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‘Cenobio de Valeron’ and its 350 Rock-Cut Caves That Have Left Experts Perplexed

The Island of Gran Canary isn’t beautiful just because of its incredible beaches and fantastic vacation resorts. In distant times, the island and surrounding region had a few mysteries that people from the outside were unaware of until relatively recently

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Some six hundred meters above the surface, south of the northern coast of the Gran Canaria island we find the Caves of Valeron, also known as Valerón’s “monastery” or Cenobio de Valerón.

The site we see standing today was built more than 800 years ago by the early inhabitants of the island.

The main entrance to the caves. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The main entrance to the caves. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

350 rock-cut Caves

There are around 350 caves distributed across eight levels.

Built before the Roman times and thought to have been used as a massive collective granary, the area was used by the inhabitants of the island before the conquest of Gran Canaria at the end of the 15 century.

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Early scholars, as well as people who came to the island from elsewhere, were left both perplexed and confused by the sheer number of the caves.

Outsiders referred to the site as a pre-Hispanic monastery, and it was believed that in ancient times, the natives of the region used the caves as a collective monastery, wherein young women would live alongside celibate priests until they were old enough to be married.

This was a misconception.

However, with time, the real purpose of this beautiful site became more evident, and it wasn’t until recent history that the real use of the superposed caves was revealed.

More than 350 caves were built by the natives of the island hundreds of years ago. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
More than 350 caves were built by the natives of the island hundreds of years ago. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Cenobio de Valeron

As noted by Gran Canaria, the term cenobia, meaning monastery in Spanish “comes from the Roman false idea of the silos or chambers being convent rooms in which the young noble classes were imprisoned until they were of age to be married.”

The idea that this was a massive collective monastery remained until the 20th century when French archaeologist Guy Marcy recognized its real use.

Marcy compared the features of the site to other similar locations across the Canary islands and northern Africa, and it became clear that the site was used as a large communal grain store, and not a monastery.

The more than 350 artificial caves were carved from the volcanic rock in distant times by the natives of the region using stone and wood tools.

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The caves and storage rooms vary in size, and some of them were most likely connected hundreds of years ago.

The entrances were shut by doors made of unknown material, of which archeologists have found traces. Some of the doors are thought to have been crafted out of wood, stone slabs or even soft materials like leather.

Inside the caves, archeologists have discovered ceramics,  idols, paintings human bones and ashes which are thought to have belonged to the people who guarded the caves.

Ancient Silos

Some of the stone slabs that protected the ‘silos’ have been found on the site.

Early Spanish accounts of Gran Canary mention that massive towers framing the caves towered the silos.

People of the island would use the storage spaces to store wheat and barley not only safe from raids and attacks but also fresh in times of drought.

Some of the grain stored inside the chambers may have also been used in distant times as a tribute or tax, although there isn’t a consensus on this idea.

Many scholars argue that the storage spaces belonged to families of the island who had access to them as they pleased and that they were not necessarily used as an island-wide storage facility.

Although we now know much about the site, it remains unclear how the grain was stored inside the chambers. One possibility is that it was stored directly into the rooms although archeologists have discovered evidence of pottery and baskets, which means that the ancient inhabitants may have sued recipients to store the goods.

The arch of the mountain where the silos were excavated measures around thirty meters wide and offers great shelter. The temperature and humidity inside made this location perfect for storing grain.

The sheer size of the caves complex is evidence to the great importance of agriculture on Gran Canary.