The Roman theatre
The Roman theatre at Cartagena is the second largest theatre in Roman Spain after that at Merida. Surprisingly however, it was not discovered until 1988, but following the discovery, it was totally excavated and is now brilliantly displayed. But it is carved into the side of a hill, and in the Islamic period, the hill became the site of the medina and the site of the theatre became part of the grounds.
When subsequently Cartagena became Christian, the cathedral, the Santa Maria la Vieja was built on the top of the Hill. This however was bombed in the Civil War, so it was not until the 1980s that investigation revealed that it was in fact sitting on the edge of the Roman theatre
Following the excavation the question then arose, how to display it and provide a suitable museum for it? They decided to bring Spain’s top architect Rafael Moneo, who came up with a brilliant solution: he realised that on the city’s main square, dominated by the magnificently over-done Town Hall, there was a derelict palace in need of loving care and attention, so he took over the palace and transformed it into a museum.
Passing through the museum, at the far end there is an escalator. The theatre is in fact built into the side of one of the hills on which Cartagena is built, so it is quite high up. You go up the escalator, indeed up four successive escalators until you come to the top where there is a tunnel which leads through the hill on which the medieval cathedral sat – it is now a ruin destroyed in the Civil War. Halfway through the tunnel there is a 19th crypt of the cathedral which broke through into a Roman house where the mosaic floor was preserved. Then through another tunnel and suddenly you come out half way up the theatre, looking down on the orchestra and the stage beyond, with a wonderful view. To the right there is an apartment block looking down over the cathedral.
To the left, looking up, there is a magnificent doorway to the former cathedral. With some difficulty I was helped down to the orchestra and admired the arrangements, but I missed what must be one of the most interesting parts of all – that beyond the stage was a portico or colonnaded courtyard where presumably you had canapés before the performance and drinks in the interval and could take shelter if it rained.
The later history is interesting. In the Byzantine period in the 4th and 5th century it was turned over to commerce with shops covering the stage and a porticoed exedra covering the seating. And then in the Muslim period the site was incorporated into the fortified grounds of the Islamic medina.
It has been a fascinating visit. It is amazing to think that in 1980 there was really nothing of archaeological interest to see at Cartagena, but now after a wonderful outburst of energy, and the spending of large amounts of money, Cartagena has become one of the major archaeological attractions of Spain. Any culture vulture who descends from the cruise ships in the harbour will find much of interest in Roman and Carthaginian Cartagena.