I’ve written before about how Seville is built in successive layers – as new tribes and rulers arrived, so they constructed over the previous inhabitants’ monuments and places of worship. Roman over Phoenician, Visigoth over Roman, Moorish over Visigoth, Christian over Moorish – as well as recycling their building materials, so elements from different eras, civilizations and religions would come together to make up a curious, culturally unique edifice. For example, you can’t walk far in the centre of Seville without stumbling over a Roman column, whether it’s in a grand mansion, propping up a lopsided building, or just randomly placed in a plaza.
But finding one place where all these different layers, eras, races, coincide in one place is a challenge. Now you see it all come together, in the Divino Salvador church. Colegio del Salvador is Seville’s second-most-important basilica, and on this site have existed Phoenician, Roman, Visigothic and Moorish temples. And now, during the hot summer months, you can explore its millennia of history at night, enjoy the less punishing temperatures, and get the after-dark atmosphere of a key part of the city’s history – in fact, where it all began, no less. Visits have been running since April, but the night tours only started in July.
We’re going back to 800BC. The Phoenicians, who came from modern-day Lebanon, are searching for suitable territories to settle. Coming upon an area next to a loop in a river, they catch some fish, find it to their taste, and decide to stay. As they’re so close to the river, which floods frequently, they build their wooden temple on stilts, which may be the root of the city’s earliest name: Hispalis (“built upon posts”).
The next race to occupy this city are the Romans, whose basilica is constructed here and whose forum – the central feature of their conurbations – is probably in Plaza Alfalfa, a few streets away. You can see Roman houses and streets in Antiquarium museum, under the Setas.
After the Romans come the Visigoths, few traces of whose stay here remain; some columns from their temple were used by their Moorish successors. However we do know that the sixth-century Archbishop San Isodoro, one of Seville’s patron saints, made the city into a centre of Paleo-Christian (early Christian) learning. They are followed by the Moors, Muslims from North Africa, who build the city’s mosque, Ibn Adabbas, on this very spot in 879AD; at this stage, the city is called Isbyllia. For three centuries this mosque is the focus of religious worship, with the Zoco, or market and trading area, in Plaza del Pan behind the church and in the narrow streets around, which still remain.
As the city grows, a second, larger mosque is built in 1172; but the city is reconquered from the Moors by Rey San Fernando less than 100 years later, and this mosque is demolished to make way for the cathedral. The mosque’s patio for pre-prayers ablutions, and minaret, the Giralda, remain to this day. Around the same time, a church is also built over the Ibn Adabbas mezquita, leaving only the patio, with its Roman columns, and alminar (minaret), which has a belltower added later to lend a Renaissance toque, as was often the case. This original, medieval temple collapsed in 1671, and in 1712 the final version was finished – the Colegial del Salvador church we can see today.
When the Church authorities decided to carry out much-needed structural work on the Salvador 10 years ago, they pondered over what was causing damp in the church’s pillars; could it be an underground water source? Digging down, and dealing with whatever they found there, was going to be such a big job, they took a year to make the decision about whether or not to go ahead. That’s a long time, even for Spain. When they did, they found some astonishing relics – so we can be thankful they took the bull by the horns, so to speak, and addressed the problem head-on, digging out those 20 million tonnes of debris. the restoration work finished in 2008.
The tour starts in the Patio de Naranjas – Patio of the Orange Trees. Our guide is Florencio Quintero, an art historian whose company Conocer Sevilla offers cultural tours; he is clearly enthused at revealing to people the hidden secrets of this most beloved church. He explains that the arches originally had much taller columns, but so many layers have been built over them that the ground level has raised, and they’re only half their original height.
We walk down stairs to the crypt, entering a long, low-ceilinged chamber with arched alcoves along the side. In the centre are sections of flooring from the medieval post-Reconquest church – terracotta tiles alternated with small decorated pieces, much as you see in Sevillian houses today. How little some thing have changed over seven centuries.
We are shown various religious relics – as Florencio explains, the value is as much theological as archaeological – the oldest sacrament of the church. Nameless bodies found were buried with their face towards altar – the church was east-west, with a hole in the ceiling where bodies were lifted down from chapel for burial underneath. You can see photos of the skeletons found in the crypt; I was hoping for real thing.
A perfectly preserved stone tablet from Al-Mutamid’s time (the 11th-century Almohad ruler) – inscription in Arabic with translation. A column found, with text detailing the official founding of the mosque, is in the Archaeological Museum, and is in great demand by researchers into Arabic history.
Roman remains (it’s not chronologically arranged) include pillars and another stone inscription.
But for me, as spellbinding as are these tangible pieces of evidence linking Seville’s past together like a historical chain, what is most fascinating is altogether more simple: water. For there is an underground stream which flows through this space. Pure, clear, fresh water from an aquifer which has played havoc with the structures built on top of it for centuries. Secret, hidden, and now we get to see it. It’s like finding buried treasure. To return to the mundane, when it rains, and the level rises a dangerous amount, the water is pumped out, to limit the risk of a flood which could damage these priceless artefacts.
Other interesting points are photographs of a surviving mosque from the same era, which gives you an idea how Ibn Adabbas would have looked, and plans of how the building changed over the centuries, showing how the patio de naranjos gradually became smaller.
The next part of the tour is the main section of the church, which has vast, elaborate gilt retablos (altar pieces), representing everything I hate about Catholic basilicas – huge, over-the-top, gaudy and not remotely spiritual – they’re intending to inspire awe rather than a love of God. There ain’t nobody here but us chickens, so it’s silent and empty, and you can stand around without worrying about getting in the way of someone’s praying. It’s not what I’ve come here to see, but the scale is undeniably impressive.
The patron saint of this church is the Virgin de las Aguas, and she sits in a chamber above the nave, called a camarin. When the Catholics took over a temple from their conquered foes, they put the most important symbol of their religion, the Virgin, where the Mihrab, the niche in the wall which indicates the direction of Mecca, was located. The camarin is not normally open to visitors, so it is a palpable thrill for the Sevillanos on my tour to see this statue up close. At Corpus Cristi, when the procession goes past the window, she is turned on her revolving platform so she can look out of the window at the passing faithful. I’m not saying anything.
The next part of the visit involves climbing steep stairs in a narrow circular well up to the balconies of the church. Unfathomably, we’re given small radio receivers which transmit organ and choral music of poor sound quality. The soaring notes would provide a subliminal soundtrack, if they didn’t sound like they were being playing down a bad phoneline.
Then it’s up again, this time emerging onto the roof. The space inside the staircase is warm and close, at 11pm, so during the day it must be unbearably hot. The views make it worthwhile, though, seeing down to Plaza del Salvador with people milling, chatting, drinking and eating – the smell of frying fish rises up and teases my appetite. A light breeze is refreshing and welcome.
And on up to the top, with even narrower stairs; definitely not for the claustrophobic. I wait until the person ahead is well out of sight before I venture in to the tight stairwell.
We walk all the way around the roof, from Plaza del Salvador to Plaza del Pan, passing the Patio de Naranjos. We can see the Giralda and Cathedral, which has always been this temple’s rival in the church’s power battles; the Setas, a more recent addition to the skyline; and the Torre Pelli, the city’s next – highly (boom boom) controversial skyscraper, which is taller than the Giralda.
I’ve been up on the cubiertos (roof) of the Cathedral, and it’s always a marvel to see stained glass windows from the outside, and details only designed to be contemplated from the mortals’ ground level, close-up. As usual, opinions of the Setas differ – one group agrees that they’re not ugly, just “in the wrong place” – would be better in one of the modern parts of the city, such as Sevilla Este (where FIBES, the conference centre is).
We aren’t rushed, and it’s a real delight to wander along the rooftops (I can’t get Chim Chimenee out of my head), at night, at my own pace, watching people below, and spotting the famous buildings on the skyline at 360 degrees. We’re a little lower than the walkway at the top of the Setas, or Metropol Parasol, as it’s known.
Finally, it’s time to renegotiate those scary steps again, all the way down, and then out through the patio, and into the street – Plaza del Salvador. It’s weird being back on ground level, and I walk all the way around the church in a daze. So much history inside that building – and a river! Seville never ceases to amaze me with its hidden histories. I will never discover them all, but that’s good too – always another secret to be revealed.
If you’re at all interested in the history of Seville, religious architecture, or the Romans or Moors, then this night-time visit to the Salvador church is not to be missed.
La Huella de lo Sagrado guided tour costs 12 euros and takes place with a minimum group of 10 people; the night tours are available until 15 September. To reserve a place, go to www.catedraldesevilla.es/reservas