This is the final in a four-part series on flamenco, an art form that was named to UNESCO’s Representative List of intangible cultural heritage items in 2010, while I was travelling through Spain. The criteria for that designation require that the practice must be transmitted from generation to generation, providing communities with a sense of identity and continuity. It is something traditional that is passed on from the past but also alive and constantly evolving.
This series is intended to share my experience of flamenco as embodying Andalusia’s heart and soul, with its people as a prism, offering glimmers of the art’s history and future. This installment in the series focuses on the diversity of flamenco and that of the city in which many believe it came alive — Sevilla. —MP
Perhaps to the tinkling of mules’ bells or the steady clip-clop of horses’ hooves or the rhythmic rolling of wagon wheels, all roads led to Sevilla for an eclectic mix of future Andalusians. Those wanderers who found a home here included Semitic traders of silver, ivory and apes at the time of Solomon, North African Arabs seeking to spread the fledgling Muslim faith in the 8th century, and nomadic gypsies arriving in caravans from India in the early 15th century. These cultural ambassadors converged in Andalusia carrying with them the music of their homelands–Jewish psalmodic melodies, Byzantine and Muslim chants, and ancient Hindu chords.
Just as the sounds of these diverse people blended here to create flamenco, so too the imprint of their influences is etched in stone, ceramics and spires in Sevilla, said to be the birthplace of the performance art.
Some of these cultural legacies take shape in the form of Real Alcazar, the oldest European royal residence, which has been in constant use for more than 1,000 years. The complex of adjoining buildings and gardens are a concrete manifestation of the Spanish term convivencia, or “living together.” A maze of structures that is a delight to dally in, the fortress was built in the 10th century by Arabs, enlarged in Gothic and Renaissance styles during the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabel and their grandson, the Emperor Charles V and restored in the 14th century Hispano-Arabic, or Mudejar, style by the Christian King Peter I, with the help of his advisor, Samuel Levi, a Jew.
I enjoyed a contented half-hour contemplating the palace’s exterior from a sunny curbside seat in the Plaza del Triunfo, in the heart of Sevilla’s historic center. The Real Alcazar is one of three architectural wonders that enclose the plaza, the others being the Archives of the Indies and the Cathedral of Sevilla. The square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was alive with more ephemeral fixtures — orange trees bearing fruit in November, a street vendor selling roasted chestnuts and the boisterous drivers of horse-drawn carriages enjoying a raucous break together. In a glamorous flourish to the old world tableau, a bride and groom posed for pictures on the rim of a fountain, serenaded by a grey-haired man seated at the base of the fortress wall, strumming a ballad that resonated with longing.
While the facade of each of the three buildings surrounding the plaza is ornate, the facade of the palace is especially eye-catching. Set within an immense crenellated defensive wall is the Lion’s Gate, plastered in a shade of strawberry sherbet, and adorned with ceramic tile work, known as azulejos, depicting a heraldic lion.
Heeding El Alcazar’s call, I spent several peaceful hours soaking up its ambience, buzzing like a bumble bee from one exquisite bloom to the next, absorbed by vignettes of palace life — walls of hand-painted tiles lavishly embroidered with delicate Islamic designs, luminous peacocks parading past corridors of reflecting pools, keystone arches in the shade of swaying palm trees.
A range of architectural periods co-exist side-by-side here, where adjoining palaces in Gothic and Mudéjar styles each present a unique face to the world, yet somehow seem meant to be together, like generations in an extended family. The Mudéjar manner is an Andalusian phenomenon — a fusion of Christian and Islamic art created by the Arabs who remained in Spain after the Reconquest, and derived from the Arabic mudajjin, meaning “those staying behind.”
Sevilla seems to have that effect on its visitors — exiting the palace grounds through the Lion’s Gate, I stopped to admire an artist’s open air gallery. As I purchased a whimsical watercolor of the scene, the painter told me in a brogue that she had arrived from Ireland eight years ago on what she laughingly described as the world’s longest vacation.
I made my way to the nearby Plaza de la Virgin de los Reyes, where I met a new friend, Judy Cotter, a university professor originally from California who has made Sevilla home for more than two decades. She had suggested we rendez-vous at the Hotel Dona Maria so I could admire the spectacular view from its rooftop terrace. I was grateful to be the beneficiary of both her recommendation and good timing–the Cathedral’s Giralda was backlit by a dramatic sky swirling in pink and lavender.
Built in 1184-96 as a mosque, the tower is considered the finest of the three great minarets created by the Almohad Muslim dynasty. Topped with four copper spheres that could be seen for miles around, the Moorish tower was used both to call the faithful to prayer and as an observatory from which the horizon could be scanned. The Giralda, named for the giraldillo, or weather vane, at its heights became the bell tower of what now is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral — and the third-largest church in the world. Begun 1402 after the Catholic Reconquista, the cathedral was intended to demonstrate Sevilla’s wealth as a major trading center. According to oral tradition, the builders’ aspiration was: “Let us build a church so beautiful and so great that all posterity will take us for madmen.”
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