Merida. Merida in Spain is special place in which modern buildings stand side by side in harmony with an impressive number of Roman-age monuments.
Mérida has been the capital of the Spanish autonomous community Extremadura since 1983. Curiously, neither Cáceres nor Badajoz were chosen as that community’s capital, despite being the capitals of the provinces that make up the region. It seems clear that Mérida’s importance in terms of its history and attractions have made the city deserving of its status as a capital. As a centrally located city within Extremadura, it offers rail and road links to Lisbon, Seville, and Madrid that are much more convenient than those of other cities in the region. The number of hotels in Mérida has multiplied in the last 20 years as industrial development in the surrounding area has experienced significant growth. The city is also a recommended stop off for those travelling on the route that joins Lisbon and Madrid. The Vía de plata, a trade road that has served western Spain since Roman times, also cuts straight through Mérida.
The City of Merida
Mérida’s origins date back to Roman times. The city, first known as the colony of Emerita Augusta, was founded in 25 BCE by order of Octavio Augusto as a place of residence for the soldiers of Roman legions in Spain who had completed their military service. Today, residents of Mérida are still known as emeritenses after the city’s original name. Emerita Augusta remained the capital of Lusitania over the first few centuries of the Common Era, a time during which the city flourished. Its theater, amphitheater, hippodrome, and aqueduct as well as temples and bridges were all constructed during this period, and they can all still be seen today. In Roman times, this city’s legal, economic, military, and cultural importance was such that Emerita ranked as the 9th most important city in the empire.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, Mérida came under the control of the Visigoths, and would continue to serve as the capital of their kingdom until conquered by the Muslims in 713. After the Christians conquered the area in 1230, Mérida became Hispania’s first official residence of a bishop. Under the Christian monarchs, the city slowly developed and in 1842 the census recorded 3,800 residents. Today it is home to 60,000 people.
Mérida’s status as a capital has helped produce growth in the city’s services, making this a special place in which modern, practical buildings stand side by side in unexpected harmony with an impressive number of Roman-age monuments. The Museo Nacional de Arte Romano (National Museum of Roman Art) is housed in a building from the 1980’s designed by Rafael Moneo, a renowned Spanish architect whose modern work offers a bridge to the Roman age; this building with two structures connected by an aerial footbridge includes a piece of the original Roman road the Vía de la Plata. The museum, which also contains Spain’s most important collection of Roman art and tools, forms part of the ensemble of Mérida archeology, accredited by UNESCO as World Heritage.
Roman flavor is also visible in the main monuments of the city:
Roman Monuments in Merida
- The Roman Theater: a wonderfully preserved building with a stage measuring 7’5 meters in depth, 63 meters in length, and an incredible 17’5 meters in height. It can hold up to 6,000 people and since 1933 it has hosted the annual International Festival of Classical Theater.
- The Amphitheater: measuring 126 by 102 meters, is the largest of those that have been conserved in Spain together with Seville’s Itálica. Like the Roman Theater, the structure is connected to the Roman Art Museum by an underground passage.
- The Hippodrome: called the Circus Maximus, is an enormous construction that holds up to 30,000 people!
- The Roman Bridge: over the Guadiana River displays 62 arches and continues to function as a means to cross the river.
- The Roman Forum: features the Arch of Trajan, the Temple of Diana, the Temple of Mars, a Basilica, and baths.
- Finally, in an example of exquisite engineering, the Proserpina reservoir, located just a few kilometers from the city (425 meters in length and 21 meters in depth), supplied Emerita Augusta with water by way of an aqueduct. An entire kilometer of the original aqueduct has been preserved. At 25 meters in height at its tallest point, only Segovia’s Roman aqueduct is taller.
Keep in mind that in the Spanish version of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, the main character Máximo Décimo Merido came from Emerita Augusta, one of the most beautiful cities in the empire. Exploring this city, loaded with ancient history like few others, is definitely worth the trip.