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Seville's Cathedral: Vast Spaces, Long History

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In a world where every guide and guidebook tells you that you are at the biggest, most important, most interesting, most popular, most something site in the world, it’s often not only not clear what’s true, but why you should be impressed by that. But when it comes to the Cathedral of Seville, the claim—largest Gothic cathedral in the world and third-largest church—is not only verifiable, it’s the first thing that strikes you on entering. Whatever its beauty, its history, its significance, what stands out is…vast. And it's a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

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Like many of Andalucia’s Christian sites, it was built for bragging rights, to show off the city’s wealth, and to assert the supremacy of Christianity over the former Islamic rulers. That’s, of course, why it was built exactly on the foundations of what had been Seville’s biggest mosque. In fact, the famous Giralda tower of the Cathedral, the symbol of Seville, is the minaret of the mosque, topped by an extension to hold a bell.

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Building a cathedral that big was not without problems, of course. Even with the city’s growing wealth, it took over a hundred years to finish, and in 1511, five years after completion, the dome collapsed and work had to start all over again. And since every new ruler wants to leave a mark, the next few centuries saw quite a bit of tinkering, adding chapels and doors and more. And then in 1888, the dome collapsed again, and repairs took 15 years. But to look at it today, you’d never know…

 

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Even the dimensions are staggering in print, and more so in person. The nave, longest in Spain, is over 400 feet long and 135 feet high. The complexity of the vaulting is amazing. Even the doors are huge, as can be seen from the cropped image below, with a human for size comparison.

 

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The tower, built in the 12th century, was modeled after one at the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech; the bell housing was added in the 16th century, along with the stature called “El Giraldillo,” which serves both as a symbol of Christian conquest and as a weather vane. That’s a copy, below, in front of the Prince’s Door of the Cathedral, although for several years it stood on top of the Giralda while the original was restored—at a cost of 600,000€. Of course, that was before the current economic crisis.

 

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The Giralda is not the only hint of the mosque the Cathedral replaced. Along one side, the builders kept a courtyard filled with orange trees and a building flanking it, as well as an arched entry that is distinctly Moorish, even though it is now flanked by statues of saints.

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DSC00089-001The Cathedral also serves as a final resting place for a number of famous names, including Fernando III of Castile, who seized Seville from its Moorish rulers and Pedro I (Pedro the Cruel or Pedro the Just, depending on your point of view) who built the glorious mudejar-style royal palace in the Alcazar across the Plaza from the Cathedral.

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But the most famous permanent resident is perhaps the least certain. The large tomb of Christopher Columbus is a major feature of the Cathedral, but its far from certain who is in the massive sarcophagus resting on the shoulders of its bearers. But, it turns out Columbus traveled as much after death as before.

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He was first buried where he died, in Valladolid, in 1506. Then his son Diego, who had been governor of Hispaniola, had him moved to a monastery in Seville. In 1542, his remains made their last voyage to the New World, to Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic. In 1795, when France seized all of Hispaniola, Columbus sailed for Havana. When Cuba became independent in 1898, the departing Spanish rulers returned him to Seville.

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However, there’s a lead box of bone fragments in Santo Domingo, found in 1877, and labeled “Don Christopher Columbus.” DNA studies in Spain have suggested but not proven that the bones in Seville belong to Columbus and other family members, but the Dominican government has not allowed a similar comparison. Appropriate in a way: he was the man who didn’t know where he was going, and now we’re not sure where he went!

 

More pictures below. Here are links to some other TG blogs from Andalucia:

 

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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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