Andalusian follow-up

On the way back to the U.S., I began reading a book that pulls together most of the historical events explored during this trip. If you are interested in learning more about the Islamic period in southern Spain, you may wish to check out this book:

Ornament of the world: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in Medieval Spain, 2002, by María Rosa Menocal, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University.

Prior to the trip I read another book that is a fictionalized story of the fall of Granada in 1492, from the perspective of a Muslim family who had been living in Andalusia for many generations. It is an engrossing read and is part of a sequence of five books called “The Islam Quintet”. I’ll now have to find the other four!

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (The Islam Quintet), 1993, by Tariq Ali, British-Pakistani writer, journalist and filmmaker.

We arrived back in Ashland, Oregon in time to catch the end of the beautiful fall season. Lithia Park, in particular, is adorned in its finery of reds, oranges, and yellows—a treat for two people who’ve been away from this seasonal display for 30-plus years! By the way, the building reflected in the pond is the Elizabethan theater that is part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s trio of stages. Ashland’s worth a visit any time of year!


Thanks for joining me on this fascinating trip, and thanks to all who provided comments along the way—the feedback is very helpful. I promise to revive the blog again soon.


Seville—the crown of Andalusia

Seville (Sevilla in Spanish) has been the dominant city in southern Spain for most of the past millennium. Located in the lower part of the Guadalquivir river valley just 60 km (40 miles) from the sea, it was a Roman city that grew greatly in size during the Islamic period after the caliphate (central governance) in Córdoba weakened and individual city states (called taifas) became the centers of power. Seville fell to the Catholic kings in the early 13th century, when the Islamic emirates lost a large part of their territory in Andalusia. It has remained a favorite of kings, who rebuilt the Alcázar through many reigns. In fact, the modern Spanish kings have still resided here when they are in town. Seville is the capital of Andalusia, which is one of the regions in Spain that has been given more autonomy in its own governance.

Here is a view looking north across the city from the cathedral tower. The modern-style bridge across the Gualalquivir should look familiar to anyone who has seen the bridge across the Sacramento River in Reading, CA—it was designed by the same architect! This city, more than any other we’ve visited, juxtaposes old and new at every level. One example in the photo is the steeples of ancient cathedrals (all built on former mosque sites) next to the Metropol parasol (also referred to as “the mushroom”—it’s the beige oval at lower right from the bridge) that is a thoroughly modern structure floating over a large plaza.


But it is the old monuments that attract large hordes of tourists. The Alcázar is here better preserved than at other cities. The vast walled area encloses immense gardens and a stunning palace that is where the current kings still reside when in town; their part of the palace has limited entry and is called the Cuarto Real—royal quarters. Here is a view across one of the gardens to the palace, with the cathedral steeple in the background.


The palace was built and expanded during the Islamic period; the Catholic kings who acquired it in the early 13th century continued to modify and expand it, particularly during the 14th century reign of Pedro I, for whom the palace is named (Palacio de Don Pedro). It is also referred to as the Mudéjar Palace—mudéjar meaning the style of so-called “Moorist” architecture that continued to be used even after Islamic governance was ended. (Mudéjar also refers to the Muslims who remained in Andalusia after the reconquest, but who did not convert to Christianity.) In the 14th century, Pedro had an allegiance with the emir of Granada, which was still under Islamic control. He apparently invited artisans from Granada to work on the palace, and the decoration is similar to that seen in the Alhambra. It’s wonderful to see the stucco work with colors still intact, helping to better imagine what the Alhambra must have looked like during its “heyday”. This view is of the archway and ceiling in one part of the palace.


The main cathedral is another big tourist draw—it’s the largest cathedral, by volume, in the world! It was built on the site of the great 12th century Islamic mosque (as almost all cathedrals in Andalusia are); the only thing that survives from the mosque is the tower that was originally the minaret (called the “Giralda”). It looks particularly impressive with the night-time lighting. The very top part was added later by the Catholics.


There are many attractions inside the cathedral—one is the tomb of Christopher Columbus, topped with an enormous bronze sculpture (below). In 1503, after Columbus’ initial voyages, Seville was awarded official monopoly on trade with the Americas; it quickly became one of the richest cities in the world. Two hundred years later, trade office was transferred to Cádiz and Seville’s importance declined. As the provincial capital, it is now an economic center, as well as a tourist “must visit”.


Riches from the “glory” period abound within the cathedral; in fact, we wondered why the Catholic church would not be embarrassed to display so much wealth (but that has never seemed to be an issue for them). One room is called “the treasury” and the intricate objects of gold and silver (acquired from New World mines, of course) and precious jewels nearly blind the eye. Here is a crown that seemed an appropriate photo choice, given the collaboration of church and state that has defined most of Spanish history.


The mudéjar style can be seen throughout Seville, in constructions even into the 20th century. The building in the photo below, now the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares (arts and popular culture), was built in 1914 on the Plaza of the Americas for the Spanish-American Exposition in 1929. Other interesting buildings that remain from this exposition include pabellones (pavilions) for countries such as Morocco, Columbia, and Uruguay.


We visited one palace that a condesa remodeled in the early 20th century. It contained a rather jarring juxtaposition of styles. The photo below shows several different styles of tile work. On the right is a style that attempts to copy the intricate mosaic work developed in Medieval Islamic Andalusia and still practiced today in Morocco. But rather than being individual hand-carved pieces grouted together, these tiles are made as a single piece using a mold—much faster and cheaper. On the left is the painted tile work style so prevalent during the Renaissance period. Seville is an incredible place to view all types of tile-work styles.


No blog about Spain can ignore the bulls! There remain active “Plaza de Toros” (bull rings) in every town we visited. Here in Seville we had lunch in an old-style restaurant that had a stuffed bull sitting on the bar right in the middle of the restaurant (with blogger for scale)! With that, we leave Andalusia, with its incredible richness of culture and history. It will be worth another future visit….


The world-famous, acorn-eating Spanish pig

Just an hour north of Seville (like Córdoba, located in the Guadalquivir river valley), the Sierra de Aracena is a tranquil rural world that feels far removed from the bustling city. Geologically, it’s also a world away. This is the only place we are visiting in Spain that is beyond the realm of the Eurasian–African collision zone. Like Portugal, this area has been involved in a continental collision of epic proportions—it was just much longer ago when Europe collided with North America (>250 million years ago). The rocks are very old (~300–600 million years) and worn down; in fact, the landscape resembles the east coast of North America from which this area separated starting around 200 million years ago. Like the east coast, the more resistant rock types form the hills while the less resistant types make up the valleys. It’s a real contrast to the steep rugged terrain of the active mountain belt to the south.


These old rocks are highly metamorphosed and because they are deeply weathered, they form thicker soils then in other places we been, and the rocks are rarely visible. Here is an exposure along a path—note the ancient wall built atop the natural rock face. The red coloration is from oxidation of iron during chemical weathering.image

The photo above is on a path that leads from Aracena, the town where we stayed, to Linares de la Sierra which is 5 km (3 miles) away. There is a chain of charming villages that are spaced walking distance (5–10 km) along ancient paths that probably go back to at least Roman times. One day we walked to Linares and another day we walked in the opposite direction to Corteconcepión. The words that kept coming to mind were bucolic and verdant—an fabulously tranquil setting turned green by October rains. Here’s a view along one walk, with the steeple of the church in Corteconcepión in the background.


It was a wonderful time to be in this rural area. Not only was the landscape green, but it was overflowing with abundance. It was the time to harvest wild mushrooms, chestnuts, and fall vegetables. We walked adjacent to small farms with animals and vegetable gardens (called “la huerta” in Spanish—see example below).


Another product of this region is cork. There are two main types of oak trees that are more similar to the California oak than to the eastern oak. One is for producing acorns and the other is for producing cork. We have seen many trees with evidence of multiple harvesting events. On the tree below, the red color is where the cork bark has been removed.


The real agricultural star, however, is the pig that produces jamón Ibérico de bellota—Spanish ham from acorn-eating pigs. It’s amazing. The pigs are pure breeds that live outdoors where each pig must have at least 2 acres upon which to roam—that’s the amount of land they need to get enough acorns. The process is all carefully regulated by the government, and the true bellota meat brings a premium price in markets and restaurants. In Corteconcepción, we visited a farm where they raise the pigs and make the ham, as well as other artisanal meat products. In taste tests we learned to differentiate the bellota-type ham from the corn-fed-type ham. The acorns give the meat an easily-recognizable sweeter taste and more delicate texture. Below are some pigs grazing on acorns in a field along our walk. They are usually more spread out, but on the path we had gathered some acorns that we threw onto their side of the fence—they all came running! If one had to be a pig, this would truly be the life to live!


For the food photo, though, I’ll provide not a ham, but some mushrooms. A tiny restaurant near our rural hotel had a woman cook who specializes in mushroom dishes. We had two dishes, each of which featured a different mushroom that was being gathered in the local region—amazing to us because wild mushrooms are usually a small component of a meal, not the featured attraction. This dish features “tanas a la plancha”—sautéed tanas, which are often referred to as “la reina de las setas”—the queen of the mushrooms. We happened upon a man who was collecting mushrooms on one of our walks, and these were the ones he was most eager to find. Upon cooking they turn yellow, but when growing wild, their top side is a beautiful reddish orange color. We were thrilled to experience so many of the local products in this region.


Overlapping cultures in Córdoba

Heading north into the Guadalquivir valley, the landscape mellows, with gently rolling hills and flatter topography within which the river can meander. This change results from exiting the collision zone and entering the valley (called a foreland basin by geologists) into which sediments from the uplifted ranges to the south have been deposited. The young sediments here are mostly flat lying and, because they have not been deeply buried, they are not yet very rock-like and are easily eroded to form smooth, gentle slopes. In the photo below, the view is south across the Alcázar, with the river just beyond the trees (note old Roman bridge on left side of photo) and hills on the south side of the river. After some October rains, the landscape is turning green!


“Cultures through the ages” has been a recurring theme of this journey. The evolving cultures have much to do with religious afiliation. For example, we have seen that the so-called Moors were a wide variety of ethnic groups that were united by their religion—Islam. In Córdoba there is considerable evidence of previous cultures/religions right in the city center. The Museum of Archeology is built on a Roman-era theater, whose remains can be viewed in the museum’s basement. The museum contains many wonderful artifacts. The piece of a frieze (below) shows Romans harvesting olives, an activity people have been doing in Spain for a LONG time!


Many well-preserved floor mosaics from the Roman era have been discovered within the city. Some have been mounted on the walls of a room in the Alcázar (top photo; also note Roman bridge on left side). The Romans, of course, were known for having many gods. In the floor mosaic below, the Cyclops Polyphemus is sitting on rock gazing at Galatea while a sea monster beneath her gazes at him menacingly.


The Visogoths, early Christians, came next and built upon the Roman structures. The Museum of Archeology contains some pieces from this time period. But it was with the Muslim arrival in 711 that Córdoba really expanded, becoming the biggest city in Western Europe, where the economy, learning and arts thrived. As the Islamic center in this part of the world, it became a pilgrimage alternative to Mecca and Jerusalem. During this time, there were many public baths, patios, gardens and fountains. This tradition continues; for example, residents take pride in their home gardens, which they often open to the public. We were able to view six home gardens in one small neighborhood of the city. They were beautiful!


What most people come to see from the Islamic period is the Mezquita-Catedral (mosque-cathedral), so called because the Catholics, who reconquered Córdoba in 1236, literally inserted the cathedral into the middle of the mosque! Here is a view from a tower on the wall of the complex looking south over the Mezquita-Catedral, with river and south bank in the distance. The long north- to south-oriented pointed roofs are naves on the north and south sides of the cathedral that are where the arches are located in the photo below this one.


Here is a photo of the Arabic arches in the Mosque part of the complex. In many perspectives, they seem to go on forever. Córdoba’s population may have reached 500,000 people, and it was incredible to stand among these arches and imagine them filled with men on prayer rugs all facing east, the direction in which this photo was taken.


We give the Catholics credit for this—whereas most mosques were destroyed in the process of building cathedrals on the same sites, this one remains partially intact, along with the beautiful carved stucco and intricate tile work that is well preserved because of its position within the cathedral complex. Here is one particularly fine example (the gold parts are all mosaics with tiny pieces), that even retains the Arabic writing.


One group that is often overlooked is the Jewish population. Although their treatment varied depending on which Moslem group was in charge, they, in general, lived peacefully together with the Moslems (and also some Christians) during the Islamic period. When the Catholics took over, it was a different story. One of the few preserved synagogues from the Islamic period is preserved in Córdoba. A museum (Casa de Sefarad) is devoted to the Sephardic-Judaic tradition in Spain. In addition to compelling stories about Jewish intellectuals and musical traditions, there are sobering tales of the treatment of Jews, Muslims, and even some Christians, under the cruel hand of the Inquisition. The patio of the museum (a converted house) has a Star of David that is done in a rock style seen throughout the streets and patios of Córdoba—it’s called “china cordobesa”.


The Alcázar (top photo) is a fortification that previously included the palace where Isabel and Fernando, the so-called “Catholic Monarchs”, stayed when they were in Córdoba. In fact, it was in this building that they finally agreed to finance Christopher Columbus’ voyages! When we heard that Granada fell in 1492, we thought it was a coincidence. It was not, however. Columbus had been begging for funding for years, but the monarchs were preoccupied with the wars of the reconquest. Once Granada was captured, and all of Spain was under their power, they could focus on expanding their empire and they agreed to fund Columbus’ voyages. When Fernando and Isabel were married, the large kingdoms of Castille and Aragón were united; with the conquest of Granada, all of Spain was united, but it came at quite a price for the people who had already been living in Andalucia. Just outside the Alcázar are the emblems of the crown of Castille, which are displayed in many places in Spain.