Tag Archives: Moors

A Room with a View (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post from Martin of the S&M Motel.  Thank-you Martin!  This is Martin’s second guest post on DreamBigLiveBoldly.com.  If you’d like to be a guest contributor, please contact me.

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There’s a niche in the corner of King Charles’ palace in Alhambra, Spain, where you can look across an 800 year old building void, through some Moorish lattice work, into another world.

Alhambra, (Arabic meaning ‘The Red’) sits on a hilltop overlooking modern Granada in south-eastern Spain. This famous city fortress palace has a thought provoking history.

In 312 AD Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity throughout the Roman Empire (i.e. most of present day Europe). By 390 AD Christianity was the only religion permitted in the empire. However, the 1000 year old empire could no longer sustain itself against external attack and internal decay.  In 476 the last Roman emperor sold his title and moved to his retirement home in what is now Split in Croatia.

The collapse of the Roman Empire left much of Western Europe without education, civil construction projects, employment, economic activity, law enforcement and, crucially, defence against attack.

One hundred years later, the tide of Islam that had been sweeping through northern Africa crossed the straits of Gibraltar into a vulnerable Spain. The invaders were ‘Moors’, relatively recently converted Muslim tribes from north Africa . They quickly occupied virtually all of Spain and stayed in charge for 700 years.

Alhambra architecture reflected in rectangular pool

In about 1250 the Moors began to build the fabulous fortified palace, Alhambra. For 200 years the palace grew in splendour; every inch of the staterooms, private apartments and bathing complexes was decorated with intricate carving, ceramics or gold leaf. Water features were installed everywhere. The latest technology was utilized to provide stunning pools, decorative fountains and cascades woven into stairs and walkways.

Mosaic of coloured tiles separated by white bands with small starsAn important aspect of Islamic art is its abstract nature. Muslims avoid images of people in order to avoid creating ‘graven images’ which are forbidden by their religion. As a result, abstract patterns using bold colours and shapes decorate the walls, ceilings and floors of Alhambra. These striking and original ceramics have inspired artists down through the centuries.

The period of Muslim rule in Spain is known for tolerance and cooperation between the three religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity). However, outside of Spain, the Christian world was not terribly happy with this state of affairs, and began to re-take Spain for their own faith.  Alhambra fell to Christian forces in 1492, ending Islamic rule over Spain.

The Catholics were now in charge at Alhambra.  The first thing the Catholic King (Charles the 5th) did was to build himself a palace within the existing complex.

Did Charles have his palace sympathetically placed among the Moorish architecture? Was he magnanimous in victory? Did he want to leave the previous palace complete for future generations to admire and learn from? Not really. He built his new palace right across the old one cutting off an entire wing, leaving just the façade of the south wing standing beside the central pool of the old Moorish palace.

In 1922 the artist M C Esher visited Alhambra and, like others before him, was inspired by the Moorish abstract ceramics. Escher’s art explores the space between objects. Characteristically he would fill a space between repeated images to form another series of repeated images, challenging the viewer with a choice of which series of objects to focus on.

Escher abstract with grey, white, and black repeated images

A sample of Escher's work

The viewer has to decide what to look at, the primary objects or the space in between which holds a significance of its own.

Today there is an exhibition of Esher’s work installed in King Charles’ palace. In the corner of the exhibition is a niche for those inquisitive enough to duck through its darkened entrance. In the far end of the niche is a window with a view into the building void between King Charles’ palace and the rear of the surviving south façade of the old palace. Through the lattice work in the façade can be seen the sunlit grandeur of the surviving Moorish architecture.

Looking across the void prompts thoughts of the time and space between the Christian and Muslim worlds, between medieval and modern Europe — thoughts of history, power and politics. It’s an interesting place to sit.  I’d recommend it.

Happy New Year!

S&M

Impressions of Spain

    • The central part of the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain is situated, is a large, open, wind-swept plain dotted with small hills. It looks like Nevada in the old Westerns. Between the major cities like Madrid, located in the center of the country, there is a lot of open space between the farms and truck stops. This region is called Castillo because there are many ‘castles’ located on the small hills, a legacy of the 800 years of fighting between Catholics and Moors in Spain. The southern part of Castillo has small windmills on the plain, and was home to the fictional man from La Mancha, Don Quixote.
Patrick driving RV in Castillo

Man from Surrey tilting at Winnebagos

    • Much of Spain has poor soil, rusty coloured or dry and rocky. This is good for growing olives and grapes, but not great for other crops. There are some regions, like Galicia in the north-west, that are green and wet, more like our Pacific Northwest.
    • Spain has greatly varying regional cultures. Like Quebec, some parts of the country (e.g. Basque Country in the north and Catalonia in the north-east) barely consider themselves to be part of Spain. In these regions many people would like to separate, resulting in periodic protests and acts of violence. The European Union, which Spain is a part of, encourages regional diversity, and so separation from Spain is less of a priority recently since the countries formed by separation would presumably all belong to the EU anyhow.
    • It was a surprise for me to learn that although Spain has only 1 official national language (Español or Castillian), it has 3 co-official languages in certain regions (Basque in Basque Country, Catalan in Catalonia, and Galician in Galicia).
    • The Moors were Muslims from Northern Africa who invaded Spain in the year 711 by crossing the Mediterranean from Morocco. For 800 years they occupied portions, sometimes the majority, of Spain and Portugal, and even parts of France. Other Moors from Turkey had pushed as far as Eastern Europe (e.g. the former Yugoslavia, some parts of which remain Muslim today). It took many years of crusades by Catholics from across Europe to finally expel the Moors from Spain in 1492, the same year that Columbus (born in Italy) sailed from Spain to re-discover North America (the Vikings were there first). Under Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain entered a period of intolerance when many Jews and other non-Catholics were expelled or persecuted as part of the Spanish Inquisition.
    • Apparently only 20 percent of people here go to church on a regular basis, but it definitely feels like a Catholic country. There are large Catholic churches everywhere. The largest Cathedral in the world is in Seville (Sevilla) and Christopher Columbus is buried there. He died in poverty thinking that he’d discovered a Western route to Asia.
    • Seville Cathedral

      Seville Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See

    • Spain is very different than Mexico, the Spanish-speaking country that most influences North Americans’ perceptions. The food and water are safe to drink and Spanish food is very different than Mexican food. It is not particularly spicy. There are no burritos, no tacos, and no enchiladas. They do have a tortilla, but is an omelette, usually made with potatoes, and not a round, flat bread.

    • Madrid and Barcelona, the two largest cities in Spain with over 4 and 1 million people respectively, are very clean and cosmopolitan. Although there are many museums, historic sights, and narrow streets in the older parts of town, these cities are very modern with clean efficient subway and tram systems (nicer than Vancouver’s), elegant shopping, and fine restaurants. We did however notice some slums by the river on the outside of Barcelona.
    • The major cities of Spain all seem to have great places for strolling, whether they be large squares, pedestrian-only streets, or tree-lined boulevards. At night there are thousands of people of all ages walking the streets enjoying the night air, and just recently, white Christmas lights have been erected in all major public places, suspended over the streets like stars.
    • McDonald’s restaurants in Spain have automated kiosks where you can order directly, without waiting in line. You then proceed directly to a separate area at the end of the counter to get your food. It’s basically the same as the automated kiosks at movie theatres, self-check-in at airports or self-check-out in large stores. In general I’m against these self-serve options, but it’s handy for us because the kiosks allow you to switch the language to English. Expect to see this coming to a McDonald’s near you in the future. Will there be any service jobs left?
    • Also at McDonald’s in Spain, they have flush-less, water-saving urinals (which I’ve seen before), but these ones have advertising on the top that lights up when you get into position. Something to do while you wait.
    • In Spain, for the first time in 6 weeks, we’ve noticed more heavy people (more than in France or Italy).
    • Spaniards love to eat jamón, pronounced ‘ham-own’. It is similar to Italian prosciutto but is better than any ham I’ve ever eaten. It is carved directly off a cured pig’s leg (cloven hoof still attached) in very thin slices and sells for outlandish amounts (as much $5 or $10 a slice). The best Jamón Iberico de Bellota (also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera) comes from free-range, acorn-fed back Iberian pigs and has been cured for over a year. We had jamón flavoured ripple chips the other day (much cheaper!)
Patrick slicing Jamon from a whole leg of pork

Patrick fondling about $300 worth of ham

  • Spaniards seem to be crazy over lotteries. Tickets are for sale everywhere, even from private sellers on tables on the street. Some nights there have been large lines at lottery outlets. Perhaps there is a big draw coming up?
  • In Castilla, the central region of Spain, they pronounce what would in other dialects of Spanish be an ‘s’ sound as ‘th’. Even with my limited ear for Spanish, it clearly sounds like they’re speaking with a lisp.