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When Iberia’s Christians began the Reconquista (Reconquest) – the centuries-long campaign by Christian forces to reclaim the peninsula – the Muslims of Al-Andalus constructed a chain of fortified positions through the heart of Iberia. One of these was built by Muhammad I, emir of Córdoba, in 854, on the site of what would become Madrid. The name they gave to the new settlement was Mayrit (or Magerit), which comes from the Arabic word majira, meaning water channel.

A worthy capital?

Madrid’s strategic location in the centre of the peninsula saw the city change hands repeatedly, but it was not until 1309 that the travelling Cortes (royal court and parliament) sat in Madrid for the first time. Despite the growing royal attention, medieval Madrid remained dirt-poor and small-scale: ‘in Madrid there is nothing except what you bring with you,’ observed one 15th-century writer. It simply bore no comparison with other major Spanish, let alone European, cities.

By the time Felipe II ascended the Spanish throne in 1556, Madrid was surrounded by walls that boasted 130 towers and six stone gates, but these fortifications were largely built of mud and designed more to impress than provide any meaningful defence of the city. Madrid was nonetheless chosen by Felipe II as the capital of Spain in 1561.

Madrid took centuries to grow into its new role and despite a handful of elegant churches, the imposing Alcázar and a smattering of noble residences, the city consisted, for the most part, of precarious whitewashed houses that were little more than mud huts. The monumental Paseo del Prado, which now provides Madrid with so much of its grandeur, was a small creek.

During the 17th century, Spain’s golden age, Madrid began to take on the aspect of a capital and was home to 175,000 people, making it the fifth-largest city in Europe (after London, Paris, Constantinople and Naples).

Carlos III (r 1759–88) gave Madrid and Spain a period of comparatively commonsense government. After he cleaned up the city, completed the Palacio Real, inaugurated the Real Jardín Botánico and carried out numerous other public works, he became known as the best ‘mayor’ Madrid had ever had.

Madrileños (Madrid residents) didn’t take kindly to Napoleon’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Spain in 1805 and, on 2 May 1808, they attacked French troops around the Palacio Real and what is now Plaza del Dos de Mayo. The ill-fated rebellion was quickly put down by Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law and the most powerful of his military leaders.

Wars, Franco & terrorism

Turmoil continued to stalk the Spanish capital. The upheaval of the 19th-century Carlist Wars was followed by a two-and-a-half-year siege of Madrid by Franco’s Nationalist forces from 1936 to 1939, during which the city was shelled regularly from Casa de Campo and Gran Vía became known as ‘Howitzer Alley’.

After Franco’s death in 1975 and the country’s subsequent transition to democracy, Madrid became an icon for the new Spain as the city’s young people – under the mayoral rule of Enrique Tierno Galván, a popular socialist professor – unleashed a flood of pentup energy. This took its most colourful form in the years of la movida, the endless party that swept up the city in a frenzy of creativity and open-minded freedom that has in some ways yet to abate.

On 11 March 2004, just three days before the country was due to vote in national elections, Madrid was rocked by 10 bombs on four rush-hour commuter trains heading into the capital’s Atocha station. When the dust cleared, 191 people had died and 1755 were wounded, many seriously. Madrid was in shock and, for 24 hours at least, this most clamorous of cities fell silent. Then, 36 hours after the attacks, more than three million madrileños streamed onto the streets to protest against the bombings, making it the largest demonstration in the city’s history. Although deeply traumatised, Madrid’s mass act of defiance and pride began the process of healing. Visit Madrid today and you’ll find a city that has resolutely returned to normal.

On 20 August 2008, however, the city was again shaken by tragedy, after a Spanair flight from Madrid to the Canary Islands crashed upon take-off. The crash killed 153 people and plunged the city into mourning.