I met a Portuguese archaeologist over Salmorejo (chilled tomato and olive oil soup) in an atmospheric bar with lots of bullfighting paraphernalia in Cordoba. His expertise was in making sure building renovation projects did not destroy national heritage, a job with much possibility in Europe (especially in Iberia) where layer upon layer of history are laid on top of each other! In the last few days, I have been immersed in this history and learn something new each day. I arrived in Spain last week to start a two month visiting researcher residency in the University of Seville. I have been in Seville once before (in the middle of the summer!), but I stayed just for a night before going to Portugal. I left intrigued and eager to spend more time here. So I’m very grateful for this chance to be able to live and research here for this time.
I arrived in Madrid on the weekend and stayed at a nice hostel in the middle of the city. It was rainy and I was jet lagged and decided to grab a coffee and hit a museum. I wanted to the save the world famous Prado for when I was more focused and decided to visit the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. In the last year, I’ve become obsessed with museums and as usual I spent about 6 hours of none-stop exploration at the thought-provoking galleries. I’ve been recently reading Paulo Frier’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and the surprisingly a series of exhibits were about revolutionary teaching methods and revolution and its relationship to knowledge. Of course, the most famous piece at the museum (and justifiably so) is Picasso’s Guernica, a magnificent work. After hanging out with Miro, Duchamp and Picasso, I went for a walk around Madrid and went through a couple of small markets where families and the young party crowd share space on communal tapa-tasteing tables. The next day, I took the fast train from Madrid to Seville and met with my colleague and friend who has kindly arranged my stay and even picked up groceries for me so that I wouldn’t be hungry over the sunday (when a lot of grocery stores close). I will be staying at a nice, spacious villa in a village near Seville. These villages were built by Romans to escape Seville’s heat in the summer and have higher elevations. The village I’m staying at, La Valencina de la Concepcion, which is about 6 kilometres from Sevilla, is deliciously non-touristy and authentic. The streets are full of orange trees and there’s a large lemon tree in my backyard. In the evening, I went for a short walk and saw local boys on horseback going to pick up groceries! In the mornings, I take a bus to Seville’s main station from where it’s a pleasant bicycle ride along the river to the university. At the university, everybody is very friendly and welcoming. I eat lunch at the school cafeteria where nice two course meals can be had for less than 5 euros (the cafeteria also has the best cafe con leche which is served by an energetic and humours barrister). Seville is an amazing city with a long history and a lot of character. One day when I was walking back from work, I decided to cross the river and visit the historic Triana, a famous neighbourhood known as the birthplace of flamenco, and walking through its narrow streets suddenly passed a window where the beautiful voice of a singer was accompanied by guitars and claps. I stood there transfixed and listened to the beautiful song they were rehearsing. I love flamenco, it’s passion, it’s raw energy, it’s simultaneous restraint and expression! I can’t wait to hear more of this music of “hope and despair” (in Lorca’s words). Here and here are a few of my favourite songs at the moment! (I’m planning to write more on Seville in future posts). So back to Cordoba! I decided to visit this historic city over a weekend. It is very close to Seville with the train and once there, the best way to see it is to get lost in the neighbourhoods. If you close your eyes, you almost feel like you are in medieval times! As I arrived at the hostel, which was very close to the famous mosque-cathedral Mesquite, suddenly there was the sound of Muslim call to prayers. It was beautiful to hear and reminded me of visiting Morocco last year. The arts and crafts in Andalusia have a lot in common with Moroccan art and the cultural interchange can be felt in everything from food to music. My favourite activity in Cordoba is getting lost in the varied and atmospheric barrios (neighbourhoods) and imagine myself in a different world of many centuries ago. This is easy to do as many restaurants and shops play atmospheric flamenco, Sephardic (Jewish) and Andalusian music that adds a lot to the atmosphere. The jewel of Cordoba is the Mezquita (Great Mosque), one of the largest mosques in the world, that was transformed into a cathedral in the 16th century after the Christian reconquest. I arrived there early in the chilly morning to avoid tour groups that are not allowed in until 10:30. As I entered, through the beautiful Patio de Los Naranjos, a small courtyard full of orange trees, I felt myself transported to many centuries ago, when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived here together. The Mosque/Cathedral was dimly lit with many small candle-like lights and an organ was playing beautiful atmospheric music. This building is very large and I could imagine large mass prayers being held here. The structure is supported by a large number (856 to be exact) of pillars that are coloured in a unique pattern that has become famous in postcards and posters of Cordoba. I believe the pillars are meant to resemble palm trees in a promised land. The site of Mezquita has been home to Roman and early Christian temples before being turned into the mosque in 785. Cordoba was the first stronghold of the Moor (Muslim) rulers, before their centre of power moved to Seville in the 11th century and finally to Granada before being defeated completely in 1492 by Christian forces from the north. The Mezquita building was so magnificent that the Christian rulers, despite converting it back to church when they captured Cordoba in 1236, did not destroy it. In 1271, however, they decided to modify it and built a church in the middle of the mosque destroying the central area in the process. King Carlos I, who gave the order of building the cathedral, was remorseful when construction was finished and famously said, “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world”. I spent some time walking around the building in a meditative mood and thinking of all the persecuted people of the world. I was especially moved when I saw that a lot of the work was done by Syrian artists. I felt pain in the thought that still in many parts of the world persecution and murder because of differences in belief or ways of life goes on; something that has been with us since time immemorial. The Mihrab, which is the main prayer point and faces Mecca, is especially impressive. It is made of detailed mosaics inlaid with floral patterns and Koranic inscriptions laid in gold by Syrian masters who were sent to the Sultan Hakim II by the emperor of Byzantium, in the 10th century. Upon exiting the mosque-cathedral, I went up the bell-tower (former minaret or prayer call tower) for a fabulous view of the city including the Roman bridge that connects the two sides of the river. I continued exploring Cordoba further, visiting the famed Plaza de la Corredera, which was the sight of gladiator fights and inquisition burnings before turning into a peaceful square with cafes and restaurant (including one called Ali Kebab, I guess the Muslim influence is coming back!), the Muse de Bellas Arte and Plaza del Potro, a former horse trading plaza. Another highlight of Cordoba for me was the fantastic Posada del Potro, a former inn turned flamenco museum, made famous by Cervantes in Don Quixote. Here, you can imagine the scene from the amazing Spanish novel where Sancho Panza is being thrown up and down by playful and mischievous travellers on a big sheet! The flamenco museum is very nice with historical short films being shown and interactive systems where you can try your hand at keeping rhythm with different flamenco forms. After visiting these sights, I went to grab a bite to eat in a tavern where old servers poured house made wine from barrels and this is where I met the Portuguese archeologist. With him we decided to explore the former Jewish area. After the reconquest both Muslims and Jews had a hard time in Cordoba and many had to convert (or pretend to convert) to Christianity. This conversion, however, was a temporary solution as eventually all Muslims and Jews (converted or otherwise) were expelled. This sad history gave context to visiting the old Synagogue and Jewish area where a small museum describes the history of the Jewish people in Cordoba, with focus on famous Jewish women, Maimonides (an important and controversial Jewish polymath) and the Inquisition. I tried to practice my Spanish by joining a Spanish tour, eventually giving up and almost wanting to leave, when suddenly the young and charismatic tour guide started to sing heartfelt Jewish songs in the small courtyard of the museum. This was a beautiful, magical and sad moment as many of these songs are songs of loneliness and exile. I feel in the end it is not about who did what but about what we do now: remembering our collective past should make us more loving, tolerant and compassionate beings (rather than revengeful or angry). With those haunting melodies in my head, I left Cordoba appreciating of life, its joyful moments, its moments of peace, moments of love and compassion.