The area was first inhabited during the early Palaeolithic age – about 25,000 years ago in old money – and remnants, such as paintings and objects from that era, can be seen at the Nerja Caves.
The first, major settlement of the area was by the Phoenicians, a nation of traders from the eastern end of the Mediterranean, in about 800 – 1,000BC. Sexifirmio (Frigiliana), Sexi (Almuñecar), Gadir (Cádiz) and Malaka (Málaga) were founded and became part of a commercial route known as ‘Bástulo-Fenicia’. The Phoenician domination lasted for about 500 years until the Greeks took over.
Around the year 550 BC, the Carthaginians arrived on the scene and ruled the roost until the Roman invasion in 200BC. They were followed by the Visigoths, but only for a short time.
The 7th century saw the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsular and, after a century of various rebellions, the province settled down and peace reigned for several centuries. The town we now know as Nerja was variously called Narija, Naricha and Narixa, all basically meaning ‘rich in water’. In those days, Nerja was a small town surrounded by orchards and fed by the river Chillar which was, believe it or not, navigable! It was famous for tissues and silk drapery which was exported to the east as far as Damascus.
Eight centuries of Moorish rule ended with the reconquest of Spain and expulsion of the Arabs by the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. Fortifications were built in the area, the first being ‘Castillo Alto’, a stronghold designed to keep at bay the marauding pirates of North Africa. This fort remained until 1569. Then there was the Balcón de Europa, formerly known as ‘La Bateria’, and to the west, ‘La Torre de los Guardas’. Houses began to be built around the forts and the new town of Nerja was born.
Around 1588, the first sugar factory, ‘Ingenio’, was constructed in the Chillar riverbed. Others soon followed. There was ‘San Antonio Abad’, built in the area where the road to Frigiliana starts, ‘Ermita de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias’, ‘San José’, built in 1864 and acquired by ‘Azucarera Larios’ in 1872, ‘San Clemente’, near Torrecilla beach, ‘San Joaquín‘ (closed down in 1911) and ones in Maro (closed 1890). The ruins of one of the fortification towers built to defend the sugar factories can be found at the end of Torrecilla beach.
At the beginning of the 19th century the town had a population of about 7,500 inhabitants, and an economy based on the exportation of wines, raisins, wood and sugar. After the Spanish Civil War, cooperative communities were created and the main industries became the production of sugar and sugar cane honey.
The discovery of the Nerja Caves. propelled Nerja onto the tourist map and it has since consolidated its position as a popular tourist resort, particularly with Spanish holidaymakers. Nerja now has a population of around 25,000, of which about 25% are foreign residents.