Just outside Antequera you can visit three 5000-year-old dolmens: Menga Dolmen (the largest in Europe) and Viera Dolmen, which are both located just outside the town, while El Romeral Dolmen is a few km away. These three prehistoric burial chambers represent some of the largest and most complete megalithic structures in Europe. In 2016 the dolmens, along with two mountains closely connected to the dolmen complex, were declared UNESCO World Heritage. The Antequera Dolmens are the seventh World Heritage site in Andalucia.

The Menga Dolmen is famous for its significant geographical location, on the summer solstice, 21 June, the morning sun shines over the peak of the Peña de los Enamorados and straight along the dolmen’s entrance corridor. This very exact positioning would have held mystical importance for the prehistoric tribes who built the dolmen thousands of years ago.

The Antequera Dolmens Site, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list on 15 July 2016, includes the mountains of El Torcal de Antequera and Peña de los Enamorados (towards which the dolmens face). The dolmens are described as “outstanding examples of megalithic architecture and amongst the most recognized and quoted in the world.”

The dolmens were built by farmers who lived in the fertile Guadalhorce valley during the Neolithic period and Copper Age from 5000 to 2200BC. The closest Neolithic settlement to the dolmens is Cerro de Marimacho, the small hill 200m to the east, from where the stones would have been transported; Neolithic cave settlements also existed at El Torcal and Sierra de Molina. It would have taken the combined resources of many settlements to quarry and transport the stones, and construct these enormous burial sites.

The Menga and Viera dolmens were probably built between 3500 and 3000BC, while El Romeral was constructed later – in about 2500BC. Considering the structures are at least 5000 years old, they are in remarkably good condition.Menga Dolmen in the largest in Europe at nearly 30m long. The largest upright stone weighs 180 tonnes. By way of comparison, the heaviest stone at Stonehenge, in Wiltshire in the UK, weighs 40 tonnes.

The Menga Dolmen tomb comprises three different sections. The first is an open corridor or atrium porch section that would have been partially or completely unroofed, leading to a passage or corridor section of four stones. These oversized entrance ‘capstones’ have become the iconic image of the Menga Dolmen. This passage leads to the large oval-shaped funerary chamber.

This dolmen was built using the ‘orthostatic technique’, which means constructing a wall from ‘planting’ large upright stones called orthostats and laying across horizontal capstones to form a roof. It is 27.5m long, while the height gradually increases from 2.7m at the entrance to 3.5m at the far end. The widest point is 6m towards the back, with a floor shaft 1.5m in diameter and 19.5m deep. The shaft is aligned with three pillars that support four enormous 250-tonne roof stones.

Each side is made of 12 upright stones and one stone closing the far end. The roof is made of five stones; a sixth that was placed over the entrance is missing. The tomb is covered by a 50m-diameter tumulus of stones and soil.

The alignment of the passage is 045 degrees north-east, which is the sunrise during the summer solstice. This is unusual as 95% of dolmens align to the south-east. Aditioinally it aligns to the direction of Peña de los Enamorados; this is unique in continental Europe for a dolmen to align to a natural landmark. A small number of visitors can witness this event each year by prior reservation.

According to Javier de Rojos, writing in 1879, legend has it that an ill-fated woman, the widow of a promiscuous nobleman, arrived in the town in the 16th century after the death of her husband. She was suffering from leprosy, and took refuge in the dolmen, where she lived on the charity of travellers and locals. Hence the name of the dolmen.

The Viera Dolmen tomb comprises two different sections. The first is an open corridor including a ‘door’ structure, and the second is a 21m-long passage section. At the back is a small quadrangular chamber (1.6m wide and 2m high) which is accessed through a small opening cut into the stone. The hole in the rearmost capstone of the chamber was made by tomb raiders and is not part of the structure. The corridor is 1.3m wide and the chamber is 1.6m wide.

The structure was made of 16 upright stones on each side, of which three in the entrance section are missing. Five roof slabs are still in place; originally there would have been three or four more. Try to imagine the initial ‘open’ corridor section being closed – it has lost the capstones. The masonry wall construction in the open corridor is modern and protects the passage from falling tumulus material. The stones are covered in a carefully constructed 50m-diameter tumulus which has not been washed away over the years, unlike so many others in the Iberian Peninsula. The passage faces east, actually 096 deg following the standard pattern of Iberian megaliths.

Cerro Marimacho is a small hill 200m to the east of the Menga and Viera tombs. It has gentle slopes and is close to a stream known as La Villa. Due to its proximity to the dolmens, the hill has always attracted speculation is that it could contain a fourth dolmen. During the construction of the ring road, excavation carried out discovered ‘pits’ with materials such as undecorated pottery and flints. No comprehensive site excavation has ever been carried out.

The Tholos of El Romeral is a typical false cupola tomb. It has a corridor with masonry walls and a flat roof, of which 11 large stone slabs remain. The current corridor is 26m long, 1.5m wide, and 1.95m high. At the end of the corridor are two initial orthostats (vertical stones) followed by two closer together, to create the impression of a funnel leading into the 5.2m diameter chamber at the end. This chamber is also constructed from masonry with slightly vaulted walls with a false dome crowned with a 3.75m-high stone slab. This is one of the best examples of a false dome in the Iberian peninsular. At the rear of the chamber is a 10-deg centre offset opening into a small passage leading into a smaller scale 2.34m-diameter chamber. In the chamber you will see a 20cm slab of limestone whose purpose is unknown; there is no evidence it was for human sacrifice.

The stones are covered with a 68m-diameter tumulus, topped by a circle of trees. The passage faces south-west at 199 deg, which is very unusual in Iberia, and points to the peak of the Comorroro de las Siete Mesas on the El Torcal de Antequera mountain range

Standing in the chamber, as your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, look to the wall to the right of the smaller chamber opening. You can see the ‘projection’ of the light from the entrance focused by the long corridor. If a visitor enters you can see their outline. During the afternoon around the winter solstice the sun shines directly on this back wall.