Until the 9th century, the city of Santiago did not exist as such. However, archaeological excavations have shown that the present-day location of the old town was the site, in antiquity, of a Roman town that acquired certain importance and remained until the 7th century, forming part of the Swabian kingdom during some time. In the 1st century, alongside the walled enclosure of the Roman “civitas”, a pagan mausoleum was erected that subsequently gave rise to the cathedral. It has been demonstrated that, in that same century, three Christian martyrs were buried in the mausoleum, which became an established centre of worship, as shown by the nearby Christian cemetery that was used until the 7th century..
The City’s Foundation.
During the early 9th century (the year 813 is the most probable), the bishop of Iria Flavia, Teodomiro, was taken by a hermit called Pelagio to examine the mausoleum, which he recognised as that of the Apostle James; he based his opinion on the oral tradition according to which St. James had preached in Spain’s “finis terrae”, thereafter being martyred on returning to Palestine. His disciples Atanasio and Teodoro brought his decapitated body back; according to legend, they disembarked in Iria Flavia, 20 km away, and took it to Monte Libredón, where they buried it in a stone chest.
The Asturian king Alfonso II travelled from Oviedo with all of his court and recognised the existence of the Apostle James’ tomb. At that very moment, he made James the patron saint of his kingdom, turning the place into a centre of worship capable of uniting Western Christendom against the Moors’ expansion. The city’s foundation dates from the year 830. Santiago’s first church was also built –a simple construction housing the mausoleum from Roman times.
The Cosmopolitan City of the Middle Ages.
The pilgrimage to Compostela acquired great importance soon after the city’s foundation. Santiago became the spiritual focus of Western Europe, welcoming different cultural tendencies as well as treasures that enriched its sanctuary. Attracted by such, the Normans made repeated forays via the Ria of Arousa. However, the city was finally invaded by the Moors, who, led by Almanzor, devastated it in the year 997, although they respected the sanctuary. Its reconstruction led to Santiago’s first urban expansion, which included the construction of a new fort defining the perimeter of today’s old town. Construction of the large Romanesque cathedral began in the year 1075.
In 1099 Diego Xelmírez, the great promoter of the Compostela see and transformer of the city, was appointed as Santiago’s bishop. A key figure in the politics of Castile and León, he centred his constructive urge on the cathedral, the archbishop’s palace and the churches where he housed new relics that he acquired for the city, including those of St. Susana, Santiago’s second patron saint.
This was a time of fighting between the people and the archbishop, which involved the queen Doña Urraca, the bishop, cannons and abbots, knights and the bourgeoisie. Xelmírez promoted the cathedral’s construction from the first year of his episcopacy, entrusting the project to Maestro Esteban, who finished it in 1125. At that time, the cathedral and the city grew in parallel. By the time Xelmírez died in 1140, the medieval city’s present-day structure had been defined.
The year 1168 saw the beginning of the cathedral’s second important construction phase, which was entrusted to Maestro Mateo –the most important artist of his time in the Iberian Peninsula. In Santiago, he is linked to two of the cathedral’s monumental works: the Stone Choir and the Pórtico de la Glory. Completed in 1188, the Pórtico de la Gloria surpassed the aesthetic possibilities of its time and pointed to new horizons, to the extent that it can now be considered one of Romanesque and universal art’s masterpieces.
In the 13th century the cathedral acquired its full splendour, attracting an increasing number of worshippers from all over Christendom and consolidating the pilgrimage to the city. By then, the French Way, the most important of the roads leading to Compostela, had been defined. The pilgrimages gave rise to a decisive phenomenon in the city’s life: the establishing of the mendicant orders’ convents in the city, generally at the city gates. Convents such as San Francisco, Santo Domingo, Santa Clara or Belvís created new quarters, which determined the old town’s structure beyond the city walls. During the late Middle Ages, Compostela also became an important industrial and commercial centre: the names of streets such as Caldeirería, Moeda Vella, Acibechería or Concheiros are derived from the existence of rich and flourishing guilds.
The 14th and 15th centuries were times marked by fighting between Santiago’s bourgeoisie and the power of the Church, while Compostela’s prelacy experienced an important economic decline. The Fonseca family, which provided the city with three archbishops, controlled its destiny during this time of profound transformations at the end of the Middle Ages. The year 1495 saw the founding of the “Colegio de Estudiantes Pobres” (School for Poor Students), the origin of the present-day University instituted by Alonso de Fonseca III in 1525. From then on, Santiago began to stand out as an academic and student city.
The Renaissance City.
During the first decades of the 16th century, Santiago’s monumental quarter began to experience an urban development transformation, starting with the founding of the Royal Hospital by the Catholic Monarchs. It was the peak of the plateresque style. The 16th century began by incorporating the civil dimension into the city and ended with the resurgence of religious congregations. The Renaissance laid the foundations of the extraordinary series of public spaces surrounding the Jacobean basilica, which would be completed and shaped during the baroque period.
The Baroque Compostela.
The year 1657 can be considered the starting point of Compostela’s baroque period. The urban transformation began with the remodelling of the cathedral. Convents, churches and civil buildings participated in this process, which gave rise to the city’s face and outline that we now admire. In the meantime, work continued on the project to make the cathedral the new standard-bearer of Compostela’s baroque style, culminating in the construction of the Obradoiro façade. Santiago’s baroque period came to an end with the construction of Palacio de Raxoi, which also configured Plaza del Obradoiro. Construction began in 1767, following the engineer Carlos Lemaur’s classicist project.
The great renewal of Compostela’s main monuments during the baroque period highlighted the precarious and degraded condition of its residential fabric, which was still characterised by many of its medieval features. The Enlightenment established the mechanisms required for remodelling the city’s residential façade, introducing decisive elements for the present-day image of historical Compostela, such as stone paving, stone façades and the typical galleries.
The 19th Century.
In addition to the interventions aimed at enhancing the urban fabric, two public operations took place in Santiago during the 19th century and had a strong impact on its appearance: the construction of the Market, or Plaza de Abastos, and the Alameda park. The city walls were also eliminated during this century.
The 20th Century.
The most ambitious project during the first half of the 20th century, and the one that had the greatest impact on the modern city’s still embryonic urban fabric, was the Students’ Residence, which gave rise to the South Campus. The city’s building activity was centred on this campus during the sixties and seventies, a time marked by real-estate tensions and speculations that resulted in the present-day “Ensanche” (urban expansion area).
A decisive historical event for the city of Santiago was the creation, in 1980, of the Autonomous Region of Galicia and its designation as the seat of the Xunta de Galicia (Galician Government) and different regional institutions, thereby becoming Galicia’s political and administrative capital. Furthermore, Compostela experienced a strong impulse as a cultural, commercial and services city, redefining the role of the city and its infrastructures.
The Compostela of the New Millennium.
Santiago de Compostela’s dimension as a cultural and university city, and as a meeting place for people from all over the world, has resulted in different urban interventions. Due to their quality and singularity, such projects play an active role in the global dialogue of this new century’s architectural and urbanistic avant-garde. This is the case of the Auditorium of Galicia, the Galician Contemporary Art Centre (CGAC), the Journalism Faculty, the remodelling of Avenida Xoán XXIII –with a large, inclining shelter and a coach terminus as the main features, and the Public Library under construction- the Congress and Exhibition Hall, San Domingos de Bonaval Park, the City of Culture… These, along with numerous, elegant green spaces, the opening of new public spaces, the sculptures scattered throughout the cityscape, etc, make Compostela a city in which past and future –tradition and modernity- coexist in a unique way.