At the Mayan Heartland: reflections and photos

These are the collected mini-posts and some of the photos that I had shared with my friends and followers throughout my trip to Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras (click any photo to enlarge). They include information, reflections and impressions.

1.
First day in Guatemala in the company of awesome friends. The capital impresses with its crowds and markets and monuments. The Downtown is dotted with decadent Art Deco buildings, the trees are everywhere and the National Museum hosts mindblowing masterpieces of Mayan Art from Dos Pilas, Piedra Negra, El Naranjo and elsewhere: stelae, masks, carved stone and intricately painted ceramics. My Central American adventure has begun.
2.
Today I crossed the border from Guatemala to Honduras to visit the archaeological site of Copán, one of the most important Mayan cities from the Classical Period (250-900CE). The site is famous for the widespread use of Mayan scripture, reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Copán is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it’s the first of many Mayan sites on my itinerary for this trip.
3.
According to the Mayan Popol Vuh, the human beings were created from maize following three failed cycles of creation. First, the gods created the animals, but the animals could not worship them, and they were sentenced to be subject to humans. The gods then created humans made of mud, but they were imperfect, and were destroyed by the gods. In the third cycle of creation, they created humans made of wood, but those humans had no feelings, and they -too- were destroyed by a flood. Finally, they created humans made of maize mixed with divine blood, and this is why the Mayans refers to themselves as ‘hombres del maíz’ (men of maize).
4.
I came, I saw, I was stunned.
Today, a dream came true. I crossed an ocean to venture into the Mayan heartland, precisely to see this. Tikal is a spectacular Mayan city dotted with pyramids and temples in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle of El Petén. What’s even more stunning is that the Mayans had no wheels and didn’t use metal tools, and yet they were able to construct wonders like this city that still stands the test of time. Most of the stone pyramids here are from the 8th century, including the magnificent Temple of the Jaguar and that of the Masks. Stay tuned for more.
5.
The Mayan King stands in his full attire. He grasps his erect penis with one hand, and with the other he punctures it using an obsidian knife. The blood drops fall unto tree leaves prepared for this purpose, and the leaves are burnt so that the smoke would carry the message to the gods, hoping they would relieve the people from their plight. This ritual bloodletting scene can be seen in many Mayan ceramics and drawings, and was way less horrendous than the human sacrifice practiced frequently by the Mayans to appease their gods and maintain the cosmic order.
6.
When the Spanish conquistadors discovered the Mayan cities and monuments in Central America, they did not spread the word about it. In part, the Spaniards were interested mostly in gold and silver, and the Mayans had none of that. Moreover, the Spaniards failed to understand how old these monuments were, and would not believe that the native Americans whom they saw as savages were capable of such refinement. In the 19th century, the explorers Catherwood and Stephens rediscovered the Mayan sites of Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Their writings and drawing would revolutionize the West’s perception of the human civilization. Here I follow their footsteps along the Ruta Puuc in Mexico, visiting the spectacular ancient Mayan sites of Kabah and Uxmal.
7.
Mérida is a charming colonial city in Mexico’s Yucatán, founded by the Spanish invaders in 1542 on the site of an abandoned Mayan village that had 5 pyramids. These pyramids were dismantled and recycled into building material for palaces and churches (including the Cathedral and Casa Montejo), and the Mayans were enslaved into forced labor. The city is famous for its patios, arcades, shady plazas, colorful façades, and orgasmic tacos
8.
A cenote is a sinkhole in the limestone terrain, one of the typical attractions of southeastern Mexico. The Mayans believed that these Cenotes were a gateway to the region of Chaac, the rain god. Many human bones and skulls, as well as ceramic vases and accessories were discovered by the archaeologists in some of these Cenotes, which means they were a scene for presenting sacrifices and offerings to the Mayan deities. Today I jumped into the blue waters of the X-Cajum Cenote.
9.
Málo-kín (good morning in Mayan Yucatec language)
Following my visits to Copán in Honduras, Tikal in Guatemala and Tulum and Uxmal and Kabah in Mexico, here I stand in the presence of Chichen Itzá, one of the ‘new’ Seven Wonders of the World.
Here dwells the god Kukulkán, the feathered serpent, whose pyramid (El Castillo) reaches a height of 55 meters. This pyramid doubles as a calendar, with the total number of steps on its four sides adding up to 365, the number of days in a year. The god himself appears in the form of a snake crawling down the pyramid through a light-and-shade trick that marks the equinoxes.
This site shows the extent to which other civilizations like the Teotihuacan and the Toltecs had an impact on Mayan architecture and culture in general. I have always dreamed of visiting this site since I started collecting the National Geographic Magazine over 20 years ago. Dreams come true when you work on realizing them.
10.
Mexican Valladolid (from the Arabic Balad al-Walid) is a quiet city founded by the Spanish invaders in the sixteenth century, famous for its pastel colors and colonial architecture, as well as its track record of political struggle and social mobility. The Spanish conquistadors had a tradition of naming new cities in the New World after Spanish cities, and this is why we find many cities carrying names like Mérida, Valladolid, Córdoba, Santiago and Guadalajara
11.
The Story of Chocolate:
When I had the chance to order Mayan chocolate, they brought me a cup of hot chocolate along with a spice set that included cinnamon, pepper, habanero chili, achiote , etc.
The Mayans were the first to produce chocolate from cacao, and their chocolate was usually bitter and water-based (they had no cows for milk). Actually, the word chocolate comes from the nahuatl word Xocolatl (hot water in the Aztec tongue). Chocolate was a special drink enjoyed by the kings, and the cacao beans were so valued they were used as a currency. The Europeans ‘destroyed’ the authentic taste of chocolate by adding milk and sugar to it; the Mayan chocolate had spices and would be sweetened with honey.
12.
The Mesoamerican ball game was a ritual sport practiced by the Mayans and by other Mesoamerican civilizations. Instead of kicking the rubber ball with their feet or hands, the players were allowed to only use their waists/hips in purpose-built ball game courts with slanting walls on both sides and stone rings through which the ball had to pass in order to ‘score a goal’. The game ended in blood; the captain of the losing side was sacrificed. The game reproduces the story of the Twin Heroes (Hunahpú and Xbalanqué) that managed to beat the Lords of Xibalbá (the Underworld) in a ball game, before rising to the sky to become the sun and the moon. As such, the ball represents the sun and the ball game establishes the link between the Underworld, the Earth and the Heavens.
13.
Few cities anywhere in the world left me as awe-stricken as Antigua did. Once the capital of all Central America, words would not do the city justice, for Antigua seems like an unearthly realm, the brainchild of the three mighty volcanos that surround it. Cobbled streets, pastel walls, baroque façades, artifacts to die for; the city survived the catastrophic 1773 earthquake, but is still bears the scar: it’s the blemish that makes it even more attractive. The more I walked, the more the enchanted corners that I came across, but the journey takes me elsewhere.
14.
Two weeks through my journey at the Mayan heartland in three countries, the time has come to share with you some information and anecdotes about this civilization:
The Mayans constructed the world’s largest pyramid (sorry Egypt!) called La Danta at El Mirador Site in Guatemala. It is still not fully excavated.
In addition to Egypt and Sudan, there are true pyramids in Mexico, Belice, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador
The average life expectancy among the Maya was 45-48 years due to malnutrition, disease and wars
The Mayans had their own cross long before Christianity, with its 4 arms symbolizing the 4 cardinal points. These directions were represented by red for the East, Black for the West, white for North and yellow for South
The Mayans thought that cross-eyed kids were beautiful and blessed by the gods. Some actually would tie a dangling object at the forehead of their kids to make them cross-eyed
The Mayans did not practice metallurgy, but they were great ceramists and stone masons and they used jade -instead of gold- for jewelry and funerary masks
In addition to a architecture and art, the Mayans left literary masterpieces like the Rabinal Achí, the Chilam Balaam and the Popol Vuh
The Mayans aligned many of their pyramids and temples with three stars of the Orion Constellation forming a triangle that represented the primordial hearthstones.
The Mayans referred to themselves as Men of Maize and People of the Jaguar. They developed the first standard writing system in the Americas, used the zero, and developed two sophisticated and accurate calendars.
The Mayans were not exterminated by the Spanish (like the Aztecs for example). They still survive and, in Guatemala alone, there are more than 20 Mayan ethnic groups (Kiché, Ma’m, Kaqchiquel, Tz’utujil, etc.)
The Mayans had their extensive pantheon gods and goddesses, including Chaac (rain god) and Kukulkán (wind god) and Ixchel (medicine goddess)
15.
Having enjoyed the masterpieces of the Mayan civilization, the time has come to explore the contemporary Mayan culture in the villages and towns of Western Guatemala. The Mayans take pride in their culture and their heritage, and it is clearly visible in the way they still use their native languages and keep their traditional costumes, decorated with symbols that reflect their cosmo-vision. I managed to learn some Mayan phrases in a village and I tried using them in other villages, only to find out that every ethnic group has its own tongue. The Mayans suffered ethnic cleansing and deculturalization attempts, but they have managed to overcome all these challenges, despite the hefty price they paid. I asked my guide, Dolores Rastan (a Tz’utujil Mayan) about what it meant to her being Mayan, and she said it meant being connected to the earth and the sky, and never losing the bond with the elements of Nature, just like a tree whose roots dig deep in the soil, while its branches yearn for the sun.
16.
Finally I joined a Mayan ritual, a ceremony associated with Maximón, whom the Maya celebrate as a folk saint-deity-sinner that combines features of Saint Simon, Judas Iscariot and Pre-Colombian gods, and hence, represents both light and dark. They make offerings of tobacco and wine to this saint whose effigy features a seated man with a cigarette in his mouth and a hat on his head. This effigy changes premises every year and people flock to his site to venerate him. One of the most prominent social phenomena among the present-day Mayans is that of religious syncretism, a mixture of Catholicism, Shamanism and Animism. I have visited several Mayan altars and ancestral stones around Lake Atitlán and saw how the Mayans have ‘adopted’ many Christian Saints, linking them to ancient gods so as not to to lose their old beliefs and sacraments, and I have read about how they sacrifice animals inside some churches, like that of Chichicastenango. Many of these churches were actually built on the sites of ancient Mayan temples, but the Mayans never lost the bond with the sites. Watch my photos for more.
17.
How did a splendid civilization like that of the Maya come to an end, with nothing left of it other than monuments and a living cultural heritage in Mexico & Central America? When the Spanish invaders arrived in the 16th century under the leadership of the criminal Pedro de Alvarado, the Mayan golden age (the Classical Period 250-900 CE) was long behind, a distant memory. In addition to civil wars, disease and malnutrition, the most critical factor in the demise of the Maya civilization had been the overpopulation and the accompanying overconsumption of natural resources, accelerating urbanism, and systematically clearing large areas of trees to use the land for agriculture, all at the expense of the forests and rivers. The environmental balance collapsed and the consumption exceeded Nature’s carrying capacity. The climate changed, the droughts hit and there was no turning back. These are lessons from the past, but history repeats itself in our communities.
18.
Lake Atitlán is one of the most fascinating natural sites in Central America, surrounded by many towns where the visitor can explore the daily life of Mayan people (Cakchiquel and Tz’utujil) in the markets, streets, farms and cult sites. The Lake -sacred to the Maya- is surrounded by mountains and volcanos, while the lake itself occupies the site of a very old caldera (I had a swim there). Moreover, there are scores of local artisans and artists.
I have visited Panajachel, Santiago Atitlán, Santa Cruz, Santa Catarina Palopó, San Pedro, San Juan Tolimán and San Marcos la Laguna.
19.
I came to Chichicastenango to spend three days with a Mayan family and to attend the eve of the Feast of Saint Thomas. Once I entered the city, it felt as if I’ve walked through the mirror of Alice in Wonderland! I have never seen such a feast for the senses other than in the most impressive of the bazaars in the Orient, and I’ve never seen religious syncretism as sophisticated as the one here. I leave you with some photos of the market, cemetery and cult sites, and tomorrow we proceed with the Feast that coincides with the Winter Solstice.
20.
I have never seen a community celebrating its faith as zealously and vividly as the Mayans. As a professor of cultural heritage, the Feast of St. Thomas presented me with a tour-de-force and an opportunity to explore the extraordinary richness of the Intangible heritage of the Quiché Maya: dance of the masks, dance of the Jaguar, flying men, fireworks, marimba music, food stalls, processions with saintly effigies that resemble Pre-Colombian gods, pagan and Christian rituals inside the church and offerings at the Church’s staircase which once led to a Mayan temple. This staircase becomes a microcosm where people celebrate St. Thomas and the serpent Kukumatz on one of the most significant days for those that venerate the elements of nature and the serpentine energy; the winter solstice. The music, dance and fireworks never ceased for a second, while more people in their best costumes kept flocking in to celebrate this hybrid feast-carnival-collective hysteria. Here, and despite the poverty, I have seen the ‘joie-de-vivre’ that Europe has lost.
21.
I came to Sant Andrés Xecul in Western Guatemala after two chicken-bus rides to visit the most colorful and iconographically-charged churches in the world. The façade of this 17th-century church features some 200 figures and shapes that assimilate Christian and Mayan symbols in an acute state of horror vacui: angels blessing the sun, others gazing to the west, jaguars supporting a column, all against a backdrop of yellow, which in the Mayan culture symbolizes the maize. Higher uphill, I visited the Calvario Church only to find some locals engaging in yet another Mayan ceremony that involved offerings to an altar outside the church.
22.
For days now, I have contemplated how the sun would disappear behind cloud-clad mountains and mist-covered volcanos. The Kaqchikel Mayans told me the sun would complete its nocturnal journey through the Underworld in the form of a jaguar: The Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire that walks fearless across the dark realm of Xibalbá.
I have seen tamarind skies embellished with black Jaguar spots, I have seen the honey-hued Lake Atitlán in the sunset, but more than anything, I have seen how my Vía Crucis melted into the immense Via Láctea.
No journey is greater than one that inspires a parallel journey of inner reflection. My Mayan nahual (sign) is the ‘Road’; I am the road that I walk

I headed early in the morning to Sant Cruz del Quiché to visit one of the holiest sites for the Quiché Maya, namely Q’umarkaj, the old Quiché capital that was burnt down by the Spaniards that also massacres the inhabitants with the help of the Kaqchikel Mayans, enemies of the Quiché. This city was once dotted with temples, pyramids, palaces and a Ball Game court, but now it is a magnet for pilgrims that come to pray to their ancestors at the relics of the Temple/Pyramid of the god Tohil. Old altars are all over the place, but I only came across a shaman that allowed me to take a pic as he performed a ritual. He asked me where I came from, and when I told him I was Egyptian, he gazed at me, then smiled and said that our ancestors had communicated together millennia ago, and that they would definitely come back one day.
My Central American journey has come to an end, thank you for following. I will forever remember the Quiché, the Kaqchikel, the Tz’utujil, the Popol Vuh, Xibalbá, Chaac, Xpalanque, Hunapú, Kukulkán, the nahuales, Maximón, the huipiles and everything related to the Maya.

My New Book: The Mediterranean – a shared heritage

Last week, I presented my new book, The Mediterranean: a shared heritage, at a ceremony held in Piran, Slovenia, marking the tenth anniversary of the EMUNI University. More than just a book, it is the culmination of a long Mediterranean Odyssey that took me to 20 Mediterranean countries, and to places in the mind that I never knew existed. From the Phoenician coastline to the Pillars of Hercules, may the passion be contagious, may the journey begin.

Brief: The book is centred around the history, culture and heritage of the Mediterranean region, with a focus on common heritage values, bridges of intercultural and interfaith dialogue, and the role of the butterfly effect in shaping our collective history in this part of the world. It also showcases Mediterranean personalities from the past and offers alternative cultural itineraries in various Mediterranean cities.

Index:
Forward Note

Preface

I. Distant Memories: Birth Pangs of a Mediterranean Legacy
Once Upon a Time in a Cave
The Neolithic Revolution
Pharaohs, Purple Traders and Thalassocracies
Democracy and Other Gifts from Greece
Mare Nostrum and the Pax Romana
The Early Medieval Rollercoaster: Renovatio Imperii?
The Crusades: Deus vult
Renaissance at Last: Humanism Triumphant
Discoveries and Revolutions: Eppur es muove
Constantinople to Vienna: Ottomans at the Gate

II. Unlikely Encounters: The Butterfly Effect
Carthage must be destroyed
Metamorphosis of the Written Text: Papyrus to Paper
Barbarians in the Land of Berbers
Andalusi Diasporas and Accidental Heroes
The Rise and Fall of the Mamluks
By the Walls of Damascus
Captives in Barbary and Beyond
Madrasas of Splendour and Scandal
The Old Masters: Artistic Encounters and Rivalries
Ottoman Blood Tax and Turkish Delights

III. Cultural Bridges: Enlightened Minds and Civilizing Agents
Hypatia: Greek Fire in Alexandria
Ziryab: A Bird from the East
Maimonides: Guide of the Perplexed
Ibn Arabi and Other Andalusi Mystics in the Orient
Ramon Llull: Christianus Arabicus
The Translators of Baghdad, Toledo and Sicily
The Troubadours: Alchemists of Love
Epic Travels, Images of the Other
Women at the Forefront of Cultural Promotion
Byzantine Ambassadors of the Greek Tradition
Le Siècle des Lumières

IV. Living Heritage: Icons of Identity
Epic Poems and Oral Traditions
The Divine Gift of the Mediterranean Diet
Fascinating Crafts: The Story of Glass
Sacred Bulls, Immortal Bison
Urban Fabric: A Mediterranean Legacy
An Ode to the Sea Deity
Circle Dance: From Prehistory to Matisse
Ancestral Knowledge: The Memory of Trees
Cultural Routes, Landscapes and Natural Wonders
Fishing East and West
Healers, Exorcists, Mourners and Puppeteers
More than just Tangible Heritage

V. Sun-Bathed Cities: Cultural Itineraries
Barcelona: What has become of Barcino
Dubrovnik: Ragusan Splendour
Tétouan: The White Dove
Tunis: White and Mediterranean Blue
Valletta: The Real Club Med
Acre: Beyond the Sea Walls
Alexandria: The Winepress of Love
Athens: I came, I saw, I was conquered
Beirut: The Vibrant Capital of the Levant
Marseille: A Taste of Provence

The Final Encore: Where do we go from here?

Photo Gallery
Reference Notes

Quotes
“Throughout its history, the Mediterranean has been both a civilizing sea and a ‎corrupting sea. It has almost always been what we have made out of it: a meeting point, a ‎melting pot, or a hostile frontier. It is, in short, a genuine epitome of the human ‎condition of its people.”

“The Mediterranean that gave birth to the alphabet, to democracy, to the republic, to philosophy and ‎drama, and to the world’s first great libraries and academies, has always taught ‎us that beyond the imagined communities and the clichéd perceptions, there is a ‎common Mediterranean culture that is omnipresent in the lives of people around ‎its shores. Whether in Sicily or in Byblos, the essence is one: people celebrating life and rejoicing in a ‎variety of expressions and a pluralism of sentiments.”

“More than ever, we need to understand that the ‎moment we see our diversity as a threat rather than a resource, ‎we are no longer Mediterranean. One of the core parameters of our Mediterranean ‎culture is our ability to absorb so many differences without losing our essence, without giving up on what makes us individually unique in a context of pluralism.”

Book Cover

Nawamis: The Prehistoric Pearls of Sinai

It was a few months ago that I finally went on my second trip to this Prehistoric wonder. At the heart of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, a cluster of circular stone buildings that date back from the Chalcolithic Age (Copper Age) and the Early Bronze Age are believed to be the oldest freestanding stone structures on earth. Dating back to the fourth millennium BCE, they are practically 5,000 to 6,000 years old, which means they are over 1,500 to 2,500 years older than the Great Pyramids of Giza, and that they are –at least- as old as the Megalithic Temples of Malta and the Cairns of Scotland.

The people of Sinai call these circular structures ‘Nawamis’, a word of three possible origins: a place for sleep (as in, eternal sleep), a place to hide from mosquitos (inspired by the Biblical Plagues of Egypt and the Jewish Exodus), and body/resting place of the body, meaning namoos in Bedouin tongue. Different groups of Nawamis exist in Sinai, including the Gebel Gunna field, the ‘Ain Umm Ahmad field and, most impressively, the Ein Hudra field between Saint Katherine and Dahab.

First explored by the Bedouins, these Nawamis were later explored by Edward Henry Palmer in his book ‘The Desert of the Exodus’, then documented by Flinders Petrie in his book ‘Researchers in Sinai’. They were also studied thoroughly in the 20th century by Israeli archaeologists who concluded -as already forwarded by earlier explorers- that these structures were conceived as family tombs. This claim is supported by the objects found inside the Nawamis, including bones, beads, and alleged funerary offerings. The fact that the Nawamis were reused by successive groups and cultures in later periods makes it difficult to determine with certainty their original use. We are told that in the early 1980s, Sinai had over 1,000 nawamis.

The Nawamis share a well-defined set of characteristics. They are typically circular in shape with a small entrance in the form of a trilithon oriented towards the west/west-south and an inner slanting wall forming a corbelled roof. Local sandstone is the building material of choice, even though metamorphic rocks were also used. The flakes of sandstone are arranged painstakingly to form a compact structure that, obviously, withstood the elements and the sands of time for millennia, even though the Nawamis might have been reinforced by locals throughout their history. The average height of these structures is two meters, and they are almost always located at a place that commands sweeping views of the surrounding desert.

Inspiring awe and wonder, the best time to visit the Nawamis is in the late afternoon when the sun illuminates their entrance and creates a magical effect of interplay between light and shadow. Mystery still shrouds the Nawamis and the exact group that built them. Were they local Bedouins? Pastoral/nomadic tribes? Were they really just tombs? Go find out for yourself next time you’re in Sinai, and please remember: Take nothing with you, leave nothing behind!


 

An Intro to the Fine Art of Greek Vases

I first developed a taste for Greek Vases during my visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, whose collection offers a tour-de-force of Ancient and Classical Greek Art. In addition to the fascinating Minoan frescoes, Mycenaean gold masks and jewelry, Cycladic idols and Classical statues, the Museum houses a mind-blowing collection of Greek kylixes, kraters, pitchers, amphorae, askoi and other varieties of Greek pottery from different periods and styles. The styles are so many and the techniques are sophisticated, but here I mention some examples to those interested:

Minoan Marine Style
One of the earliest ‘styles’ of pottery painting during the Bronze Age is the Marine Style developed by the Minoans in Crete during the third millennium BCE. As the name implies, this style is dominated by depictions of marine life on amphora and other vessels. Octopuses, shellfish and fish were painted using brown or black against a creamy background; figures would flow and fill the surface of the vessel with curves and waves. The Mycenaeans also employed this style.

The Geometric Period Style
The Pre-Geometric, Proto-Geometric and Geometric Vases which coincided with the Archaic Period all show intricate geometrical patters that range from simple concentric circles to the famous ‘meander’ motif that resembles a labyrinth design. Moreover, some stylized representations of men, horses and charioteers were used. One of the most impressive examples is the Dipylon Amphora.

Black-Figure Pottery
Attica became the heart of pottery production, and the black-figure style appeared in the seventh century BCE. Simply put, black figures are painted on brown/red clay. Attention to detail is very high, and mythological themes became a main inspiration for the subject matter.

Red-Figure Pottery
In the late sixth century BCE, several artists started using red figures against a black background, producing a wealth of magnificent pottery that eventually turned into a prized commodity throughout the Mediterranean. From everyday vessels, the Greek Vases have become collectable ‘art objects’ and several artists gained fame as master potters (like the Andokides Painter). Moreover, Greek vases became bearers of a tradition and media through which people could peer into the Greek world and its system of beliefs and values through the stories they depict.

 

 

Casas de Indianos: Barcelona’s Colonial Legacy

During the cultural walk that I organized for my Mediterranean Heritage students in Barcelona, we explained several heritage elements that included the Renaixença (the 19th century Catalan Renaissance), els Jocs Florals (Floral Games involving poetry contests), la Sardana (a traditional Catalan dance), the Tertulia (cultural salon), the Castellers (human towers), and the Casas de Indianos, which I explain in more detail in this post.
Following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Spain referred to the native Americans as ‘Indios’ (Indians), inspired by Columbus’ famous original misconception, thinking he had discovered India, rather than a new continent. Eventually, many explorers, navigators, and soldiers-of-fortune would follow the example of Columbus and try their luck in the New World, hoping for money or fame: Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Hernando de Soto and Alonso de Ercilla are just a few examples. The Age of Discovery had begun, and so did Spain’s ‘Siglo de Oro’ (the Golden Century).
Scores of Spanish men, young and old, saw the New World as an opportunity to accumulate riches. The sugar and the coffee industries were among the most flourishing businesses in America, and many Spaniards managed to accumulate riches in Mexico, Chile, Cuba, Puerto Rico and elsewhere before Spain finally lost its last colonies overseas during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Those Spanish adventurers and business men that came back to Spain having made a fortune in the Americas came to be known as ‘Indianos’. Those rich Indianos used their fortune to wield power and prestige: they tried to buy noble titles, gain social status by patronizing artists and poets (like Eusebi Gϋell becoming the patron of Antoni Gaudí) and building fancy houses and palaces in the colonial style. These houses came to be known as Casas de Indianos, and they share certain characteristics: the use of marine motifs (like the anchor, the trident of Poseidon, sea serpents, etc.) and native American inspirations (most commonly the head of a chief or a slave with feathers and arrows, but also exotic fruits and brids) as decorative elements; the cultivation of palm trees in their gardens (if they have one), and the use of porticos or colonnades or other elements of colonial architecture.
In Barcelona, we visited the most elaborate example, namely Casa Xifré in Passeig d’Isabel II, which dates back to 1840. The house, which shows clear masonic inspiration, features a very interesting iconographic program that includes, in addition to marine motifs and native American faces, a row of medallions featuring the busts of Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus and many other iconic explorers and navigators from Spain and Portugal.
Though many Indianos were involved in illicit trade, trafficking and promoting slavery, their contribution to cities like Barcelona and other parts of Spain was overwhelming. In addition to their own houses, they undertook urban projects, promoted the industrial revolution, built banks and educational institutions, sponsored art and culture, introduced new traditions and tastes to their native communities and -in some cases- even left us a body of literature chronicling their endeavours and offering us a first-person glance into the Americas.
Barcelona is a city that has a lot to offer, and yet, most tourists and inhabitants skip the colonial legacy of the city (which inspired a whole musical genre known as the Habaneras, named after la Habana or Havana, the capital of Cuba) in favour of the usual suspects that include the Gothic Quarter and the Modernist architecture of Gaudí and Co.
Below are images of Can Xifré and a nearby Casa de Indianos in El Born.

 

صور لبعض المدن والآثار المذكورة في كتابي عن الأندلس

بمناسبة مشاركة كتابي “الأندلس: تاريخ الشتات” والصادر عن دار الربيع العربي في معرض القاهرة الدولي للكتاب الذي يبدأ اليوم، يسعدني أن أشارك معكم بعض الصور التي التقطتها في المدن المذكورة في كتابي، بهدف مساعدتكم على تخيل أجواء تلك المدن وتشجيعكم على اقتناء الكتاب. الصور خاضعة لقانون الملكية الفكرية ، وبإمكانكم استخدامها لأغراض غير تجارية شريطة ذكر اسم صاحب حقوق الملكية الفكرية (محمد الرزاز). أرجو أن تنال الصور إعجابكم، مع العلم بأنني سأقوم برفع المزيد من الصور لاحقاً

Bosnia: Sarajevo at the Crossroads of History

The story of Sarajevo unfolds in its historic centre, where Ottoman omnipresence and Austro-Hungarian elegance fuse with an unmistakable Balkan twist. The city is surrounded by hills and mountains from which the Serbs and their allies once poured hell on the helpless civilians. Such is the sadness of geography for a country that has paid a hefty price for its genius loci, always stuck between superpowers and hostile sides.

The historic city centre around Baščaršija (Sarajevo’s Old Bazaar) shows all the ‘usual suspects’ of an Ottoman city, and it should come as no surprise: the city centre is the brainchild of one benevolent and visionary ruler, namely the Ottoman Gazi Husrev Beg, sanjak-beg (district ruler) of Bosnia. Born to a Bosnian father and an Ottoman mother (and grandson of Sultan Bayazid II), his ensemble (architectural complex) includes a mosque, a madrasa, a library, a clock tower, a tašlihan (caravanserai or merchants’ inn), a bezistan (covered market), a hamam (bath), an aqueduct, fountains, to the end of the long list. More than just an ‘Ottoman fossil’, almost all these monuments are still functioning, whether serving their original function or recycled into a relevant use.

I started my day with some cheese-filled burek for breakfast. Walking down the Ferhadija Street (which was conceived around the Ferhad Pasha Mosque), I had a first stop at the Gazi Husrev Beg’s Mosque to admire the beautiful wooden Shadirwan (fountain) and the harmonious interior, before paying a visit to the Madrasa and Haniqah across the street. At the Sarači Street, I could not resist the coffee temptation. A little detour and I found myself at the heart of the Morića Han (Roadside Caravanserai) where I had my first Bosnian coffee (served in a copper-plated pot with a long, decorated neck, called a džezva, with a side cup containing sugar cubes and rahat lokum, better known as Turkish delights). Following the crowds, I ended up entering the busy 16th-century Bezistan, a roofed market lined with shops and workshops selling souvenirs and traditional products (mostly, metalwork, tablecloths and scarves). Back to daylight, I started zigzagging the narrow alleys around the Bezistan, had another coffee, then headed to the Pigeon Square, which seems to be whirling around the emblematic 1891 Sebilj (Public Fountain).

Following this overdose of Ottoman architecture and a hearty ćevapi lunch (a Bosnian variation on kafte and kebab served with traditional bread and chopped onions), it was time for something different, and the Austro-Hungarian splendour was just around the corner. As I crossed the river Miljacka to the other side, I could admire some interesting facades, but the real deal was the group of rather decadent buildings and villas with clear Vienna Secession touch at the nostalgic Petrakina Street. Unfortunately, time has not been so kind to them, but their charm lives on.

The city has many other gems to offer. A Jewish synagogue, a beautiful old orthodox church, and, saving the best for last, the spectacular National Library. Shelled on purpose during the Bosnian War, it was resurrected into its former splendour, having lost over one million books! The pseudo-Moorish façade striped in yellow and red is a visual reference of the city, but once inside, I was swept away by the incredible feat of architecture: arcades, half-domes, glass windows, calligraphy bands…all conceived to perfection. I don’t know how much I spend there, but I finally came back to my senses after walking out reluctantly from this oasis. As I crossed the Latin Bridge, I stopped to read a plaque explaining how a nationalist Serb assassinated the Archduke of Austria nearby, triggering WWI.

Far beyond the Old City, I came across bullet-riddled buildings, abandoned houses and ghastly reminders of the Siege of Sarajevo and the Balkan War: The Children Memorial, the Unitic Towers, the Snipers’ Alley, the Tunnel of Hope, and cemeteries wherever you look. That will be another story, another blogpost. Enjoy the photos and click any of them to enlarge it.