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:




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.

White Villages: los Pueblos Blancos

Through the winding and precipitous passages just north of the Costa del Sol, over hill and dale, you will find los Pueblos Blancos.  With their backs against the rocks, or up high on the cliffs, where the people can only ever see the tops of the birds, these whitewashed-in-the-Moorish-tradition compact little towns stand vigilantly.


When I was 16, I came from the north into this fractured basin, the variegated outcroppings of the Cordilleras Béticas (The Baetic System).  Not climbing quite as high as the Sierra Nevadas to the east – towards Granada – but sharp and rocky and steep, just the same.  Tired, fetched by the wind and under spring drizzles, forever the first white city would be imprinted in my memory.  To the right is what I recall, and to the left is what it really looks like.

I’ve had cycling dreams to visit the missions in California, spaced about a day’s horseride apart.  And also to go around the Grand Canyon.  But touring this region of the Pueblos Blancos goes right up to the top of the list.

The roads are well-maintained and clear, but also very narrow with sharps turns through the copses of cork and olive trees.  Nothing beats the cycling network in the Netherlands, of couse: that’s the gold standard.  So while I can’t vouch for the safety of southern Spanish roads, the vistas are definitely worth the risk.  Given the opportunity, I can’t imagine anything would be better than horseback on those famed Andalusian steeds.

Some of the cave paintings discovered in this area are the oldest found in Europe.  Given that there are paintings in Australia from a similar time period, it seems only a matter a time before we find older samples in Africa.  Given cranial development timelines, I find it only the remotest of possibilities that abstract art depictions developed in parallel.

The eastern edge of the interregnum between Béticas and the Sierra Nevadas, not far from Antequera, is covered with the otherwordly landscape of El Torcal.  This is today a 17 square km national park, including some of the most unique and unusual limestone formations in Europe.  When I made it up the zig-zaggy slopes, a sleety squall arrived.  You can see in one of the photos above the quick dusting, completely obscuring the view toward the southern coast.  It dissipated almost as quiclly as it arrived.  The porous formations would certainly have offered favorable terrain for cave bears and other mega-fauna.  Not to mention the 30+ varieties of orchid.

Ronda is (almost certainly) the largest of the white villages.  Here where the bulls are on display, where Hemingway practiced being an aficionado, as is Jake in The Sun Also Rises.  A thoroughly exhilirating landscape of low stone fences, sheepherds, wet grey rocks, bending asphalt, steep cliffs, and compact blanco towns over pale green hills and, here and there, a distinguished Andalusian gentleman in his sweater and discerning hat.  Here, apart from the corsairs and the highwaymen.  High in the pocked hills.



Para comer, para bebir: cómo comer, cómo bebir – cómo vivir!

How to make “garum”:

Throw into a vessel and salt: the intestines of fish, especially small fish, such as atherinae, small mullets, maenaelycostomi,… really any small fish.  Salt them all.  Season them in the sunlight, turning frequently.  Filter through baskets and yum, you have your “garum.”

Recipe adapted from a 10th Century Byzantine manual.  Like soy sauce, this fermented product is rich in MSG: as in, umami-heavy.  It widely spread across the Roman empire.

The Phoenecians probably settled Malaka in the 7th Century BCE.  Found deep beneath the site of the Museo Picasso Málaga were amphora containing garum.  Even deeper were the Phoenecian walls and a bath, and a ramp for wagons.  Pictured here are the street outside the current museum, the garden inside with a shallow pool for doves and pigeons, and the amphora.

The moutains and hills of Andalucía are covered with immaculately spaced, precisely ordered olive trees.  Interspersed throughout are almond trees, now in late January starting to bloom in their lovely pink.  Some rockier hills have groves of cork trees, most of them with stripped trunks.  In every city there sprout rows and rows of orange trees, some lemons, and some persimmons.  Most of the ravens and crows seem to favor the persimmons.

The Mercado Central de Atarazanas in downtown Málaga is a food market mecca at any time of year.  Try to imagine the smell of the freshly plucked oranges, almonds, olives, the salted cod and jámon, the piping pastries.  I especially love the fishmonger’s photos of his two rowdy boys.  And oh, those Iberian spices.

Would that our Walmarts, seemingly off every interstate highway exit, would function as stalls for local producers in this way.  Rather than palettes of RFID-tracked and hyper-efficienctly supply chain-optimized row after row of the industrialized, subsidized commodity food products, I lean toward the basket of hand-plucked and vinegared olives.

Efficiency certainly has its benefits, but it also results in great brutality.

Find me under the re-approrpiated whitewashed Moorish arched vaults with a glass of fino jeréz (“sherry”).

Borders, Barriers, Walls: Identity

To the Phoenecians and the Romans, the Straits of Hercules marked the boundary of the known world.  Not so much for the Basque fishermen who had already sailed up the coast of Portugal, around the British Isles, through the Faroes, past Iceland, and (possibly) into Greenland and Newfoundland.  Nor for the plucky North Africans who sailed across to the Canary Islands and perpetuated there until some Spaniards discovered them in a neolithic-like existence in the 15th Century.

Mons calpe (the Phoenecian name for the 1,400 foot high limestone promontory) is the northern pillar, and Mons abyle (or Jebel Musa) is the southern.  About 8 miles of water separates them.

Jabal Ṭāriq (جبل طارق) (“The Mountain of Tariq”), when españiol-ized, then Anglicized, becomes Gibraltar.

When the Hapsburg dynasty was in its death throes, succession battles flared across the Old Country (as you might expect).  A Dutch-Anglo army went for the rock, and took it for the Queen in the early 18th C.  Leveraging the Spanish War of Succession (1702-15), Gibraltar was granted to the UK “in perpetuity.”

The myth remains that if ever the macaques leave Gibraltar, then so will the British.  Winston Churchill during WWII imported a mass of them from Morocco when their population dwindled to a few inbred mangy curs.

Alfred Lord Tennyson spun a poem in blank verse, widely considered a dramatic soliloquoy in the vein of Robert Barrett Browning, called “Ulysses.”  In this speculative fantasy, Ulysses has returned from his wayward voyages and gotten – as you might expect – bored.

So he rouses his men to action, proposing they sail beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, into the great unknown.  A final venture.  A last plunge.

I expect neither Tennyson nor Ulysses would have ever expected over 50 miles of tunnels to have been bored through that limestone promontory.  Never expected a massive data center and a server farm and three hospitals and a power station and a conert hall to be housed within.  Probably never even realized this is the last stand of the Neanderthals.

Regardless, the establishment of a border, of a boundary, or an end, a red line, a last straw… the act invites an investigation into the rationale behind the decision.  Often, the act is proven to be not rational at all, but highly emotional.

When we delineate the other (this is Spain, this is the UK; this is the known world, this is the unknown; this is Africa, this is Europe; these are Catholics, these are Protestants; these are Moors, these are Christians; these are Neanderthals, these are homo sapiens), we’re really defining ourselves.  Without an other, we wouldn’t know who we are.

It is a very egotistical act, usually born of fear.  Also dangerously galvanizing.  For ever cross the walls.  That’s the only way to make sure you don’t trap yourself in someone else’s definition of you.  Though the more intransigent are the walls you build yourself.  Always seek to broach those: better yourself.  Better to find yourself.  Better to be with your fear.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

“Stained,” “Drained”: La Mancha

La Mancha – (Arabic: المنشا (al-mansha)) “barren; dry land; inhospitable arid region”

La Mancha – (Spanish) “stain; splotch; blotch”

Chosen by Miguel de Cervantes as the cradle of Don Quixote.  ¿Porque?  The answer to this is a bit quixotic.

A friend of mine pronounces this, “Key-HOE-tic.”  Actually, a little more like, “kwee-HOE-tic.”  I have always said, “quick-SAH-tic.”  I wonder what you say?

Cervantes plants his anachronistic knight in the soil of “the Stain,” a literary device to increase the irony of the character.  How could a paragon of virtue (delusional as he may be) grow from such sterile ground?

Flat, dusty, criss-crossed with shallow arroyos and sticky clods, the countryside of La Mancha doesn’t make it difficult to decipher its moniker.  It is a long, wide, and flat plateau around 2,000 feet above sea level.  But this is also the land of queso manchego [Facebook page]: a sheep cheese with a protected denominación de origen.

The manchega sheep breed probably migrated across the Pyrenees millennia ago.  They eventually settled in La Mancha and got themselves domesticated by the local Iberians.  The queso is traditionally prepped in baskets woven of esparto grass, which creates the unique signature pattern on the rind.  The Spanish call this grass, native to the areas around the western Mediterranean, “atocha,” which appears to be a name that pre-dates the Romans in Iberia.

But back to finding wonderful things in incongruous places… Don Quixote has persisted like few other characters.  He has transcended archetypes themselves, becoming his own.

In Book V of the Prelude, William Wordsworth includes a passage where he is reading Cervantes, and he falls into a sleep.  Tumbles further into a dream.  On these twin perplexing and vexatious parallels he had been ruminating: intellect and creativity.  Words and sound(shape)s.  Ration and irrationality.  Science and art.  “Poetry and geometric truth.”

How do we humans merge these competitive forces?  How do we re-integrate what we seem to have distinguished?  Should we have?  Did we mean to?

In his dream, an “arab of the Bedouin tribes” appears to him, riding a dromedary, as he materializes in a wide desert.  He carries a lance under his arm.  In one hand a stone.  In the other, a shell of “surpassing brightness.”

The stone, he learns, is “Euclid’s Elements.”  The shell, when held to the ear, whispers poetry.  Imagine the stone as a prism, like the one held in the hand of the statue of Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey.  Holding the shell to the ear, one can hear an apocalyptic prediction of a great flood.  Told in verse, of course.

The rider is Don Quixote.  Holding in one hand art, and the other, science.  With one stone, he reveals the truths of natural objects we cannot otherwise see.  With the shell, we hear of the inevitability of death.  Notice that the stone is a natural object.  The shell is a crafted abode.

A professor of mine, back in the early 1990s, Jeffrey Robinson, once talked about this with me in his office hours.  We wondered, why has Don Quixote persisted in our imaginations? Few people can quote passages of Cervantes.  We don’t quip from those texts like we do with Shakespeare.  But he is universally recognized.

Who among you looks at any of these images and does not immediately think, “Aha!  The Man of La Mancha!”?!?  Not think.  But know.

Professor Robinson gave me his idea.  It has something to do with the struggle.  Despite all odds.  Despite us knowing he is mad.  Despite not fitting in his proper time and place.  There’s a part of all of us that roots for him.  We want to see that evil giant/windmill face its comeuppance at the end of a well-thrusted lance.

So… anyone else out there who still tilts at your own windmills?

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.


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.


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:


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).)


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.