Like so many other European churches, it’s built on the remains of an old pagan temple from the Roman times. The first Christian building on the site was founded by James I of Aragon (ruled 1213-1276) and donated to the Dominicans.
In the 15th century, the church was greatly refurbished, taking on a Gothic style and the addition of a rose window.
When I visited a couple of weeks ago, I barely noticed those medieval elements. They’re almost invisible next to the flamboyant Baroque frescoes covering the entire vault. Painted between 1690 and 1693 by Juan Pérez Castiel, these frescoes have been brilliantly restored in recent years.
Portion of a Visigothic sarcophagus, with scenes from the Bible
Enough about the Western Desert of Egypt! Let’s pull the sand out of our teeth, bid the mummies goodbye, and go to Toledo, Spain. You can eat pork, drink wine, and see some historic churches.
One of the most interesting is the Iglesia de San Román.
This church dates to the early 13th century, and like many buildings in town was built atop earlier structures. Before the church there was a mosque, and before that a Visigothic church. There may have been a Roman building before that. Its interior is in the Mudéjar style, a Moorish influenced architectural style that has continued in Spain until the modern day.
The guard at the Temple of Alexander showing off some of the stray finds to me and my Bedouin driver
In my last post, I talked about the Egyptian tombs at Bahariya Oasis, some 340 km southwest of Cairo. The oasis was on the fringe of civilization in those days, but became more important during the Greco-Roman period because its well-watered soil didn’t flood like the Nile valley and thus was a good place to grow grapes to make wine, something the Greeks and Romans couldn’t live without.
The oasis became prosperous during Greek and Roman rule. It gained significance right from the start when Alexander the Great passed through here on the way to Siwa Oasis further to the west, where he had his famous meeting with the oracle of Amun at the sanctuary there, where he was proclaimed the son of the god and thus pharaoh. The temple honors his visit to the oasis and is the largest in the Western Desert, with a two-room sandstone chapel and a temple enclosure with at least 45 rooms and a surrounding wall.
The apse dome of the Basilica of San Vitale shows Christ enthroned, and looking very much like a Byzantine emperor
I’ve been posting a lot lately about my recent trip to Italy. The high point of the trip for me, indeed the travel high point of the year, was visiting Ravenna.
Ravenna has the best collection of Late Antique church art in the world. As the Western Roman Empire crumbled, Ravenna became the refuge for the last emperors and acted as the capital from 402 to 476 AD. Unlike the more exposed city of Rome, Ravenna was protected on all sides by swamps and was also a base for the Roman navy, making it easy to defend. It eventually fell into Germanic hands but became Roman once again when it served as the Exarchate for the Byzantine Empire from 540 to 751 AD. The Exarch was the representative of the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople and ruled over portions of Italy. Ravenna has a rich collection of religious buildings constructed by the Romans, Christian Ostrogoths, and Byzantines.
The Santa Cueva Oratory in Cádiz was finished in 1796
and is one of the best examples of its kind. It features some
unusually bright and cheery paintings by Francisco de Goya
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Phoenician and Roman Cádiz, the early history of one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe, on the southwestern coast of Spain near the Strait of Gibraltar. While Cádiz was important throughout its history, its sheltered harbor on the Atlantic made it a good spot for launching the many exploratory vessels that Spain sent out into the world starting in the late 15th century. Columbus made his second and fourth voyages to America from Cádiz, and some of the tropical plants growing in the city squares are said to be descendants of samples he brought home.
Roman amphora with coral, from the Levanzo shipwreck AD 275‒300
Sicily has been the center of Mediterranean history for centuries. Positioned at the halfway point between the western and eastern halves of the sea, and between Europe and Africa, it has been a nexus of trade and warfare ever since humanity started sailing. Now a major exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum looks at the discoveries by underwater archaeologists around Sicily’s shores.
An hour’s train ride from Madrid is a small medieval town that’s often overlooked by international visitors. Cuenca has been an important town since the 8th century and has heaps of historic sights as well as natural beauty.
Located in rough hills and on a spur between the deep valleys of the Júcar and Huécar rivers, it’s a naturally defensible position and was fortified by the conquering Moors in 714. There is little remaining from the Islamic era because after it was conquered in 1177 by King Alfonso VIII, the city was extensively remodeled by him and several later monarchs.
The Church of St. George, cut into the bedrock at Lalibela
Last week I discussed the unique blend of Baroque and Abyssinian styles that created the Castles of Gondar, Ethiopia. I’ve also written on the splendid ancient civilization of Axum in the same country. But Ethiopia has a lot more to offer than that. The most famous historic sites, and certainly the most impressive, are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
In the late 12th century, much of what is now northern and central Ethiopia was under the rule of the Zagwe dynasty. Ethiopia had been Christian since 330 AD and had developed its own liturgy, practices, and traditions. Like with all other Christian lands, many Ethiopians dreamed of going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. For some time this was possible, although it involved a long trek overland to catch a boat on the Red Sea, then another trek across the desert to get to the holy cities. But as the Crusades turned the Holy Land into a battleground, it turned a difficult journey into an impossible one. The rulers of the Zagwe dynasty came up with a unique solution.
Oxford is one of the most popular day trips for visitors to London thanks to its beautiful university and world-class museums such as the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers. It’s also worth staying overnight so that you can take advantage to the surrounding area, which offers some pleasant country walks.
One of the more enjoyable is a two-mile stroll along the Thames (locally called the Isis) that takes you to the hamlet of Binsey and the medieval church of St. Margaret’s. Set amid trees in the peaceful English countryside, the church makes for a relaxing stop and you can visit an Anglo-Saxon holy well that’s been an object of pilgrimage for centuries.
Ha! I bet you were expecting another Spanish post, weren’t you? Well, I spend the summers in Oxford, so this week you’re getting something a little more northern. When I’m not researching my next book in the Bodleian Library, I set out to explore the city and surrounding countryside for sights of historical interest.
Oxford is a beautiful university town filled with fine architecture. It’s also an ancient city with roots back into prehistory. It first came into prominence in Anglo-Saxon times and a trace of this has survived. On busy Cornmarket Street, there’s a well-preserved example of a Anglo-Saxon tower. It’s part of St. Michael at the North Gate church and was built around the year 1040. This makes it Oxford’s oldest building and one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon structures anywhere.