The Tiles of Seville

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Remember when we were smitten by Seville? Alongside the tapas, this is one of the reasons why.

The Tale of the Tiles of Seville

Seville – the city of Carmen (flamenco, bullfights and the original cigar factory), of the baroque splendour from Figaro’s Wedding, but also the city of Don Giovanni (aka Don Juan), once a city irresistible to soldiers of fortune who came to find adventure because Seville had become the gateway to the New World. (Men such as Christopher Columbus who lies buried here.)

But above all, Seville is the city of tiles

Seville is, quite literally, decked out in them: tiles adorn church walls  …

"A local church adorned with tiles of Seville"

… tavern walls …

"A bar/restaurant decked in tiles  of Seville in the center of the city"

…they are used to identify streets …

"The tiles of Seville used to name streets"

…and the historic buildings in them …

"A street sign made of tiles of Seville on the Fabrica Real des Tabacos"

… as well as historic pubs and restaurants.

"A historic pub with tiles of Seville"

Where people in other cities would use concrete and brick, Sevillanos use tiles …

"The tiles of Seville used for stair rails"

… or a mix of iron and wood.

"Bottom of a balcony decked with tiles of Seville in the city"

Tiles are everywhere. But where did they come from?

To find out more about their history and their origin, you will need to go to the ancient Alcazar Palace right in the heart of Seville’s Old Town.

"Inside the Alcazar Palace in Seville"

Patterned wall or floor tiles have been used to decorate the homes of the wealthy for thousands of years, mainly across the Middle East and in South Asia. The art of decking out large surfaces in complex and intricate geometric patterns was perfected under the early Muslim rulers of  Persia and quickly spread all over the Islamic world.

Tiles are the perfect medium for laying out abstract patterns that are repetitive while providing enough variation to intrigue and charm the eye – abstract patterns being, of course, all that was allowed under the strict Islamic Code of non-representation.

Most of what you see in today’s Royal Palace has, however, not been built by the “Moors” at all, the Muslim invaders from present day “Mauretania” and “Morocco” who governed Seville from 712 to 1248 AD. The Alcazar is essentially a Spanish creation, built over and around a Moorish fortress for the very Catholic King Pedro I roughly 100 years after the Castilian conquest of Seville – proving that the “reconquista” is not as straightforward a tale of liberation as it may appear.

Across the street from the Alcazar, there is more proof for the “bipolarity” of Seville’s ancient history. The Giralda, once a minaret, …

"Giralda tower in Seville"

… now serves as the bell tower of the adjacent Cathedral. This Giralda only received her “wedding cake” topping after an earthquake destroyed the original roof in the 14th century – until then the Christian Sevillanos had not objected to having a church tower in their midst that was topped with a couple of distinctly Islamic copper shells. Nor had they very much minded to pray in the old mosque which only gave way to the new (Gothic) Cathedral when it was destroyed in another earthquake – having served as the city’s main Christian church for 150 years.

Seville was ruled by Muslims for 5 centuries. Although one must be careful not to exaggerate the enlightened benignity of their rule (they did not rule southern Spain, despite of what some accounts appear to imply, in the spirit of Scandinavian social democrats), they probably were, in  comparison to what else was on offer, paragons of tolerance and sophistication.

The Sevillanos must have witnessed their passing with decidely mixed feelings – similar to the feelings, perhaps, that the population of Afghanistan will harbour on the day that the American invaders make way for a return of the Taliban. It seems that the Spanish rulers – at least those who immediately followed the “reconquest” of Seville – were well aware of that. (The inquisition and all that was to follow much later.)

Seville, in one word, was a place where the two main cultures of the Mediterranean (with some help from the Jews) created a fruitful union instead of eyeing each other suspiciously in a spirit of “hostile co-existence”. It was probably not easy, but Seville, somehow, showed that it can be done.

"Image of a saine depicted with tiles of Seville on a church wall"

We may need to go down the same way again, rediscovering Seville’s recipe. This is not the least reason why Seville is such a fascinating place.

(This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post Travel blog written by me, of course.)

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