Faking Heritage in Barcelona? Three Cases

When I first saw the soaring Columbus Monument in Barcelona (60 meters), I obviously wondered: as far as I know, he is Italian, and he set sail for his first voyage from Palos de la Frontera in Southern Spain, so, where does Barcelona fit into the picture? I asked an old Catalan historian who replied with a sense of accusation in his eyes: ‘you live in Barcelona and you don’t know Columbus was Catalan!’ I will leave it here (there is a debate going on about Columbus and his origins), but to be honest, Columbus was received in Barcelona by the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella) upon his return from the first voyage to the New World. Maybe that is the missing (and only relevant) link he had to the city.

Bu then comes a true hoax: at the heart of El Call (the Jewish Quarter), a synagogue’s brochures and posters invite the tourists to visit ‘Europe’s Oldest Synagogue.’ You enter into a synagogue of a much later era (13th century and beyond) packed with an out-of-tune collection of objects, and the inevitable souvenir corner ‘inside’ the small synagogue. The oldest parts belonging to the original structure are from the 3rd and 4th centuries, but there is no concrete archeological evidence that this structure was a synagogue at all. If we accept the speculation about the foundation being that of a synagogue, then we must also accept that the Ostia Synagogue in Italy is Europe’s oldest synagogue (foundations dating back to the 1st century). Will the brochures and posters change? Of course not. They bring tourists in, they call it ‘cultural tourism’.

Then yet another in-your-face repatriation of someone else’s heritage: Nao Victoria. The ship-museum is a replica of one of the five ships of Ferdinand Magellan in his 16th century journey around the world. The offer is to buy a ticket to visit the ship of Juan Sebastián Elcano, the first man to ever circumnavigate the planet. Wait a minute, wasn’t that Magellan? I know he was killed in Philippines, but again, maybe Elcano was a Catalan assistant of Magellan who ‘finished the job’ after Magellan’s assassination? Well, he was his assistant, but he was Basque, not Catalan. Maybe he landed in Barcelona? No, he landed in Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Southern Spain. Again, what does Barcelona have to do with this? Why present this as if it was its heritage?

The funny part is that Barcelona has -for decades- ignored very interesting layers of its history and heritage: how many people know that Barcelona was the first Visigothic capital in the Peninsula (before Toledo)? How many people know about Barcino, the Roman city that formed the nucleus of what later became Barcelona? Is there any ‘itinerary’ of the barrack cities that once dotted the Barceloneta beach and Montjuïc? Interesting things to reflect on for all heritage specialists and fans, or maybe it’s just the dark side of cultural tourism.

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