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Notes on the Geography of Spain: Seville

Established by Julius Caesar as the Roman city of Hispalis, Seville became part of al-Andalus in 711.  After the breakup of the Cordoban caliphate, it became an independent state until the Almohads took control in 1163 and made it their capital.  In 1248 Fernando III took the city and made it his capital, as did later rulers including Pedro I, who restored and extended the Muslim palace before occupying it.  Almost eight centuries later the Muslim city has been obliterated: there's little left from that time.  But for centuries after the reconquest the Spanish in Seville built in the so-called mudejar style, derived from the Alhambra.  It's another example of the conquered conquering the conquerers.

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A strange place to begin, but here--under restoration in 2003--is a reminder of the days when Seville was Spain's jumping-off point for the New World.  This was literally a golden age for Seville.  It didn't last long: the city was devastated by the plague in 1649, and the Guadalquivir's navigability was gradually reduced by siltation.  The city's decline was made public for all to see by the Casa de Contratacion, the body controlling trade with the Americas: in 1717 it moved to Cadiz.

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The archives building was originally a stock exchange, built about 1600 and modelled after the Escorial in Madrid. The archives were moved here in 1785 and include records from Cortes, Pizarro, and Magellan.

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The Giralda Tower, now a cathedral bell tower, was built as a minaret. Date: 1184-96.  Unlike the cathedral in Cordoba, which rises in the middle of the former mosque, the great mosque of Seville was destroyed to make way for the cathedral. The tower's massive footprint--a square 50 feet on a side--is said to be modeled on that at Kairouan, Tunisia; inside, there are ramps wide enough for two horses to climb the tower abreast. 

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The cathedral's High Altar (1482-1525), built by the Flemish sculptor Pieter Dancart.  It was an indulgence on the part of the city's fabulously wealthy rulers, who are supposed to have said: "Let us build a cathedral so immense that we will be taken for madmen." Theophile Gautier in 1840 called the building "a hollowed-out mountain."

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Looking east from the tower toward the Alcazar.  That word is a corruption of al-Qasar, Arabic for "the palace," itself a corruption of Latin "Caesar." 

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Looking south toward the Quadalquivir.

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West, to the Plaza de Toros; the Quadalquivir can be glimpsed just behind it, on the left.

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The view north to the barrio Santa Cruz, formerly the Juderia, the historic core of the city.

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At the perimeter of the Juderia, wide avenues--here Menendez Pelayo--wrap the old city on the north, east, and south.  The Quadalquiver hems it on the west.

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Los Sierpes, the main shopping street, has been reserved for pedestrians since at least 1930.  Richard Ford calls it "The Bond Street of Seville."  Canopies offer a bit of shade.

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Ford, whose 19th century Handbook for Travellers in Spain is still very readable and informative (and also brutal in its judgments), says of Seville that "the streetology is difficult, the town is a labyrinth of lanes, each of which resembles the other." Once you're off the arterials, things get tricky.

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Around the corner to the left... or maybe to the right.

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Uh... I think we're made a wrong turn.

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An open window into a Juderia courtyard.

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We've found our way to the Gate of the Monteria, the oddly narrow entrance to the Alcazar.  The palace stands on the site of an Almohad palace but was almost entirely rebuilt around 1360 by workmen from Granada. Ford explains that Pedro I and other grandees hired them "for want of sufficient taste and talent among their own ruder subjects."

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The frieze contains the Nazrid mantra, "There is no conqueror except God," but around it, in Gothic lettering, an inscription identifies the architect and dates the work to 1364-6.

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The name Chamber of the Moorish Kings refers to its style, not its occupants.

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The Court of the Maidens is another page from the Alhambra, with slim columns supported by spandrels decorated to make them appear light..

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Decorative trim; there's Arabic here, but the calligraphy is tough to read.

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The letters are clearer here and refer to an emirate, though the meaning is obscure.

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We've left the Alcazar and are going to the Casa de Pilatos, a mansion from about 1500.  The name was not intended to suggest that the house was modelled on Pilate's House in Jerusalem; rather, the pious owner calculated that the distance between his house and the church of Cruz del Campo was the distance between Pilate's House in Jerusalem and Golgotha. Behind the gate or cancela lies a masterpiece of mudejar display, beginning with the alfiz, the U-shaped architrave copied from the one at Cordoba's Mesquita.

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The courtyard of the Casa de Pilatos, with an octagonal dome copied from the Alhambra's Hall of the Two Sisters.

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A touch of eclecticism: Athena (and the genuine article, too, straight from the 5th century B.C.) stands in front of an arcade that comes equally directly from an Alhambra courtyard.

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Azuleros are used on this staircase like wallpaper.

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More tile and more alfizes. The proportions of the room are European, but the trim is from the Moorish vocabulary.

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