The true origins of Jerez de la Frontera still remain a mystery to this day. Some researchers tend to believe that the city used to belong to the ancient Tartessic Empire. Others share the view that the origins of the city are to be found in its relation with the primitive Phoenician settlement of Serit or Ceret, a name that was stamped upon coins and that later on became Seritium or Xeritium in Latin; and then Sheres, Xerez, Xerez Sadunia in Arabic and from there, Xerez Sidonis, Sidonia or Seduña, to the current name, Jerez de la Frontera.
There is no doubt that some form of settlement existed in Jerez prior to the arrival of the Romans. This is certified by the archaeological remains discovered in Asta Regia, nowadays known as Mesas de Asta, located just one kilometre from Jerez on the road leading to Trebujena.
From these slightly obscure origins, a city centre then began to emerge, which later became well-known during the Islamic domination.
It is during the Moorish occupation, however, that Jerez took on the characteristics of an important city. It seems unlikely that this occurred prior to the 9th century and its unique urban character was not acquired until the 11th and 12th century when the city wall and the fortress, both from the Almohadic period, were erected. It is only from the early 12th century and the Almohad domination that both archaeologists and architects seem to agree with each other. It is therefore from this date onwards that we can start speaking of the city as standing in its current geographical location. Furthermore, it is during this period that a new urban structure emerged to later give way, along with societal changes and natural growth, to the layout of the historic city centre as we know it today.
When the Moors first arrived, Jerez was nothing more than a castle or fortress, surrounded by a network of streets, lacking even a city wall. The castle was located on the very spot where the Alcázar stands today and the streets were the same ones that now surround the Cathedral. The Moors must have walled the area up, but over time this proved to be insufficient due to the growth of the city and has resulted in the creation of a neighbouring settlement in the area known today as San Dionisio. This smaller settlement later became a suburb of the original urban centre.
This urban layout is the one discovered by Alfonso VII when he stormed the city in 1133 – during the late Almoravid period, setting fire to its main buildings and knocking down its walls to the ground.
After the attack, the city’s necessary reconstruction gave rise to a new approach. An enclosure much larger than the previous one was built. It surrounded both the primitive walled nucleus around the castle and also the new neighbouring settlement which had sprung up around San Dionisio, whilst at the same time leaving an extensive open space for future population growth.
The reconstruction of the city wall began towards the end of the Almoravid period and completed during the Almohad dynasty, who took power in Jerez during 1146. The same characteristics are thought to apply to the construction of the fortress.
The walled enclosure is quadrangular in shape and has four vertexes: the first in the Alcázar; the second at the junction of the calle Larga and the calle Bizcocheros; the third on the corner where the calle Ancha meets the Porvera; and finally, the last one where the watchtower still stands at the end of the calle Muro.
The fronts of the city walls stretched from vertex to vertex crowned with battlements and interrupted at regular intervals by rectangular towers, with watchtowers standing on each corner. A gateway is located at the centre of each side, and in the southeastern corner of the fortified perimeter stood the Alcázar. This building was the residence of the Catholic monarchs and occupied the same spot where the ancient castle that existed at the time of the Moorish conquest once stood. The fortress was designed to be a combined and unified structure. It divided two main areas according to their different uses; one included the area of the Mosque, Parade Ground, baths, stables, etc., where public access would be more frequent and straightforward, and the other was assigned to house the main rooms of the walí and the residential quarters of the garrison.
The gateways,were fashioned out of adobe, as was the city wall, and took the shape of a double right angle. During the Almohad dynasty, there were four gateways. A few more were added during Christian times in order to facilitate connections between the inner enclosure and the suburbs that had started to spring up around the exterior. These were the Puerta Real (Royal Gate), or Marmolejo, Puerta Sevilla (Seville Gate), Puerta Santiago (Santiago Gate) and Puerta Rota (Rota Gate).
Within the walled enclosure, the layout of the streets was determined both by the structure of the wall and the connections from each gate to the next one. This way, the main thoroughfare of Jerez would be the one connecting the Royal and Santiago gateways. This would in turn cross the street linking the Santiago and Rota gateways.
The Islamic city was divided into different neighbourhoods, each of them having their own mosque and market. Its streets were narrow and winding with few houses and small windows looking out to the exterior. It was during the Almohadic period that the interior of the walled enclosure became fully urbanised.
In the 13th century, Jerez was incorporated into the kingdom of Castile. The 13th century was indeed a crucial century that witnessed the collapse of the Moorish political structure and the consequent process of conquest and repopulation of the region by the Christians coming from the North.
During the Reconquista and the repopulation of Andalusia by Fernando III and Alfonso X, from 1224 to 1300, the base was set for a new Andalusia, which had been radically transformed with regard to its basic demographic, institutional, economic, social and cultural structures as a result of its incorporation into Castile. This brought about an abrupt break with the previous age and entry into a different world and concept of society: the Christian Europe.
After the recapture of Seville by Fernando III in 1248, Jerez availed itself, as did other cities in the Cadiz area, of an agreement under the terms of which the Castilians agreed to respect both private property and way of life in return for a tribute. The area of the Guadalete River was annexed under these terms in 1249 as the king of Castile became aware of his incapacity to repopulate such an extensive region. He left the Mudejars (Muslims allowed to live under Christian rule) in possession of their lands, presenting Lebrija, Jerez, Arcos and Medina Sidonia to Prince Enrique. The repeal of this privilege by Alfonso X in the early years of his reign (1253) made it necessary to reconsider the situation of the region. Indeed, during the first months of 1253, Alfonso X, with the help of troops from the Military Order of Calatrava, carried out a military campaign in the region of the Guadalete, getting rid of the different local Moorish chiefs and aiming at establishing Castilian garrisons in certain towns. This was the case in Jerez. The Chronicles of Alfonso X refer to a certain Abén Abit, lord of the town of Jerez, who offered to surrender the Alcázar on the condition that he “be allowed to flee safe and sound along with all his belongings”. The Alcázar was then handed to the Castilian noble Niño de Lara, who in turn entrusted it to a knight named Garci Gómez Carillo.This more precarious autonomous regime, in which previous Moorish authorities were substituted by others who were more co-operative to Castile; and where Christian military detachments were housed in their palaces and fortresses, lasted until 1262-1263.