Located on the hill above the town of Xàtiva, 34 miles south of Valencia, Xàtiva Castle predates Roman times. Reference to it was made by the Roman consul and poet Silius Italicus in the first century AD. Although it is known as a castle, it is in reality a fortification, one that is divided into two parts, the lower known as the Castell Menor and upper called the Castell Major.
This fortress is known to have been inhabited by the Carthaginians in the second century B.C. It is believed that it was here that Hannibal made his preparations for the siege of the Roman city of Saguntum, which took place in 219 BC. Legend has it that one of his sons was born in the Castell Menor in 218 BC. There is a gate named after Hannibal, which is said to be where he entered the fortress, although the original gate no longer exists. The gate that is there today dates from the 15th century.
Following their conquest of the area, the Romans chose to settle in the Castell Major and many archaeological discoveries relating to Roman times, including parts of their road, can be seen there. In fact, the fortress was situated next to the Via Augusta, the great road that lead from Rome, up the coast of Italy, across southern France, and down the coast of Spain to Cartagena and Cádiz.
After the fall of Rome, Xàtiva Fortress was inhabited by the Visigoths between the 5th and 8th centuries. The Moors then dominated the region for the following seven centuries, between 711 until 1492.
In 1092, the castle was controlled by the Almoravid family of the Berber Dynasty. The Almoravids were subsequently expelled in 1145, during an uprising against them by the Governor of Valencia. In 1171 the castle fell, along with the rest of the Levante coast, into the hands of the Almohads, a Berber confederation that created a massive Islamic empire throughout North Africa and Spain which lasted from 1130 to 1269.
In 1239, James I of Aragon began his crusade against the Moors. Five years later, in May 1244, after a five-month siege of Xàtiva Castle, he was victorious and took possession of what he described as “the most beautiful castle” in May 1244.
In the years that followed, the castle was used as a royal prison, holding a number of important prisoners for the Crown of Aragon. The castle was overseen by a Governor who was always selected from one of the most important noble families of Valencia.
The fortress also played a part in the Revolt of the Brotherhood (1519-1522) when the artisan guilds revolted against King Charles I of Valencia.
Over the years, the castle has frequently suffered damage. In 1522, the Santa Fe Tower was destroyed when it was struck by lightning which ignited powder kegs which were stored there.
During the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1714) it was heavily besieged, which resulted in its surrender in June 1707. The damage to the castle was so extensive that it had to be rebuilt. In 1748 it was damaged by an earthquake, something that happened again in 1755.
In 1870 the castle was sold to private owners who carried out several modifications, including adding living quarters for their personal accommodation and a restaurant for the public. In recent times, the castle was acquired by the city of Xàtiva, which has opened the property as a tourist attraction and museum.
While studying the history of Xàtiva, it should be noted that the town was the birth place of the Borgias, one of the most powerful families of the European Renaissance period. The family provided two popes, Callixtus III (1456–1458), and Alexander VI (1492–1503), the latter being the father of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. A room dedicated to the Borgias, including portraits of the two popes, may be found in what were once the personal quarters when the castle was privately owned.
Today the castle is open to visitors. The ticket office and a restaurant are located by the entrance gate. From there a road and steps lead up to the Lower Castle and then on to the Upper Castle, whose battlements provide excellent views over the surrounding area.
The part of the fortress which is the best preserved and which contains the majority of the things to see is the Castell Major. The existing structure was built in the mediaeval period and includes imposing ramparts, towers and a series of gates. One can see the soldiers’ accommodations, a chapel and prison cells.
Leading up the wide staircase inside the upper castle are a fountain and three bronze cannons dating from the 16th century which, were used in the War of the Spanish Succession. Nearby is the beautiful chapel of Saint George, while close by is the First Gate of the Upper Castle.
Continuing up the staircase, one comes to the Second Gate, with a tower on either side. This gate was built during the Islamic period in the 10th century and has a L-shaped defensive layout. It was restored in the 15th century. To the right of the gate were living quarters for soldiers of the garrison.
In this area are some remains of Roman paving, as well as another gate which leads to where animals which provided food for those in the fortress were kept. A recent addition, now open to the public, are the four water storage systems, which were of Roman origin but were restored for use in mediaeval times.
The third gate of the Upper Castle has the elbow shape that was common in many Islamic gates. It is named the Portal of Saint Mary, so called due to its proximity to the Saint Maria Chapel. This chapel was built in 1276 and underwent repairs in the 15th century. It consists of three arches with ribbed vaults. Within the Gothic chapel, which has recently been restored, is the sarcophagus of the Count of Urgel who led an unsuccessful rebellion after being rejected as a candidate to the Crown of Aragon in 1412. He was captured and imprisoned in the fortress where he died in 1433.
The Governor’s Rooms are known to have had at least two, perhaps three floors, but all that remains now are the Gothic arches.
The Dungeon was built in the 15th century and consists of two chambers. The first was a guard room which has a small doorway leading to a rectangular room with ribbed vaulted ceiling and no windows for prisoners.
The highest tower in the castle was the Tower of Faith situated beside the Moorish Quarters and the courtyard. The tower collapsed in 1563 and was rebuilt in 1569. It was completely destroyed in the earthquakes of 1748 and 1755.
The Gardens of Ibn Hazm, an Andalusian scholar of the 11th century, are a recent addition to the fortress. He wrote a treatise on love, “The Ring of the Dove”, while living in Xàtiva.
On return to the entrance, one can visit the Lower Castle. It has two gates of elbow structure which provide an advantage to defending forces in the event of an attack. The highest part of the lower castle is the Tower of the Spur, so named due to its shape.
At the highest point is Himilce’s Balcony which was part of the Tower of the Queen. Hannibal took Himilce as his wife to seal an alliance between the Carthaginians and Iberians. All that remains of this tower is the window with its picturesque view.