The hammam on Mateos Gago street, in the southern Spanish city of Seville, is located just a few meters away from the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral, and for a century it has been the most crowded of the city’s Arab baths. The thing is, customers were not going there to immerse themselves in water, but rather to pour liquid down their throats: the baths were concealed under a popular bar named Cervecería Giralda.
In the early 1900s, the architect Vicente Traver converted the building into a hotel, thus concealing (and preserving) a bathhouse dating back to the 12th century, during the days of the Almohad Caliphate that ruled Al-Andalus.
The ancient structure emerged again last summer when the bar underwent some renovation work. The work exposed high-quality murals that are unique to Spain and Portugal. The find came as a big surprise as everyone had previously thought the structure was nothing more than “a Neo-Mudejar pastiche,” in the words of Fran Díaz, the architect in charge of the refurbishment.
“The most important thing is that we realized the bath was completely painted, from top to bottom, with high-quality geometric decoration,” says Álvaro Jiménez, an archeologist who has supervised the work. “The drawings were made in red ochre on white, and large fragments were preserved on the walls and vaulted ceilings. This is the only surviving Arab bath with an integral decoration; until now, the only known examples had paint just on the baseboards.”
“It’s been a complete surprise. This is an important discovery that gives us an idea of what other baths might have looked like during the Almohad period, especially in Seville, which was one of the two capitals of the empire together with Marrakech,” adds the archeologist Fernando Amores, who collaborated on the project. “The hammam is very near the site of the main mosque, which was also built in the 12th century, and which also explains its much richer decorative elements.”
The first probes under the false ceilings at Giralda – one of the most popular venues in Seville’s historic center – soon unearthed several different kinds of skylights known as luceras. This discovery triggered a completely different approach to the reform work, which began focusing on the complete recovery of the Arab baths.
“Given the relevance of the finds, architecture took a step back and made way for archeology. The solution we found to preserve the baths while allowing the space to keep functioning as a bar was to use a metal cornice to crown the traditional wall tiles put there by Vicente Traver and which are now a part of the establishment’s personality; the original wooden bar counter has also been preserved,” notes Fran Díaz.
The 202-square-meter tapas bar, which opened in 1923, will continue in operation when the work ends next month.
The venue’s main space, where the bar counter is located, was once the warm room of the hammam, a space covering 6.70 square meters with an eight-sided vaulted ceiling resting on four columns. One side opens into a rectangular room with a barrel vault that is 4.10 meters wide and 13 meters long, once serving as the bath’s cold room. The kitchen area is where the hot room must have been, although the only remaining vestige is a portion of an arch.
The baths were accessed from Don Remondo street, where the dry area used to be, notes Álvaro Jiménez, who wrote his PhD dissertation on the remains of the Almohad mosque, now the site of Seville’s Roman Catholic cathedral.
The restoration work unveiled 88 skylights in different shapes and sizes, such as stars, lobulated designs and octagons, that together are much more elaborate than decorations found in other Arab baths from the same period.
Amores also highlights the paintings in the arches of the warm room, made in a zigzagging style meant to represent water. “Nearly all the representations in the Islamic world allude to paradise,” he notes.
The uniqueness of this bath does not rest solely on its latticed paintings, but also on the five rows of skylights in the cold room – other baths have three, and sometimes just one. The cold room, which for the last century has served as the bar’s eating area, lost two meters in 1928, when Mateos Gago street was widened.
In order to understand the structure of the baths, which were typically built by the state and handed over to third parties for management, an expert named Margarita de Alba used photogrammetry techniques to recreate what these spaces must have looked like in the 12th century when Seville was known as Isbilia.
“There is documentary evidence in Christian texts from 1281 about the so-called baths of García Jofre, described as adjoining a property given by King Alfonso X to the Church of Seville. The next testimony is from the 17th-century historian Rodrigo Caro, who said that the vault you see when you enter from Borceguinería [the earlier name for Mateos Gago street] is not a bath, writing: ‘I’d sooner believe these are relics from some circus or amphitheater.’ Even the art historian José Gestoso said the vault is ‘of Mauritanian tradition, a construction that is frequently seen in Seville monuments from the 15th and 16th centuries,” says Jiménez, illustrating how popular belief held that the García Jofre bath had disappeared due to the passage of time.
But it was there the whole time. In the 17th century, there was a major reform that took down the vault in the warm room and rebuilt a much lower one to make room for an extra floor above it. “The building was ‘Italianized’ and the original columns, probably made from reused Roman columns, were replaced with others made with Genoese marble. All the skylights were shut. Our theory is that it became the premises for a merchant who built his home over the shop,” adds Jiménez.
The 20th-century architect Vicente Traver could have torn down the remains of the bathhouse, but he chose to protect and preserve them. And now, customers of Cervecería Giralda know that they are having their beers inside an Almohad hammam.
English version by Susana Urra.
Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted sunken treasure | USA
The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.
Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”
At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.
The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.
The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.
“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”
The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.
In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.
Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.
These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.
The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.
Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”
Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”
The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”
Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.
After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.
While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”
Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.
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Diver finds 900-year-old Crusader sword off coast of Israel
Shlomi Katzin attached a GoPro camera to his forehead, slipped on his diving fins and jumped into the waters off the Carmel coast of Israel, eager to go exploring.
On the sandy floor of the Mediterranean Sea, he found a sword. Archaeologists would later determine that it was about 900 years old.
It weighed four pounds, measured about four feet long and originated from the Third Crusade, experts said.
“Oh yes, he was surprised and happy,” said Jacob Sharvit, the director of the marine archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Katzin said he would give the sword to Sharvit’s agency, but he wanted just one thing: a photo with the shell-encrusted weapon.
The recent discovery was welcomed in a country that takes immense pride in its history and has a law requiring that any artifacts found must be returned to the nation. The sword was among several artifacts discovered by Katzin, who declined to be interviewed because he said he did not want the discovery to be about him. He also found stone anchors and pottery fragments that date back hundreds of years. But nothing was more impressive than the sword, which Sharvit described as “extremely rare.”
All of the items were found in the same 1,000-square-foot site. The authority has been aware of the location since June, after a storm shifted the sand. Still, finding artifacts remains elusive because of the movement of the sand.
“It’s normal to find swords in bad condition, but this one was found under the water – and under the water, it was preserved in very good condition,” Sharvit said Monday. “It’s the first time that we found a beautiful sword like this.”
The water off the Carmel coast remains the same temperature year-round, which helped preserve the iron in the sword. Because the iron was oxidizsed, shells and other marine organisms stuck onto it like glue, Sharvit said. The discovery of ancient artifacts has increased as diving has grown in popularity in Israel, he said.
In the Second Crusade, the Muslim forces defeated Western crusaders at Damascus, said Jonathan Phillips, a professor of the history of the Crusades at Royal Holloway, University of London. The sword would have been expensive to make at the time and viewed as a status symbol, Holloway said. It makes sense that it was found in the sea, he said, because many battles were waged near beaches, where Christian soldiers landed and were sometimes attacked by Muslim forces.
“It could have been from a knight who fell in the sea or lost it in a fight at sea,” he said. When Katzin found it, he said he was afraid it would be stolen or buried beneath shifting sand, according to a statement from the authority. The general director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Escosido, praised Katzin because “every ancient artifact that is found helps us piece together the historical puzzle of the Land of Israel.” Katzin was given a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship.
During the Third Crusade, King Philip Augustus of France, King Richard I (also known as Richard the Lionheart of England), and the holy Roman emperor, Frederick I (also known as Frederick Barbarossa), set out to retake Jerusalem. Saladin, the ruler of an area covering modern Egypt, Syria and Iraq, had conquered it in 1187, said John Cotts, a professor of medieval history at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
At the time, Pope Gregory VIII tried to inspire Western Christians through “great emotional language” to retake Jerusalem from Muslims, but ultimately the Muslim army maintained control of the city, Cotts said. “Traditionally, the definition of a knight is someone on horseback who engaged in mounted warfare,” Cotts said. It is possible that the sword belonged to one of them, and has survived for nine centuries, Sharvit said. After the sword is studied and cleaned, it will be placed in one of the country’s museums, Sharvit said. He would not disclose how much it could sell for, he said, because in his opinion, it was “priceless.” “Every artifact we find is always a really great feeling,” he said. But this one “is very, very special.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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