Best Sights of Merida

Merida was founded in 25 BC by Augustus Caesar as a place where his soldiers could retire to. It was called Emerita Augusta and became the capital of the province of Lusitania. The city preserves more ancient Roman structures than any other city in Spain. The city is by the banks of the Guadiana River.

It was Roman until the 5th century, being the 9th most important city in the Roman empire in the 4th century. The Romans built a very large number of grandiose buildings, such as the Roman Theater, the Roman Amphitheater, and the Circus. It was a very important city for north-south communications in the Roman Empire of Spain. It was connected to the provinces of Betica and Tarragona. Christianity took early root in this city in the beginning of the 4th century.

The city was invaded after the Romans by the barbarians. The Alans came in the early 5th century. Later came the Sueves. It passed on to the Visigoths from the 5th to the 7th centuries and was one of their most important cities.

In 713 the Moors invaded Merida. The Moors were here from the 8th to the 13th centuries. After that the Christians conquered it in 1230, when the forces of Alfonso IX arrived. The Order of Santiago established itself in the city shortly thereafter.

The UNESCO declared Merida a World Heritage Site in 1993 to recognize its extensive legacy, for its Archaeological Ensemble.

1. Museo Nacional de Arte Romano

The Museo Nacional de Arte Romano was built in 1986 by the prestigious Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. This building won the prize of the best public building built in Spain between 1983 and 1993. The building is built with brick and follows the style of the Trajan’s Arch found in the city. The building is very impressive and there are 3 stories. The ground floor gives one the message of monumentality because it has the whole height of the building and the roof is covered with skylights, so it is like one is outdoors with all of the light. There are 10 brick arches that are impressive in size. At the end of the building is a huge Roman statue, together with three large marble carvings of heads in the form of medallions about 4 feet in diameter. On the right side are the galleries with steel guard rails, but open to the main gallery. One can find many marble sculptures of people on the left side of the main gallery. One of the prize exhibits of the museum is the marble bust of Augustus Caesar, which is supposed to be the best in Europe. There are many large floor mosaics that have been hung on the walls of the galleries, like wall hangings, and one can inspect them up close in the galleries. The most impressive mosaic has a hunting scene in the middle and all around it are designs of flowers in many colors. The galleries have many important collections of glass and Roman coins. All in all the museum is visually stunning, and really something to see.

2. Roman Amphitheater

The Roman Amphitheater was built in 8 B.C. by Agrippa and has an elliptical shape, holding 15,000 spectators. Its major axis is 126 m. and its minor is 102 m. It was built with concrete, granite ashlars, little ashlars, masonry or bricks, but the building materials were not of high quality.

The amphitheater was used for fights between gladiators and animals. The building had thee zones, but only one zone has been preserved because when the building fell into disuse, the other zones were destroyed because their building materials were used in other places. There is an Amphitheater House in the gardens nearby, and this was built in the 3rd century. The house has a kitchen, baths, a courtyard, and rooms with mosaics and paintings. This is a good example of a Roman house. Plays are held here during summer for the festival of Merida. There are also music and dance events.

3. Roman Theater

The Roman Theater was built by the Roman consul Marcus Vespasiano Agripa in 15 B.C. He was the son-in-law of Augustus Caesar. It had a capacity for 5,800 spectators, divided into three levels, and with a semi-circular shape. The theater was built to give good acoustics for the public and it was built on the hill of San Albin, whose inclination favors the good acoustics. The stage has three access doors and a podium 2.5 meters high. The stone columns have been well preserved. Beside the orchestra pit is the stage, which has very high Corinthian columns that are 18 meters high, and is decorated with sculptures of the gods and imperials figures. One remodeling of the theater happened during the reign of Trajan at the end of the 1st century. The other remodeling took place during the reign of Constantine, around 330 AD. When the Christians came into power, the theater was abandoned because the Christians thought that it was immoral, and the theater became covered with earth because of the disuse of the building, and only the top of the seats became visible. Since 1933 the theater has been the site of the Festival of Classical Theater. Today the theater is the most visited monument in the city.

4. The Alcazaba

The Alcazaba fortress is the oldest Moorish fortress in Spain. It was built in 835 by Abderraman II. He built the towers and extended the walls, and enhanced the underground reservoir. After the Christian conquest of the city, the Knights of the Order of Santiago took over the fortress and made more important modifications of the fortress. From the fortress, they were able to control access over the Roman Bridge over the Guadiana River. The fortress is square in form and is made of granite stone ashlars. The Roman underground reservoir (aljibe) is the most interesting part of the fortress. It has a barrel arch and one can go down a series of steps to see it. The reservoir filters water from the river, so the fortress was able to withstand long sieges from enemies. The Arabs reconstructed this reservoir when they ruled Merida.

5. Trajan's Arch

Trajan's Arch is 15 meters high and was one of the gates to the walled city, having the form of a Roman triumphal arch. The arch was built with granite ashlars and was the northern gate to the Roman city. Trajan was one of the Roman emperors who was born in the Roman province of Hispania. The arch marked the entrance to the provincial forum. At the time it was built, it was covered with marble.

6. Roman Bridge

The Roman Bridge is 792 meters long and has 70 arches, and is the longest Roman bridge in Europe. It was built at the end of the 1st century A.D. and it crosses the Guadiana River. The bridge was built to protect the city from possible attacks and was the link between Emerita Augusta and Tarragona. The water pillars are round and the bridge is made of granite ashlars. The Visigoths restored it in 686 and later Philip III restored it in 1610. The bridge was restored in 1993 and turned into a pedestrian walkway.

7. Roman Temple of Diana

The Roman Temple of Diana was one of the most impressive in Roman Merida. The temple has a rectangular base and is surrounded by Corinthian columns made of granite. The six columns in the facade were painted with the color of red marble. The temple was 40 meters long. The facade was crowned with a tympanum with a semicircular inner section that was supported by the six columns of the portico. It belonged to the municipal forum of the city. The temple was built during the time of Augustus Caesar, in the 1st century AD. It was used for the imperial cult, and not to Diana. Unfortunately in the 16th century the Duke of Corbos built his palace and incorporated this temple into it, spoiling the beautiful monument.

8. Museum of Visigothic Art

The Museum of Visigothic Art owns a collection of more than a thousand pieces of Visigothic art and is one of two Visigothic museums in Spain. After the Visigoths arrived in Spain, they were Christianized and became civilized. They dominated Lusitania for three centuries. Much of their art was dedicated to building their churches. The museum is located in the Church of the Santa Clara Convent, built in the 17th century. This museum shows many pilasters, wrought iron gates, capitals, friezes, and niches that were found in their churches. The motifs they used were bunches of grapes, peacocks, leaves, and many different types of plants. There are many marble columns and pilasters with very impressive carvings of flowers and plants. There are also sculptures, altars and fonts. The Visigoths produced many famous bishops, as well as their impressive church architecture.