I intended to only let a few days pass between my postings covering my recent trip to Spain, but life happened—specifically trips to a couple of Washingtons (DC and state), a newsletter deadline and oh yea, I think I did laundry a time or two in there. Let’s see if I can recapture a Spanish state of mind . . .
Leaving Madrid, we headed south through the province of La Mancha. We didn’t meet up with Don Quixote, but we certainly saw his windmills. Interspersed among the antique structures were modern wind turbines, a major source of power on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). As we drove across the flat plains completely encircled by mountains, I was reminded of California’s Central Valley. The only thing missing was large-scale agriculture. The weather conditions seemed right for it, but we were told their soil is of very poor quality in this region. No wonder poor Don had so much time on his hands.
Our first overnight destination was Granada, home of the Alhambra Palace, the most extraordinary example of Moorish architecture in the world. Thanks to a nearby cruise ship port of call (Cadiz), I had visited here twice in the 1990s, but my interest then was purely architectural. This time, our local guide presented the amazing structure in its historical and cultural context. It was only more beautiful from this perspective.
Painting with an extremely broad brush and compacting centuries of history into a few sentences, the Moors, the ancestors of those we call Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims today, were in cultural, artistic, political, military and/or religious control of the Peninsula from about 711 to 1492. After that, Catholic Christians came into power, and the Moors were pushed to the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean Ocean where they still remain in large part. Today, Spain has a more or less democratic form of government and the Catholic Church remains as the dominant religion.
For hundreds of years, the Moors built their grand public buildings and houses of worship along the major thoroughfares and in the city centers, and they built them in their preferred architectural styles—just like we still do today. When the Catholics began to arrive in the 13ththrough 15th centuries, they had a challenge on their hands. Great mosques, often centuries old, had the best addresses. What to do?
Some mosques were taken down and grand new cathedrals and churches were erected on their footprint. Other times, the mosque was converted to better accommodate the newly-arrived Christian faith. Usually these conversions were rather large-scale, leaving very little of the original spiritual and artistic fabric intact. Then there is the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, locally called simply “the Mezquita” (Spanish for mosque).
If you know me, you also know I am extremely religions. In addition to this, I love the study of religions, all the more so when they seemingly conflict with my own beliefs. Rather than becoming offended or defensive, however, I usually walk away with the comfort of knowing God is the author of all these expressions, and I’m the better for having learned about the new path. My secondary education is largely in fine arts and architecture. I love to explore how the built and decorated world mirrors a peoples’ belief about things both earthly and eternal. I hit the jackpot in Cordoba.
The Mezquita was built between 786 and 988 on the site of a former monastery and an ancient Roman temple before that. It was and remains one of the largest mosques ever constructed and, despite its conversion to a Christian house of worship nearly 800 years ago, is considered THE most important Muslim monument in the western world. When a Catholic ruler conquered the city in 1236, over two centuries prior to the complete Christian domination of the Peninsula, the Mezquita was christened a cathedral.
The rest of the story is the stuff of both history and legend. Perhaps the new king, Fernando III of Castile, was inspired by the beauty of the building, or maybe he was just broke and/or tired after years of fighting. But whatever the case, the decision was made not to tear down the mosque, but to minimally retrofit the building for Catholic purposes. (By the way, the name was officially changed to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Madre de Dios at the time, still its official name, but one that’s never stuck. It was amazing to overhear someone say, “I’m going to mass at noon at the Mezquita.”)
Some years later, a zealous bishop wanted to impose a little more Christianity on the ancient edifice. He did so by going to the middle of the huge worship space and simply pushing up the roof. Natural light was then allowed to flood in and illuminate the lavish new altar and carved wooden choir, one of the largest in Europe, and safely the most elaborate one I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been in too many European cathedrals to count)! Amazingly, he left everything else unchanged, including the Portada Mihrab, the “altar” at the head of the Muslim worship space. Today, Muslims continue to visit this holy place to pray . . . and they are welcomed and encouraged to do so. Our world could learn a lot from these people of faith in this antique city—a lot about hospitality, peace, cooperation and, dare I say, the way God intends for God’s children to live and interact.
OK, I know words on paper are pretty black and white . . . and boring! Please take a moment to Google the Mezquita, or visit the city’s official English website at www.infocordoba.com and follow the Mosque link. Any trip to Spain would be incomplete without a visit to this grand building, despite your religion or lack thereof. It was and remains absolutely amazing, both an architectural and spiritual wonder of the world.
This is running long, so I’ll quickly recap a few more incredible experiences. We learned the history of Flamenco dancing and enjoyed two performances. Who knew the energetic, often-erotic dance was born of cave-dwelling gypsies centuries ago? We visited a 200+ year old olive oil “factory” and even participated in an oil tasting. They take their oil as seriously as a Napa vintner takes his wine. They also liked to boast the fact it was Spain, not Italy, which began the commercial olive oil industry, today satisfying some 80% of the world’s consumption. And in the cathedral in Sevilla, I saw Christopher Columbus’ tomb—one of three churches in the world who boast to have his earthly remains.
Sadly, I didn’t get to see a real bullfight (thought the gruesome spectacle may truly be something best left unseen) or Barcelona (the Icelandic ash cloud made the flight impossible). Oh well, this just gives me a few reasons for my next visit. Sports Leisure travelers, please note: Look for a Spanish vacation in our 2012 tour catalogue. Ole!