Wednesday, October 7, 2015

In which I seek an historical fact and don't find it

Last week in Portugal I conducted some historical research about Christians under Muslim rule. According to the historian A R Disney, Christian monasteries and nunneries continued to function under Muslim rulers in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, and he cites two centres of Christian pilgrimage in the Algarve which were respected by the Muslim authorities.  In search of one of them, a sanctuary of the Virgin Mary, I took the bus to Faro, and was in luck, for prominently displayed in the small municipal museum is a modern tapestry telling the legend of Santa Maria de Faro.  During the years of Muslim rule, Muslims and Christians quarrelled over an image of the Virgin, which for the sake of a quiet life the Christians were obliged to ditch in the harbour. No sooner was the deed done however, than to the distress of the local fishermen all fish disappeared from the sea. Realising their mistake, the Muslims dredged the image up and restored it to its rightful place, whereupon the fishermens’ nets were filled more bounteously than ever before.  This is numbered amongst the miracles of the Virgin. Incidentally, Mary is venerated in Islam, indeed according to Wikipedia is mentioned more times in the Koran than in the New Testament. 

Tapestry in Faro municipal museum. The panels show: a fight, throwing the statue into the sea, empty fishing nets, pulling the statue out of the sea, statue restored on the wall, full fishing nets
I showed the curator the passage in Disney's book (A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire) about the shrine to the Virgin, and asked him if any evidence of it has survived. Sadly not. Moreover, whilst he was familiar with the book, he told me that other than the legend, there is no evidence for these events.

Hmm ... history books are full of facts and you can hardly have history without them; but the one and only fact that I've actually checked for myself seems to have evaporated before my eyes.

If I'm back in the Algarve next year I'll dig some more. And I hope I shall be, because I missed out on the museum of dried fruit in Loulé.  A circumstance which when mentioned occasions unaccountable hilarity, but I intend to prove the scoffers wrong.

More about that disputed image

A thought on the dispute between the Christians and Moors over the image of Mary. The legend mentions that the Moors resented the statue, with no explanation offered as to why. It occurs to me that to those who first heard the story no explanation was necessary – for the Moors’ prohibition of images would be too well known to need mentioning, and Mary being a figure of reverence to Muslims would make the Christians’ statue all the more abhorrent.

The source of the legend appears to be an old Spanish poem, or song, translated: “In Faro, there was a statue of the Virgin. It had stood on the seashore since the time of the Christians, and captives prayed to it. Christians called the city ‘Holy Mary of Faro’ because of the statue. The Moors resented this and threw the statue into the sea. As long as the statue lay in the water, the Moors could not catch any fish. When they realised this, the Moors recovered the statue. They placed it on the wall between the merlons [battlements]. Afterwards, the Moors caught even more fish than they had before.”

Note: The poem is “The Moors of Faro who Threw a Statue of the Virgin into the Sea”. It's no 183 in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of poetry in medieval Galician composed at the Court of King Alfonso X of Castile in the second half of the 13th century. See the Oxford database of Cantigas de Santa Maria. This poem departs from the legend given in the Faro museum, where it's the Christians under duress who threw the statue into the sea, whereas in the poem it's the Moors.

Another note: I've seen medieval Persian depictions of Mohammed, which shows that the detestation of images has not always been a consistent feature of Islam.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Algarve chimneys, a speciality on the way to extinction

View of Albufeira
Back from a week in the Algarve, at Albufeira.  A pleasant holiday beside a calm Atlantic in warm sunny weather, never out of shorts, and no need of a sweater even in the evenings.  The only drawback was most of the voices you hear are English and the entire town which was once a fishing village consists of restaurants and bars and shops selling beach umbrellas, and some quite nice pottery.  If you were local it would depress you to behold a hillside quite covered in tourist apartment blocks, and you might wonder what the planning department has been doing. Though since all this is done for my benefit, it's hardly my place to complain.  It is however Abel’s place.  Abel is a new friend I've made in Albufeira and along with a couple of thousand others he’s part of a Facebook group devoted to preserving the distinctive Algarve chimneys, which were first drawn to my attention by a tourist guide last year.  Here are some:-

Photos by João Lelo from the Facebook page
Chaminés Algarvias – Uma Espécie em Vias de Extinção
(Algarve chimneys, a specialty on the way to extinction)
I was astonished to learn that many instances of these chimneys are even now being demolished, and that some of those whose photos I have seen, actually no longer exist. Before I left, I sent a message to the Director of Turismo do Algarve, expressing my dismay and concluding “Surely something should be done?”  There seems little confidence in the local authorities however. A Facebook group member posted (in English) “A very well meant initiative, but probably going to the wrong address. Authorities are the last to take appropriate measures. It's up to every single Portuguese to be aware of their beautiful heritage. But not even most of the architects have the right feeling for it. This group is a good approach to reach that goal!”

By the way for a bit more on the history of the chimneys and of Muslim-Christian relations in Portugal, you can read “Of mosques and chimneys in the Algarve”, a blog I wrote last year.