Whilst in ruins now, the Arab Baths are still the best preserved in Spain and offer a tantalising peek into Moorish life during the 13th to 16th centuries. Be sure to watch the animated short presentation (5 minutes) when you get here. Be aware that the video presentation describes the water tower as a Noria (the modern Spanish word derived from Arabic), however the water pump in Ronda is a chain pump and is more correctly known even today as a Saqiya.
Located just outside the old city walls near the Puente Arabe, the Arab Baths (Baños Arabes) of Ronda are considered the best preserved Moorish baths in Spain, better even than those that survive in Granada. They were originally built sometime in the late 12th or early 13th centuries during the reign of the Almohad dynasty, although tradition seems to favour the reign of Abomelic from the 14th century as the time of their construction.
The exterior of the baths is more or less intact, the Saqiya (water pump tower) still exists, as does the aqueduct. On the top of the Saqiya, and accessed by a ramp from ground level, a donkey turned a wheel that pumped water from the river below and along the aqueduct at the side wall of the baths. As you enter the gates into the bath compound look to the far front right corner of the compound and you’ll see a tower with a connecting wall, at the top of which is a channel for water, and beside which is the ramp.
A wide well was sunk inside the tower and then connected to the confluence of the two rivers, the rio Guadalevín and arroyo de las Culebras. Within the tower two large wheels and a rope belt would pull the water from the well to the top of the tower in a series of large terracotta buckets (canjilones) that were emptied into a wooden channel that then exited the tower at its top and emptied into the aqueduct adjoining the tower. From the aqueduct the water would run into the baths to be heated and distributed into the hot rooms of the Hammam, the Arabic word for the baths.
The technology used in the Saqiya here in Ronda was invented by an Islamic engineer named Abu al Tz ibn Razaz Al-Jazari (1136-1206), and described in a book he published to great acclaim Kitáb fí ma’rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya which roughly translated means the Book of Mechanical Devices. While Al-Jazari never visited Ronda, or indeed Iberia, his achievements were followed with interest throughout the Islamic world, and his book spread far and wide very quickly.
Al-Jazari improved on the traditional Saqiya designs that had been common in the middle eastern nations since pre-Christian times, and also invented the crankshaft which the builders of Ronda’s Arab Baths incorporated, so we know that the baths could not have been built earlier than the late 12th century. Of course an older and more primitive bathhouse may have existed on the same site but we have no evidence of this.
Given that much of Ronda’s defensive capability including the Puente Arabe and the defensive walls above it were built by the Almohads, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest the Baños Arabes were built in the same time. Almohad influence in Al-Andaluz started to wane after 1212 when they lost a decisive battle to Christian Spain at Las Navas de Tolosa near Jaén, around the same time Ronda had become an important trading and cultural city.
Islam requires cleanliness of it’s adherents, even more so when entering a city of importance such as Ronda, so most Islamic historians believe a bathhouse would have been built alongside the new entrance to the city. Whilst the Arab Baths in Ronda may have been expanded or extensively renovated during the time of Abomelik, it is reasonable to believe a bathhouse at the entrance to the city would
To make things easier for the donkey powering the pump, a flywheel was used comprising a weight on the drawbar behind the donkey which would rotate the vertical shaft leading to the Saqiya’s crankshaft. The purpose of the flywheel was to reduce load on the animal and provide a smoother rotation thus also minimising jerky movements on the donkey’s spine. The flywheel was an invention of a prominent Islamic Andalucían scholar named Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Bassal, one of the court scholars in Toledo who published a seminal work on agronomy Diwan al-filaha.