Letter from Spain: Tracing History in the Shadow of La Giralda
In mid-March, the trees lining the streets of Seville are full of ripe oranges. I ask my taxi driver if I am allowed to eat them. “No, no, no!” he says, laughing. “They are too bitter. The city sends them to Britain to be made into marmalade.
I imagine the bittersweet taste of the oranges as I rest on the ground near a quiet fountain in the Patio de las Naranjas, or “Courtyard of the Oranges.” The courtyard, nestled within the Seville Cathedral, contains several small fountains spread out among a grid of orange trees and connected by tiny aqueducts. Worshippers would have used the fountains to wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque for prayer.
The Cathedral’s conglomeration of architectural styles creates a visual history, the ultimate result of which is an unexpected kind of harmony. From the Patio de las Naranjas, sounds blend into the murmur of the afternoon. Above the soft splashing of the fountains, I can hear the faint notes of a street performer playing classical Spanish guitar. Women offer sprigs of rosemary to passersby and claim they can read your fortune if you pay. Taxi drivers honk at groups of students. A horse trots by on the cobblestone streets, its carriage rattling behind it.
A statue of St. Peter, holding the key to heaven, guards the arched entrance of the courtyard. He seems to be watching chatty tourists at the gelato store across the street. I squint as the sun peeks out from behind La Giralda, once a minaret, now a bell tower looming over 100 meters above the courtyard. For all of its significance to Islam and Christianity, the mosque-turned-cathedral is located within a kilometer of not one, but two separate Starbucks cafés. As much as it bridges the histories of two world religions, the Seville Cathedral also stands at the intersection between sacred and secular, past and present.
Just as layers of sandstone show the geological history of a canyon, the layers of architectural styles on La Giralda tell the religious history of Seville. Construction of La Giralda began in 1184 during the Moorish period under architect Ben Ahmad Baso, who modeled it after the tower of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh, Morocco. La Giralda served as a minaret until 1248, when the mosque was consecrated as a cathedral during the Reconquista, the centuries-long period during which Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula fought to regain land ruled by the Muslim Moors. The old minaret was then incorporated as a bell tower.
An earthquake destroyed most of the original mosque in 1356, but parts of La Giralda and the Patio de las Naranjas survived. In 1401, construction of the new church began on the site of the destroyed mosque. According to local legend, those charged with the construction of the cathedral said, “Let us build a church so beautiful and so grand that those who see it finished will think we are mad.”
In the cathedral, vaulted ceilings and stone pillars like sturdy elephant legs draw visitors’ attention towards the heavens. Without the green, red, and gold spotlights that now illuminate the ceiling, I imagine it must have been difficult to see the details of the delicate stonework when the cathedral was completed in the 16th century, over 100 years after construction began. When my neck begins to hurt, I have to tear my eyes away from the ornate ceilings. I notice, for the first time, that the ancient gazes of saints and angels surround me.
It is cold in Seville for March, but it is colder in the cathedral, where the vast interior seems to generate its own weather. I stop at the tomb of Christopher Columbus, one of the cathedral’s most popular attractions. Four ghostly, hulking figures hold up his tomb, where his bones may or may not be kept (the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo also claims to hold Columbus’s remains, but DNA testing in 2006 confirmed that at least a portion of Columbus’s remains rest in Seville). Examining the greenish, sickly faces of the four figures, I feel a chill thinking of the countless people who have been buried in the cathedral or who have walked under the vaulted ceilings before me. After crossing the vast nave of the cathedral, I begin the hike up La Giralda’s ancient stone ramps.
Architect Hernán Ruiz the Younger oversaw the addition of the top third of the tower beginning in 1568. The ornate Spanish Renaissance style of the top third contrasts with the geometric simplicity of the lower two thirds, yet the two styles fit together like architectural puzzle pieces. At the top is a bronze statue of the female personification of Faith, which acts as a weathervane.
From the top of La Giralda, the sounds from the street below are muted. Standing on almost 900 years of history, I can see both the Alcazar palace, built by the Moors in the 11th century and the current Archbishop’s Palace of Seville. Past the flying buttresses of the cathedral are all the signs of a modern city: apartment buildings, busy streets, and rooftop bars advertising a stunning view of La Giralda.
Wanting to step back into the sun after spending hours in the chilly cathedral, I return to the Patio de las Naranjas to sit again under the orange trees. The customers at the gelato store, the women selling rosemary, the street performers, the carriage drivers, and other people relaxing in the courtyard all quickly look up. The bells of La Giralda toll, breaking the peaceful rhythm of the afternoon.
Olivia Burton ’18 is an English major in Morse College. She can be reached at email@example.com.