July 19, 2015
We just got back from a 640 km (380 mile) drive around southern Spain, spending nights in Ronda, Cordoba and Granada. We now know where most of the world’s olive oil comes from. Besides driving through wheat fields, dramatic, sun-parched and rocky mountains, white villages perched, with their defensive castles, high above the valleys, we passed through, and I kid you not, 10,000 square miles of olive orchards. The extent of the monoculture is astonishing, and it is mostly devoted to the production of olive oil.
Andalusia, formerly Al-Andalus, was ruled and largely settled by “The Moors” from about 700 AD until around the early 1500s. For most people, it would be easy to understand that “The Moors” is just another way of saying Spaniards who were Muslims, since all Spaniards got there from somewhere else. That, we found, was not the view of Spanish Catholics during the Inquisition, and it is still not the view of the dominant culture of Spain’s ruling powers – which very much include a very conservative Catholic Church.
For example, in Cordoba we visited the beautiful, gigantic Mezquita – a huge, breathtaking structure built in Cordoba, starting around 750 AD, as a mosque. Following the military defeat of “The Moors” in the early 1200s, It was revamped as a Catholic church – a church tower built around the minaret, and a small cathedral-like building constructed inside the 20 acre (or so) interior of the mosque. The brochure handed out as you enter the building describes how “Moorish invaders” destroyed a Visigoth Christian church (not noting that the Visigoths were also invaders) to build their mosque.
The Arabic stamp on southern Spain is everywhere you look, from the graceful and beautiful buildings of the Alhambra (only partly destroyed by lumpy 16th Century Christian castles and churches) to the names of towns, the castles along the trading routes, and the language itself. Like the rococo ornamentation of Baroque and Gothic churches in Europe, the Moorish buildings that survive obviously involved mind-boggling amounts of skilled labor. But the result has an artistic unity, a subtlety, and a peaceful, well-proportioned mix of open spaces, gardens, fountains and arches lacking in the later Christian efforts.
Ronda, less well known than Cordoba or Granada, and much smaller, clings to the top of steep cliffs, connected in the center of town by an enormously tall, graceful stone bridge. As in Cordoba and Granada, the most dramatic and graceful structures are from the Moorish times, often overlaid with bombastic plaques proclaiming the victory of the Christians.
Perhaps most interesting, from a cultural point of view, is the extent to which the history of the Moors, and of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, has been completely scrubbed from museums, tourist information, and as far as one can tell, from the official version of history. Ronda is famous for being the site of the execution by Spanish Republicans of Fascist officers, thrown off the town cliffs during the Civil War in the 1930s. The incident appears, fictionalized, in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” by Hemingway, and is referred to in non-Spanish historical resources. But, despite the “Hemingway Walk” above the cliffs in Ronda, you would never learn about the incident in Ronda itself.
In all our museum-touring and plaque-reading, we did not see a single reference of any kind to the bloody and epic Spanish Civil War of the 1930s – except for a plaque on the walls of the cathedral inserted into the mosque in Cordoba, with a list of names of the “Christian martyrs from the period of religious persecution from 1932-1937,” which is the way they chose to describe the Franco/fascist uprising against the elected government of Spain.
We saw no plaques anywhere, official or otherwise, regretting the tortures and murders of “Moors,” “Moriscos” (“Moors” who had converted to Christianity) and Jews – or the seizure of their property and their eventual wholesale expulsion from Spain. A large “Juderia” or Jewish ghetto surrounds the Mezquita, and gives testimony to the cohabitation of Spanish Muslims and Spanish Jews. It was depopulated during the years of the Inquisition, and stands today, plaque-less, as mute evidence of the vicious fanaticism of the Christian rulers of Spain.
Needless to say, we sampled much excellent food and wine, and in Cordoba even found a local IPA! And certainly there is much cultural and intellectual life in Spain which does not reflect that oppressive and depressing narrowness of the Church and the Franco legacy, and there certainly is discontent with the economic stagnation and high unemployment. But there is not a whiff of liberalism or multi-culturalism to be found in the cultural output of official Spain.
On a different subject, the New York Times has published an excellent overview of conditions in the maritime industry. Not mentioned in the article, but certainly related, is the reported 70% decline in sea birds over the last 25 years. It’s well worth reading, and recapitulates the world that B. Traven described so well, ninety years ago, in his novel “The Death Ship.”
Tomorrow we will round Point Europa, to finally enter the Mediterranean. We’ll go on to Estepona, Spain, where we hope to refill our propane tank, which turns out not to be so simple in the Med. We’ll also do our first “Med-mooring,” which has our nerves all a-flutter!