In the Spanish town Calzada del Bejár, in the province of Extremadura just south of Zamora, the wooden porches of the houses are held up with Roman milestones. The Via de la Plata, one of the caminos to Santiago de Compostela, was a major Roman trade and droving route. It ran south to north, from Sevilla to Astorga. The droving route is still there in sections — legislated to be 75m wide, with low stone walls on either side, called a cañada. Millions of domestic animals were herded up and down its reaches by season, on their way to market. Some sections of the famous Roman roads are there as well, on which a well-equipped army could move remarkably quickly. (60km per day for carts, If I remember the interpretive sign correctly.) Every mile was marked by stone pillar, quarried hundreds of miles away, carved with the mile notation and maybe praise for the emperor. In modern times Spaniards are hauling these markers out of whatever places they’ve fallen into, and erecting them once more on the pathways and roads where they were originally.
This fountain is in Ronda, Andalucía, Spain. From the patterns of wear, you can see that it’s been there for centuries. On the day that I was there, in the evening, a family was gathered on the steps next to it, chatting and enjoying the cooler evening air. One side of the fountain has basins for people, the other has a trough for thirsty animals. The square was the center of commercial Ronda from the 1700s onwards, with bars, inns, and the Padre Jesus church.
In Oloron St Marie, in the French Pyrenees, there is the former cathedral of Oloron, now called the Eglise Sainte-Marie, with its Romanesque portico. It has a particularly vibrant set of sculptures showing the sinner what awaits him in hell, rows of kings, victorious horsemen trampling on the vanquished, and also two chained figures forever holding up the center column of the doorway. They’re known as Atlantes, from the Greek Titan forced to hold up the sky for eternity.
Looking closer, it becomes clear that the two figures are Moors, or Saracens, from the South, their rule of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) broken by Christian forces. The church was founded by the victorious crusader Viscount Gaston of Béarn after his return from the seige of Jerusalem in 1104. The Moors’ defeat has been carved in stone and on display for the French ever since. The stonework depicts the specific details of their clothing, shoes, head coverings, and chains. Their faces have been worn away by centuries of touching hands; one figure has lost his nose entirely.
What does it do to a country to see depictions of its conquered foes – Muslims – for centuries? Every churchgoer, every Sunday, every wedding, baptism or funeral, passing by these figures, maybe rubbing their faces one more time as they pass through the doorway.
Another shard of the Islamic empire, left standing for 700 years in Ronda, Spain. The city was founded by the Romans as a fortified hilltop outpost of the empire, then conquered by the Visigoths, then again by the Arabs in 713. Its population was large enough that there were 7 or 8 mosques. This tower was part of a small mosque, built around 1300. The city was conquered by Christians in 1485 in the Reconquista, and most of the mosques destroyed. But this one tower (alminar or minaret) was preserved and adapted for use by the locals. It’s now known as the Alminar de San Sebastián.
It wasn’t open when I went by at sunset in June a few years ago, its greyed wooden door fastened tight. There’s not much to be open, as there is no body of church attached, just the tower. But the history of the minaret is visible in its structure: a stone ground level, horseshoe arch doorway, rising to bricks in an alternating pattern. Zoomed in close there are blue green bricks to be seen on the upper levels. The call to prayer would have been made from the second level. The third level was built later, when the minaret became a bell tower for the church of San Sebastian, now gone.
So the minaret lives on quietly, holding its few metres square of space in this plaza, preserved by the Christian community that surrounds it. The website Ronda Today explains more:
Fortunately the church elders weren’t insensitive to the original design, and the roof of the third level was built following mudejar [fusion of Arabic and Christian art] principles.
Some historians have speculated the church tower may have been altered by Moriscos (Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity), and who would not want to destroy all remnants of their former city.
Coincidentally, the church was utterly destroyed in the 1600s during the Morisco uprisings that led to their expulsion to North Africa. It is possible the minaret was purposely left standing as a permanent reminder to Moriscos of all they had lost.
Here’s the window that first got me interested in Moorish architecture. Walking in France in the Pyrenees in 2009, on the way from Lourdes to the start of the Camino Frances at St Jean de Pied de Port, there’s small town in the woods, Hôpital St Blaise. It’s a few buildings, a restaurant, a tiny hostel for pilgrims, and a solid stone church dating from the 12th century. There wasn’t much more in the middle ages, with the addition of a hospital for pilgrims.
The front of St Blaise church is Romanesque, but its windows and interior arches show an Islamic influence, coming from the long-disappeared caliphate, or taifa, of Lerida, across the Pyrenees in Spain. But here in the mountains of France is a trace of the artisans of the south, 800 years later. If I kept walking south, what more might be seen?
Where to go next? I’ve been gazing at this map for the last week. Should I do the Caminho Portugues, from Lisbon to Porto to Santiago? Or maybe a Camino starting in eastern Spain, striking out across country, through Madrid, Toledo, Avila…