Sunday, May 9, 2010


Last weekend I went on a crazy trip to visit my friend who is studying Arabic in Morocco. Her university is near the city of Fez, so I arranged to fly there so she could meet me at the airport and take me around. With my fantastic travel luck, the plane ended up stopping in midair and informing us that due to bad weather in Fez, we would be landing in Casablanca instead. Thus, I took a five hour night tour of Morocco on a bus full of Spaniards, arriving at Fez airport around midnight Moroccon-time. Thankfully, my wonderful friend was there to meet me,otherwise I probably would have spent the night in the airport since I don't speak French or Arabic and didn't know where our hotel was.I've learned my lesson. Never again will I go anywhere without being prepared for ending up somewhere completely different or for much longer or anything. Obviously.

Anyway, I had a wonderful time in the Fez Medina, the enormous walled-in old city that is now shops and mosques as well as parts of the Qurayni University. Fez is the oldest city in Morocco, according to one of our taxi drivers, it was founded by the Prophet's nephew. I visited the tannery where the many leather products are made and got to see handwoven Berber carpets and blankets, and the famous woodwork and jewelry. I drank Moroccan mint tea and ate plenty of tagine, as well as Moroccan breads, a very thin flat bread called missamin and a soft baguette-like bread. For breakfast, fresh-squeezed orange juice came with the tea I ordered and missamin came with honey and apricot jam.I also learned some Arabic, my favorite being "meshy-mishkil" meaning nevermind or no problem. That's technically Moroccan Arabic though, the word in classical Arabic is slightly different.

Enjoy the pictures! And, yes, I can now officially say I have been to Africa.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Cordoba, capital of the Moorish stronghold in Spain for centuries, a thriving city characterized by religious tolerance and scholarly excellence, was conquered by the Castilians in 1243. The Mezquita, or large central mosque, was preserved, against the Church's wishes, because the Spanish monarchs revered Moorish architecture. In the center, a cathedral was constructed and the building still serves as a cathedral today, as well as a popular tourist destination. The physical juxtaposition of the two styles is breathtaking, but to me, it doesn't represent the coming together of two major religions. instead, it represents organized religion's desire to dominate.

After the Christians came in, any semblance of tolerance was ended and the remaining Moorish population and the city's large Jewish population were persecuted in various degrees until they were officially expelled in 1492.The remains of the Jewish neighborhood are now tourist attractions as well, including the synagogue where Moses Maimonides once worshipped. Maimonides was born in Cordoba, though his family fled to Egypt and finally to Israel. The synagogue reminded me strongly of the beautiful, intimate Sephardic synagogues I saw in Israel. Today, there is a statue of Maimonides nearby, and a plaza and hotel named after him.

Here are my pictures of the Mezquita and Maimonides' synagogue.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Over spring break, after the Camino and before the volcanic ash, I took a solo trip to Sevilla and Cordoba in southern Spain. Cordoba was the capital of Moorish Spain, or al-Andalus for centuries, and Sevilla was the home of the Almohavad dynasty in the magnificent Reales Alcazares. Both were reconquered in the thirteenth century by Fernando III of Castile.

The Gothic cathedral in Sevilla was built on the remains of a mosque that fell down in an earthquake. La Giralda, the mosque tower, is the only part still left standing, and the Catholic monarchs left it, only adding La Giralda, the eponymous weathervane, on top. The Reales Alcazares also had a significant Mudejar makeover (Christian architects using typically Moorish styles), much of which was added under Pedro IV (also the Cruel) and for the wedding of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Isabella and Fernando spent a lot of time there, and Isabella doled out monopolies for precious cargo from the Americas from her position in Sevilla, located securely up the river from the coast. I fell in love with the palaces and gardens of the Reales Alcazares, most of which are kept up from the original. It is technically still a royal residence today.

In fact, the reason my camera died before I got to Vienna is because I took so many pictures in Sevilla.

Here are pictures from Sevilla, I'll get to Cordoba in my next post.

Monday, May 3, 2010

22. Le Morte DArthur by Sir Thomas Malory

I finished reading this some time ago, but I have been rather busy with travels and schoolwork. I'm a bit of a connoisseur of Arthurian legends, but until I read this, I had not made it to any of the older classics. I've read modern spins like Marion Keyes' The Mists of Avalon and Bernard Cornwell's The Winter King. I've also read T.h. White's The Once and Future King, which I can now tell is heavily based on Le Morte DArthur although obviously much more modern in language and organization.

Malory was writing in the fourteenth century, and his source material, among others, would have been Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote about the Kings of Britain in the twelfth century. Monmouth is generally recognized as being the first definite mention of Arthurian legend in writing. I found it interesting that Malory ends each of his "books" with a plea for the reader to pray for him, the author, since he wrote the book in prison.

There are a lot of Christian references so that Arthur was not remotely pagan at least in Malory's interpretation. However, the stories of the holy Grail etc. all point to a very Christian kingdom. there is little explicit mention of Camelot and the founding of Camelot, though there is the Round Table. The books center on one or another knight, starting with Arthur, but all of them skip back and forth between various knights. Also, often a knight's story would abruptly leave off, and whatever happened to him would be later obliquely referred to and eventually explained in the best tense. This especially annoyed me with the deaths of Sir Lamorak and Sir Tristram, each of which could have been a marvelous story on its own.

For the first time, I was able to read the full history of Sir Tristram and La Belle Isode, of which I knew only the bare bones. I also learned that Elaine, daughter of Sir Pellinore and Sir Galahad's mother, is a different person from the Maiden of Ascolat, also named Elaine. The latter, however, is the one who died and had herself placed in a barge to Camelot to announce that she had died for Sir Lancelot's love. The first Elaine also died, presumably for Lancelot's love, but the manner of her death is not explained. I also liked that there is a full book on Sir Gareth, who is my favorite knight of all, dating from TOFK. However, T.H. White messes a bit with how he dies. In his version, he dies in Sir Lancelot's defense, in Malory's, Lancelot accidentally kills him without knowing who he is.

That brings me to the extremely confusing code of honour and chivalry in the book. Modern versions are much more straightforward and whitewash a lot of the violence and sniping and cruelty between the knights. It seems that it gives honour to defeat knights whom you do not know, but it is not honourable to defeat or even to fight knights that you do know. However, the exception to this rule is if you do not tell your name, which Lancelot especially is famous for, but all of the knights do it. If an unnamed knight defeats his friends, he gains "much worship." Likewise, it is okay, though regrettable, to kill your friend if you did not know who he was. If you did know, you should be shamed. However, it is never okay to kill your brother, even if you didn't know it was him. there are various sets of brother knights throughout the books, some who kill each other accidentally, attempt to kill each other, or who must kill in order to avenge the other brother's death.

Another confusing thing is that Arthur, who actively supports the adultery of Sir Tristram and La Belle Isode , does not seem to know about Lancelot and Guenivere. To everyone else, it is no secret, but Arthur refuses to believe. In fact, the first time he even thinks about it is when he receives a vicious letter from King Mark (La Belle Isolde's husband) in this vein. It appears he goes to the grave believing in his queen's fidelity.

Adultery seems to be tacitly approved of, though from a Christian angle it is wrong. During the quest of the Holy Grail, Lancelot gives up this sin, but resumes it again later. Then, when Arthur dies, Guenivere becomes a nun and refuses to look on Lancelot ever again. I suppose that makes it okay because they atone for their sins. In Isolde's case, however, her husband is awful to her, but there seems to be love between Arthur and Guenivere so that, to me, makes adultery less justified. Another interesting gender observation, Sir Galahad and Sir Percy de Gales are referred to as "maidens." This shows that, at least in Arthurian legend, Christianity values male virginity as much as, or more than, female.

All in all, I'm glad I read it and I plan on reaching further into medieval Arthuriana, now that I'm feeling more confident with the language and structure.