Author Archives: Miguel Gomez

About Miguel Gomez

Historian of Medieval Iberia

Sant Pau del Camp

Barcelona is full of relatively well-preserved ancient and medieval sites, but I believe the small Benedictine monastery of Sant Pau del Camp is my favorite.

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Sant Pau del Camp

The existing buildings are from the twelfth and early thirteenth century, but the original church on the site dates back to the tenth century.  It may have been founded by the second count of Barcelona, Wifred II (r. 897-911), son of Wifred the Hairy.  His tombstone was discovered in the monastery during sixteenth century restorations.

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Wifred II’s tombstone

The original foundation was destroyed by al-Mansur in 985, and the replacement church was not begun for some time.  By 1098, a local noble family of the Bell-Lloc region had completed the restoration of the church, and it was a Benedictine monastery by 1117.  It was never a big monastery– seven monks at the height.  But the community added a lovely, if small, cloister by the thirteenth century.

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Hunting scene in the capital of one of the pillars of the cloister. Other scenes include Adam & Eve and Saint George and the Dragon.

The church itself is a romanesque treasure.  The tympanum of the main door is especially nice.

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The tetramorphs are my favorite part.

Overall, Saint Pau del Camp is a fantastic example of just how much of Barcelona’s medieval heritage survives.  It is striking for a large city, especially one that experienced the vicissitudes of the Guerra Civil.  This is not the most impressive monastery in Spain, but it is the most impressive monastery inside a very large city in Spain.

Citations:  Many of the dates cited here come curtesy of Paul Freedman, “A Privilege of Pope Alexander III for Sant Pau del Camp (Barcelona)”, Archivum Historiae Pontificiae 31 (1998), 255-63.

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Antequera

Having driven back and forth past Antequera a number of times, I decided to take a day and visit this central city of Andalucía, as it bills itself.

Antequera is, like most small towns in the region, a beautiful cluster of white houses surrounding a monumental zone built on a hill, a classic acropolis.  Unlike the relatively late foundation of Almería, Antequera is a very ancient city, and so it nicely fits the pattern of ancient Mediterranean urban development.  It was an Iberian city, Anticaria,  part of the so-called Turdetani region during the middle of the first millennium BC.  But in fact, Antequera is rather more ancient than that.  The city is home to three important dolmens, or megalithic tombs. One of the, the Romeral dolmen, is dated to the early second millennia BC, and is oriented towards the nearby El Torcal rock formations (more below). Two of them, the dolmens of Menga and Viera, date back to before 3500 BC, similar to other neolithic era passage tombs, like Newgrange in Ireland.  The Viera dolmen is, like most other European passage tombs, oriented towards the dawn on the equinoxes.  The Menga dolmen is oriented towards the nearby Peña de los Enamorados, a distinctive mountain. Sadly the dolmen site was closed, and I could not visit the tombs.

I was able to visit the old city itself, however.  Not a lot remains of the Roman town.  The best preserved ruins are the baths.

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The Roman baths, including mosaic covers over the preserved mosaics of fish and the god Oceanus.

The rest of the Roman sites were largely built over, with the possible exception of the main gate into the alcazaba.  It is known as the “gate of giants” due to the statue of Hercules and local Roman notables that used to crown it.  The legs of Hercules remain.

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Arco de los Gigantes, with the Peña de los Enamorados visible in the background.

The interior of the alcazaba contains within its walls the old Roman acropolis, and perhaps some Visigothic ruins as well, all completely ruined during the French occupation around 1810.  What is preserved is the castillo itself, restored and expanded after the conquest of the city in 1410.

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The fifteenth century bastions of the alcazar, on top of the thirteenth and fourteenth century walls, on top of Roman fortifications.

The siege and capture of the city was the work of Fernando, prince and regent of Castilla, who earned the epithet de Antequera for his trouble, and the crown of Aragón a few years later.

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Fernando with the alcazaba above.

Fernando became regent of Castilla in 1406 when his brother Enrique III died.  Alongside his brother’s English widow, Catherine of Lancaster, he protected the throne of his young nephew, Juan II.  Fernando took control of the southern half of the kingdom, and decided to put the potentially-disruptive nobility to work eroding the frontier with Granada.  The siege of Antequera began in April of 1410.  The walls were breached in the southeast quadrant of the arrabal in September.  After defeating a Granada relief army, the siege was over.

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The site of the Castilian breach.

Fernando, unlike his namesake who would complete the conquest of the Nasrid kingdom, showed leniency, and allowed the citizens of Antequera, huddled in the alcazaba, to negotiate their surrender.  All who could were allowed to decamp for nearby  Archidona, or elsewhere in Granada.  The city established a remarkably sympathetic monument to the expulsion of the Muslim population.

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Remembering the exile.

The mosque was, of course, preserved and converted into a church but was sadly destroyed along with much of the top of the alcazaba during French occupation.

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This was a three-aisle mosque. Not much left.

Antequera remained a frontier city and military headquarters for the rest of the fifteenth century.  The process of repoblacion appears to have proceeded slowly, with fewer than three-thousand people reoccupying the city in those years.  The city began to expand more quickly in the sixteenth century, once the war with the Nasrid kingdom was ended, but an interesting bit of trivia in the history of the alcazaba speaks to the continued difficulty of life for the citizens.

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Torre de Papabellotas

In 1582, the cabildo (town council) decided to build a bell and clock tower onto the alcazaba, to bring a touch of modern life to the city.  Clocks were, of course, an expensive novelty in the 1500s, and so the council had to raise funds to pay for their project.  In order to do so, they sold the groves of Encinas (ilex oaks) that grew on the flanks of the alcazaba and the walled parts of the city.  These groves were, as was customary in the medieval world, common property.  The citizens of Antequera in fact relied on the oaks for part of their subsistence, gathering the acorns to prepare what must have been an unpalatable stew, papabellotas. One imagines they gathered firewood and grazed pigs under the oaks as well.  Indeed, usufruct rights in the forests was a regular part of the subsistence strategy of peasants and commoners everywhere.  But this was the sixteenth century, and the modern world was already beginning to vanquish the old ways.  Thomas More had already written, some 65 years earlier, about “sheep devouring men” in his Utopia.  Cervantes himself was doubtlessly already formulating his own epic about the changing world which left poverty and cynicism in its wake.  The Diggers of England would make their own challenge to the dispossession of forest rights barely 60 years later.  And so the dispossessed people of Antequera dubbed the new clock tower the torre de papabellotas.  The tourist literature of 2017 presents this as a quaint nickname, though no doubt the original appellation was intended to be a cynical criticism, not a cute homage.

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Papabellotas: not a good story.

There is one quaint story associated with the history of the city.  The unusual promontory called Peña de los Enamorados, which basically translates as “lovers’ leap” is so-called because of the story of interfaith love and suicide in the Middle Ages.  In the nearby town of Archidona (on the far side of the Peña from Antequera), the daughter of a wealthy family fell in love with a Christian soldier kept prisoner in the town.  She schemed to free this young man, and the two fled together away from Archidona.  Her upset parents sent out search parties, and the young couple hid on the mountain.  Fearing that, once they were inevitably captured, the escaped soldier would be executed, the two decided to leap to their deaths.  I am sure the dolmen-builders had a more dramatic story associated with this distinctive piece of geography, but at least this story doesn’t blithely gloss over tragedy.

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Peña de los Enamorados: a better story.

The sixteenth century also saw the construction of much of the city’s religious architecture.  The most impressive church is the Real Colegiata, started by Fernando de Antequera, but only finished in 1550.  Clinging to the side of the alcazaba, it is an impressive church.

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Real Colegiata de Santa María el Mayor

Below in the city an impressive parish church dedicated to San Sebastian was completed, also in the middle of the sixteenth century, as the arms of Carlos V attest.  The eighteenth-century bell tower is remarkably Aragonese-Mudéjar in style.

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Iglesia de San Sebastian

Antequera is an attractive city, truly a gem of the ciudades medianas de Andalucía, as it bills itself.  Worth a visit, and I look forward to seeing neighboring Archidona in the future.

My visit to Antequera ended with a drive through the mountain range to the south, called El Torcal.  The range is made of unusual and impressive weathered limestone.  It was a sea floor at one point, pushed up during tectonic activity after the Jurassic period.  I would love to return with more time for proper hiking and exploring.

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El Torcal de Antequera

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El Torcal de Antequera

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Walking Madrid’s city walls

From the perspective of a medievalist, Madrid doesn’t necessarily have a lot to offer.  Like many big, modern cities, Madrid has had much of its past paved over, rebuilt, dismantled, or otherwise sacrificed in the name of progress.  The same sort of thing has happened in Paris, London, etc.  The problem for Madrid is somewhat compounded by the fact that medieval Madrid was simply not a very large city, with few significant monuments or landmarks.  The ones it did possess, like its castle and mosque, are today buried under their later replacements, the Palacio Real and the Almudena Cathedral.

So there is not a lot left of Mayrit, which was never really much more than a frontier fortress of al-Andalus.  It was largely a product of the military organization of the emir Muhammad I (852-886), who fortified the region both to defend against Christian incursions from the north and to pacify internal disorder, a regular issue for Córdoba.  But, as an al-mudayna (fortified precinct, from whence the term Almudena comes), Mayrit was surrounded by walls.  Some of them are still visible below the cathedral.

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Ninth century walls visible in the very modern Parque Muhammad I, below the Almudena cathedral.

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Another angle

The park also features a scale-model of the city and its original walled precinct.

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Model of walls, Parque Muhammad I

The walls were expanded considerably in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, after Mayrit passed into the hands of Alfonso VI of Castilla/León, along with the rest of the taifa of Toledo in 1085.  The circuit of those walls is visible in the layout of the streets which run from the Parque Muhammad I, south across the Cuesta de la Vega, and then southeast towards Calle de los Mancebos.

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A bit of the wall is visible on Calle de los Mancebos

The wall then turns east through what is now the Plaza de San Andres (the original incarnation of the church was at the edge of the city walls), and then directly through the Museo de San Isidro. The museum has a nice exhibit on the walls as well, but it is not clear whether the famous campesino saint himself lived outside or inside the walls.  The museum preserves a chapel which is said to stand on the site of his home, which lays inside the circuit of these twelfth-century walls.  The walls would have been built right in the middle of the Isidro’s lifetime (1070-1130).

The walls continue down the Calle de Cava Baja, with the curve of the street quite clearly conforming to the old fortifications.  The trace of the walls is preserved in the playground which lies between Cava Baja and Calle del Almendro 17.

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The shadow of a tower in the playground brickwork.

The route of the wall continues onto Calle Cava de San Miguel, and crosses the Calle Mayor somewhere around the Plaza Comandante las Morenas. It then proceeds straight downhill along Calle de la Escalanita, where again the layout of the street clearly reflects the course of the wall.

 

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Old fortification stones visible in the side of the extant buildings on Calle de la Escalanita.

The walls then turn across the Plaza Isabella II, likely right through the current Royal Opera House, and then reconnect to the old fortifications in the Plaza del Oriente.  One of the towers which connected the Andalusian walls to the Christian-era walls is visible in the parking garage underneath the Plaza.

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Tower and corner of the walls in the Plaza de Oriente parking garage.

Walking the circuit of the walls is a great way to get a sense for the size and layout of medieval Madrid, and to also get a clear sense of how the city expanded in the sixteenth century.  It was also a nice chance to get to know the neighborhood of La Latina  a little more.  Next post is on the origins of the neighborhood’s name.

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I visit another Spanish-speaking country.

Mexico, Quintana Roo, Tulum.  Complicated place this.  It is one part resort-like beach experience, one part neat beach town, and one part terribly poor community.  

The beach, while white-sand and pleasant, was quite crowded.  We paid money to go on a snorkeling trip that took us out to a very crowded reef for about 45 minutes. The guide yelled at us to stay together the whole time, and I got kicked in the head by tourists with Go Pro cameras every time something interesting appeared.  Bad experience.  On the other hand, we sat at some relatively low-key resort all day, drank beer, ate lunch, and I think had a $60 tab for five people.  So there is that.

The town of Tulum itself is home to some fantastic little bars and restaurants, many of them specializing in Pastor tacos. Food and drinks are cheap and tasty.  However, the poverty is troubling.  There are a large number of people squatting in the jungle and trying to carve out homes there.  They are constantly surrounded by garbage.  The police ride around in pickup trucks brandishing weapons. The juxtaposition with the tourism is stark, and one can’t help but be ultra-aware of one’s privilege here.  I will try to get some more pictures and try to describe my thoughts on this further later.  Also I am going to go check out the Mayan ruins.  More to come.

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Granada

I visited Granada before, in 2010.  On that visit, we did the usual things: the Alhambra, the Cathedral, the Albaraizin.  This trip, I can’t say that I did a lot more, but it was nevertheless interesting.

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My visit to Granada was actually in two parts.  The first was a day trip organized by the Insituto Malaca. We began with a brief walk through the Albaraizin, stopping at the Mirador de San Nicolas, in order to take the obligatory amazing picture.

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San Nicolas itself is an interesting church, as it is definitely built over an old mosque.  It was one of the first churches built after the conquest of the city in 1492, but is currently closed ad undergoing reforms.  The bell tower is very clearly a minaret, and not the only one in the Albaraizin.

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We then ran quickly down the hill to the cathedral, but briefly. The cathedral itself is a sixteenth century monstrosity, built over the site of the city’s congregational mosque.  Much of the work was commissioned and overseen by Charles V.  Sadly, there was no time to take the students inside, just to pose for a couple of pictures.

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After an interesting bus ride through the old city, we arrived at our appointed restaurant in the Sacramonte, Cuevas de ?.  The restaurant, owned and run by a Gypsy family of Flamenco dancers, was recently made famous by a visit from the Obama family, a fact they were eager to share.  After a good but unremarkable lunch in the dining cave, we moved next door to another cave for a short but impressive Flamenco show.  I have studiously avoided Flamenco shows, as the overwhelming majority are over-priced tourist traps, but this was a great experience.  The dancers were professionals, and the setting, in the Sacromonte felt appropriate.  Granada is the home to Flamenco, after all.

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We were next whisked off to a guided tour of the Alhambra, which was, on balance, not quite as good as the unguided tour on my first visit to the castle.  But it merits its own post, which I will do shortly.

The second part of my Granada experience came a couple of days later, when I returned to visit my friend Mayte Green Mercado.  Mayte was teaching in Granada for the semester, and so had a chance to get to know the city, and took me by some interesting sites.

We first popped in to the Capilla Real, the side chapel of the Cathedral where Fernando and Isabella are buried.  Their ornate tombs, as well as those of their daughter Juana la Loca, and her husband Philip of Burgundy, are most impressive.  They were moved here during the reign of Charles V, from their original resting place in the small church within the precinct of the Alhambra.  They were the last Iberian monarchs to follow the medieval pattern of choosing to be buried at the site of their southernmost conquest.

We also very briefly visited the scant remains of the city madrasa, just across the street from the Cathedral.  The madrasa, built by the Nasrid rulers in the fourteenth century, is today part of the University of Granada.  We also had a moment to stick our heads in a fifteenth century caravansary that also still stands in the heart of the building.  Sadly I was unable to photograph any of this because the places were closing up around us.

We went back un through the Albaraicin, which is clearly the city’s most attractive neighborhood, once again the Mirador of San Nicolas.  However, this time Mayte pointed out something just as interesting as the famous views of the Alhambra:  the city’s new mosque.

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The new mosque was recently opened, after a campaign of more than twenty years to convince the city government and the neighborhood to accept it, and the Muslim community.  Surprisingly, the Muslim community of this mosque is not made up principally of North African immigrants, but Spanish converts to Islam.  The Spanish Muslim community began to grow in the 1960s, when a handful of people converted (the 1960s were that sort of time).  But since then the community has grown, slowly but steadily.  The mosque was largely financed by Emirate donations, but it appears that the community have gone out of their way to make sure it fits in its Andalucian context.  I had no clue something like this existed.

Finally, we ducked through one of the old gates… IMG_7419 and visited another spot above the Albaraicin, where the Taifa era city walls (twelfth century) are visible.

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I was impressed at just how much medieval Granada really does survive. Thanks Mayte!

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Cape Trafalgar

The Atlantic side of Andalucía is amazing.  Driving west from the Straits quickly leads to beautiful, lush countryside, considerably greener than the coast or Guadalquivir valley.

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Cape Trafalgar itself is relatively remote, situated several miles south of Cadiz.  The beaches are long and sandy, especially when compared to the Mediterranean beaches, but tucked between rocky headlands.  A modern lighthouse sits on the cape itself, beside the ruins of its ancestor.  Only a small plaque commemorates the massive sea battle which took place a few miles off shore.

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New lighthouse

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Old lighthouse

The nearby Los Caños de Meca, which seems to be more hippy commune than beach resort, which in many ways makes this place doubly attractive.  The striking nature of this corner of Spain is accentuated by the forest of umbrella pines that separate the cape from the interior.

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A few miles south of Cape Trafalgar lays an even more attractive seaside jewel, Zahara de los Atunes.  The beach here exactly resembles American Atlantic beaches: long and sandy, with dunes and marshes.  The town is certainly more of a beach community than a commune, but not at all over-developed or touristy (at least in early June).  Dinner in a small beachfront restaurant did not disappoint.  This is a part of Spain that definitely merits a longer visit.

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The Gibralfaro

 

At the peak of the hill in central Málaga sits the sprawling castle of the Gibralfaro.  The name is a pretty clear amalgamation of the Arabic jebel (mountain) and the Latin faro (lighthouse), though despite this, the castle’s literature simply says “there may have been a lighthouse here in the past”.  The putative lighthouse and ancient enclosure was replaced, in the middle of fourteenth century, by a castle, connected to the lower Alcazaba with impressive battlements.

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Looking down to the Alcazaba, and city, from the Gibralfaro

The hike up to the Gibralfaro is stout, but offers the very best views of this picturesque city.  The castle apparently shares the peak with the Parador, which may be worth checking out one day.

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View from the mirador near the castle

The castle itself sprawls over a considerable space at the top of the hill.  It once enclosed a large military encampment, but most of the structures of the camp do not survive.  What does survive are the massive walls which, perched high up on the hill, made the site virtually impregnable.  Not surprisingly, the fortress was more than capable of holding out against the siege of the city by King Fernando during the conquest of Granada.  The leading citizens of Málaga had chosen to support Muhammad az-Zaghal (‘the valiant’) in his civil war against Muhammad XII, better known as Boabdil (Abu Abdullah).  Boabdil  was a Castilian vassal, and essentially the lever by which the Christian monarchs hoped to destroy Granada, via internal division and conflict.  Therefore a Castilian/Aragonese army besieged the city for several months in the summer of 1487.  The siege was protracted, and Fernando had to send men all the way to Algeciras to collect cannon balls fired during the siege of that city, nearly 150 years earlier, in order to keep up his attack.  The defenders also employed cannon-fire from the Gibralfaro, making the siege the first conflict in which cannons were used on both sides (so says the castle literature– I have my doubts).  The city refused lenient terms of surrender in May, and so when the city walls were finally breached, and the population reduced to starvation, no terms were offered. Most of the inhabitants were enslaved, and only the elites, who held out in the castle, were allowed to depart safely for Granada or North Africa. The governor of the city was executed. The capture of the port of Málaga ultimately proved to be the pivotal act of the war.  When Boabdil was restored to Granada shortly thereafter, he found his kingdom completely untenable without its sea-connection to the rest of the Islamic world, and within a couple of years found himself compelled to surrender the whole thing to the soon-to-be-known-as Catholic Monarchs in 1492.

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The castle remained a military base until the early twentieth century, which I suspect helps to account for its survival.  Aside from the views, the best part about the visit was feeding the particularly manipulative sparrows, who had clearly perfected the art of begging.

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The Alcazaba

IMG_7371The palace/castle at the heart of the old city of Málaga was built, perhaps over the ruins of early military structures, in the eleventh century. The site, whose name derives from the Arabic al-qasabah, or fortress, and indeed, the site is principally made up of a double ring of curtain walls protecting a palace which sits at the heart of the complex.

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The palace itself is not particularly well-preserved, certainly not when compared to the Alhambra.  One suspects that at in its day, the palace was intended to appear as a miniature copy of its larger, more famous Granadan counterpart.

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What stands today is largely the work of the Zirid dynasty, which ruled Málaga and Granada in the eleventh century.  They came to the Maghreb originally in the service of the Fatimid Caliphs, but one of the junior members of the dynasty came into the service of Hisham II, Caliph of Cordoba right at the end of the tenth century.  They were key players in the chaos that followed, and ended up in control of a substantial Taifa state in the south of al-Andalus.  In the mid-fourteenth century, under the reign of Yusuf I of the Nasrid dynasty, the additional fortifications of the Gibralfaro were added, which I will cover in my next post.

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Gibraltar, again

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Looking east from the Mediterranean Steps towards the ships waiting to pass the Straits.

I am not sure I have a lot more to add to the remarks I made after my first trip to Gibraltar. It is still a very unusual place, and I am glad I visited again, especially considering that, writing the day after the Brexit vote, it may not be so easy to visit in the future.

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Tunnels carved out by the British military

This time, I had the chance to explore the Mediterranean Steps trail at the back of the Rock. The very steep trail, which doubtless originated as part of the British military fortifications, climbs from the Pillars of Hercules monument up to a high battery. It passes abandoned gun positions and shallow caves, and while safe, appears to cling precariously to the cliffs above the Mediterranean. It appeared to be a very popular route for local trail runners.

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Looking south from the Mediterranean Steps across the Straits

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Piñones

This afternoon I had one of the most intense memory-sense associations I can recall.  In a lovely little candy shop down the street, I bought myself a small bag of piñones, which are candy-coated pine nuts.  I already enjoyed some of their big brother, peladillas, the equivalent of Jordan almonds.  I eat Jordan almonds all the time, but had not touched piñones in, I suspect 25 years.  Then I shared them with my father, as piñones were some of his favorites (though truly what Spanish candy did he dislike?).  The second I popped the first one in my mouth, the memories hit me like a blow.  Though it has been nearly 20 years since I heard the man’s voice, my memories of my father were suddenly crystal clear, as if I was just talking to him.  It is amazing how the mind works sometimes, and despite the inherent sadness of the situation, I am thankful for my bag of candy-coated pine nuts.

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