Friday, March 27, 2009

Ferdinand the Bull and the Reconquista--Ronda and Sevilla (March 25)

We began our morning with a very windy drive into the mountains to the town of Ronda, which is known as the capital of los pueblos blancos, “the white towns” that are nestled high in the Anadalusian hills.  It is an extraordinarily beautiful place, reminiscent of Tzefat, with crisp mountain air, winding streets, and charming houses.  Here, the buildings are all white-washed, with red terra cotta roofing.  A river divides the town into two parts, and it runs through a deep canyon, traversed by an elegant and very high old bridge.  Shops and cafes line the gorge.  This would be a wonderful place to come for a few weeks, to write and enjoy the scenic, relaxed pace of life.

We had about ninety minutes of free time in Ronda, which I used to hike down to the bottom of the gorge.  It was a lovely walk, through green chaparral, which reminded me of the California coast—full of flowering shrubs, especially yellow-blooming mimosa trees.  I descended as far as the ancient Arabic walls of the city, then took a few pictures looking back up toward the bridge and the stream that runs under it. 

I then returned to our designated meeting place, the bull ring in the central plaza of town.  It is the oldest in the country (and hence in the world), for bullfighting began in Ronda.  A large bronze statue of a bull stands outside.  Later, our guide explained the origins of the sport, which dates back to the 13th century.  During the Reconquista, as the Catholics sought to re-conquer Spain from the Moors, their armies trained by fighting against large, angry bulls.  The locals would flock to the training grounds, eager to witness this spectacle.  Thus the sport was born, and though the Reconquista came to an end in 1492, bull fighting’s popularity and pageantry continued to grow.  Today it remains immensely fashionable, with a season running from the weekend after Easter until mid-October. 

As we drove out of Ronda, our guide Fernando pointed out the cork trees scattered through the countryside.  The cork used for wine bottles comes from the bark, so the tree is stripped bare almost all the way up its trunk.  The farmers then paint the denuded tree with a protective anti-biotic.  It takes five years for the bark to grow back, whereupon it is re-harvested. 

Eyeing the cork trees immediately after leaving Ronda, the home of bullfighting, I thought of the book Ferdinand, which was one of my childhood favorites.  It tells the story of a young bull who refuses to join his peers in their macho fighting; Ferdinand prefers to sit beneath a cork tree and smell the flowers.  I thought to myself: Ferdinand could be a kind of symbol of the Golden Age in Spain, a time of peaceful co-existence between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  The violence of the Reconquista, symbolized by the sport of bullfighting that emerged from it, put an end to all of that.  The story of Ferdinand sitting beneath his cork tree itself recalls the time envisioned by the prophet Isaiah, when “every man shall sit beneath his vine and his fig tree, and none shall make him afraid.”  This story still gives me hope.

We arrived into Sevilla (Seville) on the main thoroughfare into the city, Kansas City Street.  Apparently, the two are sister cities, and Kansas City features a Seville Street (Andy and Lynn—you’ll have to confirm this for me.)    The outskirts of the city are shabby and dilapidated; our guide explained that this is typical of large European cities.  In America, the slums are usually in the inner city core; here, the heart of the city tends to be the beautiful old historic zone, and the public housing rings the city. 

Sevilla is home to over one million people, and it is known for its mujadar architecture, which is an Islamic aesthetic built under Christian sovereignty.  The central plaza is Cathedral Square, and it features the three primary powers of sixteenth century Spain: the Church (Santa Maria Cathedral), the monarchy (Royal Palace), and the economic barons (mercantile center and shops).  We toured the cathedral, which is the third-largest in the world, after St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London.

The cathedral is built directly over the foundation of a mosque; its bell tower was originally a minaret.  In 1401, the mosque was torn down by the conquering Catholics, and the church was built over the next two hundred years in high gothic style.  It is an ornate place, with a huge treasury of gold and ritual objects.  The main alter piece is composed of over 1500 figures carved from Lebanon cedars overlayed with gold.

It is a glorious space—but one wonders, looking up at the high ceilings, how many people were killed or crippled during the construction.  The beauty of this place was purchased dearly, and built on a foundation of blood.  The mindset is pretty foreign to me.  In my tradition, pikuah nefesh, the saving of life, takes precedence over nearly all the other commandments, so I can’t conceive of a Jewish building that would pay homage to God by sacrificing humanity.  As Heschel noted in The Sabbath, we seek holiness in study, and sacred deeds and times.

In the center of the cathedral, one finds the tomb of Christopher Columbus—or at least one of his tombs.  Columbus’s body was moved several times, from the Dominican Republic, where he died, to Cuba and then back to Spain.  Both Santo Domingo and Sevilla claim to possess Columbus’s remains; recent DNA testing suggests that they may have been divided, leaving both places partially right.

At any rate, Columbus’s tomb in the cathedral in Sevilla is a grandiose monument.  Four horsemen bear his body, which, by naval tradition, must not touch the ground.  The horseman on the front right has impaled, with his lance, a pomegranate with a crescent moon carved into its side, a symbol of Catholic hegemony over the Moors.  The church had no qualms about triumphalism in the sixteenth century.

Leaving the cathedral, just behind the royal palace, one enters Sevilla’s old Jewish quarter.  Today this is a funky, upscale neighborhood with narrow streets, handsome iron balconies, expensive homes and chic boutiques.  Eight hundred years ago, it was a lively Jewish center under the Moors.  The Catholics re-took Sevilla in 1248, but the Jewish quarter continued to thrive under Christian sovereignty for another one hundred and fifty years.  The proximity of the palace afforded the Jews protection, for they enjoyed the patronage of the royal family, for whom they performed significant financial services.  The Church prohibited Christians from lending to other Christians at interest, so the Jews became the bankers, a profitable but also perilous position to hold.

All of this changed in the summer of 1391, when a terrible pogrom broke out in Sevilla.  Undeterred by the Church and the Crown, Christian masses stormed the Jewish quarter, looting the synagogues, which were soon converted into churches.  Four thousand Jews were massacred and over five thousand more driven from their homes.  Hundreds—maybe thousands—were forcibly converted to Christianity.  Yet many of these conversos continued to secretly practice Judaism. 

As a result, “New Christians” were viewed with great suspicion by the rest of Spanish society.  With them in mind, Ferdinand and Isabella launched the infamous Spanish Inquisition in 1478. The notorious Grand Inquisitor, Tomas Torquemada, lived in Sevilla for many years, torturing and imprisoning scores of suspect conversos.  The first auto da fe occurred on February 6, 1481; six accused New Christians were burned at the stake for Jewish heresy.  Even the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews, eleven years later, did not halt the horrors of the Inquisition, which continued to hunt down and persecute accused conversos for centuries to come. 

Today, the former Jewish quarter is known as the Barrio de Santa Cruz, the Neighborhood of the Holy Cross.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow – what a fantastic article. I'm currently writing a travel guide to Muslim Spain, and there is a lot to be said about the interaction and coexistence between Muslims and Jews in al-Andalus. Thankyou for publishing the comments about bullfighting by your guide in Ronda, too – that's something I hadn't read before, but it makes perfect sense. It's like the Roman tradition of throwing Christians to the lions, but with a rather more favourable outcome for the Christians! Revenge...? Also the pomegranate on Columbus' tomb. My mother tells me that people suspect it doesn't even contain his body! Thanks again for taking the time to write, your reflections are a valuable reminder of the possibility of peace.