Sevilla. Gate to the New World
In the year 1493, a flotilla of at least 17 ships sailed from the Spanish city of Cádiz. Christopher Columbus was embarking on his second journey of discovery, together with 1,500 sailors, adventurers, priests, and colonizers. The expedition had as its goal nothing less than the colonization of the Americas.
Following this historic journey, another Spanish city, Seville, came to be a gateway to the New World. Before long, Seville obtained the royal monopoly on trade with the colonies. Spanish galleons departed from Seville and returned laden with silver bullion from the mines of Bolivia, Mexico, and Peru. Within a few decades, the city became one of the largest and most prosperous in Europe. And the memories of that bygone age still linger in the rooms of Seville’s ancient buildings.
To organize the burgeoning trade with America, Spanish King Philip II erected an impressive market hall alongside the Guadalquivir River, where wealthy merchants could do business. (The archbishop had complained about their using the cathedral for this purpose.) Two centuries later this same building became the Archivo General de Indias, General Archive of the Indies, and today it houses practically all the records of Spain’s colonization of the New World. *
Treasure hunters in search of sunken galleons still visit this archive in Seville to study the old maritime records. Historians, however, may be more interested in browsing through some of the original letters of Christopher Columbus.
A Weather Vane and an Orange Garden
Seville, however, had another golden age long before the discovery of America, and several of its magnificent buildings date from that earlier period. For several centuries the Moors—most of whom came from Morocco — ruled vast areas of Spain. During the 12th century, the Almohad dynasty made Seville its capital, and during this period it built a mosque whose minaret still overlooks the modern city.
When the Moors were expelled from Seville, the citizens dismantled the city’s mosque to make room for the cathedral of Seville, the third-largest cathedral in Europe (photo No. 1). The elegant minaret, however, seemed too good to lose, so it became the bell tower of the cathedral, which was erected alongside it. The tower’s harmonious proportions, intricate brickwork, and elaborate windows provide a pleasing contrast to the massive cathedral.
Some 500 years ago, earthquake damage led to a renovation of the upper part of the tower, and a bronze weather vane replaced the original dome. The weather vane gave the minaret its Spanish name, La Giralda (photo No. 2), and the tower has become the most familiar landmark of Seville. The Giralda also offers a magnificent panorama of the city to those energetic visitors willing to climb to the top.
At the foot of the cathedral tower lies a small Moorish courtyard that formed part of the original mosque, the Patio de los Naranjos. This square, adorned with rows of orange trees, has become a prototype of many similar Andalusian courtyards. * And since many of the streets and squares in Seville are also lined with orange trees, the smell of orange blossoms pervades the whole city during the spring. Groves of orange trees—first brought to Spain by the Moors — still surround the city, and their fruit is prized for use in making marmalade.
The Guadalquivir River, which flows through the city, has always been a lifeline for the merchants of Seville. It enabled the city to become the principal Spanish port for the New World, and ships still use the inland harbor. The riverbanks near the city center are lined with gardens. And on one bank lies another reminder of Seville’s Moorish past, La Torre del Oro, the Golden Tower.—Photo No. 3.
The tower’s name harks back to the time when golden-colored tiles covered its exterior. Its main purpose, however, was defense rather than decoration. A heavy chain once stretched from the Golden Tower to a twin tower on the opposite bank, enabling defenders to control all river traffic. Appropriately enough, it was here that the ships from the Americas unloaded their gold and silver. Nowadays, tourist boats rather than galleons discharge their cargo alongside the Golden Tower.
Gardens, Courtyards, and Tiles
The Moors built palaces as well as mosques, and they planted gardens to grace their palaces. Thus, Seville boasts one of the most beautiful palace-garden complexes in Spain, the Reales Alcázares, the Royal Palace (photo No. 4). The palace dates back to the 12th century, although extensive alterations were made in the 14th century. The Moorish style, however, has been preserved, and visitors are constantly impressed by the exquisite decoration of the rooms and courtyards, with their delicate arches, colorful tiles, and intricate plasterwork.
Surrounding the palace is a delightful garden replete with fountains and palm trees. The Moorish ruler even constructed a ten-mile-long [16 km] aqueduct to ensure that his garden would be properly watered. Such is the charm of the palace and its gardens that the Spanish royal family have used it as one of their official residences for the last 700 years.
Just as orange trees lend their shade and aroma to the streets of Seville, colorful tiles give character to the city’s houses. The Moors also brought this style to Spain. They invariably lined their interior rooms with tiles decorated with geometric patterns. Today decorative tiles of every sort embellish the exteriors of houses, shops, and stately homes.
Tiles are not the only colorful note in the narrow streets of old Seville. Small balconies and flower boxes full of geraniums or roses brighten up the whitewashed walls. And thanks to the mild climate, the flowers bloom practically throughout the year, adding their special touch of alegría (lively charm) to the city.
International Events in Seville
Over the past century, international events have cemented Seville’s links with the Americas. The graceful Plaza de España, the Square of Spain (photo No. 5), was built in 1929 for the International Hispanic Fair, and it remains a popular tourist site. On one side of the square, the walls of a vast semicircular building display artistic tilework representing each province of Spain.
In 1992, five centuries after Columbus first sailed for America, Seville hosted a World Trade Fair known as Expo ’92. In harmony with its theme, “The Age of Discoveries,” the exhibition displayed a life-size replica of Columbus’ flagship (photo No. 6), whose small proportions reminded visitors of the hazardous nature of those epic voyages. Another historic exhibit of the Expo, which now houses an art museum, is the restored monastery La Cartuja (photo No. 7), where Columbus prepared for one of his transatlantic voyages and where he was initially buried.
Seville’s new Olympic Stadium will be the site of another important gathering in 2003 — an international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This occasion will provide delegates from Europe and the Americas a chance to get better acquainted with Seville — a gateway to the Americas.
* The archive contains 86 million manuscripts and 8,000 maps and drawings.
Andalusia is the southernmost region of Spain, where nearly eight centuries of Moorish influence is most noticeable.