In early March, just two weeks before lockdown began, photojournalism student Tamar Shemesh took a trip to El Alamín, a tiny ghost town 70 kilometres west of Madrid. In this reportage, she tells us what she found and what she learned – all aided by hauntingly beautiful photographs – and how it reminded her of Israel, her home.
El Alamín, meaning ‘the world’ in Arabic, is an abandoned village on the outskirts of Madrid. A walk along the three streets of El Alamín reveals the world that a pro-Franco solider intended to build there in 1956. Juan Claudio Güell y Churruca, also known as the fourth Marquis de Comillas, fought on the national side during the Spanish Civil War. His militant legacy influenced the utilitarian architecture and planning of El Alamín: it’s of a communist-style with a touch of Christianity, established to populate tobacco and cotton farmers.
The town’s 150 inhabitants weren’t required to pay any rent – just electricity. Since the village provided all utilities necessary for their community to thrive; a church, a school, a bar and a post office, the inhabitants could be fully immersed in their work. All 40 houses in the village were perfectly identical, but the true capitalist foundations of El Alamín would also be its demise.
The agricultural land was exploited to the point of exhaustion and began to deteriorate, leaving the village no longer able to sustain itself. Inhabitants gradually fled and, in the year 2000, it was abandoned. These photos reveal what 20 years of abandonment looks like.
El Alamín vs the Kibbutz
I felt a real similarity between El Alamín and the Kibbutzim in Israel: utopian agricultural settlements developed during the 1950s, like mushrooms after the rain. In a classic kibbutz, all community members dedicate themselves to the social and economic development of their unified singular field of production. The Kibbutzim are also designed to accommodate and supply all needs. The spatial planning of the kibbutz, as in El Alamín, is functional and repetitive – utterly efficient.
But despite the great resemblance between El Alamín and a kibbutz, El Alamín is not a kibbutz. The main difference lays in the ideology behind the formation of those two types of settlements. El Alamín has a pyramid structure, with hierarchy and financial aspirations. It is, in fact, a highly productive strategy to increase revenues by assuring the employees’ needs.
The kibbutz, in contrast, is circular, and its budget is managed by the kibbutz members themselves leaving no one richer than another. There’s no boss, but rather a committee that takes decisions. Another difference between El Alamín and the kibbutz is the presence of God, or lack of one. The kibbutz is the ultimate symbol of secularism, and the only thing sacred is work itself. In El Alamín, however, the church and residents’ faith in God appear play an important role in well-being and social structure.
Ghosts of the ghost town
Despite El Alamín’s short 44 years of existence, the stories and legends around it are extensive. On December 18, 1957, the sister of Marquis got married in the town’s church, inviting the wealthiest and most prestigious families in Spain. It was a celebration that brought lots of pride to the inhabitants.
In recent years, though, the legends around the village involve darker mysteries, ghosts and death. One famous legend explains the “real” reason for the abandonment of the village, telling tales of a shepherd that led his cattle to the mountain. The following morning, all the sheep and the shepherd himself were dead, seeding panic throughout the town and causing inhabitants to flee.
Another story involves a tragic death about a couple that got married in the church who, the following morning, were found dead in their marital bed. Spooky tails attract visitors to El Alamín that search for paranormal experiences.
When I walked through the streets of the town, looking for both ghosts and stories, I felt somewhat unnerved. Every corner, every stone and every tree hold silent secrets, witnesses to the experiences of the people who worked, studied, lived and died here.
When I entered one of the houses, I suddenly heard a loud noise. As I turned around, I saw the tail of a ginger cat. He escaped quickly but I was lucky enough to capture him with my camera. A destruction of cats may be the only living creatures today in El Alamín.
Windows to the past
I made a few artistic decisions while photographing El Alamín. Firstly, I wanted to demonstrate how it looks today: abandoned, decaying and yet full of history – a cemetery to the human spirit that no longer exists here.
Secondly, I wanted to experience the life in the village from the eyes of those who used to inhabit it. I decided to use the windows in a literal way, as windows to the past, through which the people of El Alamín used to look when it rained, when it was sunny, when the wind blew, when the flowers blossomed, and when the parents called their kids to come and have dinner. I wanted to use my imagination and capture the views from these windows.
Pieces of paper
I was looking for more evidence that could teach me something about the lives of the people who lived there too. In one of the attics, I have found the remains of one family’s documentation: their bills, English school works and notes from the university. These pieces of paper are fragile testimonies of ordinary moments of those who spent their best years in this village. I collected several items and scanned them, in order to add another layer of authenticity.
El Alamín has its own story, but it also encapsulates the story of unpopulated Spain. It tells of the hierarchal society in Spain and the story of inner-migration waves that shape the way society is structured today. The topic of La España vacíada, which refers to Spain’s abandoned and scarcely populated villages, can be re-interpreted these days. La España vacíada is not just the story of El Alamín, or other forgotten villages in the suburbs, it’s the story of contemporary Spain – of Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla and other big populated cities, who are expanding in parallel.
It’s also the story of a country under lockdown. The rhythm of the big cities has turned silent, and has even created new migration waves. Foreigners have returned their home countries, and many madrileños have escaped to their villages outside.
When I took these photos in early March, I could not imagine what was about to come. There is a glimpse of irony in the fact that two weeks after I visited the abandoned village, I needed myself to abandon my home in Madrid, and return to Israel. El Alamín is in fact a demonstration of our most relevant fears of having to abandon our own houses, our belongings and our memories towards an unknown future, leaving our studies, our work, and our life behind.