One winter’s night in the Parra Bar in La Canada del Real Tesoro a question was asked about the strange hollowed out boulder which lies alongside the old drovers’ track which ascends next to our vineyard from La Canada to Cortes de la Frontera.
Most of the men shrugged except for one unkempt old man who turned his attention from the TV, which was blaring noisily, up high on the far bar wall. The old man who had glaring eyes and long matted grey hair trailing into his beard, shouted loudly and angrily ‘BAM . . . BAM . . . BAM’!
This brought nervous laughter and some derision from the drinkers at the bar, and also questions to the old man, which he answered with a garbled stream of words which made no sense. Interest subsided as the old man was considered to be a live-alone eccentric and not much attention was paid to him as he often talked and shouted to the TV in the bar.
It emphasised the mystery of the Casa de Piedra.
Was the old man referring to some incident from the war or a hunting incident. Certainly he was imitating the noise of shooting and even brought his hands up as if firing a rifle.
When local people are asked about the place they respond by answering that it is very old and that it was a church, some older men can remember the place being used as a bar as it was half-way up the track to Cortes, with local mosto being made and served. Mosto is made from the local grape-wines from vines called ‘Rey’, which means literally the ‘king’, quite what the variety it is I don’t know, maybe its a leftover from the old wine-producing days, as there are some rusty old presses in many an old shed in the valley producing the stuff for home use.
Described historically as paleo-christiano, meaning early christian, which should indicate a date of up to 325 AD when the Council of Nicaea met and brought an end to the early christian period. The term is often used in a narrower sense of the very first followers of Jesus and the faith as preached and practised by the Twelve Apostles, their contemporaries, or their immediate successors, also called the Apostolic Age. Could it be that an early Christian or Anchorite hermit made his home here in an unusual place, or maybe in what was an existing holy place from a much earlier time?
The 6th and 7th centuries, so between 500 to 700 AD, are usually mentioned as to when the excavation was made, but no evidence is given. This would mean the work was done in the time of the Visigoths as the Romans left this area in the early 400’s. The Moors were only here in the early 700’s. But who would have made this excavation and why?
The monastic movement when priests left their original place of instruction and went to new lands to preach the new gospel and lived in caves was during this time. Perhaps a roman christian made a base here and persuaded locals to make the excavation. Or there could have been a natural mold in the rock left over from a trapped animal or vegetable matter which was opened more.
The time to hollow-out the rock by one or two men would be many weeks depending on the tools available and how they worked the rock. The internal area is roughly 2 metres high by 3 metres wide by 5 metres long so 30 cubic metres of rock to remove.
Maybe they used a fire and water technique, called fire-setting, which was employed by the Phoenicians who established gold mines on the nearby Sierra Bermeja mountains. Romans also used fire-setting as part of their building and mining techniques so it could have become a standard practice for a populace who worked with rock.
In the local catastral or property register of year 1752, the Casa de Piedra is notated as ‘la bodega del cura’ or ‘the winery of the priest’.The word ‘lagar’ or grape treading floor, is also used at a later date. The references to wine making has echoes with our vineyard which is just down the track and has the name of ‘La Vinha de la Iglesia’ on its title deeds.
This whole area encompassing the Guadiaro river valley up to Salitre and over into the Genal river valley was covered in vineyards.
The Phyloxara infestation wiped out all of the vineyards in a very short time in the 1870’s and many local villages were emptied as people immigrated to South America.
As you approach the Casa de Piedra the track shows sections of Roman or Visigothic road interspersed with what looks like natural or normal track. This track is used by cattle and sheep when they change pasture and the hooves erode the laid stones, so to have complete sections is fortunate.
Dressed and shaped curved stones are laid end to end in such a way as to allow water to run-off and there is some cambering. A spine of rock runs along the centre and stones run off at angles to the edges. This indicates an ancient all-weather track and an important route from the river valley up to Cortes de la Frontera. Along the way are some curious stones with round holes in them as if to hold poles.
A wire fence runs in front of the Casa de Piedra as the land is used for grazing sheep, cows and the odd bull and is private land.
There is a crude wire gate which should be unhooked carefully and closed behind you which gives entrance to the site.
The entrance to the stone house is an arched doorway in the centre of the hollowed-out rock.
There is a date carved in the middle of the arch, but is hard to make out.
A simple bowl carved out of the rock on the right of the doorway probably contained holy or blessed water and was called a font or stoup.
A window opening is on the right side of the door above the font and another opening is high above the door and hard to access.
Higher up is a carved water run-off, a gutter-like groove, which makes you think that rain-water was enough of a problem for someone to spend time carving it out of the rock. Below the carved gutter are square holes where beams for an outer temporary construction must have been located.
The remains of an old building is joined to the stone house and consist of a combination of stone and bricks and is covered in bramble and vegetation. At the rear of the stone house is a jumble of stone which must have been the site of another construction, the outline of the walls can still be made out.
Inside on the extreme left, as you go in, is a window which looks across a small valley of pasture land to the road up to Cortes and hills above the road.
On the right hand side is a recessed area with two rubble filled round holes which is where large earthen pots could have stood and would have probably contained wine or oil.
In the middle of the far wall is a recessed area with a grooved circular runnel in the floor which has a single groove which leads to the floor.
This indicates that liquid was processed here and emphasises the probable use of wine or olives.
There are square post holes in the floor and ceiling which may have housed a press for crushing the grapes or olives.
On the opposite side, next to the door, facing east, is a small shelf at shoulder height which may have been a place for an altar.
On the extreme right of the boulder is a beautifully carved decorative font with images of pillars and symmetrical decorative images. It has ‘ANO DE 1856’carved at the top. The name ‘DIEGO DEL RIO’ appears just below, carved in between recessed decorative buttresses.
He could be the stone-carver of the decorative details made on the outside of the stone house. Underneath, carved in between triangular elements the words ‘SEGU?AD A+D ??73’ appear. The cross between the A and D has a crossbar at the end of each of its arms and is called a cross potent.
‘Potent’ is an old word for a crutch.
The outwardly curving carved base on the right holds water and was probably used in ceremonies for anointing converts or children.
Mention is made of the Casa de Piedra being a Mozarabic church, this may be true but does not convincingly explain its origin. It is a small area inside and is alongside what would have been be a main trade route from the Guadiaro river valley up to Cortes. Mozarab is the term for christians living under Muslim rulers in Al-Andalus, which is present day Andalucia. This would give a date from early 700’s when the Moors invaded. The celebration of the rites, derived from Visigoth christianity would be held in secret and so a hidden church inside a boulder would be a perfect place of worship.
The only documented Mozarabic church known in Andalucia is in the ancient village of Bobastra, the other side of Ronda, some 90 kilometres away to the east, which is not that far and this church is also cut directly out of rock. Its structure is made of three sections separated by horseshoe arches. The church is perfectly orientated towards the East, which is similar to the Casa de Piedra.
Cows regularly shelter inside the boulder so care should be taken when approaching and entering as they have large horns and if the weather is hot, it is cool for them, and if raining, they are dry so either way are not happy to share!
As a footnote it is interesting that a local resident, who has Masonic connections, was very interested by the Casa de Piedra because of its shape and that its internal alignment was east to west. He seemed to think its hollowed out shape resembled an upside-down chalice. He has spoken quietly about the masonic traditions of ‘that which was lost’ and ‘travelling from the east to the west’.
He was intrigued to know that a man who lived at the foot of the track leading to the Casa de Piedra was called Templar.
It all adds to the mystery.