STOCKHOLM

Stockholm

“The Northern Star.”
  -Time (July 4, 2011)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

     The Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1909), spoke of Stockholm as “a city that floats on water.”  Indeed, Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, a country about the size of California, stretches across fourteen islands, draped in greenery and red brick buildings.  In June the water surrounding these islands glitters, the light above gives off a brightness that makes one cry out for shade.  Flowers, birdsong, and mosquitoes abound, while salmon-stocking programs make the inner-city waterways a fisherman’s dream.

Old town Stockholm. Near the palace.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     Gamla Stan (Old Town) rests on one of the small island mentioned above.

     Stockholm’s history began here, around 1250, as an encampment for fishermen and hunters.  This early settlement soon grew into a trading post and fort whose purpose was to cordon off the inland waterways from Baltic Sea interlopers.  By the 17th Century Sweden had mushroomed into one of Europe’s leading naval powers, with territories throughout the Baltic Sea.  For a time Sweden even had a colony in the New World—on the mouth of the Delaware River, where Wilmington stands today—but that was short-lived, soon falling into Dutch hands.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

      To many visitors Gamla Stan is a maze of cobblestone lanes; yellow, orange, and red buildings; and old fortified walls sometimes etched with ancient Viking Runestones, written in Old Norse, listing Swedes who had participated in Viking expeditions.

     While its history reaches far into the past, Stockholm also struck me as a place on the cutting edge of innovation.  The city powers its buses with bio-gas and uses rainwater for irrigation.  In 2010 it was named Europe’s first green capital.  Stockholm aspires to be a fossil-fuel-free city by 2050.  In the interim, it hopes to export this “outside the box” way of thinking to the world, thus also “turning green into gold” as my Swedish friend Maj once said about her country’s ambitions.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     Konserthuset provides the venue each December 10 for the Nobel Prize presentations in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics, and literature.  (The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo’s City Hall on the same date.)  This celebration is followed by a banquet in the Blue Hall of Stockholm’s Stadshuset (City Hall), today considered the symbol of the city.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     The Vasa, the ill-fated, top-heavy oak vessel that capsized and sank unexpectedly just 1400 yards into its maiden voyage, on August 10, 1628, killing 50 people.  The pride of the Swedish fleet then languished for more than 300 years on the bottom of Stockholm Harbor in 110 feet of cold, brackish Baltic Sea waters.

     In 1956, a Swedish marine archaeologist’s persistent search led to the discovery of the nearly forgotten warship.  It was painstakingly raised, towed to a dry dock, and restored to 95% of its original form.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Today the reconstructed Vasa, inaugurated in 1990, is Stockholm’s most cherished historical relic and most popular tourist destination.  Historians today value the Vasa (originally designed as a propaganda tool with 64 bronze cannons and 450 men) not only for her status as the planet’s oldest preserved and identified vessel, but also for what it reveals about everyday 17th Century life.

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JERUSALEM – 2

JERUSALEM – 2

Yad Vashem

(Israel’s Official Memorial to the Jewish Victims of the Holocaust)

Photo: Berthold Werner – Public Domain

Photo: Berthold Werner – Public Domain

     While visiting Jerusalem, my traveling companions (Jane and Philip) and I, along with our guide, Dara, taxied to the foot of Mount Herzl, where in 1953 Israel established Yad Vashem, a complex of museums, archives, monuments and sculptures interlocked by a series of walkways designed to commemorate those who died in the Nazi Holocaust.  Separately, we had visited this memorial on previous Holy Lands trips and found it to be a deeply moving experience, but never before had the three of us met a Holocaust survivor.  On this day we would hear a Jewish grandmother—once an Amsterdam friend of Anne Frank, with whom she had spent part of her teen years in a Nazi concentration camp—tell her story.

annefrank

Public Domain from Jewishjournal.com

     We arrived at Yad Vashem early, and used the time before the lecture to reacquaint ourselves with the sprawling campus.  While walking through various outdoor commemorative sites, we came across Janusz Korczak Square, where our eyes locked onto a statue of Dr. Henrik Goldschmidt (better known by his pen name Janusz Korczak), the Polish-Jewish children’s author, humanitarian, pediatrician, and pedagogue.

Yad_Vashem_BW_2-2

Wikimedia Commons

     In this statue Korczak stands in the middle of a group of desolate children, embracing them with strong, outstretched arms, which conveys his powerful resolve to protect the children at any cost.  The bronze sculpture by Boris Saktsier is called Janusz Korczak and the Children and was donated by Mila Brenner and Yakov Meridor.

     Dara gave us some background: In 1940, when the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, the Krochmalna Street orphanage, in which Korczak worked, was ordered into the ghetto.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

      Although offered sanctuary among Warsaw’s Aryans, Korczak refused, saying simply that he would not abandon his children.  Resolutely, he moved into the ghetto with them.  On August 5, 1942, the Nazis raided the ghetto, rounding up the orphans for the grizzly one-way trip to Treblinka, a notorious Nazi death camp.  Again, Korczak was offered a way out, but again, he declined, saying only that he would go where the children went.  For the journey to Treblinka, he dressed the little ones in their finest, and each carried a rucksack, containing a favorite book or toy.

     A legend holds that at the point of deportation, an SS officer recognized Korczak as the author of one of his favorite childhood books and tendered an offer for ‘special treatment’—perhaps at a camp-ghetto like Theresienstadt, where prominent Jews with international reputations were occasionally sent.  Once again Korczak is said to have refused.  With head held high, along with his nearly 200 children, he stepped onto the train and into oblivion.  No one ever heard from him again.  A few children survived, and as adults attended memorials honoring their benefactor.

     Our Yad Vashem guest lecturer, Hannah Pick-Goslar,* (known in Anne Frank’s diary by the German/Dutch name of ‘Lies’ [diminutive of Elisabeth and pronounced LEES]) whospoke fluent but accented English, described growing up in Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

      One day word went around their neighborhood that the Franks had escaped to Switzerland.  A sense of relief swept across those who had not been so lucky—that at least a few of their brethren had reached safety.  Those left behind carried on bravely, until they, too, were herded together by Nazi guards and deported—in the case of our speaker, to Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

     Once in the camp, Hannah learned through the grapevine that Anne Frank was incarcerated there as well.  “This can’t be!” Hannah cried in disbelief.  “She’s in Switzerland.”  But later that night, under intense search light scrutiny, Hannah crept to a predetermined site along a barbed wire fence and saw for herself that her childhood friend, Anne Frank, now an emaciated apparition, was indeed a fellow Bergen Belsen inmate.

     *Hannah-Pick Goslar’s full story is told in the book Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend by Alison Leslie Gold.

Auschwitz

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     “How is it that you’re here?” Hannah wailed at the shrunken figure before her.  “We thought you’d escaped to Switzerland.”

     Anne explained that she and her family had gone into hiding, and, as cover, let word go out that they had made their way to safety.

     Anne appeared at death’s door.  Still, wanting to lend a hand—however feeble—to her old friend, now a shell of a human being, Hannah told Anne that over the course of the next day she would scrounge together a few scraps of food and bring them to her on the next night.

     At great personal risk, Hannah once again trekked to the appointed place, and after making voice contact with her friend, Hannah threw a small package of rations over the fence to Anne, hoping that this gesture would somehow prolong her life.  But before Anne could grab the provisions, a stronger prisoner, hovering nearby, snatched them from midair.  On the next night Hannah again made her way to the appointed site.  This time, she successfully threw a few morsels over the fence and into Anne’s hands. From her voice, Hannah could tell that Anne was joyous.  A third reunion was out of the question.  Nazi patrols were relentless; punishments brutal.  Tragically, soon thereafter Hannah heard that Anne had died of typhus.

     Obviously, Hannah survived the ordeal of being reduced to naked subsistence.  Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, survived too.  After the war he helped this teenager make her way to Palestine (eventually Israel), where she was educated and married, building a productive new life.  Now she described her life as that of a devoted grandmother, who occasionally gives public testimonials lest we forget.

Otto Frank. Photo: Annefrank.org

Photo: Annefrank.org

     The afternoon had been harrowing—a tortuous reminder of man’s capacity for hatred, juxtaposed with powerful examples of human goodness.  On the way back to our hotel, I thought about how some people were able to withstand death camp horrors and others, sadly, not.  Were there any kernels of truth in Nietzsche’s famous quote:

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”?

The Viennese psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor E. Frankl thinks there were.

Photo Attribute:  Studentpulse.com

Photo Attribute: Studentpulse.com

     In his acclaimed book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how love became his lifeline.  Specifically, it was the love for his wife that sustained him.  Personally, he had been stripped naked.  He had lost every possession. He was cold, hungry, living with the possibility of death at any moment.  He didn’t even know if his beloved were still alive—they had long ago been separated within the Nazi system of segregation—but through his suffering he came to understand that we can be robbed of everything, except our freedom to choose how we think about a particular situation.

     Frankl’s riches lay in his mind and spirit.  He could still think.  He could still feel.  He could still remember.  He could still love.  And love he did—dreaming, hoping, and praying for an eventual reunion with his beloved.

     Sadly, when he was liberated he learned that his wife had long ago succumbed.  But even in death she had empowered him through the bond of love.

 

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JERUSALEM

JERUSALEM

Yerushaláyim (in biblical Hebrew)
Al-Quds (in Arabic)

“The world has ten measures of beauty, and nine of these belong to Jerusalem.”

                                                       -Jerusalem adage

JerusalemPanorama

Jerusalem Photo: Public Domain

     When friends ask why I keep returning to Jerusalem (I’ve been there four times), my answer always begins by mentioning its physical beauty, especially in the spring. Then the rock-strewn Judean hills surrounding the city turn a soft rain-fresh green, providing pastureland for grazing sheep.

Judean-Hills

Judean-Hills Photo: Public Domain

     Accenting this panorama are masses of wildflowers, with the scarlet anemone among the most prolific, creating carpets of red.

Scarlet-Anemone

Scarlet-Anemone Photo: Public Domain

     Some say the scarlet anemone denotes the ‘lilies of the field’ mentioned in the Book of Matthew (6:28)*.  The Jerusalem crowfoot, reminiscent of America’s buttercup; the sweet-smelling polyanthus narcissus; the pomegranate, noted in Deuteronomy 8; and the almond, often the first tree to bloom in winter, also contribute to what I heard a Jerusalemite call ‘the miracle of spring’.

     Jerusalem: the revered but also defiled cornerstone of the three great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that trace their ancestry to Abraham of the Old Testament.  Emerging from the Judean hills, the city lies east of the Mediterranean Sea and west of the northern tip of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.

Dead-Sea

Dead Sea Photo: Public Domain

     This thrice-holy city dates back to the 19th century BCE and is mentioned in the Bible 632 times. (In fact, some scholars maintain that the city had human habitation as early as 4000 BCE.)  In Exodus 3, God refers to the land in which Jerusalem resides as a place ‘flowing with milk and honey’; but sadly this land has too often also flowed with blood and tears.  It is a city said to have been annihilated at least forty times, and today remains one of the world’s most contested places.

     Jerusalem has been known by many names, among them Salem or Shalem in the time of Abraham (2000-1700 BCE), and Zion, the Mountain of God, the City of David; and in the Islamic tradition, it has long been known as Al-Quds (‘the Holy’).  Perched at 2,630 feet above sea level on the spur of a hill, it is surrounded on all sides by valleys.

     The sun rises in Jerusalem over the Mount of Olives and graces first the sacred gold-leafed cupola of the Haram esh-Sharif (known in English as the Temple Mount or Mount Moriah, where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac), a rectangular, eight-gated, tightly walled religious site in the southern part of Jerusalem’s Old City—an enclave of less than one square mile in which dwell 40,000 people.

Dome-of-the-Rock

Dome of the Rock Photo: Public Domain

     As the morning progresses, the sun anoints other Old City monuments, until midday when the sky radiates blue and the sun breathes fire.

Old-City-Jerusalem

Old City Jerusalem Photo: Public Domain

     Sunset brings long shadows and a glow so golden that one almost dares to believe that, indeed, one has reached Jerusalem’s fabled ‘threshold of heaven’.

     But the city offers far more than physical beauty, I tell my inquiring friends.  For many people, a trip to Jerusalem springs from religious sentiments.  Religious Jews, certainly, are attracted to the Temple Mount, site of the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, a remnant of their revered Solomon’s Temple, also known as ‘the First Temple’ or simply ‘the Holy Temple’.

Wailing-Wall

Wailing Wall Photo: Public Domain

     Solomon’s Temple was built c. 957 BCE and housed the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments).  According to traditional Jewish belief, Solomon’s Temple also served as the figurative footstool of God’s presence in the tangible world. It was the center of ancient Judaism.

     Jerusalem has been honored since before the time of Abraham.  The Talmud says that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is home to the Foundation Stone (the name of the rock at the center of the Dome of the Rock), from which some say the world was created.

     Through the ages other attempts have been launched to rebuild the Temple, but all have proved fruitless.  Jews speak of someday building a Third Temple, but since two Islamic shrines—the Dome of the Rock and the El-Aqsa Mosque, established in 685 CE—now rest on the Temple Mount platform, this seems an unlikely prospect.

Temple-Mount-Platform

Temple Mount Platform Photo: Public Domain

     For Christians, Jerusalem’s greatest significance lies with Jesus, who came to Jerusalem soon after his birth and made annual visits subsequently.

     And for Muslims the attachment to Jerusalem stems mainly from Mohammed’s miraculous night journey when he is said to have been transported from Mecca to the Temple Mount and from there to heaven and the presence of God, before he was returned to Mecca in the morning.  According to Islamic tradition, after Mecca and Medina (in today’s Saudi Arabia), Jerusalem is the third-holiest city to Muslims.  For approximately a year, before it was permanently switched to the Ka’ba in Mecca, the qiblah for Muslims pointed toward Jerusalem.  The city’s lasting place in Islam, however, derives from Mohammed’s miraculous night journey, or Night of Ascension (c. 620 CE), an event referred to in Arabic as the Mi’raj. (Islamic scholarship suggests that this was a visionary experience, not a physical one.)

     Visitors to Jerusalem who are not spiritually motivated might well be prompted by a desire to better understand the region’s history, archaeology, democracy, and politics.

Isreal-Arch-Dig

Israel Arch Dig Photo: Public Domain

     Jerusalem is many things to many people.  To me, it’s about physical beauty, but even more, Jerusalem is about its three great religious traditions and its people, who for millennia have been swept up in a great and often terrifying drama—all in the name of the spirit.  They have survived in a place that has been both sublimely glorified and grievously desecrated.

     In future blogs I’ll tell you a bit more of my recent visit to this part of the world.

*All Biblical quotations in this chapter come from the Holy Bible, NRSV, HarperCollins, 1989.

Posted in Dead Sea, Israel, Jerusalem, Temple Mount, Travel, Wailing Wall | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On The Road Again: Arizona

“May you and those you love walk in beauty.”
– A Navajo prayer

When my Seattle neighbors invited me to visit them at their winter getaway in Scottsdale, Arizona, I jumped at the opportunity.

Arizona-cactus

Arizona-cactus Photo: Public Domain

     Like folklore’s famed golden-haired Rhine River maiden, whose beauty bewitched mariners as they sailed by the Lorelei, her fabled rock, Arizona also has a long history of beguiling those who set foot on her epic terrain.

Arizona’s fascination, I think, starts with her landscape: stark and dazzling, expansive and glorious.

Little in Arizona is ordinary.  Think of the Grand Canyon

lightning-over-grand-canyon

Grand Canyon Photo: Public Domain

       and the butte formations of Monument Valley.

Monument-Valley

Monument Valley Photo: Public Domain

     Think of Lake Powell

lakepowell-arizona

Lake Powell Photo: Public Domain

     and the snow covered Rockies.

Courtesy of: Woalibraryte.blogspot.com

Courtesy of: Woalibraryte.blogspot.com

        In addition to Arizona’s natural wonders, on this my most recent trip to this land of light, open spaces, and majestic panoramas, I was reminded all over again that the place is one of uncommon depth.  Yes, it has its stone landmarks and secret canyons, but what really captured my imagination was Arizona’s centuries-old Native Culture—the culture of the First Americans.

Sioux-Indian-Man

Sioux Indian Man Photo: Public Domain

     The story of this region’s indigenous people traces back thousands of years.  Today there are twenty-three Native Indian reservations in Arizona.  The Navajo Reservation is the largest, 25,000 square miles that include not only northeastern Arizona, but also northwestern New Mexico and a bit of southern Utah.  The 210,000-strong Navajo Nation is the largest in the country and the one with which I’m most familiar as a result of my visits to the Southwest. While what follows tends to showcase Navajo ways, of course, the many other Indian Nations that grace our land have also made important contributions to our collective heritage.

                   *****************

     Navajo society is matriarchal, with women owning all the property.

Navajo-Woman

Navajo Woman Photo: Public Domain

     Their tradition dictates that upon marriage men move in with their wives’ families.  Their beliefs are based on what is called the Beauty Path.  Below is a time-honored Navajo prayer that illustrates that concept:

In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me I walk.
With beauty behind me I walk.
With beauty around me I walk.
With beauty above me I walk.
With beauty below me I walk.
In beauty all is made whole.
In beauty all is restored.
In my youth I am aware of it, and
In old age I shall walk quietly the beautiful trail.
In beauty it is begun.
In beauty it is ended.

******************************

     For centuries before Columbus voyaged to the New World, Arizona’s indigenous people were creating art of amazing subtlety and beauty.

     To explore this in greater depth, I visited the Heard Museum, one of the most comprehensive collections of both ancient and contemporary Native art.

HeardMuseum

Heard Museum Photo: Public Domain

     The museum teems with sculpture, pottery, blanket weaving and carvings, but my favorite artifacts were the many traditional silver and turquoise jewelry pieces.  We were asked not to take pictures of any of the museum’s displays; hence, the images below are from other sources, but they should give you an impression of what the Early People of the Southwest created.

Squash-Blossom-necklace

Squash-Blossom-necklace Photo: Public Domain

     Silversmithing, I learned, was only introduced to the Southwestern Indian tribes about 150 years ago, and then by Spanish smiths in villages of northwestern New Mexico.  The Navajos quickly became proficient in this craft.

     Once the Navajos had mastered the metal arts, they began to combine metal (mainly silver) with turquoise, long a revered stone in their culture, representing happiness, health, and luck.  So old and honored is turquoise in Navajo tradition that it first appears in their creation stories.  Today it’s a leading gauge of a Navajo person’s wealth.

     Below is a Navajo-inspired necklace that I made myself.  I saw a similar piece in Scottsdale and made mental note of its design.  After returning home I attended the International Gem and Jewelry Show that comes through Seattle several times a year.  There I found the stones (turquoise and coral) I needed and voilà, the finished product:

My-Self-Made-Navajo-Necklace

Self-made Navajo Necklace Photo: Personal Collection Rose Marie Curteman

 

      Metal arts among the Navajos soon expanded from jewelry making to other creations such as silversmith boxes.  These belong to my Arizona hosts:

Navajo-Silversmith-Boxes

Navajo-Silversmith-Box Photo: Public Domain

****************

     One of the most moving, and little known details of the Navajos’ contribution to the “motherland” (as they have been known to call the United States) has been their courageous participation in our military engagements over the last one hundred years.

     When I asked about their interest in U.S. conflicts, I was reminded that our Native Americans come from a warrior tradition.  As Chester Ness, a Navajo WW II code talker, observed in his book Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII by Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila,

“. . . we saw ourselves as inseparable from the earth we lived upon.  And as protectors of what is sacred, we were . . . eager to defend our land.”

Attribution: devinesecretsofthewritingsisterhood.blogspot.com

Attribution: devinesecretsofthewritingsisterhood.blogspot.com

     The Navajo’s most important involvement came during World War II, when hundreds of Navajo Code Talkers served in the U.S. Marine Corp throughout the Pacific, sending and receiving messages in a disguised adaptation of their indigenous language.  The code, which the Japanese never broke, is today considered to have been one of the main reasons for our success in the Pacific theater of war.  Sadly, during WWII, while these First Americans were bravely risking their lives for the motherland, they were still denied the right to vote.

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     I have always been fascinated by the grandeur of Indian headdresses, but never understood what they symbolized.

Indian-headdress

Indian-headdress Photo: Personal Collection Rose Marie Curteman

     In Arizona I came across this interpretation:

     The idea of full dress in preparation for a battle comes not from a belief that it will add to the fighting ability.  The preparation is for death, in case that should be the result of the conflict.  Every Indian wants to look his best when he goes to meet the great Spirit, so the dressing up is done whether the imminent danger is an oncoming battle or a sickness or injury at times of peace.

-Wooden Leg (late 19th Century) Cheyenne

 

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Andalusia # 3 Seneca.

Spain’s LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA

“All cruelty springs from weakness.”
-Seneca

     Before leaving the subject of Andalusia, I can’t resist mentioning Seneca—Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65)—the Córdoban-born Stoic philosopher, orator, essayist, playwright and poet, who some consider to be the greatest Spaniard ever to have lived.

     His lifetime fell long before Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment, the main focus of my Andalusian visit.  Still, I found that some in Andalusia and Spain in general remember him with such awe that I decided to ask our Spanish guide Sebastiano about him.

     “Such a man!” Sebastiano beamed the moment I uttered the philosopher’s name.  “He was so multifaceted!  A man of letters, a political figure, consul of Rome, Nero’s tutor and later advisor, and a Stoic.”

Seneca-bust

Seneca-bust Photo: Public Domain

     Sebastiano went on to say that while in Nero’s employ Seneca became caught up in an alleged conspiracy to kill his master.  For this supposed complicity his Nero ordered him to commit suicide, an act Seneca fulfilled with the grace of a true Stoic.

Death-of-Seneca

Death of Seneca Painting Photo: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/jacques-louisdavid/
the-death-of-seneca-1773.jpg

    When my traveling companion Barbara heard the repeated use of the word Stoic, she asked our guide, “What is a Stoic?”

    “Someone who lives simply, who is moderate and frugal.  Someone who makes peace with his present circumstances.”

    “Are those values you embrace?” my traveling companion Barbara asked.

    “I try to hold the thought that God determines everything and that I must accept His will,” Sebastiano answered softly.  He added that even today some Spanish intellectuals are so caught up in the Seneca mystique that they fancy themselves the philosopher’s progeny.  “In my case,” Sebastiano said, “I wouldn’t even feel worthy to touch the great man’s hem.”

    When I returned home, I looked into Seneca a bit more and found these among his quotations:

    “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.  The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and in our reach.  A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what is not.”

    “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”

    “Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

    “Wealth is the slave of a wise man.  The master of a fool.”

     Some students of Seneca believe that he might have been an early Christian.  He is credited with saying:

     “Live with men as if God saw you; converse with God as if men heard you.”

     “God is nigh to you, he is with you, he is in you:  I tell you … a holy spirit resides within us, an observer and guardian of our good and our bad doings, who, as he has been dealt with by us, so he deals with us; no man is good without God.”

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Andalusia #2

Below are two of the greatest buildings that the Moors (an inexact but now generally accepted term to describe the early Muslims/Arabs who invaded Spain) left behind:  Córdoba’s Mezquita and the palace of Alhambra in Granada.

Cordobas-Great-Mosque

The Great Mosque, the Mezquita Photo: Public Domain

The Great Mosque, the Mezquita, which dates back to 785 when Abd al-Rahman I built it to honor his wife, is often called Córdoba’s greatest sight.

When I went there, I entered through an unimposing door with a horseshoe arch that gives no hint of what lies inside.  Once inside, I found a vast architectural wonderland of more than 850 columns made of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite along with giant horseshoe arches in alternating bands of red and white, like holiday candy.

Mosque-Interior

Mosque Interior Photo: Public Domain

The Alhambra in Grenada, Spain, another etched-in-my-memory highpoint of Andalusia, was the last stronghold of Islam’s 800-year presence in Europe.  It was the palace and fortress of the Nasrids, the final Islamic dynasty (1236-1492) of Europe’s Middle Ages.

Poets have called the Alhambra “a fairyland,” “a pearl set in emeralds,” and after stepping through the portal, I understood why.  Visitors tend to fall into a succession of rooms that seem to flow from one to the next, as if in a symphonic melody.  There are elegant columns, complex stalactite-like ceiling adornments, stylish arabesques, subtle calligraphy, and bounties of arches.

My favorite space there is the Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), its perimeter lined by arcades supported by 124 slender marble columns.  At the center of the court is the Lion Fountain, a stately alabaster basin resting upon 12 marble lions that signify power and fortitude.

patio-of-lions

Patio de los Leones Photo: Public Domain

“We’re not sure where the lions came from,” my guide Sebastiano told me.  He said that the Muslims surely didn’t make them, because the Qur’an prohibits the representation of living creatures.  Prophet Mohammed sought to prevent a return to idolatry.  According to my guide, the lions were thought to have been crafted by Jewish or Christian artists.

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ANDALUSIA

Andalucía

 “It is no exaggeration to say that what we presumptuously call ‘Western’
culture is owed in large measure to the Andalusian enlightenment.”
-Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

Colonade-image-Analusia

Colonnade Andalusia

     When my friends Tom and Barbara first shared with me the riveting tale of medieval Spain’s 800-year flowering of art, architecture, culture, and commerce, “Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment,” I knew I’d have to dig deeper.  First, I read Maria Rosa Menocal’s fascinating account The Ornament of the World:  How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.  Then I traveled to Andalusia to explore for myself this important, but not widely known, period of history.  The next three blogs shed light on some of Andalusia’s fascinating history.  This and two succeeding blogs will shed light on some of Andalusia’s important gifts to Western civilization.

     In A.D. 750 a desperate young prince fled his home in Damascus, Syria, then the heart of Islam, in search of a safe haven.  His entire family, the ruling Umayyads of the House of Islam, had just been annihilated.  Some years before, the Umayyads had successfully led the Muslims from the barren deserts of Arabia to the developed cultures of the Fertile Crescent.

     Barely twenty and a political refugee, young prince Abd al-Rahman journeyed for almost five years, with only his wit and grit as his weapons.  He traveled across North Africa to a region the Muslims called the Maghrib, the farthest western outpost of the ever-expanding Islamic empire.  Today this place is known as Morocco.

Maghrib

Desert Maghrib

     After pausing briefly in Maghrib, Abd al-Rahman pushed on across the Straits of Gibraltar to a town in southern Spain called Qurtuba (Córdoba) on the River Guadalquivir.  Here, in the westernmost province of the Islamic world, he found a thriving Islamic colony that came to be called “al-Andalus.”  He made Córdoba his home, eventually founding and later ruling the Umayyad Emirate (governorship) of Córdoba from 756 to 788.  With this bold move, he rebuilt his ancestral dynasty—the Umayyads, who would survive in “al-Andalus” for nine generations to come.

cordoba-bridge

Cordoba-Bridge

     Under his steady hand, the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba transformed itself from a debilitated place into one of the world’s great cultural, economic and political centers.  Andalusia became an open-minded and innovative society where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in harmony and prosperity, pooling resources of language, art, science, scholarship, and commerce.  (It was lovely to be reminded that peaceful coexistence and cooperation among people are possible!)

     Córdoba fattened into a city of five hundred thousand inhabitants, with public works that included paved and lighted roads, bridges, running water, and irrigation facilities.  Libraries sprouted, one with 600,000 manuscripts.

     Abd al-Rahman was farsighted enough to maintain regular contact with the advanced cultures of the Fertile Crescent.  There, Damascus and Baghdad excelled as great learning centers that placed a high priority on the translation and preservation of Greco/Roman writings.  These writings eventually flooded into the Córdoban libraries, filling them with artistic and scientific manuscripts otherwise unavailable. In time, Córdoba burgeoned, becoming by the 10th Century the intellectual center of Europe, and one of the greatest cities in the Western world.

     Hungry to connect with long-forgotten works from the classical world (about 600 B.C. to A.D. 600), northern European scholars flooded into Córdoba studying its libraries.  These scholars then took their discoveries back to their own learning centers.  A cultural flowering ensued throughout Europe, fueling the Renaissance and the eventual Age of Enlightenment.

Cordoba-Old-Town

Cordoba-Old Town

    One of my favorite parts of Córdoba is the Old Town’s Jewish quarter, a fascinating network of lanes too narrow for cars.           

     At Tiberiadus Square in Old Town is the statue of a robed and turbaned man, seated, looking pensive, holding a book in his right hand.  The statue represents the Córdoban-born Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the great Jewish philosopher, scientist, and physician of Andalusia, Morocco, and Egypt.

Maimonides is remembered for many things, among them for being a brilliant religious philosopher. In particular, he was able to reconcile his Jewish faith with a belief in the power of reason, especially Greek philosophy; consequently, he was an important influence on Aquinas and Islamic theologians.

Maimonides

Maimonides

Some other thoughts attributed to Maimonides:
•  Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.

•  No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.

•  Anticipate charity by preventing poverty.

 

 

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