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Córdoba: In Spain, loss of Roman Empire’s largest palace to make way for a high-speed-train station still hurts | Culture

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Aerial view of the palatial area at Cercadilla on May 22, 1991, two days before the bulldozers moved in.
Aerial view of the palatial area at Cercadilla on May 22, 1991, two days before the bulldozers moved in.Rafael Hidalgo

It was a massive, brutal attack on Spain’s historical heritage; an unmitigated plundering of a national asset that left “an open wound,” according to Camino Fuertes, an archaeologist from the Andalusian Agency of Cultural Institutions. Fuertes on Tuesday delivered a talk, Thirty years after Cercadilla, to mark the destruction of the Roman imperial palace of Córdoba, built by Emperor Maximian Herculius between the years 293 and 305.

“It’s tremendously painful,” adds Ana Zamorano, president of the cultural association Friends of Medina Azahara, which organized online events to observe the date, such as Cercadilla, The Loss of Innocence. The complex, which sprawled over eight hectares, was razed in May 1991 to make way for a high-speed AVE train station in Córdoba, in the southern region of Andalusia. Spain’s inaugural AVE line was being built from Madrid to Seville to coincide with the fact that the latter city would host the 1992 World Expo.

A minor railway station had already been occupying part of the site since the 19th century. The stop included a small building, a platform, a parking lot and a railway junction that allowed for a change of direction. Then, on May 22, 1991, following the decision to replace the old station with a new one that would accommodate the AVE, the excavators came in to dig up the earth and destroy the ancient palace and its surroundings. Archaeologists worked flat out to try to save what they could. But within the space of a few days, an area spanning half a kilometer long by 200 meters across had been destroyed. There were media reports about the destruction of tombstones, mosaics, a Roman theater, a temple, a circus, an amphitheater and a palace.

Scale model of the Cercadilla palace complex in Córdoba.
Scale model of the Cercadilla palace complex in Córdoba.R. Hidalgo / J. A. Ortega

The archaeologists excavating the site slept next to the remains to try to prevent their demolition and posted ads to save a site “larger than Trajan’s Forum in Rome,” according to Rafael Hidalgo, co-director of the dig. But the local, regional and national authorities’ decision was final, and there was no room for appeal: the AVE high-speed train from Madrid to Seville, where the Universal Exposition was to be inaugurated in 1992, had to stop in Córdoba in that exact spot, no matter what.

“It was nothing short of plundering,” says Fuertes who participated in a talk organized by the Municipal Institute of Tourism of Córdoba. “A fake news campaign was orchestrated against the site. It was said that if the site was not razed, the AVE would never reach Córdoba; that what was found was worthless; that archaeologists were getting rich on the excavations; that the remains were going to be incorporated into the station and, finally, that all the railroad tracks would be rerouted. It was all absolutely untrue.”

A ring with the seal of Bishop Samson, from the 6th century, found at the Cercadilla site by archeologists.
A ring with the seal of Bishop Samson, from the 6th century, found at the Cercadilla site by archeologists. Camino Fuertes

The mayor of Córdoba at the time, Herminio Trigo of the United Left (IU), called the site “a bunch of rocks.” The magazine Época published a story in March 1992 that said neither the central nor regional governments, both run by the Socialist Party (PSOE), did anything to save the site. Rather, they looked the other way and even defended the destruction. In September 1992, an international commission of experts stated that they could be looking at a unique world monument that should be respected and studied. “It was the largest one in the entire Roman Empire,” said Hidalgo along with the other co-director of the dig at the time, Pedro Marfil.

Meanwhile, the Jesuit archaeologist Manuel Sotomayor, winner of the Andalusian government’s Historical Heritage Award, described Cercadilla as “an impressive excavation.” And Miguel Rodríguez-Pantoja, a professor at the University of Córdoba, said it was “unique due to its size, the period in which it was built and its enormous significance. It is hard to believe that it will be destroyed.” Juan Ojeda, a lawmaker for the conservative Popular Party (PP), denounced the authorities’ policy of “fait accompli” and said that “Córdoba has to know the truth. What is about to be destroyed is unique in the world.”

Gallery of the Roman cryptoportico in the palace of Emperor Maximian in Córdoba in the area that is still preserved.
Gallery of the Roman cryptoportico in the palace of Emperor Maximian in Córdoba in the area that is still preserved.Camino Fuertes

A huge seat of imperial power was built at the end of the 3rd century AD at a location 600 meters northwest of the walls of the settlement of Patricia Corduba. This was to be the political center of the Diocese of Hispania, and it was the point from which Maximian ruled the entire peninsula and North Africa. The palace complex was divided into two main areas. The first was a huge rectangular square with military features connected to the palace area. To access the latter, it was necessary to go through a gate with large towers on either side. The palace area was linked by a cryptoportico – a semi-circular covered gallery with columns – 109 meters long that provided access to the complex’s various public and private buildings.

According to Hidalgo, “the great exedra [the semicircular portico with columns] constituted a large open square, free of buildings, which acted as a reception area for those who enjoyed the privilege of accessing the interior of the palace, allowing the distribution of transit to the different reception spaces surrounding it through its portico.”

A Google image of the Córdoba station overlaid with the location of the imperial palace and a nearby amphitheater.
A Google image of the Córdoba station overlaid with the location of the imperial palace and a nearby amphitheater.

After passing through the cryptoportico, visitors could choose between three different transit circuits: the public one, composed of official buildings; the semi-public one, with two areas for banquets, or the private one, consisting of smaller rooms, such as the baths. Fuertes points out that the throne room where the emperor held receptions was located at the center of the official buildings.

In the 6th century, as the Roman period came to an end, three of the complex’s buildings were converted for Christian worship, possibly in honor of the Córdoba martyr and patron saint of the city, Saint Acisclus. The temple had a large cemetery around it containing hundreds of tombs. During the Caliphate period starting in the 8th century, Christians continued to occupy its buildings until 1010, when a civil war forced them to leave.

Skeleton of a Christian buried in Cercadilla who lived during the Caliphate years (756-929), bearing an axe wound to the head.
Skeleton of a Christian buried in Cercadilla who lived during the Caliphate years (756-929), bearing an axe wound to the head.E. A. Cercadilla

In 1991, the archaeologists asked for the site to be declared an Asset of Cultural Interest (BIC), the highest possible heritage protection. They even took out an ad consisting of a list of signatories calling for the urgent protection of the site. But the regional government of Andalusia did not respond. In 1995, when more than half the site had been bulldozed, the Ministry of Culture opened a protection file. In 1997 it was declared a BIC. “It was one of the few imperial palaces that existed in the world,” says Fuertes. “We can no longer do anything about it. It is a wound in the heart of Córdoba that we have not yet known how to heal.”

In 2006, the archeological remains that were saved from destruction and which lay on the other side of the station’s exterior wall – baths, more than 80 meters of the cryptoportico, the imperial apartments, the triple apse rooms at the end of the palace area and an aqueduct – were opened to the public.

Digital reconstruction of the view of Maximian’s palace from the walls of Córdoba in Roman times.
Digital reconstruction of the view of Maximian’s palace from the walls of Córdoba in Roman times.Rafael Hidalgo

In 2015, the Andalusian regional authorities unilaterally transferred the management of the archaeological park to the city of Córdoba, which keeps it closed. Since then there have been no maintenance policies implemented or conservation actions taken. “Imagine that the palace had been completely preserved,” says Fuertes. “Imagine that Córdoba received visitors getting off the AVE with the remains of the largest Roman imperial palace known to exist…”

In an article published in February 1992 in the daily Diario de Córdoba, Professor Rodríguez-Pantoja wrote: “It won’t be long before we will seem to our own children as barbaric as those who made so much greatness disappear [in Córdoba] with fewer means and knowledge.” It will now be 30 years since those prophetic words were uttered.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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Zebras, giraffes … and a cycle race through the Maasai Mara | Global development

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In the world of long-distance running, east Africans have long been the dominant force, and soon they may also be setting the pace in the whitest of elite sports: cycling. This month, the Migration Gravel Race (MGR) brought together 100 of the world’s top cyclists in a four-day showdown on the rocky, red dirt roads of Kenya’s Maasai Mara. With a third of the entrants from east Africa, it was a rare opportunity for the region’s riders to show they can rival the best.

“Cycling is a very Eurocentric sport,” says Mikel Delagrange, the prime mover behind the event. “In over 100 years of the world championship, only three athletes outside of Europe have ever won, and they came from the US and Australia.”

For 11 years, Delagrange, a human rights lawyer, worked mostly in central and east Africa, for the international criminal court in The Hague. He quit last year and now works with the UN in Palestine.

“The obstacle for east African riders is that they lack access to international competition,” he says. “You might be the best in your neighbourhood but you won’t progress if you’re only beating people in your neighbourhood.

Two cyclists on a dusty dirt trail through vegetation
Two riders on stage 3, which finished in the wildest section of the race with no access to internet and the sound of hyenas at night. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

“But if we send an east African to an international race, we’re spending an unbelievable amount of money on visas because everyone thinks they’re a migrant, then on flights, plus staying in Europe is prohibitively expensive for most.

“After a lot of consultation, we thought: instead of clawing at the door, why don’t we bring international competition here?”

Against a backdrop of acacias and euphorbia candelabra trees, amid the zebras, giraffes, impalas and wildebeest of the savannah, the four-day race takes riders along 650km of rough roads, climbing above 3,000 metres. Each day, before the course is cleared by Maasai motorcycle sweepers, dressed in their traditional red plaid blankets, a helicopter goes ahead to check for elephants and buffalo.

The Migration Gravel Race
There would be no race without the local crew, led by Masai chief Saliton.

“What Mikel is doing is giving east African riders a home-based platform, not a European one,” says Kenyan cyclist David Kinjah. “They get a chance to compete against the best, in their country.”

Organising a travelling band of 100 cyclists in a region that lacks infrastructure is a challenge. All the logistics, from security to cooking to building the campsites, is done with support from local Maasai.

Last year, Delagrange set up the Amani team – eight men and four women from the top cycling clubs in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. “Amani has changed my life, but not just mine,” says Suleiman Kangangi, 33, a Kenyan cyclist. “This is a big deal for east African riders. We selected the best for this race, and they know there’s something to aim for.”

Nancy Akinyi, 32, another Kenyan cyclist, says: “It’s not just about bringing these people here to compete, it’s to prepare these young riders for what could be their future if they excel. Thanks to Amani, we can send riders from east Africa and show we can do it. If you go to the world championship, you don’t see black people there.

Jordan Schleck battles through a puddle from earlier rain during the Queen stage, stage 2 of the men’s race.
Jordan Schleck battles through a puddle from earlier rain during the Queen stage, stage 2 of the men’s race.

“Amani is special because now black people can see that we can be pros. It’s unusual to see people from the northern part of Africa – I’m going to say black people – doing so well,” she says.

“It started here in east Africa, but now I get emails from women in Congo, Tanzania and even Lesotho who say they want to join the team.”

Non-African riders, who include big names such as Lachlan Morton from Australia, Italian cyclist Mattia de Marchi and Lael Wilcox from the US, paid €1,250 (£1,075) to enter, some of which goes towards funding the Amani team.

Everyone is racing for fun and glory; there is no prize money.

John Kariuki of team Amani stands on the winner’s stand at the 2022 Migration Gravel Race.
John Kariuki of team Amani wins the 2022 Migration Gravel Race, with Jordan Schleck and Mattia de Marchi. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

“The Europeans didn’t expect the African riders would be so tough to beat,” says Kinjah. “When we compete in Europe, everything is different: the food, the language, the roads. This affects your performance.”

The home advantage changes the odds. On the eve of the first stage, Delagrange thanks the non-Africans for coming, then adds: “Just for a change, you’re going to be the people who stand out and don’t speak the language.”

The fast-growing sport of gravel racing, essentially putting mountain bike tyres on high-end €10,000 road bikes, is more open and democratic than road racing. Like a marathon, anyone can line up with the best.

“What you have here – where you can sit around the campfire after a race and chat with people from all walks of life, make new friends and also hammer each other for five hours on the road every day – that doesn’t exist in the majority of races,” says Morton, who finished fifth overall, behind three Amani riders. “It’s an experience that’s so much more fulfilling. I’d come back in a heartbeat.

“In an event like this, the bullshit fades away. It’s like, here’s the start line, here’s the finish, go for it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we’re all going to sleep in tents and we’re all going to eat the same food, so let’s get on with it.”

Local Maasai show their support.
Local Maasai show their support. Photograph: Migrasaltlakephoto.nl

Wilcox, who once rode 3,000km from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, to reach the start line of the 4,500km Tour de Canada, and then broke the women’s record by four days, is another fan: “It’s cool that there’s a really good women’s field here. They’ve put a lot of effort into inviting women and making them feel like they belong. It’s good to see.”

Juliet Elliott, a 44-year-old cycling pro, says: “A race like this, where we all race together but there are separate podiums, that’s pretty cool. If I’d had to do road races against guys, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but gravel is more open. In these long-distance disciplines, women tend to do better.”

Xaverine Nirere (left) and Nancy Akinyi of the Amani women’s team.
From left: Xaverine Nirere and Florence Nakaggwa of team Amani; Violette Neza has a refreshment break. Photograph: saltlakephoto.nl

Delagrange says they had the good luck to be ready with a concrete proposal when the Black Lives Matter movement made some realise that “racial disparity is a thing, and continues to be”. There was some overdue reflection in cycling, he says, and many “were looking for a fig leaf to cover how white the sport is. We acted as a hub for corporations to know where to direct their resources.”

He believes the industry is beginning to understand that it’s not diverse enough to be considered an international sport. “Imagine if running was still just Roger Bannister. We aren’t pushing the limits of human capability. Without allowing the rest of the world to play this game, we still don’t know what can be done on a bike.”

The idea that east African cyclists can hold their own against the best was entirely vindicated. Amani’s John Kariyuki was the overall winner over the four stages. Two of his teammates, Jordan Schleck Ssekanwagi and Kangangi, came third and fourth. Fifteen of the top 20 finishers were Africans.

Xaverine Nirere catches her breath on stage three
Xaverine Nirere catches her breath on stage three

Distance rider Marin de Saint Exupéry, from Switzerland, says it’s the first time he’s raced against Africans. “I can’t keep up with this pace,” he says. “I was really attracted to the idea of this project, and met some of the team when they came to Switzerland last year. We shouldn’t need a project like this, but we do.”

Kinjah, 51, who finished 14th, believes many sporting projects in Africa fail because they have a European mentality and don’t understand the culture. “This project is different because they take the best from several countries,” he says. “They bring unity by putting these good riders in one team. Some of these guys have never been in the Maasai Mara or seen an elephant. Now they are having an adventure in their own country – and racing against the best in the world.”

“The scale is small,” Delagrange admits. “Right now, we have 12 athletes whose lives we’d like to improve through opportunities. We’re trying to make it easier for those outside east Africa to invest in great human beings. Maybe we will have those breakout athletes who will change the face of cycling. You’ve got to start somewhere.

“I think many Europeans still cling to a LiveAid mentality. People saw a bunch of things in the 80s, and they’re, like: OK, that’s what Africa is like. If you always see people in a disempowered position, it will reinforce your subconscious view of them. But when people come and meet athletes who kick their ass, they don’t see disempowered people, they see real competitors.

“Hopefully, after four days, they go home with a different view of what Africa is about.”

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Amado Carrillo Fuentes: Mexico raffles off luxurious narco-mansion | International

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It has been a hideout for crooks, a film set, and the headquarters of a foundation. In late June, a luxurious mansion once owned by Amado Carrillo Fuentes became the top prize in Mexico’s national lottery. The former Juárez cartel boss known as the Lord of the Skies (El Señor de los Cielos) built this US$4.5 million home in Jardines del Pedregal, an exclusive neighborhood south of Mexico City. The two-story residence measures more than 10,000 square feet, and has an indoor pool, expansive gardens, and enough garage space for 30 cars. The enormous home boasts a bar with a wine cellar, nine bedrooms; six Jacuzzis, numerous closets and dressing rooms, a huge kitchen, a steam room, a library, and a life-size playhouse for children. And for the price of a US$10 cachito, as lottery tickets are called in Mexico, some lucky player had a chance to win the opulent mega-mansion.

Lottery administrators put three million numbers up for grabs, but the tepid response from the public meant that multiple numbers had to be picked before one came up a winner. Suspense built as losing numbers came up again and again. “That number isn’t a winner, so we’ll try again. Good luck!” said the announcer 16 times. Almost 25 minutes later, the winning number was picked on the 17th try.

The indoor pool of the narco-mansion.
The indoor pool of the narco-mansion. Presidencia MX

“How would you like a house in Jardines del Pedregal?” tempted the commercials. “I can already picture myself living there!” a woman replies enthusiastically. “Or you could sell it,” suggested the announcer. The property has long been a headache for the Mexican government. It was first auctioned in May 2020 by the “Instituto para Devolver al Pueblo Lo Robado”, a government agency created by Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador to liquidate assets seized from criminal organizations and corrupt officials. The auction hoped to raise at least US$2.6 million pesos for the house, but the best offer was US$2.47 million, from a mysterious man in a gray suit who raised his paddle amid cheers from the attendees. “I want US$2.5 million! Who says yes?” asked the auctioneer, as he anxiously counted to three. In the end, no one wanted to pay more. Then, the auction winner never paid up.

Seized in January 1995 from Carrillo two years before his death, the mansion became a white elephant, a prize nobody wanted. The drug kingpin had amassed a fortune by transporting huge quantities of drugs with his fleet of airplanes. Although his main center of operations was in the border city of Ciudad Juárez (Mexico), the Lord of the Skies owned properties all over the country. Wanted by authorities in Argentina, Colombia, the United States, and Mexico, Carrillo underwent several cosmetic surgeries to change his appearance and evade his pursuers. He died during a botched procedure in 1997. A television series about his life has become an international hit on streaming platforms and is getting ready to film its eighth season.

The luxurious kitchen of the house.
The luxurious kitchen of the house. Presidencia MX

The white elephant raffle came about when the Mexican government wearied of the expensive maintenance, which included US$25,000 for security services. Photos of the mansion used to promote the raffle show that Carrillo’s palace has seen better days. “We’re doing this to support the Mexican people and help our neighbors,” said President López when he announced the raffle in early June. “There are a lot of abandoned public assets scattered around various government agencies,” said the president, “and they will go to ruin if not maintained properly.”

The narco-mansion is listed on the internet as the former headquarters of a foundation that trains unemployed and disabled people so they can find work. It was rented in 2003 for the filming of Man on Fire, a movie starring Denzel Washington, who plays a bodyguard trying to rescue a nine-year-old girl (Dakota Fanning), and destroys half of Mexico City in the process. When the movie came out, there were rumors in the press about underground tunnels connecting the property to other nearby houses in the area, but no mention of this was made in the promotional material for the raffle.

The facade of the house, in the Jardines del Pedregal area, south of Mexico City.
The facade of the house, in the Jardines del Pedregal area, south of Mexico City.Presidencia MX

The raffle also included 200 lots of land in Playa Espiritu, a failed tourism development project in Sinaloa (Mexico) that cost more than US$100 million. The value of each lot ranges from US$40,000-US$65,000. “It was a fraud,” admitted President López in October 2021. His lackluster sales pitch included statements like, “It isn’t in a great location,” and “Nobody wants to buy it.” The highest praise the president could muster was, “It has a beach.” The raffle also includes US$2.9 million in cash prizes.

After being seized, borrowed, and auctioned, the mansion that once belonged to the notorious Lord of the Skies will finally have a new owner–winning ticket number 339,357–but the ticketholder’s identity will not be made public.

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The female gaze: the developing art of women’s photography

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A World History of Women Photographers, edited by Luce Lebart and Marie Robert and translated by Ruth Taylor and Bethany Wright, showcases the work of 300 women from around the world, from the 19th century to the present day. The collection will be published in English for the first time by Thames & Hudson on 14 July

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