April 12, 2003
Avi at the keyboard
Let’s take a little trip through time:
Four days ago we were in Ronda. That’s one of those tourist destinations that swarms with tour groups by day, and is dead by night. It’s only about an hour from the ritzy Costa del Sol, and so the day-trippers descend en masse to stroll the streets and buy the souvenirs. Actually, they ASCEND en masse, as Ronda sits in the mountains, built upon two hills with precipitous drop-offs on all sides. The location is the reason for the town - built for strategic reasons by the Muslims against the encroaching Christians. The old town is on one side of the deep gorge,
and an old bridge that took 40 years to build in the 18th century runs to the ¨new town¨ (only about 300 years old.) We sat in front of the old town hall, adjacent to the bridge, watching the tourists flow and thinking about who had been here before.
I mean way before. In the mountains outside of Ronda are many caves. And in one were found cave paintings from the receding Ice Age (yes, even Spain had been covered) and before. So there we were, surrounded by stalactites and with our flashlights, staring at ochre line drawings of horses from 27,000 years ago. There were also black carbon graphics, much more abstract, from only 8000 years ago. It’s very hard to wrap my mind around what I’m seeing and what the time spans really mean. The guide showed how the best drawings are in the rooms (there were many of them, many with bats) with the best acoustics. He banged on some of the ribbon-shaped stalagmites and they sang like a xylophone. I noticed one of them was chipped. ¨Rough handling I muttered. ¨Yes¨, said the guide, ¨by someone about 20,000 years ago¨ Which got me thinking how the 20,000 years was nothing compared to the million or so it took the caves to form. Very hard to wrap the mind around.
Dolmens. I sort of knew the word in English but wasn’t really clear what they are. But the maps and books said there are a lot of them around here. They’re tombs - large tombs constructed of giant slabs of rock stood into walls and laid over top for a roof. From megalithic cultures two to four thousand years BCE. The info office at Villanueva had a model of the one near their town, so we followed a series of back roads into farmlands growing some unidentifiable green stuff, and there we found a partly reconstructed dolmen. Old. Strange. But worth the detour. Then a week later we were passing Antequera and read about their massive dolmen. Now that was really strange! HUGE rocks which had been quarried far away and brought by people who had no wheel to this hilltop and then raised into position.
The rock that lay as the roof weighs 180 tons. We walked into the silence of this massive ancient tomb (the community of bones had been removed by archeologists years ago) and contemplated the culture of 4500 years ago that had put such effort into this.
Leap ahead 2500 years. Romans. Iberia was the most urbanized area of ancient Rome outside of the Italian peninsula. We’ve walked over ancient bridges still in use, hiked along old Roman roads, studied mosaic walls and floors, been underground to walk through giant water tunnels, etc.
And with the Romans came another funny group - Jews. Somewhere around the third century. I hadn’t realized it, but that means the Jews had been an established community here for about 400 years before the arrival of Islam. Earlier emails have talked about our Judeo-centred travels, seeking out the old Jewish quarters in every city and town we go to. Sometimes we don’t have to seek. We'd just be strolling some whitewashed hilltop town when we'd round a corner and see the street sign “Juderia”.
It’s quite fashionable in some places, with Hotel de la Juderia or La Juderia commercial complex. Trading on other peoples' cultures has always been profitable - what are all those busses of Japanese tourists doing snapping pictures of totem poles in Stanley Park?
But of course the big time travel / cultural appropriation hereabouts is the culture of Islam. Andalucia was under Muslim dominion for about four to eight hundred years (depending where). As Ruth and I learned to recognize old Jewish doorways where no Jews have lived for 500 years, so we learned to recognize old Masjids (which, I’m told, is more politically correct than calling them Mosques. Dunno why) which had been churches for centuries. First telltale clue is a belltower beside (not above) the church with three levels with small windows (often bricked in) all surmounted by a belfry of smaller diameter. Must have been a minaret!
So we’ve walked along old Moorish battlements, been inside the largest intact Arab bath (in Ronda again),
marveled at old carved niches and keyhole doorways, and finally yesterday made it to the Alhambra in Granada. I don’t know what I can tell you about this wonderful palace of carved wooden ceilings, long reflecting pools, intricate tilework and minutely carved doorways.
Even after reading the guidebooks, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. This palace/fortress/townsite of the last great Muslim rulers really stands as a monument to a lost culture. But the strange part is that, unlike the abandoned bathhouses or the ancient Roman walls or the Hotel Dolmen, this is not a culture of the past alone. Granada as a city throbs with the vibrancy of an active Arab community within it. Maybe I’m just nostalgic for the old days when I could wander in Jerusalem’s Arab Quarter freely, or maybe I’m excited because the abundance of Halal stores and restaurants means I can eat without fear of the ubiquitous bits of pork that Spaniards put in every dish, but I had a really wonderful time the other night sitting in a little teahouse, drinking some overpriced aromatic infusion and listening to four men playing the oud and singing Arabic music all night long.
I think my time travel was supposed to move into Christian times. What can I say about a country which abounds in great churches? Shall I say that we spent an evening listening to the 1300 pipe organ in the great gothic cathedral of Seville - third largest church (after St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London)?
Shall I say we went to the Royal Chapel in Granada and viewed the burial crypts of Ferdinand and Isabella? (The monument coverings, in finest Italian marble, show the two monarchs recumbent upon their beds, robed in splendor. Isabella’s pillow is the more compressed - she was the brains of the operation!) How can I explain the fascination of watching the practices/rehearsals for the Holy Week processions - in Arcos de la Frontera, one of those ancient twisty hilltop towns, we watched the local church groups practicing to carry their floats up and down steps and around tight corners. Like Vancouver dragonboat teams, the groups of 30 men (six rows of five each, bearing the massive floats on their padded shoulders) get together in the evenings to learn signals, coordinate their steps, get into shape, hail a few Marys, and then go for a beer.
But let’s jump ahead to the 20th century. Yesterday, on our trip through Granada’s juderia, we met a wonderful toothless old man (now there’s an added challenge to our Spanish communication!) who told us many tales - including how his own father was shot by Franco’s men. We hear Franco’s name still mentioned today in Spain as if the nightmare only ended last week. And it was a nightmare for all. In Hemmingway’s ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ is told of a hilltop town with a deep ravine where the local ‘Fascists’ were rounded up in front of the town hall, and forced to run between villagers who beat them, and then tossed them, living or dead, over the bridge into the ravine. We had sat at that town hall. Ronda.
No marker is there as witness to the town’s atrocity. And Ruth and I sat there, thinking that this one was done by ‘our side’
No wonder this country dreads war. I was asked what is the reaction here to the Iraq war. Well, we haven’t talked to lots of people about it in depth, but the brief conversations we’ve had have been overwhelmingly opposed. Only one supporter so far. Articles last week in the papers showed the Spanish government (which supported Bush and Blair) tanking in the polls. But what really surprised us was the range of places showing giant No A La Guerra signs. Not just homes and protest camps, but also city halls, police stations and a Catholic Church.
I can’t imagine institutions like that at home taking a public position of opposition to their government.
But while Ruth and I wandered Spain, observing how xenophobia and power have played out here over thousands of years and observing the protest against war around us, Noam was busy being arrested for non-violent protest of the war machine in New York.