In many of Spain’s oldest cities, history comes in layers.
Dominating the southern skyline of Córdoba is the alcázar, a castle that takes its name from the Arabic word for fort, al-qasr. This medieval Christian castle/palace was built atop the foundations of an earlier Muslim palace, which was built atop the foundations of a Visigothic fortress, which was built atop the remains of a Roman governor’s palace, which was built atop. . .who knows?
The earliest structures all but vanished after the Moors expanded the building into a palace with a large garden, which was used by the local rulers until the Christians retook the city in 1236. In 1328, Alfonso XI of Castile began construction of a larger fortress on the site, although he maintained the luxuriant gardens of the Moorish palace as well as building generous living quarters. Even though the Christians demolished the majority of the original structure, the new building looked pretty Islamic thanks to the introduction of the Mudéjar style, an enduring Spanish architectural style that takes its inspiration from Moorish designs. Even some early twentieth century buildings near by house in Madrid are in this style.
The Stele of Castrelo de Val, showing a shield and chariot. This Bronze Age stele is similar to those found in Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, and the Mediterranean.
When one thinks of Spain, one generally thinks of sun-soaked coastlines and arid stretches of plain, but Spain’s northern coast is a green, hilly region with a strong Celtic tradition. The westernmost region, just north of Portugal, is called Galicia. Here you’ll find cider instead of wine, bagpipes instead of castanets, and a rich archaeological heritage.
GALAICOS. Un pueblo entre dos mundos at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid explores the ancient history of this region from the Bronze Age to the arrival of Christianity. It reveals a well-populated archaeological region that was connected to the Phoenician and Greek trade routes along the Atlantic coast to the tin mines in Britain. The exhibition shows some interesting examples of artifacts making their way along the trade route to Galicia from Italy, Greece, and North Africa.
The Alcazaba with the ruins of a Roman theater in the foreground
Last week I had the pleasure of spending five days in Málaga, a historic port on Spain’s south coast. Founded by the Phoenicians around the 8th century BC, it continued to be important during Roman times and well into the modern era. While it was never one of the major ports like Barcelona, it always saw brisk trade.
The main attractions are two museums dedicated to local-boy-done-good Pablo Picasso and a pair of impressive medieval castles. The first is the Alcazaba, which loomed over the town and we’ll talk about today. Next week’s castle is further upslope and is called the Gibralfaro.
In August of the first year of the reign of Emperor Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, the volcano Vesuvius erupted in the south of Italy and destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Thousands of lives were lost. Out of the fire, ashes, and pyroclastic flows, an Italian film subgenre was born.
The 1959 film The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei) is the most famous of the many journeys Italian cinema has taken into the story of Vesuvius’s first-century eruption. Ostensibly based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s bestselling 1834 novel, the movie is a sword-and-sandal (peplum) riff that departs freely from its source so it can work as a vehicle for new megastar Steve “Hercules” Reeves. Reeves was at the height of his stardom and the peplum genre was also approaching the summit of its commercial success. There were loopier and cheesier days ahead for sword-and-sandal movies — I would argue more fun days — but for class and cash, The Last Days of Pompeii is a pinnacle. It lumbers sometimes under the weight of trying to appear like a serious prestige picture, but the lust for action entertainment carries it along. If you want to watch a dead serious epic from the same year, you have Ben-Hur. If you want to watch masses of polystyrene walls and pillars rain down on the cast and a hero slay lions and crocodiles, stay here.
Mario Bonnard is credited with directing The Last Days of Pompeii, but he fell sick on the first day of production. The man who took over the job was the assistant director, Sergio Leone. Yes, that Sergio Leone. Leone already had extensive experience working on Hollywood epics shot in Rome, including Quo Vadis. He proved he could helm a big feature with The Last Days of Pompeii, and soon after landed his first credited director job on another peplum, the fantastic romp The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), which I humbly submit is the pest peplum of all time. Two years later, Leone jump-started the genre that would surpass sword-and-sandal movies as the Next Big Thing in Italy with his Western, A Fistful of Dollars.
Although the eruption of Vesuvius is the reason the film was made, its story works as an ancient Roman drama even without the volcano. This isn’t a modern disaster film where the volcano is a constant subject of speculation with the actual on-screen disaster consuming the entire last third. Vesuvius appears in a few matte paintings and receives almost no mention again until the last ten minutes, when it interrupts the finale in the amphitheater to become the big curtain-closer. Forget the former plot, everybody run away!
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 Roman theater at Cádiz sez: “Ugh, I’ve eaten too much dormouse. BLAARGH!”
I’ve often heard an odd rumor about the ancient Romans. Supposedly they had a special room in their villas and public houses called a vomitorium so that after binging on food and wine they could purge themselves and start stuffing their gullets again. You’ve probably heard that rumor too.
I’ve never believed that story, but while exploring the Roman remains at Cádiz, Spain, I discovered that the vomitorium actually did exist, it just wasn’t what we’ve been told.
Phoenician bling.Jewelry found in the Phoenician cemetery dating from the 5th to 2nd centuries BC. The finds include many imports, even amulets of Horus and Sekhmet from as far away as Egypt
Europe is known for its ancient cities, with many dating to Roman or even pre-Roman times. One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe is Cádiz, on the southwestern coast of Spain near the Strait of Gibraltar. It has been a city since at least Phoenician times and has been of crucial importance to the region ever since.
Statue of a Lusitani warrior, 1st century AD.
Note the torc and arm bands, indicating high rank
It’s the start of the summer exhibition season here in Madrid, and the National Archaeological Museum is offering a free exhibition called Lusitania Romana, about the Roman province that took up much of what is now western Spain and Portugal.
The province got its name from the native Lusitani, who were either a Celtiberian people or an older ethnic group culturally influenced by the Celts, depending on which historian you read. The Romans fought these people from from 155 to 139 BC, eventually defeating them. The Lusitani continued a guerrilla war for another century.
When the province was created in 27 BC, the capital was set as Emerita Augusta, now the modern city of Mérida in Spain, which still retains some fascinating Roman ruins including a well-preserved theater, plus an excellent museum. With pacification came acculturation, and soon the region had several sizeable cities with all the usual Roman public works, and the countryside had numerous villas with some fine mosaics that have survived to this day.
Happy New Year! Or Sana Sayeeda as they say in Arabic! I’m back from another trip to Morocco, and this time besides staying at our usual place in the medina of Tangier, I and my wife also visited the ancient city of Lixus on Morocco’s Atlantic coast.
Like many cities of Roman Morocco, it’s been inhabited since prehistory, and became a Phoenician colony starting around the 8th century BC. The Phoenicians called Lixus Makom Shemesh (“City of the Sun”). It is believed to be their southernmost colony, but considering the many good bays and coves that stud the Atlantic coast to the south, I’m wondering if an archaeological survey might uncover more.
The ruins stand on a hill overlooking Oued Loukos estuary and the city was an important fishing port as well as a fish processing and salt panning center, the products then being shipped to the Mediterranean. Salt is still being panned in this region today.
This week’s destruction of the temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, has brought the Islamic State’s brutality into the international spotlight once again, just like they wanted it to. I’m grateful that at least I got to see the place before it was destroyed. I’ve written about it in my post Memories of Palmyra before ISIS.
Palmyra isn’t just a unique archaeological site, it’s strategically important too. Located at a crossroads in eastern Syria, from there it’s possible for ISIS to supply all their operations in that sector, including their push for the Syrian capital of Damascus.