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"Tartessos" is the name given by the Greeks to the first Western civilization they knew, which was inhabiting the southwest of Spain. It was the first organized state of the Iberian Peninsula and was highly developed politically and culturally by the end of the second millennium before Christ.
The kingdom of Tartessos was the first one in Spain which had relations with the historical eastern Mediterranean civilizations, like Greeks and Phoenicians, and had with them important commercial relations. Therefore, and for their wealth in minerals, the Tartessos reached great importance. The country of the Tartessos is mentioned in many historical sources as a rich and splendorous kingdom.
Location and historical period
The kingdom of Tartessos was located in a region crossed by the river "Tartessos". This river was later called "Betis" by the Romans and "Guadalquivir" by the Moors.
Roman authors describe the region:
"Tartessos is a river in the land of the Iberians. It reaches the sea by two mouths and between these two mouths lays a city with the same name (Tartessos). The river is the longest in Iberia, has tides, and now is called Baetis".
That means; with the name Tartessos the Greek and Roman authors identified a river, a kingdom and the capital of this kingdom, located at the mouth of that river. Further details about the location of this capital we find here:
Ephorus (Escimno, 162) writes that the capital Tartessos was two days of travel (1000 stadiums) from the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). From Gibraltar to the present mouth of the Guadalquivir there are 900 stadiums.
Despite many detailed descriptions, the capital of Tartessos has not yet been found as the geography of the area has changed during those last 3000 years:
The eastern mouth of the river is the only one that now exists. It is located in the province of Cadiz, and was much wider historically.
The western mouth does not exist anymore, but it is considered that it was located between the current towns Matalascaņas and Huelva. In this area today we only find a number of lakes.
Historically, between these two river arms there was a large lagoon, and in this lagoon there was at least one island where the legendary city probably was located.
Neither this lagoon nor any islands exist today, all this is an area of marshes which form a part of the Doņana National Park along the Costa de la Luz. Investigations in Doņana lead to the conclusion that there have been two natural disasters (tsunamis) that caused the islands and dry areas to sink, one of which happened around 1500 BC and the other 200 AC.
Tartessos was a highly urbanized society with many towns along the banks of the river Guadalquivir. Some Tartessian cities which are known today include: Huelva, Escacena del Campo (in the province of Huelva) where the most important findings of this civilization have been made; "Turtha" (today Puerto de Santa Maria in Cadiz); Seville; "Urso" (today Osuna in Seville) and Etibirge (today Elvira in Granada).
Based on excavations, Tartessian culture has been divided into two periods: The first one is called "geometric" and coincides with the late Bronze Age and ranges from 1200 to 750 BC. The second one is called "oriental" and ranges from 750-550 BC. By this time the Tartessian culture received oriental influences due to contacts with Phoenicians and Greeks.
Economy and Commerce
The economic and cultural development of this civilization was possible due to its richness in natural resources (agriculture, livestock, fishing and mining) and its business relationships with Mediterranean civilizations in Europe and Africa.
Tartessos most important resources were metals, especially gold, silver, tin and bronze which were already mined around 1000 years BC. In fact, Tartessos was the main supplier of bronze and silver in the Mediterranean area.
The Phoenicians were the most important trading partners. Already during the 8th century BC, they established trading ports along the coast, within the territory of Tartessos. These commercial centers were Gadir (Cadiz), Abdera (Adra, Almeria) and Sexi (Almuņecar in the province of Granada). These trade relations were very important to them, especially when the Sinai mines fell into disuse. Greeks also maintained trade relations with Tartessos and founded towns on the Iberian peninsula.
Concerning Tartessos wealth we find many historical citations:
Ephorus, Aristophanes and Strabo mention Tartessos as land which is rich in sea and terrestrial resources and as a trade centre for silver and metals.
Strabo wrote that Tartessians were very good in engineering, and that they had a sophisticated system to regulate the river flow. He also ensures that around the river there were many wealthy and flourishing cities.
Herodot wrote in the 5th century BC that Tartessos was a great emporium of wealth beyond the Pillars of Hercules (todays Gibraltar).
Government and Culture
Tartessos political system was a monarchy with a central capital from where they controlled the entire territory.
Anacreon mentioned 530 BC the great richness and complex political structures of the kingdom, and Strabo wrote: "They are considered the most educated of the Iberians, they have a scripture, even have historical chronicles, poems, and laws in verse of which they say are six thousand ... "
Today we don't know if the number 6000 refers to the age of the codex or its length, if there were 6000 verses or laws, because the document is badly damaged and the word that follows the number is illegible.
We also don't know how old the Tartessian language is and it has not yet been deciphered. A number of "stelae" with their writing have been found, the oldest among them is dated around the 9th century BC.
There are also mentions of several mythical kings of Tartessos:
Geryon was the king whose great cattle herds were stolen by Heracles.
Norax, grandson of Geryon, conquered the south of Sardinia where he founded the city of Nora. He dictated the first laws, divided the kingdom in seven cities, the society into seven classes, and forced the noble class to work.
Gargoris introduced beekeeping and trade as well as new agricultural tools like the plow.
But only about one of them there are specific historical sources; Argantonio, the last known king of Tartessos.
Argantonio, King of Tartessos
King Argantonio has been mentioned many times (by Anacreon, Avienus, Strabo, Lucian, Cicero, Plinius, Valerius Maximus, among others), and everybody writes about the wealth, pacifism, and hospitality in his kingdom.
Also Herodot reports about Argantonio (the "Silver Man"), the last king of Tartessos who reigned between 630-550 BC, and mentions his incalculable wealth and generosity.
He also writes about his friendship with the Greeks. When the expansion of the Persian Empire was threatening the Ionian cities on the west coast of Asia Minor, Argantonio even invited the Greeks to establish settlements within his territory.
The Greeks did not accept this offer, but accepted the 1500 kg of silver Argantonio sent them to strengthen the walls of Phocaea, their capital located in today's Turkey. Nevertheless, the Greeks were unable to stop the Persians, and the Ionian cities were falling under Persian domination. At the end Phocaea was conquered and destroyed about 540 BC, ten years after the death of Argantonio.
The friendship between Argantonio and the Greeks must have been very uncomfortable for the Phoenicians, who feared that their traditional monopoly on trade with the Tartessos might be threatened. Strabo refers to this fact when he wrote "the best cities of Tartessos were inhabited by the Phoenicians". Now Argantonio invited the Greeks to do the same.
Additionally, the Phoenicians had suffered the Assyrian pressure on their cities in the East. After the capital Tyre had been conquered by the Assyrian in 580 BC, the phoenician city Carthage declared itself independent and became the center of the Punic State.
Once the link with the East was cut by the Assyrians, Carthage concentrated on the trade with the West. So, the trade relations between Phoenicians and Tartessos from 580 BC (30 years before the death of Argantonio) were no longer with the Phoenicians of Tyre, but with Punic Carthage, which depended heavily on the Tartessos' minerals.
At the same time Carthage was in possession of a powerful navy and had the intention to become the first economic and military power in the western Mediterranean.
The end of Tartessos
After the death of Argantonio (in 550 BC) all the informations about Tartessos disappear abruptly, which together with the fact that the capital of Tartessos has never been found, led to lots of speculation: how could such an important civilization disappear without leaving traces?
Most probably the Carthagineans simply occupied the land of Tartessos. This could happen shortly after the naval battle of Alalia, in which Etruscans and Carthaginians defeated the Greeks. This battle took place in the year 535 BC, five years after the fall of Phocaea in Persian hands, and fifteen years after the death of Argantonio. The route to Iberia was now cut for the Greeks and there were no more possibilities for mutual help between Greeks and Tartessos.
The Greek defeat left the Tartessos without allies and exposed to Punic attack. Indeed it is reported that around 500 BC the Tartessos have been attacked by the Carthaginians, who destroyed their capital and left it without protection from the sea. Also Mainake (Malaga), the Greek city founded under the protection of Tartessos, was destroyed by the same time.
After the fall of the capital the whole empire of Tartessos disappeared. Historical reports indicate that Tartessos had little military defence as their success was always based on trade and friendly relationships with their neighbours.
So Carthage got most of the Spanish Mediterranean coast under its influence.
This situation continued until the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome for hegemony in the Western Mediterranean.
In the year 146 BC Carthage was totally defeated and the Romans arrived to the Iberian Peninsula. There they found a region called "Turdetania" where the descendants of Tartessos where living. They called this region "Baetica" and the river "Tartessos" which crossed the region was called "Baetis".
References from the Bible
According to several historians, the biblical city "Tarsis" was the capital of the kingdom of Tartessos. Should this be correct, we find multiple mentions:
In the Oracle against Tyre the prophet Ezekiel (27, 12) reports that daß silver, iron, lead and tin were delivered from Tarsis to Tyre and then (most probably) sold to Mesopotamia.
The Book of the Kings I mentions ships from Tarsis, which brought each three years gold, silver, ivory as well as apes and peacocks to the court of King Salomon.
Also Isaías, 2, 12, 16 mentions these "ships from Tharshis".
It is also mentioned that the city of Tharsis was freed from the yoke of the Phoenicians when Sidon and Tyre were defeated.
Findings and excavations
Apart from the previously mentioned treasures and art works which bear witness to the lively trade with other populations of the Mediterranean , the most important findings of the Tartessos are:
Right in the center of Huelva there is the hill Cabezo de San Pedro, where a wall from 9th century BC and pottery from the same period with writings of the Tartessos have been found. Stelae with tartessian writings have also been found in Andalusia, Extremadura and along the Portuguese Algarve.
The ruins of "Tejada La Vieja" in the village Escacena del Campo (Huelva): this town was inhabited between 8th and 4th century BC and was located at the transport route from the mines of Rio Tinto to the ports at the mouth of Guadalquivir river, at a lake called "Ligustino" by the Romans. Today there is no lake anymore but the marshes of Doņana. Rests or the town walls and of homes are relateively well conserved.
At the "Necropolis de la Joya" in Huelva, from 6th to 8th century BC, tartessian tombs and grave goods mainly of bronze have been found: parts of horse carriages , a brazier , a ring , jars , urns and cups.