On The Road Travel Essays

back to index


By Hercules I was built...

This magnificent city is a perfect introduction to Moorish Spain. Seville, capital of the Moorish kingdom during the Middle Ages, rival of Córdoba in wealth and prestige. After the city fell to the Christian forces, it became the main center for trade with America. Christopher Columbus is buried in the city's cathedral — the largest Gothic church in Europe.

Population: 500,000 (fourth largest city in Spain). Seville is the capital and the major city of the province of Andalucía.


Its glorious past, is summarized in a popular ditty: "By Hercules I was built; Julius Caesar built my walls and lofty towers; a king of the Goths lost me (i.e., to the Moors); a saintly king (i.e. Ferdinand III) recaptured me with the help of his general."

Early History  An ancient Iberian settlement was located here. Some historians think the Phoenicians established the trading post in the town. Legend says that Hercules founded the town; probably a later invention, explaining the city's greatness by attributing its founding to this muscular demi-god.

Romans  In Roman times, Spain was divided into several provinces. This part of Spain was Baetica, Seville was the capital of one of Baetica's regions. The Romans called Seville Hispalis.

Just outside Seville was another Roman settlement: Italica. This Italica was founded by the Roman general Scipio Africanus for his veterans. (Later, the Moors cannibalized many of Italica's columns for building their mosques.) The Roman Emperor Trajan was born in Italica.

In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar entered Seville (or Hispalis), making it the legal center: law courts were established.

Visigoths  Visigothic kings made Seville one of their favorite residences. The city was part of a Visigothic kingdom with its capital at Toledo. Two early Christian saints from Seville were St. Leander and St. Isodore of Seville (a man of great learning, who preserved ancient scholarship, and was widely read throughout the Middle Ages). In 712, Visigothic King Roderic lost the city to the Moors.

Moors  The Moorish governor of Andalucía established his headquarters here; Seville became the capital of Moorish Spain (Córdoba had not yet reached its apex). The C9 was a time of troubles: the Normans were conducting raids. The Normans amphibious fighters were landing on the coast, venturing inland, and retreating back to their ships — hit and run tactics. Thus: Seville eclipsed by Córdoba; ruled by Caliph of Córdoba. But Córdoba was weakened by internal squabbling; Seville became independent (1020). Its most brilliant period began.

A famous king: Al Mutamid (reigned 1068-95), a poet-king who brooded on lost cultures of the past, felt himself "heir of the ages." In later centuries, two rival Moorish sects, Almoravides and Almohades ruled. Seville was first captured by the former, then (1147) by the latter. Under Almohades, Seville reached its height — buildings, a great university, art, and craftsmanship. Climax of power: a large army set out from Seville for the town of Alarcos (up in Castile), defeating the army of (Christian) King Alfonso VIII (1195). Two years later, the famous Giralda (huge minaret, now the belfry of the cathedral) was built to celebrate the triumph. The Christians had their revenge in 1212, defeating the Moorish army at Las Navas de Tolosa — endangering Seville. Still, lavish building went on: the Alcázar was built in 1220 (fool's paradise). The fatal year was 1248, when King Ferdinand III of Castile, captured the city; he later died and was buried in Seville, his life's triumph. After the Reconquest of the city, the 300,000 Moorish citizens departed (many for Granada), leaving the city underpopulated. Ferdinand divided their property among his generals. Until 1290, the Moors tried again and again to recover Seville — in vain.

New World Trade  After 1492, Seville became the centre of exploration and trade with the New World. Adventurers set out from Seville (amid big religious ceremonies); gold from the New World was brought back to Seville; merchants settled in town, patronizing artists and builders. Columbus was buried in the city's cathedral; his body brought from Havana in 1898, after Cuba lost in the Spanish-American War. Famous Spaniards from Seville were Velázquez (Spain's most popular painter) and Murillo (painter of the Madonnas).

Later History  In the C18, the city began to decline as Spain lost the American colonies, and as Britain and France dominated the Atlantic trade. In the C20, the city has come back to life because of its industries (metals, naval engineering, textiles, chemicals, etc.), port activity (Guadalquivir navigable by sea-going ships), and tourism (especially during Holy Week).

Don Juan  Legend of this all-time superstud originated in Seville. Based (in part) on fact: Miguel de Manara, rich, sensuous, and frivolous. Once, in a drunken orgy, he came upon a funeral procession. He saw the corpse and thought it looked exactly like himself. He felt it must be a warning vision from God: and he must repent. (Sevillians are always preoccupied with death, in spite of their love of life. Examples are the Holy Week processions featuring martyrs killed gruesomely and savage bullfights.) Back to Miguel: he joined the religious order, the Caridad, which collected bodies of executed criminals, and buried them. He eventually died and is buried in the almshouse of the Caridad order. His portrait and death mask can still be seen.

Holy Week  The Semana Santa is really a Sevillian creation. The Sevillians have always been night-owls, but during Holy Week nobody sleeps at all. Balconies are hung with palm branches. Processions: penitents, called nazarenos (Nazarenes), carry "floats" with statues of saints (usually Christ and Mary). Each church in the city contributes its own float. The statues are "dressed" in capes of satin, flecked with gold and jewels. There are pilgrims in Ku Klux Klan-type hoods, barefoot, with long robes and a rope around the waist. The processions begin Palm Sunday afternoon, and end Good Friday evening. Oddity: non-religious costumes can be seen in the processions — Roman centurions (in Seville), Mohammed and Cleopatra (in Lorca). Also, parades of matadors, of women in fancy dresses (i.e. New York's Easter-bonnet parade), Gypsy songs, firecrackers. Semana Santa is a folk festival as much as a religious holiday.


The Cathedral  It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third largest church in Europe (after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London). Christopher Columbus is buried inside, in a hulking sarcophagus borne by four larger-than-life statues. Columbus used to be buried in Havana, but was brought to Seville about 1900. Outside of the cathedral is the Giralda (bell-tower), which was built originally as the minaret of a mosque that once stood at the base. A walk to the top is a "must". No stairs are used; instead, there is a ramp, and it makes the work almost effortless. On the way up are many "lover's leap" openings in the wall, making it easy to check your progress by watching the square recede below. From the top, you can see the roof of the cathedral, including the many buttresses and supports. They enable you to see how this giant of a cathedral was put together. Below, the whole city of Seville spreads out, its whitewashed houses resembling flakes of tinfoil glittering in the sun.

The Alcázares Reales  This the palace used by the Moorish kings of Seville. It provides a glimpse of the extravagance in which the Moorish sultans lived. The royal apartments, including the harem, are tiled with mosaic designs in all colors. The tile work was based on a technique which modern archaeologists till haven't been able to analyze. The Court of the Maidens is just as luxurious; it was here that the sultan was presented with 100 new concubines every five years. The Moors knew how to keep cool in the summer; the walls of the Alcázar are nine feet thick for protection against the sun; the rooms used to be separated by curtains rather than doors to promote air-circulation; outside, trees kept most of the buildings in the shade.

The Santa Cruz district is the oldest in Seville, standing behind the Alcázares Reales. It is made up of narrow, quiet streets, lovely houses with leafy patios and wrought-iron balconies, and tiny squares brimming with palms and flowers.

The María Luisa park is the largest in Seville. In the centre is a large crescent-shaped building constructed for the Spanish-American exhibition of 1929. The building is coated with multi-colored tile and bordered by a moat. Doves always cluster in the park, and will eat seeds out of your hand.

The old Tobacco Manufactury (huge C18 classical facade) stands near the Maria Luiza Park. It was here that Bizet's Carmen once worked. It is now the administrative building of the University of Seville.

The Calle Sierpes is the most picturesque shopping street in Seville. It is for pedestrians only. Large awnings are stretched high above the street (attached to the buildings on either side) to keep out the sun. Swarms of native shoppers make it something of an outdoor bazaar, and an intriguing sight for the visitor.


passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.

Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA


Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:


51 Union Street Suite 106
Worcester, MA 01608

Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2022 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy