Semana Santa and an Empire Destroyed

The Moor’s last sigh: lost treasures of a real civilization

This Easter I finally made it to Andalusia, Southern Spain to see the Santa Semana week of Easter celebrations in Sevilla. I was curious to see how much similarity it might still bear to the holy week in Larantuka, East Flores where a 450 year old secret confreria still carries out their penitence with deep, faithful devotion.

Sure enough the same scary hoods were still in use (where am I? In deep Mississipi about to be lynched? How did the KKK manage to ‘acquire’ that garb? Love to know the history of that fashion transfer!). But many penintents were accompanied by their plain clothes relatives or friends, so there was hardly any anonymity.

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Seems like it has become almost a show, and there are tons of tourists of course. But at various moments there was still a sense of the sacred, though curiously not as intense as in Flores where it is ostensibly secondhand. One particular highlight was when a spectator on one ot the balconies of the narrow streets of Sevilla burst out into song, serenading Jesus as the float inched by below. And little children in religious garb handing out candies and illustrated cards of Christ do sweeten the image.

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Besides the Santa Semana, Sevilla does have a right to brag : the cathedral is the third largest in Europe (the world perhaps?) and spectacular. It has the biggest wind organ I have ever seen, and also Christopher Columbus’ remains are still there (they never did make it to Havana).. If you go do climb the bell tower – great views, and the Alcazar palace opposite is worth visiting. Though built by a Christian king, he had Moorish architects and workers build it. Beautiful gardens!

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But it isn’t until one gets to Cordoba and checks out the “Mezquita”, the huge mosque built in the heydays of the Moorish empire in Spain, that one gets a true sense of the tremendous loss that the Catholics incurred on Spain’s civilization. This extraordinary building, with its huge space filled with seemingly endless, minutely detailed arches, has had its central core ravaged. Charles V had a hole punched through the roof and built a church in the middle of it. Though it was the kind of thing that went on both sides of the Muslim Christian divide (think Aya Sofia in Istanbul etc), here it is particularly symbolic.

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Cordoba for a while was the center of the Moorish empire of Spain; independent of the rest of the Arab world – tolerance, science and the arts flourished here. The Jewish quarter abutted on to the area around the Mosque; Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in harmony. The great sufi thinker Averroes was born and lived here. Today, Muslim tourists come to visit – semi veiled women gazing at Christian saints that have been placed in what was once the most famous mosque in all of western Europe.

But Spain seems to have a history of dreadful bloodshed too. Up in Ronda (the drive up through the mountains  is half the fun!)  the deep gorge that divides the town so dramatically into two was the setting for the famous scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls where the enemy chucks innocents off the cliff face. Apparently in real life it happened too. And to be fair it seemed like everyone was doing it: Moors, Catholics, Fascists, and moviemakers. Fortunately nowadays there is a soaring bridge that spans the gap.

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But I have to say the Easter parades in Ronda were a lot more fun and less scary than in Sevilla. No pointy hoods, and the girls (yep) carrying the Virgin Mary float were dancing away to the music. A much smaller, more community like affair. And a surprising percentage of the houses here have plaques on them declaring them to be the birthplace of poets, musicians, and even one recently canonized saint, Angela de la Cruz.

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The crowning glory on the trail of the Moorish empire is of course the Alhambra in Granada. The extensive gardens, the dramatic hill top setting, the incredible play of space and light, the filigree-like detail of the Nazarene Palace all point to a level of civilization unprecedented in the Western Hemisphere. A small but important detail that one almost overlooks when walking for hours through all the gardens and palaces: there is clear, fast flowing water running through the whole place. This is on a hilltop, and it is all gravity fed, centuries old. It feeds pools and fountains, and adds to the uplifting experience as one wanders, dazzled, from room to room in the Nazarene palace, the highlight of the Alhambra. One catches glimpses through finely latticed arches of the Albaicyn, the old Arab town now getting a second life with tourism.

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Yet at the same time it is hard to avoid feeling sadness at the huge loss here. After the Catholic kings of Spain brought Granada to its knees, the last Emperor struck a deal in order to save the lives of his subjects. His people were to be allowed to stay or leave as they please, and continue their religious practices in exchange for surrendering the city. The valley and mountain sides of the barren Apujarras, behind the Sierra Nevada were given to them. These exilees soon turned the desert into blossom with their irrigation skills and knowledge. Others saw what was coming, many Jews and Muslims alike fled to Morrocco.

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To their credit, the kings kept their promise. Baobdil the Moorish emperor left the city for Morocco unharmed. On a hill top pass he turned around to look at his lost city for the last time. The spot is still marked today on the highway with a sign: The Moor’s Last Sigh. His mother, perhaps a little less sentimental, is said to have chastised him: “Don’t cry like a woman over the kingdom that you couldn’t defend like a man…” Ouch Mum. He only saved thousands and thousands of lives…

But the huge loss I am talking about came later, with the next generation of Catholic kings. They reneged on their promise (surprise…) . Jews and Muslims alike were persecuted. The Apujarras were wrested back, the Moorish inhabitants slaughtered once again – many were thrown into a gorge near the ancient bridge to their valley.

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(Got a real penchant for chucking people of cliffs these Spaniards) Our guide that day, a tall Canadian by the name of Jim, showed us the bridge in the drizzling, cold rain. But as if that wasn’t cruel enough, in each village one Moorish family was kept alive in order to teach the newly arrived Christian transmigrants how to use the irrigation systems. How would you feel?

But all other knowledge was soon destroyed. Just recently a group of Spanish intellectuals protested in the main square in Granada at the 500th anniversary of the burning of all the books of the extensive Moorish libraries. And they were right to protest this colossal act of stupidity. Many of the books were in fact records and translations of the most important philosophers and thinkers of the western world, beginning with Aristotle and up. And there was a wealth of scientific knowledge that was torched as well.

In fact this whole moment of Catholic paranoia in Spanish (European really) history, much of which started with Charles V, was probably the single defining moment of the decline of the Spanish empire. Even the wealth that the conquistadores sucked out of the Americas was soon wasted on futile efforts to keep protestants in England and the rest of Europe at bay. Meanwhile the silliest details of history: Inquisition era Catholics who feared to bathe in case they should be mistaken for Jews or Muslims, and a huge increase in pork consumption for supposedly the same reason!

Europe was hugely affected by the Moors. Music, science, art – all benefited. Imagine maths without a zero? Musical notes without defining rhythm (I always fall asleep when I listen to Stockhausen, so I don’t). What would the Western world be like if the Inquisition hadn’t happened?

I can only look back and sigh at this point.

4 Responses to “Semana Santa and an Empire Destroyed”

  1. Topics about America » Archive » Santa Semana and an Empire Destroyed

    […] Rio Blogs put an intriguing blog post on Santa Semana and an Empire DestroyedHere’s a quick excerptThe Moor’s last sigh: lost treasures of real civilization This Easter I finally made it to Andalusia, Southern Spain to see the Santa Semana week of Easter celebrations in Sevilla. I was curious to see how much similarity it might still bear to the holy week in Larantuka, East Flores where a 450 year old secret confreria still carries out their penitence with deep, faithful devotion. Sure enough the same scary hoods were still in use (where am I? In deep Mississipi about to be lynched? How […]

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  2. Topics about Arab » Santa Semana and an Empire Destroyed

    […] Rio Blogs added an interesting post today on Santa Semana and an Empire DestroyedHere’s a small readingThe Moor’s last sigh: lost treasures of a real civilization This Easter I finally made it to Andalusia, Southern Spain to see the Santa Semana week of Easter celebrations in Sevilla. I was curious to see how much similarity it might still bear to the holy week in Larantuka, East Flores where a 450 year old secret confreria still carries out their penitence with deep, faithful devotion. Sure enough the same scary hoods were still in use (where am I? In deep Mississipi about to be lynched? Ho […]

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