Cathedrals, Mosques, Synagogues, oh my! (Part 2)

The last time I was in Seville, around 1986, I was visiting the Alcázar.  Among us, 5 high school students and two chaperones.  We plucky teenagers pranced around with our daypacks, stuffed with caribeeners, compasses, flashlights, dry matches and a copy of “501 Spanish Verbs” (from Barron’s Educational Series) – what do you expect from an outdoorsy curriculum?

Pretty sure we all came packing Swiss Army knives, too, as you could travel with them back then.  (Note that Victorinox lost ~40% of their business after 9/11 – they used to be a featured item in Duty Free airport shops – but they didn’t fire a single employee: fun read if you want to look it up.)  We also had a change of clothes as we were on an overnighter.

In the Plaza de España, Mr. Gaul offered to sit and watch our bags as we traipsed about the cobblestone streets, past cafés with hanging legs of drying jamón, steaming cups of café con leche, and decorative Moorish tiles.  When I walked into the plaza a couple hours later, I saw Mr. Gaul bent over the edge of the fountain.  A large map splayed out before him, he was examining it while an unfamiliar man in a ratty white linen shirt gesticulated, pointing and asking questions.

I couldn’t understand what the man was saying.  It didn’t sound like Spanish.  It might have been Arabic, but I couldn’t distinguish those sounds well at that age.  To this day, I’m not sure what he was speaking, though I’m rather confident it was complete gibberish.

The man made eye contact with me, and in a flustered huff like a suddenly shamed rooster, he scooped all edges of the crinkley paper map into his arms, waved at Mr. Gaul as if to say, “So sorry for the trouble, thanks for trying to help,” spluttered out some more nonsense words, and beat a hasty retreat into the crowds of the city.

“Who was that?” I started to ask, as Mr. Gaul turned around, looking at me while taking his seat.  His head swiveled this way and that.  “Oh crap,” he said, eyes shifting and arms spreading wide.  “One of our bags is gone.”

Sevilla para herir.

Córdoba para morir.

¡Siempre Sevilla para herir!

– Francisco Lorca

A crossroads city where the Tartessians, Cathaginians, Iberians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors set roots.  Where Jews, Muslims, Christians settled.  Where Christopher Colombus embarked (along with Amerigo Vespucci, and de Gama, and Cortéz, …).  Where a monopoly was granted for “trade” with the Americas.  Where the gitanos danced and wooed and… yes, a few shucksters aspired to perfecting the art of the grift.

Such a rich confluence, this city that periodically washed away in the alluvial soil on the banks of the Guadalquivir, also experienced dramatic intermixing of culture, thought, religion, practice, music, architecture, plagues, iconoclasm, iconography… I can’t help put try to peer through the layers of interwoven blending.

Pagan sites became churches, churches became mosques, mosques became repositories of Hebraic knowledge, then became churches again, then became institutions of state government, then became trading houses, then became gardens, became tourist attractions, became graffitied, sighed and lamented and rejoiced all together.

This city founded a Universidad de Mareantes (of the Mariners) around 1500 with faculty teaching piloting, sailing, cosmography, mathematics, astronomy, artillery tactics, military history, navigation, cartography.  These three pictures are details from a massive tapestry hanging in the Alcázar (roughly 40 feet by 25 feet) with the Mediterranean sea at the top and the Atlantic to the east.  Zooming in reveals lots of interesting tidbits.  It may be representative of the jealously guarded Padrón Real.

My favorite place – probably the old Moorish baths underneath the palace:

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Cathedrals, Mosques, Synagogues, oh my! (Part 1)

I read up on a lot of Spanish history in December.  One area of especial interest is from about 700 CE to 1500 CE.  That time span is bracketed at the low end by the Visigoths (who were nominally Christian), and at the high by the Reconquista, when the houses of Ferdinand and Isabel were joined and re-took Granada from the Moors, sparking a new age of Christian hegemony.  The Inquisition, what a show…

During this in-between time, adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all resided in the Iberian peninsula.  The Moors basically controlled southern Spain, and though some would say they had control of all Iberia in toto, they never really challenged the old Visigothic Christian cities up north in Aragon, or in the northwest.

The Moors brought with them a great deal of ancient knowledge.  Besides introducing oranges, almonds, olive trees, and other staples that would come to re-define Iberia, they brought the accumulated wisdom of the “classical” world – primarily encoded in Arabic.  And some fantastic architectural techniques.

Some photos of “La Alhambra”:

The power of the Moors fluctuated as families split and attention wavered between northern Iberia and the Berbers in North Africa.  But in general, the rule of law treated Jews and Christians as “people of the Book” (“dhimmi,” or in Arabic: ذمي‎‎ (ḏimmī)).  Basically, this meant they had freedom to worship, but also had to pay a tax (“jizyah” (Arabic: جزية‎‎ ǧizyah)).  (Speaking of which, I’m wondering if this historic practice of “tolerance via payments” is rooted in Persian precedent…I need to listen through the new Hardcore History episodes.)

Now this theoretical concept of la convivencia, as some have speculated, is rife with controvery and floundering in rhetoric.  No “diachronic” comparative analysis of systems of law (over time) which we attach to a major “religion” will ever produce a winner.  It is not a zero-sum game.  And there is no ultimate truth to be found.  Whoever claims that one religion is more peaceful or rational than another based on evidence x, y and z is standing on shifting sand.

I read one review on Amazon of a text that disputes the idea that “Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in relative harmony” during this period in Spain.  The text elaborates all the horrific treatment that Christians and Jews suffered under Muslim rule, and essentially demonstrates there was never any real peace; the idea that they had it better under Muslim rule than the converse is poppycock.  The reviewer praised the book for breaking the “politically correct” theory of convivencia.  Well, this won’t be very politically correct for me to say, but all religions are flawed and a waste of time.

All governments are, too.  And so are all corporations.

(I’m not trying to go all Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett here.)  But all of these things – governments, religions, companies – share one great corrupter in common.  Us.  I’m as equally suspicious of two religious adherents meeting together as I am of two government officials or two businesspeople brokering a deal.  (And let’s not get started with the lawyers.)

We’re flawed.  We make mistakes.  We’re subject to neurochemistry we do not control nor yet understand.  Our nervous systems react to perceived realities as veridically as they do to actual ones.

Yet there remains beauty in the intermeshing of existences.  Sometimes violent, sometimes empathetic.  The myriad con-glomming.  Interspersed and overlapping keyhole arches, geometric repetition betraying a harmonic theory, hyper-attentive detail.  This book is an interesting read [Amazon link] on all of the above.

To gyre and gimble in the Main: of Spain, where it chiefly rains…

I’ve “gyred” back to Toledo.  I rode into this town on a Miyata touring bike with an elliptical sprokcet in 1986.  The theory is in this copied image (and explained very well for enthusiasts here): you are meant to gain more momentum in your stroke.  My bike had the Shimano variant marketed as “biopace,” which is slightly different than this image.  Although there were theories that this wasn’t really good for your knees, I never got to that stage because the bike was stolen sometime in 1990 when I took it to college.

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But back to “gyre.”  Humpty Dumpty said:

When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less

Alice reads through the lines of the Jabberwocky poem, and HD tries to explain the words to her:

To “gyre” is to go round and round like a gyroscope.  To “gimble is to make holes like a gimlet.

When I was here before, I was terribly excited to visit “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” in the Iglesia de Santo Tomé.  It is extremely large: more than 15 feet high.  The snippet of an image I’ve included is only a pittance of the whole.

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We were also excited to try and find some switchblades to buy.  Now, as then, the city abounds in swords.  My high school history teacher Mr. Gaul taught us that Toledo was famous for swordsmithery.  He also told us that some people named the Vandals, notorious for their sacking, looting, pillaging and despoiling acumen, gave popularity to the term “vandalism” following their 5th C escapades across southern Europe, into the Iberian penninsula and north Africa.  We didn’t believe him at the time.

We had elliptical sprockets, but no pervasive cell towers allowing us to fact-check our teachers at a moment’s notice: something my friends today do with reckless abandon.  (Once or twice a year I reminisce with Jimmy Wales in 2005.)

Memory is self-serving and imperfect.  Having experienced very disturbing memory loss in recent years, I look forward to re-experiencing the countryside I once toured.

I recalled Toledo as being magnificently dark, covered in cobblestones, high medieval walls and narrow streets.  I was partly correct.  The streets are as I recall, but perhaps I was looking down too often back then: the city is rather ruddy in complexion, almost sandstoney in tone: brighter than I recall.

I’m also now better able to recognize the Muslim influences in the architecture.  A superb example of the overlapping “horseshoe arch” I’ve cribbed from Córdoba:

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There’s plenty of similar textures in some photos I took inside the cathedral (Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo).  There’s a kind of nested fractal regularity that meshes Indra’s Net with Jackson Pollack with a Harmonic Theory of Everything at work.

I wonder how much of this patterning resulted from the early 8th C edict of Leo III the Isaurian, Byzantine Emperor, banning the use of imagery or iconography in religious worship.  (Not to deny that aniconism exists in many forms of religious worship and seems to develop organically: I’m reminded of reactionary artistic explosions, like the Caves at Mogao (莫高窟).)

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Over the next two weeks I’ll gyre my way south, and I look forward to my re-imagining of Gibraltar, the Costa del Sol, and Al Andalus.