al-Andalus in early-700 that Tarifa, the original landing-place of the Moors named after Tarif ibn Malik leader of the raid in 710,  was fortified. 

Having become a prosperous town over the following centuries it needed the construction of a castle. 

Tarifa and its surrounding area had been settled by the Romans, including the hamlet of Casas de Porros, Valdevaqueros, some ten kilometres from Tarifa, considered to be  the location of the settlement then known as Mellaria. 

 The village of Bolonia, some 20 kms from Tarifa, was also populated in Roman times with the establishment of Baelo Claudia nearby.

Baelo Claudia one of Andalucia´s most significant Roman archaeological sites

Baelo Claudia,  founded at the end of the 2ndC BC, had become a prosperous Roman city in its day before being destroyed by two devastating earthquakes around 40-60AD and again 260-290AD, including being hit by a tsunami. 

The ruins of the settlement of Baelo Claudia are today one of Andalucia´s most significant and well-preserved Roman archaeological sites. 

The remains of the temple and the Forum, together with the basilica, baths, aqueduct, and large fish-salting factory at Baelo Claudia  indicate the importance of the position of the Tarifa area as a strategic point for trade routes between Europe and North Africa.

Archaeological excavations, and artefacts on display in the collections now housed at Tarifa Castle, together with remains of parts of the original Roman fort on which the Castle is built, show  that the Romans selected Tarifa as the location to construct fortifications  to protect the area. 

Some 900 years later that same location was selected for the construction of Tarifa’s castle by Abd al-Rahman III Caliph of Córdoba who saw the castle’s construction completed in 960, just a year before his death.

Abd al-Rahman III was considered to have been the greatest of the Umayyad rulers of Spain, and under his rule from 912  to 961 Tarifa had become an important and prosperous city.

Tarifa became an important and prosperous city

Fortification was need to protect Tarifa against raids from Africa and from the North (the Vikings) and to stop a possible invasion by the Fatimids, enemies of the Umayyads, who had established a caliphate in North Africa.

In addition to Tarifa Castle, Abd al-Rahman III also constructed a number of defences along the Iberian coast, typically square castles in the style of the official Umayyad state architecture, although Tarifa castle  is trapezoidal due to the contours of the hill on which it’s built.

Local hostilities

By the time the castle was built, warfare was frequent between the Christian Kingdoms, hostile rivals that regularly sought the help of the Muslim rulers to win their battles.

The Christian realms of León, Navarre and Catalonia lacked a common identity and based their loyalty  on tribe or ethnicity so they frequently united and divided during the 11th and 12th centuries.

At the same time, frequent internal conflicts also developed between the Muslim rulers in al-Andalus, which culminated in the 11thC  with its disintegration into several taifas (small kingdoms established by city governors). 

The taifas, like the Christian kingdoms, were often at odds with each other and sought the help of the Christian armies.

As a result, castles on all sides were regularly besieged, changed hands and were often modified to meet the needs of the conquerors or to face the challenge of new siege techniques.

The Structure

Tarifa Castle is one of the best-preserved medieval buildings in Spain. The fortress itself is a typical Caliphate nucleus with the walls built with rope and brand ashlars. Widely used in Hispano-Muslim architecture a “rope” is the arrangement of ashlars or finely-cut stone blocks placed horizontally on their longest side to form a structure (walls) while a “brand” is a stone placed on the shorter side, thus interlocking the courses of the stonework. 

Alternating the  combination of ashlars is known as rope and tizón. 

10thC wall built with one rope and two brands

An ashlar is capable of very thin joints between blocks, and the visible face of the stone may be quarry-faced or feature a variety of treatments: tooled, smoothly polished or rendered with another material for decorative effect. 

Although the Moors used both rough stone and ashlar the most usual building method  was tapial, or “rammed earth/clay” walls.

The Tarifa city walls  show the result of these different techniques used during the building and restoration phases.

The quarry from which many of the ashlars may have been taken was closeby to the construction site, on the Isla de Palomas, a small island just a few hundred metres offshore.

An octagonal albarrana, the Guzmán el Bueno tower

At the westernmost end of the castle is the octagonal Guzmán el Bueno tower, an albarrana. The tower is detached from the defensive wall (curtain wall) between two towers (bastions) of the castle but  connected to it by an arched walkway.

 A characteristic of Moorish castles, the earliest albarrana towers were often pentagonal or octagonal in plan (e.g. Badajoz, Tarifa, Seville) but a more rectangular tower design was embraced by Christian castle designers. 

The walkway to the Guzman El Bueno albarrana

In contrast, a tall keep, the inner stronghold of a castle, and a feature of Christian castles, was gradually adopted by the Moors. The Moors are also considered to have  introduced the concept of an elbow entrance. 

The simple introduction of placing a bend at entranceways became an effective means of obstructing direct and speedy entry and made it much easier for defenders to cut down attackers.

Siege warfare

At the time that Tarifa Castle was completed it was designed to stand firm  against arrows and catapults. 

From the First Crusade, 1095,  techniques and weaponry developed from the many attacks on the castles in the Holy Land during the Crusades, including  development in catapult technique so that larger stone balls could be hurled at castle walls.  

During  the 12thC and 13thC the mangonel, operated by manpower pulling on cords attached to a lever and sling to launch the projectiles was replaced as the primary siege weapon by the counterweight trebuchet. Several models and replicas can be seen during a tour of the Castle, also on display is a bombard, an early mortar-style canon.

Mangonels and trebuchets launched projectiles

After gunpowder was developed, large guns (ie canon) that could pierce castle walls made medieval siege warfare using catapults and undermining walls largely impractical.

When taken over by the Christians 1492 Tarifa Castle was extended vertically with a second floor to provide the space to develop as  palace and the crenellation was removed so that newly-installed cannons had a wider field of fire. 

Further changes to the Castle’s structure became essential as the cannon-fire caused vibrations so making buttressing necessary to support the building.

Guzman El Bueno 1296

Of the three city gates, only the 13th century Puerta de Jerez remains today. The plaque above the gate commemorates the troops of Tarifa who, on 21st September 1292, helped King Sancho IV of Castile conquer Tarifa, taking it back from the Moors.

Puerta de Jerez, the only Moorish entrance gate to Tarifa that remain

Sancho IV, considered an unlawfully crowned king, with many enemies, entrusted one of his noblemen, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, with the protection of Tarifa. In 1296 Guzmán held the castle against the siege of the castle by the Moors in alliance with the Infante Don Juan, Sancho’s rebellious brother.

Alonso Pérez de Guzmán,  El Bueno, protector of Tarifa

Pérez de Guzmán got the nickname of “Good” (el Bueno) by refusing to hand over the castle to the besieging forces in exchange for the life of his son. 

According to legend, Guzmán rebuffed the demand with the dramatic words that “Should Don Juan put him to death, he will but confer honour on me, true life on my son, and on himself eternal shame in this world and everlasting wrath after death” and threw down his knife for the besiegers to use in killing his son.

In reward for his heroic defence of Tarifa Guzmán was granted large areas of Crown lands plus tuna fishing rights in the area and became the 1st Duke of Medina Sidonia. 

 He went on to build the Castle of Zahara de los Atunes and Palace of Jadraza, which incorporated a seasonal residential palace and tuna processing facility.

Battle of Rio Salado 1340

The Battle of Río Salado has given its name to Tarifa’s main street. Also known as the Battle of Tarifa it was a battle of the armies of King Afonso IV of Portugal and King Alfonso XI of Castile against those of Sultan Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali of the Marinid dynasty and Yusuf I of Granada. 

The Marinids had overthrown the Almohads and  controlled Morocco  and briefly most of the Maghreb. 

Having destroyed the Castilian fleet in a naval battle off Gibraltar Abu Hasan crossed the Straits with his army on 14 August 1340, and all through the summer troops and supplies continued to be ferried across. On 22 September the siege of Tarifa was formally established, with the help of Yusuf’s army.

After the Battle of Rio Salado , a Muslim army would never again invade the Iberian Peninsula.

Historian Joseph F. O’Callaghan in The Gibraltar Crusade: Castile and the Battle for the Strait  describes that “to support the Castilians the Portuguese sent a replacement fleet to the Straits in October, cutting off the Moors’ supply routes between Morocco and the Peninsula.

The troops besieging Tarifa depended on supplies from Morocco and launched an all-out assault against the castle, which was  repulsed with heavy losses on both sides.

On the 29th the Christian army reached the Deer Hill (la Roca del Ciervo) eight kilometres from Tarifa and barely 250 metres from the beach. 

Between them and their adversaries was a 4,500m long valley crossed by the streams of La Jara and El Salado. 

During the night, Alfonso XI had sent 1,000 horse and 4,000 foot troops to reinforce the Tarifa garrison..the battle took just three hours from 9am until noon. 

The pursuit of the fleeing enemy was ruthless, ending at the Sultan’s camp at Guadamecí River, six km from the battlefield. Little mercy was shown here, and many of the Sultan’s wives were killed, including his first wife Fatimah and also  Aysa , daughter of the noble Abu Yahya ibn Yaqub.”

The aftermath of the battle was that the Marinids moved back to Africa and never again was a Muslim army able to invade the Iberian Peninsula. 

Control of the Straits of Gibraltar was now held by the Christians, specifically the Castilians and the Genoese. 

The town of Algeciras, a valuable bridgehead held by the Marinids, was finally retaken in 1344 after a two-year siege. However Gibraltar was not recaptured from the King of Granada until 1462.


Over the time during the Moors’ control of al-Andalus  and after the Christian Reconquest a network of watchtowers was established in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth centuries to defend the coast against pirates and raiders. They were in sight of one another making it possible to get a signal along the coast from Gibraltar to the watchtowers in and around Tarifa.

Watchtower near the river Guadamecí, near Tarifa

The network of watchtowers included two visible today. The Torre del Fraile was built in 1588 and the Guadamecí Tower is on a mound near the river of the same name. 

The Torre de la Peña, thought to have been built during 13thC, also known as the Torre de la Roca del Ciervo (Deer Rock), is built on the Rock of that name in the foothills of the Sierra de la Plata. 

The Castle now

Castles were built not only to house garrisons of many thousands of troops that would be large enough to be a deterrent to rebellion and hostilities but also to serve to  protect the king’s local commercial interests.  A castle also maintained the moral high ground as defender of the position of the king as the only Authority. 

In time they also became residences of the king’s representatives, the lords and ladies of the nobility, and they developed to also serve as a palace.

Throughout a tour of Tarifa’s castle the views inland and over the Strait to Africa from window openings and from the ramparts are a reminder of the purpose of the Castle as a fortification.                   

The gardens in the Palace grounds

It is also clear during a visit to the Castle that a luxurious palace had been created within the Castle. 

One fascinating detail can be seen in the gardens area,  sunken flower beds in which orange trees were planted – the tree height was lowered so that the oranges could be picked with ease without needing to stretch up to pick them. 

The gardens today at the Alhambra’s Generalife

The garden area is one of many features that can be seen in the design of a palace that was developed during the centuries to provide a continuingly sophisticated life of ease while providing  the inhabitants with the  protection of  the Castle’s continually modernised fortifications.

Jon Lewes 2021 @Thinker_Jon