Walking on a 2,000-year-old road, wandering a holy site used by many religions – at the same time, and finding pantless trees were just a few of our favorite things in Andalusia, the southernmost portion of Spain.
A Brief History
Spain and Portugal rest on the Iberian Peninsula. Phoenicians may have had trading ports on its Mediterranean coast some 3,000 years ago and there may have been complex agricultural settlements on the peninsula as early as 4,000 BC.
Romans eventually conquered the peninsula followed by the Vandals and Visigoths, then the Moors (from northern Africa), and eventually the Visigoths reconquered the area. The fingerprints of each of its ancestors color the region with their legacies.
When the Visigoths re-conquered Andalusia many of the mosques were wiped out or turned into cathedrals, adding their gothic legacy. However, white villages and some mosques still remain reflecting the Moorish influence.
History of course is complicated. Over the centuries of conquests and reconquests, borders and rulers changed but their memory remains.
Andalusia is Literally Colored by Moorish Legacy
Andalusia, the most southern portion of current-day Spain, remained under Moorish control longer than the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moorish influence is prominent in architecture, colorful decor and design, and culture.
Modern life still navigates the foundations and roads laid by the Romans.
Walking an old Roman Road
A loud bray stopped us in our tracks. We have heard similar calls from quite a distance many times. When a donkey wants to be heard it echoes across entire valleys. But today the call was right next to us. It was so loud it stopped our conversation and our steps.
We turned to the source to see a donkey running towards us. His bray turned into a hee-haw sound as he breathed in and out. He walked right up against the fence and continued his shuddering breaths, like the tail-end of a child’s cry. I reached up to pat his nose and apologized for not having an apple to give him. Eventually, content with the good nose scratch, he quieted down and we continued on our way.
We were walking an old Roman road that connects the Andalusian white towns of Ubrique and Benaocaz. It stretches up through the valley beside old farms and through forests.
Pigs grunted and rooted in pleasure around small brush patches. Further, down the road, a herd of goats lounged on a shady patch. Some munched busily on grass, others lay in the shade for their afternoon siesta.
Two ambitious goats were determined to obtain leaves above their heads. We watched as the most determined among them climbed a rock pile. Standing on his hind legs he stretched up to the branch. Just catching it he pulled it low. His partner taking advantage of the lowered branch grabbed a few mouthfuls of leaves.
I don’t imagine since the time this road was laid 2,000 years ago, the habits or behavior of animals have changed much. Did some Romans give a donkey a treat along this path, or stop to enjoy the antics of other animals along the way?
Secrets of the Ancestors
At the top of the valley, we wandered behind the town of Benaocaz to explore the Roman ruins providing a testament to the prowess of those who, 2,000 years ago, used cement that have last up to the present day (see Secrets of Roman cement on history.com). Cement today begins to degrade after only a few decades. I wondered the same about the engineering of the Incas who built Sacsayhuamán less than a millennia ago and we have no idea how they moved those monoliths.
It would seem that we have lost that bit of knowledge to make things that last. Or did we simply trade labor-intensive work whose results lasted centuries for quick riches that are temporary? A house of cards can be built much faster than a home built of stone.
A Roman Theater’s Final Act
Ancinipo was once a Roman city built on top of a hill about 20 kilometers from Rhonda in Andalusia. The homes of Acinipo now lay in rock piles, but the foundations of the baths and heating system for the pools with an ancient gym are all still intact.
The Roman Theater of Acinipo, built sometime in the 1st century, stands prominently at the top of the mountain above the ruins. It is visible for miles around and is still in use today. The bleachers were carved directly into the limestone of the mountain. Excavated stone from the bleacher area along with pink marble create the stage.
Influence of the Moorish Age
The Multi-Religious Prayer Room of Cordoba
People from around the world travel to Andalusia to see the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
Historians believe that the site of this mosque has been a holy site for thousands of years. It was first thought to have been a Roman temple to Janus, but was converted/rebuilt into a church when the Visigoths ceased control of the Peninsula. Later after the invasion of the Moors, it was converted into a Mosque¹.
The prayer room is filled with reused columns from the Roman and Visigoths². Over 850 jasper, onyx, marble, granite, and porphyry columns fill the massive room in a repeating pattern. The symmetry gives the room a feeling of infinity.
Maybe infinity is the point – encourage the worshipper to think of the bigger picture and the long-term view of life or eternity. While I’m not of the Islam or Catholic faith, this is a perspective we can all benefit from. Isn’t it often a myopic view that holds us a slave to the troubles of the moment?
Every morning except Sunday the mosque is free to enter between 8:30 AM and 9:30 AM. We walked around the entire prayer room many times each time seeing something new. We considered going back the following morning to just walk around the entire room a few more times.
At one point this house of worship was shared by both Jews and Muslims. If Abraham could see it I wonder if he was happy to see his son’s and stepson’s descendants together.
Today, it serves as both a mosque and a cathedral.
The Golden Age
Some call the time of Moorish rule the golden age of the Iberian Peninsula. For the sultans living in castles high on the hills, I’m sure it was. The Christian slaves bound to hard labor most likely saw it differently. Those who weren’t slaves but not of the Muslum faith paid extra taxes and were treated as lower-class citizens. History though is written by the victor. The ones in control write their viewpoints and the voices of the oppressed are often lost. What makes a golden age after all? Is it new inventions, cool gadgets, nice homes, or the quality of life?
Some towns declare a history of coexistence. We know there are always many sides to every story, and in many cases we have a limited view of the past. Touching and seeing what remains from thousands of years ago gives me respect for the intelligence of our ancestors and reminds me that society has changed in many ways. But is it better?
Natural Landscape of Andalusia
As we drove through the mountains I noticed that many of the trees seemed to have their bark removed from the trunk. About an arm’s length high there was a straight ring around the trunk or extended branches. From that line down the tree was thinner, because the bark was missing. In some of them, the naked trunk was red, in others, it had turned gray.
Most trees die if a single ring of bark is removed, yet these trees seem to be just fine even though their barks have been stripped. The red of the newly exposed trunks eventually turns gray and then expands to the fullness of the cut line. It’s bark regenerated, but of a smoother pattern than that above the cut line. There was a noticeable difference in the new and old bark.
“They look like pantless trees,” Trin said.
I had to know more. We pulled over to examine the trees and take pictures so that I could research them later that evening. I reached up to feel the cut line and tap on the bark above the cut.
“It’s cork,” I exclaimed. These were the first cork oak trees we had the privilege of seeing.
Quality takes time
Later I learned that Cork Oak is first harvested when a tree is 25 years old. A Cork Oak fully recovers after having its bark removed making it an eco-friendly product. After the first harvest, the regenerated cork can be harvested every nine years. A cork oak can live up to 200 years, sometimes more.
The first harvest at 25 years is low-quality cork. The density and uniformity increase over the next two harvests creating a higher-quality cork. Cork stoppers can only be made from the third harvest onwards.
Next time you remove that cork from a bottle of wine, remember that it is from a tree that is at least 43 years old. Quality takes time, both in nature and architecture, as the castles and fortresses of the past proclaim.
² Cordoba Mosque: https://www.mezquitadescordoba.com/cordoba-mosque-architecture/