Tales of conquerors who imposed their cultures and beliefs on others, often only to be conquered themselves in turn, can be found in nearly every corner of the world. In Andalusia, though, there is an uncommon sense of vitality to cultures long since gone, as if at any moment you could turn a corner and stumble upon people still living their daily lives as they did one thousand years ago, with nary an idea they were supposed to have moved on. Perhaps it is the olfactory component: the spice shops, the almond blossoms, the oranges dropping from the trees to split on the street. This intoxicating blend of scents has surely existed unchanged all these years, and now it has become a mode of transport; a conveyor of distant delights you can practically taste but will never be able to see.
One culture presses down upon another in Andalusia, like translucent circles that never made much effort to obscure what came before; they merely incorporated it into the new. The soaring architecture of the mosques became cathedrals and churches, and markets filled with Arab merchants still thrive alongside. Muslim neighborhoods still bear street signs in Arabic, and newly-built (relatively speaking) mosques welcome the public into their gardens, over which loom the spires of Gothic churches.
Nearly every city in Andalusia has ruins of Arab baths. When the Muslim culture was dominant in Iberia there were once as many as 900 baths in Cordoba alone, and even the tiny city of Ronda boasts well-preserved baths.
Likewise, the famed Alhambra did not disappoint; we spent hours absorbing its meditative geometry, velvety pools, and cool green courtyards.
Late one afternoon in Granada, we climbed up the steep hills above town to visit the Sacromonte neighborhood, which consists of cave dwellings carved into the hillside in the 16th century by Jews, Muslims, and Gypsies who were pushed out of the city after the Granada War re-established Catholic monarchs in Andalusia. Following a map in Sacromonte is an exercise in futility, so we ambled without intent as the sun began to sink.
Stopping at a stone wall to gaze down at the city, I began meditating on one of the smooth, small rocks in the wall. I imagined a stonemason carefully setting it hundreds of years ago and could feel that fleeting connection, so hard to maintain in consciousness. I began to memorize everything I could about the rock: every visible line, its contours, the patterns of its colors. As I did, I recalled the dozens of previous times I’d undertaken the same exercise with other rocks–and stumps, twigs, and flowers. Every single one I had forgotten, and no doubt I’d forget the current object of my attention within an hour. But for a few minutes, I would know this random stone more intimately than possibly anyone ever had, or ever would.
The stone persists in anonymity, with perhaps someone to come around every few hundred years and take an interest in it for a moment. There is a certain comfort to the fact that 100 years from now there will be no one left alive who can remember us, and perhaps there was also comfort in that for the millions of souls who have inhabited Andalusia. They are now largely resigned to oblivion (except for a few who transitioned to history, at least for a while).
However, there is no anonymity for Andalusia the place; it is wildly alive in a very specific and unforgettable way. By day the deep blue skies open to every horizon with a generous heart, and by night they are the color of eternity itself.