For thousands of years, caves were the most popular choice for humans to make their homes. The security and isolation that prehistoric populations found in these primitive natural shelters would later be sought by modern cultures. This is the case in southern Spain. Cave-building in Spain began when Arab settlers brought the tradition with them from the troglodyte communities of North Africa. Nowadays, the south of Spain is home to the biggest cave settlement in Europe.
Lying in the foothills of southern Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains is the city of Granada, where a cave-dwelling community lives in Sacromonte, the "sacred mountain." The caves first served as a shelter from storms and wild animals. Later, after the 1492 conquest of Granada by the Catholic kings, the area’s Muslim and Jewish populations were ordered to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. Instead, these residents moved into the caves of the Sacromonte hill together with the nomadic Gypsy community. Because the area was considered a marginal frontier, the population was safe from administrative control and the ecclesiastical order. Most of the Muslim, Jewish and Gypsy families escaped to Guadix and nearby towns, making their cave houses as a way of protection and survival. Nowadays, the caves are home to a unique and quietly proud community that prefers the peaceful solitude of the mountains, over a busy modern life.
Today, the Sacromonte hill is divided in two. The highest and most rugged part of the hill is occupied by squatters, who live in a kind of no-man's land created by legal vacuums. This makes it easier for people to occupy the caves illegally. On the lower part of the Sacromonte hill, Gypsies and their descendants make up the bulk of the population, especially those with deeper roots and family ties who have returned to recover their ancestral homes. The traditional Spanish flamenco was born in the caves of Sacromonte more than 500 years ago, and to this day these families retain their traditional cave lifestyle with more strength than ever.
Guadix and its neighboring towns, also inhabited by cave-dwelling communities, have grown into a more traditional way of life. Today, Guadix is considered to be the "European Capital of Caves." All inhabitants have legal permission to live in their caves, and about 4,500 people are believed to do so. A quiet mood surrounds the area’s impressive geological rock formations, which host approximately 2,000 underground houses over an area of 200 hectares.