Gabriel Benaim: España as Text 2019

Gabriel Benaim is a senior in Florida International University and is part of the Honors College. He currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Religious Studies. He attended the Honors Spain Study Abroad program in the summer of 2019.

Madrid as Text:

Glass-domed lounge in the Hotel Palace in Madrid, Spain. 06/06/2019

Walking through the streets of Madrid, enveloped by the deep history that surrounded us, we happened upon the Hotel Palace. At a glance, it appears to be an upscale expensive hotel filled with aristocrats who don’t bother looking down as they step on others. However, a contrasting story exists where this very hotel acted as a military hospital of sorts during the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939). Through the same beautiful stained-glass art piece, which has allowed light to shine through and illuminate the hall where guests currently sit to eat and talk, once used its light to save lives. Interestingly, this room had to be used as makeshift operating room to aid the injured as other hospitals were either closed or overrun.

Interestingly in the bleakest of situations, there always seems to be a helping hand or ray of hope in the picture. Like the flower in the Guernica painting by Picasso, Simon Bolivar and the countries throughout the Andes in South America, Harriet Tubman during the underground railroad in the United States, the Hotel Palace served as a healing light during the dark times that Madrid found itself in.

Toledo as Text:

View of the city of Toledo, Spain from the outskirts of the city. 06/12/2019

One short train ride away from Madrid, we happened upon the small city of Toledo. A city that has been ruled by many groups over its history, the Romans, then the Visigoths, then the Arabs, and finally the Christians. All of these ruling groups have left their footprint in the city, where many buildings can be seen right next to each other with different styles of architecture and culture.  Another group that resided in this city and left their mark were the Sephardic Jews, who were driven out of Toledo and Spain following the Alhambra decree erected by Fernando II of Aragón and Isabel I of Castilla.

Coming from the United States, it is incredible to see so much history and different ethnic groups in such a small city comparatively. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this small city has more history than the United States as a whole. Entering the city, it starts to feel much larger than it looked from the outside, it is very easy to feel slight claustrophobia due to the small winding roads and tall buildings (for a centuries-old city). Escaping from the city and walking around its perimeter from the vast lands surrounding it, one can see this great city that seems to grow out of the ground perfectly surrounded by a river, leaving you with a wonder and longing for other cities with this much culture and history.

Cordoba as Text:

View of the pillars and arches in the great Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain with the Christian addition in the center. 06/15/2019

From a very young age I had heard of the great Mosque-Cathedral with hundreds of pillars and arches with alternating ivory and brick colors. The construction of this great Mosque started in 784 by the orders of Abd Al-Rahman. I remember watching a documentary at school when I was seven years old about it, though I did not remember where it was located, I found the architecture nothing short of amazing. Entering Cordoba, I learned that we would be visiting a Mosque-Cathedral, it looked fairly simple from the outside so I did not think much of it and followed along. As I entered the building and saw the arches for the first time in real life, I was transported into that moment in my childhood when I saw them on the rolling television at school, a memory I thought I had long forgotten. The mathematical placement of the pillars and color arrangement in the arches draw your eyes as you look through them, keeping your gaze in constant movement. Until it is interrupted by large columns with a completely different style of architecture making it seem as if something had just landed there through the ceiling. These pillars announce the arrival of Christianity to the Mosque which end up transforming it into a Cathedral in the year 1236 during the Spanish reconquista.

Aerial view of the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain 06/15/2019

The Cathedral was beautiful on its own, there is no doubt the Christians knew how to build and adorn things beautifully. But just as the acoustics of the room had been ruined by the Christian intrusion in the center of the Mosque, so was the pleasing optical illusion granted by the pillars and arches. I am glad we still have 80 percent of the mosque left mostly intact, though I cannot help but wonder how much greater the sight would have been if it was left untouched completely. Climbing the minaret, one is filled with a sense of power as the whole city can be seen from that spot. Looking around I found the Mosque I was recently in and instantly saw a cross protruding from the center of it. It was clear to see that this fabled Mosque was now dominated by another religion, Christianity, as it now wore its symbol right in its heart, as if it was swapped completely.

It is interesting to see how differing ideologies throughout history can change not only the minds of people but their actions as well, and it makes me wonder how our history would have been if religion was purely used towards the growth of humanity instead of a tool of destruction. Selfishly I ask, would I be able to see the rows, pillars, and arches without interruption?   

Sevilla as Text:

View of facade from the Patio de la Monteria in the Royal Alcazar of Sevilla, Spain. 06/16/2019

The United States is generally referred to as a melting pot due to the many different cultures that reside it. Visiting the United States for the first few times I visited places in San Francisco like China Town and Little Italy, or little Haiti and Little Havana in Miami. It confused me to see places like these where most if not all residents were of the same ethnic background. Seeing cultures divided in this fashion made me think the melting pot must have been left turned off.

Upon visiting other places such as Madrid, Cordoba, Sevilla, and Barcelona, I have seen the many different cultural groups actually intermixed. I visited a bar owned by Chinese owners who made excellent paellas and spaghetti carbonara, now which country truly sounds like a melting pot?

It seems that Spain does, the Royal Alacazar of Sevilla has history dating back to the first century in the form of roman ruins, on top of which the Visigoths built a small Christian basilica, then, in the year 712, the Umayyad took over, destroyed the basilica and built their own structures. Later on, in the year 1358 King Pedro I chose this location to start constructing his very own palace. However, instead of building it in the classic European architectural style the other kings were doing, he decided that he wanted it mainly in Mudejar style of architecture, with some gothic influences. He liked the way the Muslim artists wrote on the walls their views on their god, Allah, so Pedro asked them to do a similar style of art, as seen above the doorway in the image above, but with Christian crosses instead of their traditional Arabic writings. Furthering the normality of the intermixing of cultures in the Spanish culture, his Muslim workers referred to him as Sultan Pedro, showing him that they accepted and respected him as king and ruler of Spain.

Though sometimes forced, like during the conquering of the Americas, the intermixing of cultures when the Spanish is involved seems to flow and occur with much more ease than with other cultures. This may be due to the specific culture’s acceptance of foreign influences. I have often heard of the resentment toward immigrants held by some Americans with phrases like: “Don’t speak Spanish, speak English, we are in America!” or even the current idea to wall off the United States from Mexico so “they can’t get in anymore.” In the end, it is up to us to decide regardless of where we are from or where we are staying, whether we should turn on the melting pot.

Barcelona as Text:

Firework show during the “Nit de Foc” festival in Plaça de la Barceloneta, Barcelona, Spain. 06/23/2019

The Sant Joan festival or “Nit de Foc” has pagan roots just like Christmas and Halloween do. The festival of Sant Joan starts when the sun sets on the 23rd of June. It involves fireworks, dancing, food, bonfires, and more. The pagan purpose of this festival is to celebrate the longest day or the day with the longest duration of daylight of the year which is the summer solstice where usually lies very close to the 23rd of June. It is said that the bonfires done by the pagan’s years before the Catholic Church attached their saint to this tradition was to keep evil spirits away, today seen in the image of a devil running from fire, and to offer fire and praise to their sun god. The Christian church associated this festival with the birth of Saint John the Baptist, therefore tying in the fire and transforming it into a holy or purifying fire. They also added on other customs such as special cleansing effects of bathing during this festival and the enhanced healing abilities of herbs.

It was interesting to learn that this festivity had pagan origins and that the Christian church attached their own meaning to it to perhaps assimilate the pagans into their religion. I found this event very similar to Christmas. There have been rumors going around that Jesus could not have been born in Bethlehem or near Jerusalem for that matter during December as it would be too cold to survive in the conditions they were supposedly in. Interestingly, Christmas is also very close to the same day of another pagan festival, the winter solstice, or the day with the longest night out of the year. There is a myth that the birth of Jesus was attached to this day to show the pagans that he is the light during the longest night. This is uncommon as many festivities in Christianity are based around someone’s death, however, the festivals associated with the summer and winter solstice, the festival of Sant Joan and Christmas are both based on Saint John the Baptist and Jesus’s birth. Though I am thankful for being able to find out about the true beginnings of these festivities, whether or not the appropriations done by the Christian Church were just, at least pieces of their history still live on.

Sitges as Text:

Picture of Door-knockers in Cau Ferrat, Sitges, Spain. 6/27/2019

Sitges, the coastal city that Charles Deering, a wealthy American businessman, invited us to after visiting his villa in Miami. It is here where he found inspiration to build his new house, after not being able to buy the house that captivated his dreams, Cau Ferrat, originally owned by Santiago Rusiñol. The thing that captivated Charles Deering so much was Rusiñol’s vast art collection, which still contains ”ancient art gathered by the artist (painting, forge, ceramics, glass, archeology, sculpture and furniture) and modern art (painting, drawing, sculpture) with works by Rusiñol, Casas, Picasso R. Pichot, Mas i Fondevila, Zuloaga, Regoyos and Degouwe of Nucques, Henry Clarasó Manolo Hugué and Pau Gargallo, among others” Rusiñol’s collection is so extensive that in this house alone, he contains more than 700 iron “household and liturgical” items spanning from the 13th century all the way into the 19th century. This collection includes dozens of iron door-knockers, of which only a small portion is pictured above. 

As I saw all of these door-knockers I wondered where they had all previously been, how many different people had been called by their sound, and how they all ended up in Rusiñol’s hands. It made me wonder how many people’s lives must have come in contact with Rusiñol’s during an age where transportation and communication was not as simple as it is today with our multiple methods of transportation and instant communication at hands reach. Without regard, the same communication and transportation that Charles Deering used when he took back the collection he had started in Sitges to the United States in 1921 is the same one that enabled my journey out of the New World and into the Old World.

“Cau Ferrat Museum.” Museus De Sitges, Sitges Heritage Association, 9 July 2018, museusdesitges.cat/en/museum/cau-ferrat/cau-ferrat-museum.

España as Text:

FIU Honors Study Abroad 2019 class with Segovia, Spain in the background. 06/10/2019

We met as strangers in an Honors class in Miami. A class that took us on a few trips around the city, to places some of us had never been before. Experiencing new things in our comfortable city allowed us to interact to a certain degree but nothing too unlike other classes. It allowed us to become acquaintances. Then on June 6th we were suddenly in Spain, the country that founded the same Miami we lived in, a place we knew very little of and had little known foundations or stability. Being in such a foreign place, the thing we knew the most was each other. Through our travels through Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, El Escorial, Cordoba, Sevilla, Granada, Barcelona, Montserrat, and Sitges, experiencing hardships and fun adventures made us grow together as no other class I have taken before. We went from acquaintances to brothers and sisters, all thanks to this old but new land for us. I never had a class such as this one, both in the education aspect of it or in the personal growth and friendship aspect of it.

This class made me question, are today’s classes as educational as they can be? Is it a good idea to sit in a class room for hours on end looking at PowerPoints or is it more educational to go outside and be taught in the environment respective to the topic being taught. Or perhaps is it a mix of both? I can understand that going out of a classroom and teaching outside would be more rigorous for both the professor or teacher and for the students, but the motivation to learn and material being taught might just be worth it for the up and coming youth.

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