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The disappointments of a travelling history nerd

I generally plan my trips round things I want to see—and most of the time, what I want to see is historical. I can spend hours tracking down an obscure medieval gate or finding the few, sad ruined remnants of what was once a proud castle.

I have recently been travelling in Spain. Málaga, Alhambra, Córdoba and Sevilla – with the exception of Sevilla, new places, and I had a list as long as my arm of things I wanted to visit.

The Roman amphitheatre in Málaga, nestled against the Alcazaba

Málaga is one of the oldest cities in the world, assumed to have been colonised by the Phoenicians around 800 BC. Actually, the Phoenicians didn’t come to an empty country, and from the archaeological evidence, there had been people living in the vicinity of present day Málaga since we shared caves with cave bears. OK, OK, we NEVER shared caves with bears—that would have ended badly for us. Instead, we chased them off and took over (which, I was recently informed by second son, a veritable fount of knowledge about everything, is why the cave bears and cave lions died out – we stole their homes from them)

Anyway: the Phoenicians left their mark on Málaga in the form of very old wall foundations, precious gold jewellery and pottery of all sorts. Some centuries later, the Phoenicians had been eclipsed by the Punic empire. One of their colonies, Carthage, had sort of taken over the baton, and in Málaga the Punic period has left us with coins emblazoned with elephants, more gold, more pottery.

Then came Cato. Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam, he said at the end of every one of his speeches in the Roman Senate, which means “Furthermore, I believe Carthage must be destroyed.” You see, Rome was an emerging empire, and did not appreciate having to share the top-dog space with Carthage. Well, we know how that ended, don’t we? Despite Hannibal and his elephants, ultimately Carthage was defeated, its city torn down, its fields sown with salt and its inhabitants enslaved. They were quite thorough, the Romans, when it came to destruction.

Córdoba, with the Roman bridge spanning the Guadalquivir

So, now Málaga (and Córdoba, and Sevilla, which had also been colonised by the Carthaginians) became Roman cities. The region thrived. Olive oil, wine, grain were exported in such huge quantities to Rome, the saying is that all the amphorae used to transport this were crushed and became one more among Rome’s hills. Hmm. I somehow don’t think the Romans would break perfectly functioning amphorae.

In 45 BC, Julius Ceasar massacred more than 20 000 of Córdoba’s inhabitants because they were loyal to Pompey. Not good. But the Romans also brought aqueducts, spanned the large rivers with massive bridges, built roads that would outlast them by centuries and established the first irrigation systems. In Málaga, in Sevilla, Granada and Córdoba, the Roman remains are plentiful—but sometimes not that eye-catching. Like when hubby and I went in search of the Roman Theatre in Córdoba to find…erm…nothing, really. But the Roman bridge still stands, and in Málaga there is an amphitheatre that was discovered in the 1950s, and in Sevilla we saw the most magnificent mosaic floor. Plus, Málaga’s museum is full of pots and glassware, more mosaics, more statues.

The courtyard of San Salvador, Seville, where the present church was built on a mosque that was built on a Visigoth basilika

The Western Roman Empire collapsed around the end of the fifth century, very much due to the pressures of the Germanic tribes. One such Germanic tribe were the Visigoths, and they made a beeline for Spain. Well, maybe not a beeline, but by the sixth century, they were firmly in place in Spain, having effectively taken over existing Roman cities and made them theirs. The Visigoths embraced the new Christian religion and effectively adopted Roman administrative and legal practises.

I was rather fascinated to learn that Franco had a thing about the Visigoths. Why? Because he was eager to prove to his German allies that he—and the entire Spanish people—were descended from an Aryan people. So Franco promoted archaeological research into the Visigoth era and mandated that all museums should display Visigoth artefacts and instruct all their visitors as to the fact that ultimately all Spaniard were descended from this Germanic tribe. Umm. . .

Those of you who got hooked by the title of this post, are by now eagerly awaiting the disappointment. I mean, it can’t be that non-existent amphitheatre in Córdoba, can it? Nope. But we aren’t there yet, peeps. Instead, we are in 711, and the Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus storms across the world –including Iberia. For a short while, more or less all of Iberia was under their control and they even entered into France but were stopped at the Battle of Tours by Charles Martel.

Illustration, Song of Roland

A generation or so later, Charles Martel’s grandson Charlemagne rode into Spain to further expand his territories at the expense of the Muslims. He ended up besieging Zaragoza. Not an entirely successful venture, and after a month or so, he set off for home, detouring through the Basque country to reinforce his power. He did this by effectively razing Pamplona to the ground, and after further pillaging and destruction, he set off for France. The Basques were—rightfully so—incensed, and they followed the retreating French army and attacked the rearguard in Roncesvalles. Had it not been for the famous Roland and his paladins, Charlemagne would not have made it back to France alive. As it was, Roland and his men died but managed to hold of the Basques, thereby inspiring the famous Song of Roland, even if in this epic poem has Roland battling Moors, not Basques.

Anyway: with the Arabs came a new culture, a new language. There was never a majority of Muslims in Spain, and as long as the Christians paid the extra taxes imposed on them, they were more or less left to govern themselves in line with their own beliefs and laws. Well, to a point, of course. Many of the Christians adopted Arab customs. They dressed like their Muslim overlords, spoke Arabic as well as the various Romanesque dialects that were evolving based on Latin, they ate Arab food, became aficionados of bath houses and carpet covered floors. They called themselves Mozarabes – well, the Christians in the Christian kingdoms who held to Christian traditions in dress etc called them that, in a somewhat pejorative fashion.

Alhambra…
More Alhambra…

With the Muslims came art. Alhambra is an explosion of beauty, of elegant arches and courtyards bathed in sun and shadow. We spent hours gawking at one more beautiful thing than the other—ceilings, columns, exquisite plaster work, tiles . . . The Christians were quite taken with the Muslim style as well, and overtime a style called Mudéjar would evolve, resulting in graceful patios and houses in Moorish style  among the Christians as well.

…and some more Alhambra

Just how impressed the Christians were by Arab architecture can be seen in the Mezquita Cathedral of Córdoba. “Reconquered” in 1236 by Fernando III, Córdoba became a Christian city overnight, and the huge mosque was hey presto converted into a church—but without destroying the veritable forest of arches that still grace this space. In actual fact, the mosque was originally built on a Visigoth basilica, which was sin turn built atop the ruins of a Roman temple (or so one thinks). Talk about recycling, hey?

The Mezquita/Cathedral – a veritable forest of arches. Gorgeous!

And no, I am still not disappointed. In  fact, the Mezquita Cathedral of Córdoba, the palaces of Alhambra, the Alcazaba of Málaga  left me overwhelmed. Especially the mezquita.

But I had one thing I really, really wanted to see in Córdoba, namely the tombs of Fernado IV and Alfonso XI. Now, Fernando IV is one of those kings who died very young and is mostly remembered because of his death. He is called El desemplazado in Spanish, which means The Summoned, and to judge from his most unexpected death, he was, in fact, summoned by God to stand before him and explain why two innocent men had been executed by the king. You can read more about the Carvajal brothers’ sad fate and Fernando IV here.

Now, before Fernando died, he fathered a son, a mere babe in arms when his daddy was summoned upwards. Little Alfonso XI is known as the Avenger, because once he reached his majority, he exacted cruel vengeance on all those noblemen who had taken advantage of his minority to enrich themselves. Other than battling the Moors and ordering the construction of various magnificent buildings in Mudéjar style, he is also known for a VERY messy private life. Married to Maria of Portugal, he openly preferred his mistress, Leonor de Guzmán, and had like ten kids with her (but only two, one of which died in infancy, with poor Maria).

When Alfonso died—also relatively young, but not due to any divine summons, rather due to the Black Death—his legal heir was fifteen and backed by a bitter mother who wanted revenge on the woman who had stolen her husband. Plus, it was seriously destabilising for the kingdom to have one very young, trueborn heir, Pedro I, and an equally young but extremely ambitious bastard son of the defunct king with like six younger brothers… Civil war was to plague Castle for twenty years, with France backing Leonor’s eldest, Enrique de Trastámara,  England backing Pedro I, because obviously England had to back whoever France wasn’t backing, and Edward III and Pedro I were distantly related. You can read more about Alfonso and this whole Castilian soap opera here!

The surviving main gate to the monastery of San Hipolito, now a cultural centre

So, I was in Córdoba, where Fernando had once been buried in the Mezquita as his body was decomposing in the heat. Alfonso XI, who had plans to inaugurate a royal chapel in the Monastery of St Hippolyte of Córdoba, had also originally been buried in the Mezquita as there was no royal chapel ready at St Hippolyte. But I knew they had been moved in the 18th century, and so off I went in search of San Hipolito and, or so I assumed, two impressive royal tombs. I was disappointed. Very disappointed. Below, one of the  VERY discreet tombs.

Fernando IV’s tomb

But hey, I had a couple of other royal tombs on my list, namely those of Fernando III and Alfonso X. These two gents are buried in Sevilla, so I told myself to cheer up. Besides, I knew for a fact that these tombs were very, very impressive. From a Protestant perspective almost too impressive, but that’s what you get when you bury a conquering king who then becomes a saint like in Fernando III’s case.

Casa Salinas, Sevilla. That magnificent Roman mosaic floor was “rescued” from an old Roman villa

We arrived in Sevilla a tad exhausted. Even the history geeks among us have days when they experience a surfeit of history, and over the previous days, hubby and I had done history, history, history.  A good night’s sleep and we were ready for new adventures, and first on our list was the Alcázar of Sevilla. I forgot to mention that the Córdoba Alcázar was also a bit of a let-down, the hall once built by Alfonso XI hasn’t really survived.  That’s what happens when you turn a royal castle over to the Inquisition and allow them to turn the building into a prison…

Sevilla, Alcázar. One of the few remaining Moorish parts of the palace

The Sevilla Alcázar is NOT a let down. It is pretty wow, and even if I am not a fan of Pedro I, I have to thank the man for having ordered the building of the absolutely glorious palace in Mudéjar style. I especially loved that he had Arabic inscriptions here and there, inscriptions proclaiming that “all our strength comes from Allah”. Pedro knew Arabic, so I imagine he chuckled as he studied the beautiful calligraphy. Just like that, this embattled, bloodthirsty king suddenly acquired a sense of humor!

The facade of Pedro’s palace
The throne room in Pedro’s palace

After the Alcázar came the cathedral. I had been there before, but at the time I was travelling with my mother who was not at all interested in Spanish medieval kings, but very much in the impressive paintings by Zurbarán and Murillo. And, of course, she wanted to see Christofer Columbus’ grave.

Sevilla’s cathedral is the world’s largest gothic cathedral, and it is absolutely amazing. Just like in Córdoba, it is built where the mosque once stood, but in difference to Córdoba, in Sevilla the mosque was torn down and replaced by this gigantic church. What remains of the mosque is the bell tower, the Giralda, and the huge courtyard, El Patio de los Naranjos. I always find the sheer pomp and circumstance of Catholic churches a bit much: all that gold, all that silver, all the side chapels with saints and more gold, more silver . . .

La Giralda, soaring above El Patio de Los Naranjos

It always makes me reflect on the fact that Spain actually became poorer after “discovering” the New World. Despite hauling back tons and tons of silver and gold, their economy floundered. Partly because the by now very rigid Catholic kings – think Felipe II  – had exiled all the Moriscos, thereby depriving the country of generations of skilled craftsmen. To work all that gold with which to adorn the churches, it had to be sent to Flanders or Italy, and bought back by even more gold. Imagine if the Spanish had used the proceeds of their gold to instead finance some sort of industry! Instead, we have altars dripping in gold and silver.

Anyway: back to the Cathedral of Sevilla and my date with Fernando III and Alfonso X. IT DIDN’T HAPPEN! The Royal Chapel was closed due to the approaching Holy Week festivities, so I never got to see Fernando’s silver resting place, or that of his wife and son. Yet again, I was disappointed. I comforted myself by reminding myself that the present royal chapel is not the original. Fernando and Alfonso were buried before the mosque was torn down to be replaced by the new cathedral, and for quite some time their remains lay waiting elsewhere before they were transferred back to the somewhat garish explosion in red and silver that is the Royal Chapel. I suspect they would be less than pleased with all that baroque pomp, likely longing for the grace and simplicity of Mudéjar craftsmanship.

In conclusion, though, my seven days in Spain were filled with one wonder after the other. The “aha” moments significantly outweighed any disappointments, and while I do think both Fernando IV and Alfonso XI could have done with somewhat more impressive monuments, I suspect neither of them care.

4 thoughts on “The disappointments of a travelling history nerd”

  1. How fascinating, Anna! It makes me want to go and visit, too, though not anywhere near the Spanish holidays!

    It’s such a diverse history, and your post goes a long way in explaining why there is still such a continued focus on Visigoth artefacts & history in Spanish museums. Although for all the wrong reasons, I’m pleased the otherwise overlooked people got some attention.
    I know the era of Charlemagne’s exploits in the area well, and I incorporated the escape from Roncesvalles in one of my books. It was fascinating to read up about it. How close they came to failure, and I think it was a vital lesson in pride coming before a fall!
    Thank you for sharing your experiences and your wonderful photos. Maybe I should return to Andalucia soon…

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