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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The bells and barbarus of Seville

When the Christian forces of Castilla y Leon invaded Seville, Spain, they tore down the city's mosque and built a cathedral. They retained just a few parts of the mosque, including its minaret, which was later outfitted with a steeple containing a belfry and topped by a gold weathervane (giralda, which gives the popular name to both the vane and the tower) that became Seville's symbol.

My girlfriend Kate and I visited Seville last month and were mesmerized by the cathedral (a surprise, since visiting the local religious buildings is so often the dullest part of visiting a European city). Partly this was because of its grand scale; it's the largest Catholic cathedral in the world, an enormous scorpion of unusual buttresses looming over the city. But more so, it was impressive through no credit of its own, but because it is lucky enough to not have replaced this mosque entirely. With the exception of some spectacular vaulting, the Gothic stonework suffers next to the elegance of the Giralda minaret and the old Mosque's one remaining gate.

Kate wondered at the demolition of a structure that, judging by its remaining parts, was surely beautiful; did anyone balk at putting their hammer to its sublime stonework? Was there any sadness at this loss among the conquerors, or is that merely a hopeful projection by observers who can't possibly know the prejudices and devotions of the past?

(And while I'm asking questions, why does English change the spelling of some foreign names and not others? Thailand and Iran and Sri Lanka are no longer called Siam and Persia and Ceylon, but China and Egypt and Greece are known only by their English exonyms and not called by their endonyms Zhongguo, Masr and Hellas. Seville is more comfortably said in English than Sevilla, but we don't insist on Columbia and didn't refuse to start saying Beijing or Mumbai, though I admit we probably say them little more accurately than before. And then there's Georgia-the-country, which calls itself by the less confusable name Sakartvelo, but whose capital Tbilisi we transliterate faithfully though few English speakers can pronounce it and the Russian colonial Tiflis is available. The word barbarian comes from the impression among Greeks, who were accomplished renamers, that foreign tongues all sounded like mindless lolling: blah, blah, blah. Surely we're beyond that tradition and ready for Deutschland and Bharat? Alice, cue Fugazi's Reclamation.)

We climbed to the top of the minaret, a pleasant process because of its internal ramps, built so Sevillanos could ascend on horseback. (I wonder when this was last done, and who the riders were--tourists or police or locals enjoying a disappearing custom?) At the top there was a surprise that had escaped mention in my guidebook: a set of enormous bells pealed by a set of exposed motors, gears and chains.

The bells rang on schedule, but that didn't prepare their visitors for the skull-cracking shock of hearing a nearby bell strike--several times one that I, lost in my camera taking the pictures below, didn't realize I was standing under.

The city was wonderful, with narrow streets inherited from the medina and Andalucian tapas typical not just in their tastiness but in their precipitate and unceasing delivery. But the bells cast a spell on us, and after we left the cathedral we stopped for a drink on a nearby rooftop and listened to them ring, and found ourselves back there at night.

View from the minaret across the top of the massive cathedral; the stone floor here is not the ground but the roof. A quote from the planning of the cathedral, probably apocryphal, has someone involved vowing that "we shall have a church... of such a kind that those who see it built will think we were mad."

17th century wood and metal clockworks on display inside the minaret.

Below, the bells and their mechanical controllers.

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Blogger Kate on Fri Feb 16, 07:37:00 AM:
Ben used like 35 of our precious 117 pictures on the digital camera (117 for the WHOLE two week trip) on the bells at the top of this tower. We loved the bells for sure, but I think the ringing possessed him and made his mind both obsessed with them and impermeable to reason. Clearly these five capture the experience, but noooo....