This Sunday, I unpacked my bags for the first time since I left Dominica a month ago. I’m settled for a time in Sevilla, the city that was once the seat of the Spanish Empire. I’ve rented a cozy little skylit studio in the Old Town, steps away from the city wall built in the time of Julius Caesar. The area looks like the Spain of the popular imagination: cobblestone streets so narrow that neighbors across the street could stretch over their balconies and brush fingertips.
I was meant to take the Alta Velocidad train here after a stopover in Valencia, but instead, a new friend I’d made in Luxembourg drove down, picked me up in Barcelona, and off we tumbled down the Mediterranean coast over the weekend in his Renault.
Miguel is one of tens of thousands of Portuguese nationals who’ve left their economically perilous home for that micro-nation, sandwiched between France, Belgium, and Germany, with the highest GDP per capita in the world. They dream of earning enough money to return to Portugal and live like maritime kings. Miguel and I had connected and laughed over Luxembourg’s relentless, marble-cold perfection. The strictly on-time, spotlessly clean buses with no passengers, because everyone has their own luxury car. The pothole-free roads that ride like black glass. The flawlessly manicured parks and gardens which remain empty because Luxembourgers are work-obsessed and time-starved. The meticulousness in all things.
When I arrived in Barcelona, I texted Miguel a photo of her crumbling low skyline and hodge-podge rows of messy clotheslines. He responded (in French, our mutual language), “I’m coming to see you.”
It’s been so nice to have a travel companion. I’m usually alone, and I don’t mind the occasional loneliness. I see it as the reasonable price of total freedom. But looking over at someone and saying, “Did you see that?!” is a beautiful thing.
Our first stop was the Cathedral of Seville, the third-largest church on the planet, because I’m a Jew who loves cathedrals and grand mosques (go figyah). Its tower, bedecked with intricate Moorish-influenced arches, is impossibly high and strains your neck when you look toward its tip. The ticket line wrapped around the block, and we were umbrella-less in the steady rain, so we ducked into the open-entry rear area of the cathedral and got on our tip toes to try and see the altar. I only saw a quadrant of the cathedral, but its size can’t be overstated. You could fit a few city blocks inside there.
At that moment, a woman in an official-looking vest approached us and told us to leave; it was time for the 11:00 tour for ticket-holders.
“Uh…I think she just told us we have to get out because God is getting respectable visitors,” I quipped. We briefly debated sneaking into an open door behind a procession of burgundy-robed priests, but Vest Lady’s stern glare deterred us.
We walked on to Casa de Pilatos, which has been described as “the poor man’s Alcazar.” Now, granted, I haven’t been to the Alcazar yet, but nothing about Casa de Pilatos seemed poor. It was the private residence of Spanish nobility for hundreds of years, replete with sculpture gardens, a marble-floored courtyard ringed with Mudejar archways, and gold-inlaid carved ceilings.
I stepped into the courtyard and sighed that sigh that happens when aesthetic beauty floods you. I pressed the audio guide to my ear. Now, I stopped listening to the audio guide after about ten minutes. It was going on about things I have no reason to care about, like the noble residents’ biographies and bloodlines.
But the first sentence – mentioned in passing and completely normalized – sent a chill through my body that lasted the day.
“Funds to build Casa de Pilatos were gained from the seized assets of prisoners convicted in the Inquisition.”
Of course it wasn’t SHOCKING. Whenever I enter a space of physical beauty in Western Europe, I temper my appreciation with an internal reminder that it exists solely because of the rape of three continents, the enslavement of African bodies, the systematic eradication of the native people of the Americas. To paraphrase Malcolm, any society could seem “advanced” if they had 500 years of free labor taking care of their shit for them.
What shook me about the lighthearted admission that Casa de Pilatos wouldn’t exist if not for the torture and murder of thousands, was the reminder that the Inquisition had little to do with religion. Religion – or Catholic religious fervor – was simply the nobles’ way of creating popular buy-in.
They became fabulously wealthy from seizing the property and life savings of Andalusian Muslims and Jews. They created an atmosphere of total xenophobic terror, aiming to eliminate religious diversity and preside over a uniformly Christian population who believed them to be divinely chosen and would quite literally let them get away with murder.
An 18th-Century resident of Casa de Pilatos dedicated one of the halls as a study for his son. He had a fresco of I-forget-exactly-who painted on the ceiling; it was the only mortal to be accepted by the Greek gods on Mt. Olympus. It was supposed to be a model of virtue for the boy.
I looked around to see if irony registered on anyone else’s face as they listened to the audio guide. “Model of virtue?” I asked Miguel, too loudly. “Everybody realizes this guy was living good off the sale of human beings, right?”
If you think you can model virtue, you’re probably one non-virtuous sunnamabitch. Don’t worry, Casa de Pilatos guy didn’t know this about himself either.
Another Western European (and now Euro-American) strategy that hasn’t changed in literally five centuries: simultaneous appropriation and eradication of other cultures. The fabulous Casa was dripping with artistic and architectural elements of Islamic North Africa. These were built while Muslims were being sentenced to being burned alive for being Muslim. Explain to me, please, how that’s different from the mass incarceration of POC while the same white people screaming about reverse racism and thuggery wholesale incorporate hip hop into (what they think is) their style and language.
People tell me I think too much. But listen, that’s my generational trauma + not having anyone to speak English to in over a month, ok? And maybe some people should start thinking more.
On a final note, in case you were wondering whatever happened to the pillaged gold from South America – which the Inca worshiped as the earthly representation of their Sun God – here ya go: