Tuesday, January 13
Busy, busy day. A tour bus delivers us to the ruins of Medina Al Azahara (one of myriad spellings!) which are located just minutes outside of the city. Our tour guide, provided by a large agency, knows her history, is passionate about the restoration, and eager to share her knowledge. Her English is, well, lamentable. We can piece together the story and the space in part because of the time spent at the Alhambra: there are the baths, there’s the guards’ quarters, there are the pools and gardens, the latrines…. But much of the story is lost. And what a story it is!
The Omeya ruler, Abderraman (Spanish spelling of his name) the Third (912-961), the Caliph of the newly created, independent Western caliphate – one of the most powerful and wealthy kingdoms in Medieval Europe, had the palace-city built in 936-40 as a symbol of his power and wealth (and perhaps, as a tribute to his favorite, “Azahara”). The location is ideal: the city backed up against the Sierra Morena mountains in the bend of the Guadalquivir River. No expenses were spared.
The city survived only 80 years. Abderraman, who had over 25 children, was followed by his son Al Hakam II, who had only two children, and who died when his heir was a child – perhaps 9 or 11 years old. Al Hakam’s wife was supposedly a concubine/ Christian slave from the north of Spain, who served as regent after his death, and who allied herself with Almanzor, a powerful general and, perhaps, her lover. Almanzor successfully marginalized the true Califa, and positioned his own son as heir to the caliphate… Civil war eventually ensued, and Medina Al Azhara was burned to the ground (very short version of a long, fascinating story).
In the afternoon we walk through the old Jewish sector and into the cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption.
The actual site of the cathedral has long been a sacred place: first, a Roman temple dedicated to Janus, then a Visigothic church dedicated to St. Vincente de Zaragoza. The Moors placed a mosque on the site in the 8th century, and the Christians built the cathedral inside of the mosque in the 13th century.
The mosque, the “Mezquita,” was constructed to rival the great mosques of Damascus and Badgad; its interior contained 1293 columns (now 856) that evoke palm trees and tents in the Arabian desert. It was the largest and most important Muslim monument in the West.
One reading of the building within a building is the familiar story of conquest, destruction, and replacement; I compared it to Mexico City while walking through the columns with students. It’s what humans do: undo and redo; destroy the infidel and raise a monument on his grave. But in this case, the mosque remains, scarred, defamed, and its violation, meant as a powerful sign of the power and righteousness of the Church, makes the visitor uncomfortable, even angry. We squint our eyes, step from one column to another, trying to block out the gothic architecture and imagine what it was like before the reconquest.
We’re not done! We have tickets to a flamenco show in the old Jewish quarter of town – a show that begins at 10:00 p.m. (if you know me, you know that’s just about my bedtime). The venue is tiny, a couple of rooms of a restored Arab bath. We sit crowded in wooden chairs in front of small stage, and are absolutely transfixed for an hour and a half. The guitar, the dancing, and singing… all top-notch. Hmmm. Think we may have convinced a couple of students to add a Spanish major to their studies….