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In search of a lost Spain

Tabales now compared the poet-emir al-Mu’tamid (1069-1091) to the Caesar of Rome. Under his rule, the Guadalquivir River (from al-wadi al-kabir, “the great river”) had a different position than today, which made it more conducive to trade. The city has grown exponentially, from some 185 acres to 740. “We see it in our surveys,” Tabales said. “Every house is the same Islamic house.” Yet al-Mu’tamid, at a time of political instability but creative efflorescence, made a catastrophic mistake. After Toledo fell to the Christians in 1085, he lost heart and invited the Almoravids, a Berber dynasty who practiced austere Islam, to cross the straits to North Africa and help him repel the Christian advance. They were happy to oblige but, after witnessing the chaos of Al-Andalus, they returned a few years later, not as allies but as conquerors. Al-Mu’tamid was deposed and became another entry in the catalog of exiles from Al-Andalus. “Oh, may God choose that I die in Seville…!” he would write enviously from North Africa.

On the way to the Tabales office, I asked about the multilingual inscription on the tomb of Ferdinand III. “It’s very common after the Reconquest,” he said. “It becomes even stronger in the 14th century. When the danger of war was averted, the Castilian kings had no problem with minorities. Once they had won, they were more accepting of Muslim influence in the arts” – but not so much, he pointedly added, in politics and religion.

If the initial spirit of the Reconquest had been assimilative, from the 15th century attitudes hardened. Catholic monarchs, Tabales said, referring to Isabella and Ferdinand, “established a political skeleton in which religion held first place.” A monarchy, a religion have become the order of the day, and it is not only Jews and Muslims who have been driven underground. Arabized Christians had to abandon their Mozarabic rite in favor of Roman Catholicism. “It was never easy for minorities,” Tabales said, suggesting they were always at the mercy of political calculations. “It’s a myth, the convivencia.”

As he spoke, I was pierced by a marble stone, draped in a red cloth, next to the table where we were seated. As I was leaving, I asked him the question. He looked at me in astonishment. We were in the stairwell. “But that’s the whole story of Sevilla,” he said, insisting that we go up.

The stone, he explained, pointing to a Latin inscription from the second century, had been given by the oil producers of Seville to the goddess Minerva. Under the Visigoths, whom Tabales called “the Germans”, it formed part of the superstructure of a column in a 5th century cathedral. With the arrival of the Muslims, it was reversed and integrated into a door. “The city,” Tabales said when we were back on the street, standing under the shred of a Muslim arch, “is full of spolia.” But Tabales was not romantic about this use and reuse of old stones. It represented for him a language of power, appropriation and reconfiguration. Struggling to remember the Arabic name, he said spolia were used to indicate “the superior position of Muslims over Christians”.


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