Archive for the ‘World History’ Category

Ashkelon through the Ages, Part II

June 25, 2013

We left off last time with the history of the city of Ashkelon in the Persian occupation. This only occurred after the city had remained mostly abandoned for about 50 years following Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction. For awhile, they lived happily, burying dogs and digging pits to infuriate archaeologists. Eventually, though, a fabulous Greek by the name of Alexander swept through the Levant and incorporated Ashkelon into his magnificent empire. This began the Hellenistic period of Ashkelon’s life, marked mostly by a change of pottery and a rise in Grecian cultic practices. The Ashkelonites loved the Attic pottery so much that they began running a fairly blatant counterfeit business, selling knockoff Atticware.

Roman Theater, Ashkelon

Roman Theater Built over Hellenistic Fortifications, Ashkelon

But, as Alexander’s empire crumbled, and the Maccabean Revolt passed, the Hasmonean kingdom received Ashkelon for its own, and the formerly Philistine city was in the hands of the Israelites. As Rome rose to power, Ashkelon maintained a form of independence. Cleopatra VII was fond of the city, as it was of her. It welcomed her with open arms when she fled there for refuge for a time, and received a coin minted in her honor. The city was eventually absorbed into the Roman Republic at around 63 BC. In 30 BC, the Idumaean king, Herod the Great, beautified Ashkelon–as was his wont–adding baths and fountains, and his usual enormous pillars.

Byzantine Basilica, Ashkelon

Byzantine Basilica, Ashkelon

Rome faded, and her remnant, the Byzantine Empire took her place. Byzantium ramped up the religion, and even created a map for religious pilgrims called the Madaba Map–featuring such sites as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and even…Ashkelon. In time, the crusaders came to drive the heathen from the holy sites. A mild fiasco ensued when the Egyptian Fatimid army holed up at Ashkelon and conducted raids against the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The crusaders naturally retaliated, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Eventually though, in 1191 AD, Saladin leveled the city to prevent the crusaders from regaining a healthy foothold there. The Richards of England renovated it, but only to have it knocked down again in 1270 when the Egyptian Mamluk sultan Baybars decided enough was enough. Ashkelon laid low for the next 400 or so years, disguised as Majdal, until 1953, when it again took back its name and developed into the bustling vacation city it is today.

Crusader Arch, Ashkelon

Crusader Arch, Ashkelon

To summarize, here’s a quick timeline:

Canaanite — 2000-1150 BC

Philistine — 1150-604 BC

Babylonian Destruction — 604 BC

Persian — 604-332 BC

Greek — 332-63 BC

Roman– 63 BC-330 AD

Byzantine — 330-1453 AD

Crusader — 1099-1191 AD

Islamic — 1187-1270 AD

Ottoman to Modern Ashkelon — 1270-Present

Modern Ashkelon from Tel Ashkelon

Modern Ashkelon from Tel Ashkelon

Ashkelon through the Ages, Part I

June 18, 2013

Part of the fun of archaeology is watching history rewind itself through the layers–because, how will you get to the oldest stuff if you don’t dig out the newest stuff first? At Ashkelon, we’re fairly certain of what the oldest layer is, and how its history seems to have transpired.

Canaanite Gate

Canaanite Gate, Ashkelon

The earliest significant occupation appears to date from the third millennium (2000s) BC. This is often referred to as the Canaanite occupation, which manifests itself most notably in the monumental Canaanite gate–a magnificent 2-story arched gate leading into what was once Canaanite Ashkelon–and the iconic silver calf shrine. During the Canaanite occupation, the people seemed to live in relative prosperity, while maintaing a strained relationship with its neighbor Egypt, evidenced in the simpering letters from the city ruler to Pharaoh. In Genesis 21:22-34, Abraham interacts with these Canaanites when he makes a treaty between him and Abimelech.

Shrine of the Silver Calf

Canaanite Shrine of the Silver Calf, Found at Ashkelon

It is a fascinating realization that history does not occur in a vacuum: rather, history is the interplay of many cultures and many people. A decision in a far-away land may eventually have an impact on another place. Such was the case with Ashkelon. As far west as Spain and as far east as the Levant, a branch of the Mycenaeans landed in search of new homes. Soon, Egypt was invaded by a group known as the Sea People. On the Merenptah Stele, Pharaoh Merenptah details his defeat of the Sea People, driving them out of the land. Having been repulsed from the rich Nile Delta, they tried their luck further up the coast and soon became masters of the fertile Levantine coastline. Here they carried out a booming trade, since they were situated on the greatest trade routes–goods from as far away as Babylon and Cyprus passed through the business-savvy hands of the Ashkelonites. Ashkelon rose in importance, until it became a principle city of the Philistine pentapolis. There are many references to Philistine Ashkelon in the Bible, from Samson’s clothes raid to many dark curses, promising that the Philistines would not rule there forever.

Philistine Baboon Idol

Philistine Baboon Idol, Found at Ekron

Sure enough, in 604 BC, a young king had just taken the throne in Babylon, and new king Nebuchadnezzar wasted no time in finishing the job his father had started. As he had swept up from Egypt to claim his throne, his accompanying army laid out a swath of conquest all about them. As we know, in 605 BC, Jerusalem was swept up in this conquering blitz to begin the period of captivity. But the Jews were not the only people affected by this rapidly expanding empire. As though presenting a preview of coming attractions, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Ashkelon, leaving an astounding layer of destruction–pots, walls, grains, and bodies of all sorts, all placed as though the culture of that day were simply frozen in time. No one had time to clean, throw out their garbage, or finish cooking dinner before their city was reduced to a layer of ash and burnt material.

After Babylon came and went, the Persians exerted their gentle influence. Ashkelon rose from its ashes and blossomed once more into a bustling port town. Fish paste, grain, and wine from Judea all passed through the busy market. Around this time, the Ashkelonites created one of our first pet cemetaries, ritually burying thousands of domestic dogs in a designated part of the town.

Dog Burial

Dog Burial at Ashkelon, Photo Courtesy of Elsevier BV (c) 2013

New adventures…

June 7, 2013

…coming soon.


Experiencing the Top of Europe on the Jungfrau

October 14, 2012

We have been home almost two weeks now.  We never quite caught up on posting about the remainder of our trip until now (and we slipped in a post for Columbus 🙂

Before we get into the last post about the “Top of Europe,” here is what we plan to do with the blog after the trip. Most likely once or twice per week, we’ll try to post content much like you’ve seen so far.  There is so much much history, culture, art, nature, and many photos going along with these items which we want to share.  Hopefully you will like reading about it as much as we like writing about it.  So check back in occasionally or sign up for email alerts over on the right side of the page, as we would love for you to continue the journey with us.

Eiger Monch Jungfrau

The Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau Peaks

We wrap up our trip with a breathtaking journey to the “Top of Europe,” and we mean that quite literally. At 13,642 feet above sea level, the Jungfrau peak is the highest point in Europe and almost everything becomes strenuous. This is one of three peaks clustered together, the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Some stories say the mountains represent the monk (Mönch) protecting the maiden (Jungfrau) from the evil ogre (Eiger). These peaks also front Europe’s longest glacier, the Great Aletsch Glacier (14 miles long, 3300 feet deep). All combined, it creates a panorama of the kind of beauty that can bring tears to your eyes.

Jungfrau View

View of the Valley Beyond the Peaks

To get to the Jungfrau, we took a cogwheel train through a tunnel system in the Eiger, which began construction in 1893 and was completed in 1912. At the top (11,716 ft), we came out at the Sphinx astronomical observatory, clinging to the high point like some sort of lopsided shanty. Appearances aside, it offers an astounding view of the both the heavens and the earth.

Sphinx Observatory

The Sphinx Observatory

From the observatory, you can wander through a network of tunnels leading outside for the 45-minute hike across the edge of the glacier to the peak of the Mönch for a delicious and well-earned meal at the Mönchsjoch Hütte (Mönch’s Hut), a little way station perched on the side of the peak. Here you can enjoy a decadent concoction of bread smothered in 1/2 inch of Swiss cheese, ham, sausage, and all topped with a fried egg. It’s OK–hiking at that altitude burned those calories off pretty fast.

Great Aletsch Glacier

The Great Aletsch Glacier

On a side note, literature fans will also enjoy the fact that JRR Tolkein once toured the Berner Oberland area and was inspired by what he saw. The beautiful and gentle Lauterbrunnen valley became Rivendell. The glacial river rushing through the Lauterbrunnen valley at the foot of the Jungfrau also flows through Rivendell as the “Brunnen” river. The Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau make their appearance as the three peaks of the Misty Mountains in Khazad-dûm: Caradhas, Fanuidhol, and Celebdil–where Gandalf battled the Balrog. Tolkein loved the lore of Northern Europe, but he was enchanted by the geography as well.

Jungfrau from Valley

Tolkein’s View of the Jungfrau

The valley itself is astoundingly lovely, with rough snow sheets melding into rolling pasture land. You can watch the occasional avalanche or herd of ibex above you in the mountains.


Some Ibexes…Ibeces…Ibexi…an Ibex and Another Ibex

Celebrating Columbus Day

October 8, 2012

Today is one of those wonderful holidays where some lucky folks are off of work or out of school. The rest of us are a little jealous. But it is an American holiday, and sometimes it’s good to stop and think about why.Why are we celebrating Columbus? It all starts in 1453. Prior to that year, the Europeans enjoyed the exports of Asia (i.e., the Indies) by land travel. These products included spices, exotic fabrics and ceramics, opium, and the bubonic plague. This trade had been booming since around 200 BC, during the Greek and then Roman empires. But when the Ottoman Turks took over in 1453, the land routes suddenly became quite hostile and the Europeans began turning to the sea.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo spearheaded the sea trade movement.

Christopher Columbus (or Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) was a mariner and self-educated man who enjoyed the works of Marco Polo, Ptolemy, and Pliny the Elder, as well as the Apocrypha. He would later produce a book explaining how his exploration was a fulfillment of biblical prophesies. His brother was a cartographer, and together they cooked up this great idea involving bad math, worse geography, and a fast route to Japan by going west instead of east.

columbus math

The math just didn’t work out…

Tradition tell us that his idea was rejected because everyone just knew the world was flat and he would sail right off the edge. Reality tells us that his idea was rejected because everyone knew his math was bad and his route wouldn’t work. His proposal was turned down by Portugal, England, Genoa, and Italy–even Spain, at first.

Columbus Planned Route

Geography Just Doesn’t Work That Way

Then, in 1492, flush from their victory over the Moors, Ferdinand and Isabella saw him one last time. And they decided to just go with it. Columbus would get his ships, his crew, and his titles of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and Governor of whatever country he found (plus 10% of all treasure).

Columbus subsequently discovered the Bahamas, Cuba, Panama, and some parts of South America in his four voyages. Not North America, though–that goes to Leif Ericson, about 500 years earlier. And Giovanni Cabot, who sailed in the name of England, and thus was not popular with colonial America. We adopted Columbus as our champion instead. Out of spite.

Christopher Columbus Portrait

Columbus was in, Cabot was out.

Columbus died in relative prosperity, enjoying a quiet apartment in Spain, though he spent a short stent in jail for committing atrocities against the natives under his governorship. The Crown also stripped him of his rights to a cut of the treasure, which his heirs eventually won back after his death. He now resides in Sevilla, Spain.

Columbus Tomb Giralda Cathedral

Tomb of Columbus

Avenches: A Rainy Day with Swiss Romans

October 4, 2012

Switzerland is a beautiful country, with rolling hills blending into majestic, wild mountains. The farmland is fertile and the climate in the lowlands is temperate, dotted with clear lakes and glacier-fed rivers. And with such mountains surrounding the country, the passes become strategic. Put all of these features together in an area, and you have the perfect location for a conquering nation to establish a colony.

Such as the Romans.

Around 500 BC, a tribe of Celts, the Helvetii, settled in Switzerland. In 58 BC, a young, upwardly-mobile Roman general named Julius Caesar conquered the Helvetii and absorbed the tribe into the empire. As germanic tribes invaded Helvetica and began posing a threat to this northern territory, Augustus Caesar (27-14 BC) sent the Helvetians back home to defend the borders. A city was established named Aventicum (after the goddess Aventica), which expanded as Tiberius (14-37 AD) sent more support to the northern borders. The city thrived and swelled with a population of around 20,000 under Claudius (41-54 BC), who established a trade route through the area. Tacitus tells us it was the capital of Helvetica in 69 AD, thanks to Vespasian, who grew up in Aventicum and made it a Roman colony.

Rome She Wolf

Roman She-Wolf in the Roman Museum, Avenches

This was a typical Roman city, with all the normal features: two theaters, baths, an imperial cult temple, a temple to Mercury, a forum, a geometric residential area, aqueducts–all tucked behind a protective Roman wall featuring 73 watchtowers. Gladiators fought in the amphitheater against each other, bears, wolves, and lynxes. People lived and died, their families building memorials to the dead. All the difference was, instead of building with glistening marble, they mostly used native limestone and Bündner schist (black rock with white quartz found in the Alpine region).

Golden Bust Emperor Marcus Aurelius Avenches

Golden Bust of Marcus Aurelius Found at the Imperial Temple in Avenches

When Rome fell, Germanic tribes moved in. The walls were repaired in Medieval times and more towers were built. Eventually, the Latin name took on a French flavor and became Avenches. Today, it is about 1 1/2 hours from Bern. The ruins are open to the public and the artifacts are displayed in the Medieval tower-turned-museum that overlooks the amphitheater.

Roman Theater Avenches Aventicum

Roman Amphitheater in Aventicum

Thus, on a drizzly, cloudy day, we took a train and found ourselves in the little town of Avenches. First was the museum, which gave us a great insight into the daily life of “northern Romans.” There were three particularly interesting finds: The gold bust of Marcus Aurelius (ca. 80 AD) from the temple and the remains of a statue of Agrippina the Elder, Augustus’ granddaughter, Tiberius’ adopted granddaughter, Germanicus’ wife, and mother of a den of vipers, including Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD, guy tried to make his horse a consul) and Empress Agrippina the Younger, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. The last is a funerary stele dedicated to Pompeia Gemella,the “educatrix of the emperor.” Many historians believe this “emperor” was none other than Titus, who would go on to level Jerusalem in 70 AD before being crowned emperor. Much of Aventicum’s later success is ascribed to the tender feelings Titus had for his hometown and childhood nurse, Pompeia.

Pompeia Gemella Stele Titus educatrix

Stele Dedicated to Pompeia Gemella, Nurse to an Emperor

To get to the ruins, one must hike through plowed fields and cow pastures. But they are there and are splendid. The watchtower in the wall has been repaired and one of the city’s 5 aqueducts is visible. The amphitheater is still used for events, and baths are being excavated and repaired. And if you go on a rainy day, you will leave thoroughly soaked, and completely satisfied from contemplating historic ruins…all by yourself.

Cigognier Imperial Temple Aventicum

Roman Wall and Aqueduct Aventicum

The Repaired Roman Wall and Aqueduct

Switzerland- Land of Mountains, Trains, Gondola Lifts, and, Well, Cheese (and Chocolate)

October 3, 2012

Switzerland, small and landlocked in the middle of Europe with the Alps on the southern border, is a beautiful country with a postcard-like ambiance across most of its land. For us, given our interest in nature, hiking, mountains, trains and more, we wanted to give it a shot.  Since we were already across the pond, plane tickets were cheap. Through a handy-dandy guide book, we found a lady who rents part of her cabin (sectioned off much like an apartment or B&B room) for less than most hotel rooms you would find driving across the U.S. Put all of that together and you have a room with a view like this….

Gimmelwald WindowView

Our View in Gimmelwald, Switzerland

This is a view from our cabin in the little town of Gimmelwald. The Google map link below will give you an idea about where this is in the southern central part of the country. If you are a Google Earth user, search for this town name in Switzerland and tilt the view to see the elevation, and you will get a good idea of the mountain terrain in this area.

So a little about Switzerland. Historically, the land area of Switzerland has Greek and Roman history just as many other European and near-east countries. Although you don’t typically think of Rome when thinking about Switzerland, you do have Roman archaeological sites in the country, such as Augusta Raurica in the north central part of the country and Avenches, located close to Bern, in the central part of the country. The 12 and 13th centuries saw the rise of the “Old Swiss Confederacy” (the common CH abbreviation you now see for Switzerland, which is Confoederatio Helvetica, Latin for “Swiss Confederation”). This era brought many of the communities of the central Alps together. This union allowed the Swiss to fight against other European powers, such as the Habsburg Empire, and win some notable victories, which established some level of Swiss independence in the region. However, due to some internal weaknesses and the power of the French in the Napoleonic era, the Swiss did fall under French rule for a short time. That French rule ended toward the beginning of the 19th century, with the Swiss reestablishing independence and also beginning the long road of Swiss neutrality, which is still in existence today.

The attitude of neutrality even precipitates down to their animals.  Walk along the quite mountain trails between the villages and try to pet the goats, cows, sheep, dogs, and cats along the way. You will find they accept the petting, but very nonchalantly, and may walk away at any time and stare at you indignantly, as the cow below did to us. Hey, it’s Switzerland.

swiss cow

Neutral Swiss Cow

Just up from the village we were residing in is the peak of the Schilthorn. This peak is notable for a revolving restaurant perched at the top (@ 9,744 ft.). The restaurant and the associated viewing platforms offer spectacular views of the Eiger, Mӧnch, and Jungfrau peaks across the valley. These peaks are commonly noted as “Top of Europe,” which is served by the highest running cog-wheel train in Europe.

eiger monch jungfrau switzerland

The Three Peaks: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau

Also, the restaurant at the top of the Schilthorn is one of the main settings for the film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” a James Bond 007 movie from the late 60s. They blew it up in the movie, but, luckily, it is actually still there and serving a delicious “007 Breakfast Buffet” at 10,000 feet.

Schilthorn 007 Restaraunt

Breakfast at 10,000

Over the next day or two, we’ll dedicate a few other posts to some Roman ruins we visited and the peak of the Jungfrau.

Madrid’s Art Neighborhood: The Good, the Bad, and the Picasso, Part 2

October 2, 2012

We’re home safe and sound, but we’ll keep posting about our trip (we got behind–spotty Internet access can do that). Part deux of our tour of Madrid’s art museum neighborhood ends with us at the popular modern art museum, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Reina Sofía Art Center).

Normally, we are not modern art fans. But that’s generally. There are pieces of modern art that are both iconic and extraordinarily moving. That is the art in which the creator is using the medium to express intense emotions, ideas and feelings that are too distorted, subtle, or fluid for a classic canvas. This is what brought us to the Reina Sofía, home of two famous Spanish Civil War-era artists: Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. The current curator of the museum has quite cleverly matched some of the masterpieces with films from the same eras, which provides a fascinating insight into the culture behind the art. Thus, with our trusty guidebook in hand, we immediately made a beeline for the museum’s pièce de résistance: Picasso’s Guernica.

Centro de Arte Center of Modern Art Reina Sofia

Reina Sofía Art Center

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, with the Nationalista party and Franco’s coup d’état. Franco was a fascist, and had the backing of both Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. The painting takes us to April 26, 1937 on a bright market day in the Basque capital city of Guernica. The city was filled with farmers and shoppers from the countryside, as well as war refugees, swelling the normal population. Around 3:40 in the afternoon, a German warplane appeared over the horizon, but this was not alarming–until it began bombing the bridges and roads leading into the town. Then more warplanes appeared and the real bombing began. For 3 hours, the town was a roiling mass of panic, animals screaming in fear, people rushing to escape. But there was no escape. Those that survived the bombs long enough to make it to the streets and hills were met with machine gun strafing, like shooting rabbits fleeing a warren. By sunset, the once-proud town was leveled by Hitler’s first experiment in saturation bombing, by Franco’s leave. The time and place were strategic: Franco needed to make an example and the bustling, independently-minded town offered the most horrific opportunity for casualties.

Bombed Building Guernica

Remains of Bombed Guernica Buildings – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224 / CC-BY-SA

Picasso, a Spaniard, was in Paris, France, brainstorming for a mural he was to paint for the World’s Fair when he received the news of the atrocity. All ideas were forgotten, and he began the work of his lifetime. In a matter of weeks, he presented the 286-square-foot mural to the world. The painting itself, a study in cubism, resembles broken shards jumbled and pieced together. Nothing is as it should be. Chaos reigns even in the very color and composition of the images. A bare bulb lights a nauseatingly monochromatic scene of unmitigated terror–a man trapped in a burning building screams as a woman runs, dragging her wounded leg behind her. A dying horse, pierced by a broken spear, has thrown its rider, his severed arm still clutching a sword. Someone looks out the window to see the turmoil below. A mother raises her face and her voice heavenward as she clutches her dead child in her arms, Picasso’s own pietá. Above it all, a fighting bull, the symbol of Spain’s courageous spirit, bellows in impotent fear and the dove of peace fades helplessly into the background.

Picasso Guernica

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937. Oil on canvas. Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

The world was shocked and horrified by the gritty imagery, having till then only seen the sanitized version of events that Franco permitted it to see. Suddenly, nations were aware of the losing battle being fought by the Republicanos and the chilling efficiency of the fascist war machine. Now they knew what this brutal trinity was capable of, but did they realize this was the prelude to the even more egregious genocides of World War II?

Today, the Reina Sofía houses this work of art in a room by itself, where you can stand and reflect on the heartbreaking events that lead to its creation and those that continue on today around the world. War is a truly terrible thing, but, sadly, as long as there is evil in the world willing to exploit the innocent, then we can only hope there is a greater good willing to rise up and protect those in need.

Madrid’s Art Neighborhood: The Good, the Bad, and the Picasso–Part, 1

September 30, 2012

When one thinks of great art in the world, your mind usually goes to the Old Masters of the Renaissance, and especially the Italians. But Spain had its share of Old Masters, too: El Greco, Goya, Diego Velázquez, and Murillo. However, when it comes to modern art, Spain wins the prize with heavy hitters like Picasso and Dalí. We were able to see a healthy sampling of them all in Madrid’s famous art museum neighborhood. Part 1 of our tour of art through the centuries will focus on the classical works at the Thyssen and Prado. In part 2, we’ll have a crash course Spanish Civil War-era modernism.

Our artistic warmup was the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. The Thyssen collection was begun by Baron Thyssen and his wife and former Miss Spain, Baroness Carmen. After the baron’s death, she opened the gallery to the public and continues to add to the collection today. While you do have a couple of Titians and a Caravaggio, you will mostly only see the artistic B-list here. Now, that’s not a bad thing, as even bad classical art is still pretty good (unless it’s German, and bad German art is, well, bad). The Thyssen’s main strong point is its collection of Impressionist works. As the Renaissance drew to a close, Velázquez and Goya spearheaded a movement in which intricate details started being “faked” by broader brush strokes and “blotches” of color, giving you the “impression” of the picture–and from far away, they look very realistic. Just don’t get too close.

The next day, we visited the A-list, beginning with the world-famous Prado. We used our guidebook to take us straight to the big guys (it is a very good idea to always enter an art museum with some kind of plan, saving you literally hours of confused wandering). We began our artistic journey with the Renaissance fledglings, Fra Angelico and Bosch. Both were religious artists, but frontrunners of the movement. Bosch (1450-1516) also gives us the first peek at surrealism, especially with his Garden of Earthly Delights, a discomfiting three-panel depiction of what happens when God’s creation devotes his life to pleasure rather than spirituality. Short answer is eternal torment with a creepy self-portrait of Bosch staring at you reproachfully.

Fra Angelico Annunciation

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was next on the list. His most well-known painting is Las Meninas, a lovely snapshot of the royal family. This is a beautiful 3-D painting, drawing you in as the action happens all around you. Mom and Dad are sitting somewhere behind you as Diego paints their portrait, but you can see their reflection in the mirror behind the artist. Their little princess watches them as her meninas, maids of honor, play with her. The court dwarf and the family dog seize the opportunity to relax.

Velazquez Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas

Next up was El Greco (The Greek, 1541-1614). The nickname is understandable, since his real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos, and that would have been very difficult for the lisping Castillianos to say. El Greco specialized in religious art, but mixed a bit of impressionism with spirituality and a touch of mysticism. His saints are long and thin, guiding your eyes up their bodies and to heaven–which is usually where their large, expressive eyes are pointing, too. El Greco’s Christ bears His cross, blood running from His pierced head and down His neck; but His face is serene, looking towards His deliverance and the sinful world’s redemption.

Christ Carrying the Cross El Greco

El Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross

Rubens, a Flimmand, was next. And really, it’s safe to just go ahead and lump Rubens (1577-1640) and Titian (1490-1576) together, especially since they reside next door to each other at the museum. Both of their works center mainly on sensualism, with a focus on mythological themes. Titian’s big patron was Philip II, who was apparently not as rigid of a saint as he would have you believe. But when they were being serious, they both presented some beautifully executed portraits, making even the “let’s marry within the family” Habsburgs look almost normal.

Rubens Habsburg Portrait

Peter Paul Rubens, Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma

Our last stop at the Prado was Goya (1746-1828). And wasn’t he quite the character–he began as a court artist, albeit a facetious one. He painted his royals like they were, rather than flattering them. Now the world saw the arrogance, the stupidity of their nobles shining through. Habsburg underbites jut out viciously and eyes stare blankly and dumbly ahead. He ended his royal portrait career when Napoleon put his brother on the Spanish throne, spurring a mob to gather in Madrid in protest on May 2, 1808. Napoleon’s brother was brutal, and rather than end the protest peacefully, he sent his Eqyptian mercenaries into the plaza to make an example of the rebels. The mob was too big, and no one could escape the massacre. On May 3, the ringleaders were rounded up and executed before a firing squad. Goya watched it all, and produced his quintessential works Second of May, 1808  and Third of May, 1808. Some legends say the screaming young man in white in Third of May was a friend of Goya’s that he watched die. He retired from the public eye when he became too deaf and riddled with disease to continue. This began his Black Period, where he smeared the walls of his house with nightmarish visions of flying demons, witches, and satanic rituals.

Francisco de Goya Segundo de Mayo 1808 Second of May

Francisco de Goya, Segundo de Mayo, 1808

Francisco de Goya Tres de Mayo 1808 Third of May
Francisco de Goya, Tres de Mayo, 1808

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and are public domain images.

El Escorial and Valle de Los Caidos

September 27, 2012

We were in Madrid a couple of days ago, and decided to take a daytrip out to the town of El Escorial. There were two main sites here we wanted to visit, the palace of San Lorenzo del Escorial and Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen).

King Charles V, Isabel and Ferdinand’s son, built a palace next to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, but when his son Philip II took the crown, he began the 40-year construction of El Escorial. The complex served many purposes: a royal retreat, a basilica and mausoleum for the royal family, a place to “safely” learn humanist ideas, and a slap in the face to the rising Reformation movement headed by Martin Luther. The stoic, foreboding palace also became Philip’s headquarters for conducting the bitter Inquisition, in which suspected heretics were tortured and publicly executed.

San Lorenzo del Escorial Philip II Inquisition

San Lorenzo del Escorial

The palace itself has several interesting features. We toured the Royal Living Quarters, centered around the basilica’s high altar (the focal point of a cathedral). Originally, both Philip and his queen Elizabeth’s beds (on opposite sides of the basilica) faced the altar through open windows. But Elizabeth died before construction was done and their daughter took her room. The Royal Pantheon below houses primary, secondary, and a few tertiary royals, as well as infantes (royal children) who died before confirmation. A fascinating library houses 40,000 priceless books in many languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. A sign over the door promises excommunication to anyone who leaves without properly checking out their tome.

Our other stop was Valley of the Fallen, a Spanish Civil War memorial. The 33-month war claimed 500,000 victims split along ideologies rather than borders. Neither side was innocent, both committed unspeakable atrocities. In 1936, the military rebelled against the democratically elected liberal government. Two parties emerged: The Nacionalistas lead by Generalisimo Franco (ultra-conservatives and nobility) and the internationally-aided Republicano militia (liberals and socialists). The next three years resulted in a starved and broken nation–many older Spaniards are actually very small, their growth stunted due to these hungry years. Mussolini and Hitler both lent their aid to Franco. The last of the resistance fell in 1939 and Franco ruled with a religious iron fist for 37 years, allowing only “safe” ideas to cross his borders.

Valle de Caidos Valley of the Fallen Franco Spanish Civil War

Franco’s Valle de los Caidos

He almost immediately began construction of Valle de los Caidos, a basilica, mausoleum, and war memorial. There is a great deal of controversy over this site, which was built at least partially by POWs, either forced or voluntarily. Around 50,000 fighters of both sides rest here with Franco himself. The nave is 300 yards long, but only 262 of those are blessed by the Vatican, keeping it smaller than St. Peter’s.

Valle de Caidos Valley of the Fallen Nave

View Through the Gates and Down the Nave in the Valley of the Fallen Basilica

It’s hard to repress a thrill of horror as you pass beneath the giant Pieta, Mary cradling her dead Son, and walk down the chilling underground granite aisle to the high altar. You wonder how mothers and wives felt as they made the same passage on their pilgrimage to the urns of their sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands in two rooms marked “RIP 1936-1939, Died for God and Country.” Franco lies in the middle of it all in a flower-strewn grave at the altar. All the while, stern bronze angels in niches stare at you as you slip by.

Valle de Caidos Valley of the Fallen Angel

Armed Angel in the Valley of the Fallen Monument

It is an interesting irony that two brutal religious dictators are both buried in this town, separated by 300 hundred years. Does history repeat itself? Over and over.