On The Road Travel Essays

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Location  The city sits in the Ebro depression, which was once a huge sea inlet, long since filled in. The river Ebro carries water from the Pyrenees through Saragossa and then to the Mediterranean, where the river forms a huge delta, now intensively farmed. This depression was once an arid wasteland, but three rivers which meet here have transformed it into fertile farming land. (The rivers are the Ebro, Huerva, and Gallego). Cereals, especially wheat and barley, are the mainstay of the economy, followed by alfalfa, stock raising, industrial crops such as sugar beets, and horticulture. The city is known for its hot summers (often over 100 degrees F) and bitter winters; a famous wind, the cierzo, blows out of the Pyrenees and brings the cold with it. Around the city are farmlands, busily worked. Saragossa is the fifth largest city of Spain.

People  The city's people have always been known for their stubbornness and bravery against conquerors, as we'll see in a historical sketch. Today's population is estimated at 830,000.

History  The earliest settlement was called Salduba, which must have been a prosperous agricultural community, since it later attracted the Romans. Augustus Caesar favored it (25 B.C.) by granting it the status of a free city, subject to no governor. In gratitude, the citizens re-named their city Caesaraugusta, hence the modern name. Along the Via Imperial (the old Roman road), traces of the Roman wall still stand. Enjoying the favor of the Emperor, the city became the seat of Law Courts and had its own mint.

About 40 A.D., according to tradition, the Apostle James came here on a missionary journey, and the Virgin appeared to him. She gave him a sign of her visitation: a pillar, which came to be venerated as one of Spain's major shrines. Basilicas were built around it, and it is one of the chief things to see in the city.

The Visigoths arrived about 466; legends tell of the city's stubborn resistance to the besieging Frankish armies — a pattern of valor that was to be repeated often.

In 1714 the Moors arrived, changing the name of the city to Sarakusta, and they stayed for four centuries. At first the city was subject to the Caliphate of Cordoba, but in 777, the local Moors rebelled and even asked Charlemagne, a Christian king, to help them against Cordoba. Charlemagne sent an army commanded by his nephew Roland. But when the army reached the city, the Moors, changing their minds (or else afraid of Roland's intentions), refused to let these Christian allies enter the gates. Roland and his army retreated back to France, but in the Pyrenees they were ambushed by Saracens and Roland was killed. These events are described in the epic poem, Song of Roland, a classic of early French literature.

During the 10th and 11th centuries, a period of brilliant flourishing occurred under the Beni-Kasim dynasty; a large palace, the Aljaferia, was built, and it stands today.

About 1115, Alfonso el Batallador recaptured the city from the Moors, and it became the new capital of Aragon. In 1137, the province of Aragon was joined with Barcelona, and this made Aragon a great seafaring power.

Even though most countries at this time were ruled by absolute monarchs, Saragossa jealously guarded its independence (which, as we've seen, went back to Roman times) and passed laws protecting its Fueros or rights. Also, a tolerant attitude toward Moors who continued to live here reaped benefits, as Moorish masons, carpenters, and blacksmiths turned out handsome works for the city. Hence the prevalence of Mudejar styles on the church buildings. With Barcelona as its port, Saragossa thrived. A stock exchange (one of the world's first) was opened in the 16th century, and the building (called the Lonja) still stands.

During the Napoleonic invasion, the city held out stubbornly (1808), rallied by a peasant named Jorge Ibort. On June 30, the city was about to fall, when a woman named Augustina de Aragon was standing beside her lover, who was operating a cannon. The lover fell, mortally wounded, but Augustina seized the match from his hand and kept the cannon firing. Lord Byron celebrated this episode in a poem, in which he calls the woman the "Maid of Saragossa." But the French returned in December 1808 with 30,000 men; famine and plague weakened the city's defenses, but the people held out. Only by going from house to house, blowing up each one after the next, did the French finally take the city; but even then, the townspeople threw roof tiles down on them from the housetops. On February 20, 1809, the city capitulated, but it was by then only a smoking ruin. 50,000 citizens had died in the siege: half the population. The Carmen Gate (Puerta del Carmen) still has shrapnel pits from this fighting.

During the Civil War (1936-39), the city joined the Nationalist side, and thus escaped major damage.

Features of Saragossa

The Seo: Saragossa's cathedral, called the Seo (Savior), shows Mudejar influences and is one of the largest in Spain. A Tapestry Museum, containing 30 tapestries (40 others are not exhibited), shows fine workmanship. The tapestries were woven in Arras (France) and in Brussels.

Nuestra Senora del Pilar: This is the city's "second cathedral," built to honor the pillar which the Virgin is supposed to have left with St. James. Several buildings have stood here successively, and this one was built in 1689. The main point of interest inside is a "chapel" (actually as large as a church in its own right) where the pillar stands. The pillar is in a niche on the right side, supporting a small Gothic statue of Our lady, whose halo is made of precious stones; the robe worn by the statue is changed daily. The pillar is made of jasper and is kissed by pilgrims who lean through an opening at the back of the chapel.

The story of the apparition: St. James was preaching in Spain (about 40 A.D.) when he saw a vision of the Virgin descending from Heaven on a marble pillar, surrounded by angels. She commanded him to built a church on the site in her honor. At first it was a small chapel, then a larger church which burned down in 1434. The present building was begun in 1681.

The Lonja is the stock exchange, built in a Gothic-Plateresque (i.e. Renaissance) style. It is one of the finest examples of civic architecture of this period in Spain.

Aljaferia: This is the Moorish palace built in the 11th century by the Benihud family, specifically the King al-Muqtadir. After the reconquest, the Catholic Monarchs enlarged the building, but, alas, most of the building was destroyed in the French siege of 1809. For decades after that, the palace was used as a barracks. It is now being restored, and visitors express amazement at seeing so Andalusian-looking a palace this far north in Spain. The Mezquita, or private mosque used by the Moorish king, has been restored, with all the ornate decorations and tilework. A good example of Mudejar art will be seen on the ceiling on the second floor (i.e., what Europeans call the "first" floor).


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