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Roman Seville, named Hispalis, was a significant port on Río Guadalquivir, which is navigable to the Atlantic Ocean 100km away. Muslim Seville, called Ishbiliya, became the most powerful of the taifas (small kingdoms) into which Islamic Spain split after the Córdoba caliphate collapsed in 1031. Poet-king Al-Mutamid (106991) presided over a languid, hedonistic court in the Alcázar palace. In the 12th century a strict Islamic sect from Morocco, the Almohads, took over Muslim Spain and made Seville capital of their whole realm, building a great mosque where the cath‑edral now stands. Almohad power eventually crumbled and Seville fell to Fernando III (El Santo, the Saint) of Castilla in 1248.

By the 14th century Seville was the most important Castilian city. Its biggest break came in 1503, when it was awarded a monopoly on Spanish trade with the American continent. Seville – puerto y puerta de Indias (port and gateway of the Indies) – rapidly became one of the biggest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities on earth, and a magnet for everyone from priests and bankers to beggars and conmen. Lavish Renaissance and baroque buildings sprouted, and many geniuses of Spain’s artistic golden age (the late 16th to late 17th centuries) were based here: painters such as Zurbarán, Murillo and Valdés Leal (though Seville-born Velázquez left for Madrid), and sculptors such as Juan Martínez Montañés and Pedro Roldán.

However a plague in 1649 killed half the city and the Guadalquivir became more silted-up and less navigable for the increasingly big ships of the day. In 1717 the Casa de la Contratación, the government office controlling commerce with the Americas, was transferred to Cádiz. Another Seville plague in 1800 killed 13, 000 people. The beginnings of industry in the mid-19th century brought a measure of prosperity for some, but the majority remained impoverished. Seville fell very quickly to the Nationalists at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, despite resistance in working-class areas (which brought savage reprisals).

Things looked up in the 1980s when Seville was named capital of the new autonomous Andalucía within democratic Spain, and sevillano Felipe González became Spain’s prime minister. The Expo ’92 international exhibition (1992) brought the city millions of visitors, eight new bridges across the Guadalquivir and the super-fast AVE rail link to Madrid. Seville’s economy is now steadily improving with a mix of tourism, commerce, technology and industry.