Andalucia Travelogue

exploring the landscape of co-Existence

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Sevilla, June 25-28

Sevilla was our first stop on our travels through Andalucia, the heart of La Convivencia. We immediately fell in love with this beautiful city, which reflects the wealth and power that accrued to the city during the Spanish exploration of the New World.

The story of Seville is defined in art, architecture, and iconography by King Ferdinand III’s capture of the city from Muslim Rule in 1248. There are symbols of the Christian “reconquest” of Seville and Spain all over the city, from depictions at the Plaza de Espana, to the very weathervane on top of the Giralda bell tower of the Cathedral. We noted how these reminded us of statues of the Confederacy or depictions of Native Americans in the States. However, our tour guide assured us that they were not controversial and that they were busier erasing the traces of the dictatorship of General Franco than images of the reconquest. There are powerful and complicated histories everywhere of cultural appropriation, colonialism (hello Columbus!—we saw his impressive tomb in the cathedral), and what my father-in-law described as “a rich history of bloodshed and ethnic cleansing” both in Spain and the New World. By the time Columbus set sail in 1492, the last Moorish kingdom of Granada had fallen, the Inquisition was in full swing, and the Jews were expelled from the Iberian peninsula.

On Wednesday we visited Santa Maria de Blanca, a church that used to be a synagogue. I was delighted that we arrived during the mass, just as people were receiving communion, but the rest of the family was less interested. I turned around and everyone had ghosted me but Jenny. Jenny and I laughed when after communion the priest led everyone in singing happy birthday, "feliz cumpleaños,” to one of the members. There were no traces of its former incarnation as a synagogue, but in Jewish areas there are small signs “Caminos de Sefarad” as an acknowledgement of the Jewish history of these places and neighborhoods. We would see these markers again in Cordoba.

Along with the incredible cathedral, the third largest in Christendom, and truly stunning, we visited the Real Alcazar, a royal palace, originally built by the Moors and then expanded by the Christian monarchs (and the setting for the Kingdom of Dorn in Game of Thrones). Inside the palace was a building commissioned by King Pedro I in 1364, which features Mudejar architecture, which was developed by the Muslims living in Christian Spain after the reconquest. Pedro was known to be fair to Jews and Muslims—monarchs immediately following the reconquest were more tolerant than their successors—and the building incorporates Muslim, Christian, and Jewish influences. Like much of the architecture in Seville, it reflects the intertwined history, culture, religion, and influence of the monotheistic traditions that once lived side-by-side here. It struck me that our family is built on the same kind of architecture, incorporating a varieties of cultures, religions, and experiences.


Cordoba, June 28-July 1

“Time stood still in Cordoba.” That’s how our tour guide, Isabel, described the difference between Seville and Cordoba, as she led us through the Mezquita and the streets of the Jewish Quarter. Following the reconquest of Seville, that city turned its attention to exploration of the New World. Not so for Cordoba. For Cordoba, even now, it is the past, rather than the present or future, that defines it. In many ways, it remains much closer and more dependent (tourism, including a lot of Muslim tourism) on its Moorish heritage than Seville.

Cordoba was reconquered on June 29, 1236, a date which marked the end of Cordoba’s golden age and subsequent decline. We happened to be in Cordoba for the 783rd anniversary of that date. Under the Umayyad Caliphate (dynasty), Cordoba became the capital and crown jewel of Al-Andalus, the name for Moorish kingdom, which encompassed nearly the entire Iberian peninsula, and root of the name for this region, Andalucia. In its heyday, it was the largest and most sophisticated city in all of Europe.

The heart of Cordoba then and now is the breathtaking Mezquita, which began life as a mosque in 786 and was subsequently expanded three more times. After the reconquest it was consecrated as a church and then in 1533 a cathedral was built in the middle of the mosque. The first mosque took 2 years to build. The cathedral took 250 years. The mosque area defined by row upon row of red and white arches. I actually visited it twice, once in the morning with our tour guide and once later in the evening by myself. The contrast and integration between the gothic/baroque cathedral and the red and white arches was stunning. I loved the mosque areas the best, especially the oldest section. The columns and arches seemed to run on forever and the effect of the columns and arches changes as one walks. The combination of lower and higher arches gave me a feeling of the simultaneous immanence and transcendence of God.

Cordoba is home to one of only three medieval-era synagogues in Spain. We will see the other two in Toledo. It is a small, private family synagogue, which miraculously survived, when the Christians who took over the house after the Jewish pogroms of 1391 merely plastered over the original carvings, which were discovered and preserved later. Later, Jenny and I visited the Casa de Sefarad, a museum which chronicles the history of Sephardic Jews, who were the victims of pogroms in Andalucia in 1391, forced conversions, persecuted under the Spanish Inquisition, and finally expelled from the peninsula.


Grenada, July 1-4

The Kingdom of Grenada was the last Moorish kingdom to fall on the Iberian peninsula in 1492, and the ethos of the city reflects the longer and more developed history.

On our first full day, we toured the Alhambra, which is mainly composed of a 9th century fort, which was built on Roman ruins, a beautiful 14th century Muslim palace, the Generalife gardens and summer palace, and the palace of Charles V (aka Carlos V in Spain), the Holy Roman Emperor in the 16th century and grandson of Ferdinand and Isabela.

After an afternoon siesta, which we have become quite good at, we visited the Royal Chapel that holds the remain of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela, who oversaw the reconquest of Spain and exploration of the New World.

In the evening we did a tapas tour led by a local guide and sampled some typical Granadan tapas. One of the stops on our visit was the oldest bar in Grenada, dating from 1922. Food has been a big part of our experience on this trip. With four hungry kids we stop and eat a lot. We ate typical Portuguese dish when we were in Portugal. We have eaten a ton of tapas across Andalucia. In Cordoba and Grenada, we also stopped at some Arabic restaurants and cafes. As I have learned over the years, kids’ experiences are powerfully shaped by food. It has certainly been the case for us on this trip.

On our second full day, we walked through the Albaicin, the historic Muslim quarter. After taking in the view of the Alhambra from the Mirador San Nicolas, we visited the first mosque to be built in Grenada in 600 years, in 2003. There were once 20 mosques in the Albaicin, but they were destroyed and churches were built in their place. Today 8% of Granada is Muslim and there are 2 million Muslims in Spain altogether.

We wound our way down the steep streets of the Albaicin and walked right into the Arab market where we stopped for Arab lemonade, shopped for keepsakes and souvenirs—the stores are filled with decorative lamps, lush fabrics, handworked leather, and tile typical of Granada and Andalucia.


Toledo July 4-6

Toledo was the perfect place to sum up our explorations of La Convivencia. It is a wonderfully preserved medieval town—the entire old city is designated as a heritage site. On the first day we took trolley tour that transported us out the town, across the surrounding river, and to a viewpoint where we could appreciate how well-preserved and beautiful the old city is. One can imagine, while standing there, the medieval skyline of the town.

Toledo represented for us the fullest expression of La Convivencia. It is home to the primary Cathedral of Spain, which was spectacular. It is also houses two of the three remaining synagogues in Spain. We visited the other one in Cordoba earlier on our trip. Whereas the synagogue in Cordoba was like a private family chapel, these were large synagogues that speak of the size of the Jewish community in Toledo during the medieval period. It was profound to visit these with our entire family.

The synagogues…

We also visited a small medieval mosque that was converted to a church, and now a cultural monument.

On our final morning Jenny and I attended the daily Hispanio-Mozarabe worship service in the Mozarabe Chapel at the Toledo Cathedral. It is a worship service drawn from the Visigothic period (roughly 5th-7th centuries) in Spain and what Christians used during Muslim rule. All in Latin, beautiful chant, only one other person in attendance, the cathedral was still closed to tourists. It was a great way to wrap up our visit.

Toledo was an epicenter of translation and intellectual life in the middle ages….