Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Day of Rain, Conversation, and Camaraderie in Córdoba

Saturday, March 12

All of Spain is suddenly being punished for its endless string of fantastic weather.  The sunny days have ended.  It has been raining all week here in Sevilla, and forecasts show that it will continue indefinitely.  I could not be more happy that I went to Barcelona last weekend to enjoy three days of great weather there.  Had I gone this weekend, I would have had my umbrella up the whole time. 

I had reserved this weekend for three things: (1) On Friday, an obligatory company visit to a coffee business outside of Sevilla, (2) on Saturday, a guided visit of Córdoba, and (3) on Sunday, my first day of rest in a long time (ideal given the rain).  I enjoyed the company visit on Friday, although it was quite short.  Typical that we visited a coffee business, something sustained my the endless number of cafes here.

On the bus to Córdoba on Saturday, I prepared myself for the day's sightseeing.  I quickly realized that beyond what was covered by our guided visit, Córdoba did not have much else to offer.  A day trip here is plenty; a few hours would suffice.  Thus, I had no real sightseeing priority for the free time we would have later in the day.  But, it ended up working out for the best.  I would meet two Spaniards who came along for the trip to try to pick up some English.  I will ultimately remember this day for the conversations I had with them.

When we arrived after two quick hours on a bus, we split up into small groups for a guided tour (in Spanish) of Europe's greatest mosque: the "Mezquita."  The site had originally been home to a Roman temple and Visigothic Christian church (as evidenced by a mosaic found beneath the mosque's floor).  What is so significant about the Mezquita is its place in Muslim history.  The heir to the centralized Baghdad caliph fled from a coup there.  He settled in North Africa and conquered Southern Iberia to declare a separate caliph.  The split that the declaration caused is the Islam-equivalent to the Catholic/Protestant split.  Córdoba became the capital of the new western Muslim world. The Mezquita was built as the central place of prayer.

We entered the Mezquita through the Patio de los Naranjos (Oranges) (see below).  The bell tower at the entrance served to call the Muslims to pray five times a day.  These two elements (Courtyard and Tower) are exactly like the Catedral in Sevilla.  The difference is that the mosque in Sevilla was destroyed to build the Catedral.  Here in Córdoba, the Christians who later conquered the Muslims installed a Cathedral in the middle of the vast mosque.

A forest candy-cane-like columns (see below) greeted us at the entrance of the mosque.  They seemed to extend infinitely.  Columns are topped with red-and-white double arches.  The design was adopted from the Romans' round arch and the Visigoths' horseshoe arch.  Together the columns support the low ceiling and vast room devoted to prayer.  A closer look revealed that each column was different.  The Muslims had actually found, not built, each column and installed them here according to their design.  Thus, each was a different height; some extended down deep into the floor, while others had to placed on a pedestal.  Likewise, the moldings and materials were different too.  A grand example of recycling, I suppose.

At the back of the Mezquita was the Muslim-equivalent to a high altar (see below).  The "Mihrab" is a space with a high ceiling with skylights and a little room cut from the wall.  All around this space is intricate plaster work similar to the Alhambra.  The purpose of this space is once again, clever.  With a vast room full of Muslims at prayer time, the prayer leader stood in the Mihrab, turned his back to the audience, and recited the prayers into the tiny room.  The space acted to amplify his voice throughout the entire mosque. 

When the Muslims were conquered by the Christians, the future of the mosque was in doubt.  The Christians could have easily destroyed the mosque, but instead they took out about 90 columns in the center of the mosque and erected a grand cathedral.  The contrast is striking.  You are walking through a dark, forest-like mosque with low ceilings, and suddenly you arrive in the center with bright skylights and high ceilings.  The intricate details of the high ceiling, the choir, and the high altar match the plaster work of the Mihrab.  Unlike the cathedral in Sevilla, this space is white and bright.  The Christian also installed a Treasury room at the back of the mosque and separate altars on the outer walls.  Today the Treasury houses all Catholic artifacts.  Observing contrasts was the most rewarding part of the visit: the contrast between religions, architecture styles, and other sites I have seen in Spain (Granada and Sevilla).

To add to mix, we exited the Mezquita to immediately find the Jewish Quarter.  After a walk through the Alcazar (protective fortress of the city), we walked through the narrow, whitewashed streets similar to Sevilla's Jewish safe-haven.  We visited one of the only synagogues in Spain; it could have been confused for a room in the Alhambra.  The Muslims and for a time, the Christians, allowed the Jews to practice their religion.  The Jews adopted the Muslim architecture style to blend in.  Although the plaster looks Muslim, it actually contains Stars of David and writing in Hebrew.  I was fooled.

After some more strolling, it was time for lunch.  I had met along the way two Spaniards who were hoping to pick up some English.  They were shy at first, but were comforted by my level of Spanish.  When I found out they wanted to learn some English, they also appreciated (1) my patience in listening to them speak English and (2) my slow articulation when I spoke English.  We could relate to the challenges of learning another language.  It seems to me that those Spaniards that struggle to learn English are the most willing to help and converse with Americans.

 Left to Right: Jireh (from IU), Valeriano, me, Juan

Juan and Valeriano, both from Sevilla, joined Jireh (from IU, known as "Julio" here) and me for a picnic lunch across the river.  Both Spaniards were just old enough to have not learned English as a child in school.  Both have studied English for some time. But, as I have discovered with Spanish, fluency is impossible without many hours of conversation.  Juan and Valeriano have spent little time outside of Spain, and remain unsure of the correct pronunciation of many words in English.  Although we chatted as a group for a while, working in pairs became easier for the Spaniards.  Juan tested his English with "Julio," while I built Valeriano's confidence.  Of course, the Spaniards acknowledged that they would have to practice Spanish with us to encourage further instruction.  Valeriano quickly identified my weakness with speaking Spanish quickly, informally, and with rhythm.  He focused his efforts on getting me away from my often meticulous-formed, grammatically-perfect sentences.  He taught me a slew of short, informal phrases that will help me both understand Spaniards quickly and allow to respond at the same speed. 

I was grateful for his help.  Valeriano is unlike many Spaniards I have met, and he acknowledges it.  Valeriano has a rare sense of ambition lacking among my Sevilla University students.  Whereas most Spaniards of my age are satisfied with the idea of growing up in Sevilla, studying in Sevilla, trading jobs with a recent retiree (there are no new jobs here, just openings upon retirement), and spending the rest of their life in Sevilla, Valeriano is different. Recognizing the absence of opportunity, Valeriano seeks to better his life by learning English and moving to the United States.  He studies environmental engineering (something akin to landscape design, I think).  Still, his love for Spain runs deep, so he thinks that moving to the American Southwest might at least remind him of this beloved Andalucía.  Again, the idea of moving anywhere outside of Andalucía, let alone the United States, is foreign to many Sevillanos.  Valeriano has a crucial English exam in June.  Therefore, his sense of urgency is greater than anyone I have met; it is actually quite refreshing and inspiring.  Valeriano expressed interest in meeting with me more often, acknowledging the benefit it would have for the both of us.  I hope this is the case. 

For pictures of this day, see "Córdoba 3-12" at

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