Situated on the slopes of a steep hill, what remains of the once powerful town of Atienza today offers important evidence of its past.
Occupied since ancient times, the hill was fortified by the Muslims, but it was not until the 11th-12th centuries, when the Christian conquest was consolidated, that the castle took its final shape. Its strategic value made the town an essential point for the defence of the border, firstly against the Muslims and, secondly, against the Crown of Aragon.
On the other hand, its location in a point of easy communication between the two plateaus and between Castile and Aragon, favoured one of the most widespread activities among its inhabitants, together with agriculture and livestock, namely transport and muleteering. And it was precisely its muleteers who constituted one of the oldest documented brotherhoods in Castile - its ordinances from the end of the 12th century have been preserved -, playing a leading role in a courageous episode related to the minority of Alfonso VIII that is still commemorated today on Whit Sunday (La Caballada).
In the late Middle Ages
It grew considerably throughout the late Middle Ages, with the existence of a long dozen parishes (many of them, however, very close to each other) being documented, although any figure that is ventured on their population volume is mere speculation without foundation. Hard hit, no doubt, by the crisis of the mid-14th century, its recovery was cut short a century later by an episode of the so-called Wars of the Infants of Aragon, in which a handful of Aragonese - and not Navarrese, as they say - in the service of the Infant Don Juan of Aragon (then King of Navarre), took over the fortress, causing the depopulation and destruction of the town by the troops of Juan II of Castile and Don Alvaro de Luna. A notable privilege of Enrique IV, exempting the Athenians from various taxes, he tried to encourage their repopulation.
With the Catholic Monarchs
However, the arrival of the Catholic Kings made the strategic value of the town disappear definitively, and it was reduced from then on to a semi-urban nucleus with a population that would remain in the future around 2,000 inhabitants - quite a few in the 17th century, of course - and the commercial, artisan and administrative head of a relatively large region, a role that would not be abandoned until the last third of the 20th century, with the generalised depopulation of the rural centre of Spain.
During the War of Succession
Although it did not directly experience warlike episodes during the War of Succession, it did suffer some of its worst consequences: the mortality rate in 1706, coupled with the passing of the armies and the otherwise anecdotal presence of Philip V, was the most important in the entire Modern Age. It recovered its population throughout the 18th century, only to suffer once again the consequences of the War of Independence, when part of its hamlet was set on fire by French troops.
Next to the castle, its superb remains of walls - with the splendid Gothic arch of San Juan -, five Romanesque and two other Renaissance-Baroque churches, a small but significant handful of Gothic buildings and a harmonious urban ensemble in which squares and streets, with various emblazoned houses, articulate and intertwine with serene beauty following or challenging the contours, constitute one of the most beautiful and evocative architectural complexes that can be seen in Castile today. It is the mute, but eloquent reminder of a past that seems to stand still in the hamlet of Atienza.