Icarus in Ronda

31/03/2017 10:49

The city is mainly known for Guadalevin gorge that split neighbourhoods and for the New Bridge linking them through its towering arches. It’s an image that David Roberts prints promoted in the years when Romanticism turn fashionable eastern landscapes and past ruins. But other illustrious sons who were born in the years of Al Andalus heyday have been more recognized in the East than in their own land.

At the beginning of the ninth century, when Umayyad emir Al Hakam I guided the destinies of Qurtuba, an infant born in Ronda would be called Abulqasim Abbas Ibn Firnas perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the Al Andalus of the time. Young Abbas soon became interested in arts and sciences that were developed in the Emirate. He learned music, poetry and philosophy. He also studied sciences as chemistry, physics and astronomy.

Emir Al Hakam was succeeded by Abderrahman II in 822. These were years of cultural splendour in Al Andalus. Decimal Arabic numbering was introduced and Cordoba mosque expanded, but also saw the rebellion of the suburbs and the Vikings visit to Seville. The new emir was the first who made coinage in the mint, a gleaming silver dirhams bearing his name on the front. Ibn Firnas began to frequent Cordoba court although it is believed than earlier he had visited Florence to expand his knowledge. The reign of Abderrahman II was followed by that of Muhammad I in 852 and Ibn Firnas continued in court. In his Cordovan years he introduced a new technique in the manufacture and glass carving, developed a planetarium in his own home and designed and created a clepsydra, meaning in Greek water stealer, a precision clock with a hydraulic mechanism complete with mobile automatons. He made for the emir Abd al Rahman II the first armillary sphere, or spherical astrolabe, known in Al Andalus, a useful tool to determine Sun, Moon, planets and fixed stars’ latitudes and longitudes.

The Cordovan historian Abu Marwan Hayyan Ibn Jalaf Ibn Hayyan made​​ reference to him in a couple of works: Al Akhbar fil dawla al Amiriya or Chronicle of the Emirs and Al Muqtabis tarikh fi al-Andalus. Ibn Hayyan described him as "a wise refined, skilful philosopher, brilliant poet, astrologer inspired and true, wise and penetrating in its excellent thoughts, full of invention and innovation."

But Ibn Firnas noted particularly as a precursor to the Leonardo da Vinci flying machines and as a modest forerunner of the Wright brothers. According to Ibn Hayyan he "had managed to fly, dressing with feathers on white silk, and adding wings with a calculated structure". It is known that repeatedly he tried to stay in the air with his wits. Once he jumps off from a minaret with a kind of canvas as a parachute. In other, with its winged device he dropped off by the cliffs of the cordovan Ruzafa valley achieving to stay in the air for a few minutes. A success although it wasn’t strange that his essays used to end with some bone fractured.

In the Arab world he was the first hero who tried to overcome the force of gravity. In the avenue leading to one of Baghdad airports a statue recalls him as the first Arabic aviator, born in Al Andalus. In Libya, a series of postage stamps have been dedicated to him and there is a lunar crater named after him. In their homeland in Ronda, an astronomical centre and aviation club bears his name. In Córdoba the new bridge built to cross the Guadalquivir, inaugurated in January 2011, represents with its two arches the open flying wings of the Andalusian wit.

Dead the aeronaut and extinct the Caliphate, followed the turbulent times of the fitna, the civil war and revolts sponsored from the vicinity of the city by Ibn Hafsun. Later the clan of Banu Ifren established the first Taifa of Ronda in 1015, until fifty years later was annexed to the Seville Taifa. It is during these years that Ronda built most of today's historic architectural heritage.

The city is endowed with walls to protect itself and its suburbs. Today preserved long stretches and its five doors. From the Arabic baths, next to the Culebras stream, in the old district of the ancient suburb, today called San Miguel, ascends the hill leading to the Medina. Ronda Arab Baths are the best preserved in the Spain. The hammam follows the same pattern as the Romans employed in the construction of these public services. A receiving hall and three dedicated to baths depending on the water temperature. The main hall, with three naves, was reserved for the warm water. Horseshoe arches built of brick support the vaults of the same material. Numerous skylights guaranteed lighting.

Leaving behind the old suburbs will be reaching the first door, named the Cijara or Zixara communicating with the city Jewry. To the south are Esparteros and Almocábar gateways, the latter, protected by semicircular towers, in the foothills of the ancient necropolis, hence its name: Al Maqabir. Beside it stands the solid mass of the Holy Spirit Church, which, as others had been mosque before. The Western Wall or Albacara have two gates: the one of the Winds and the one called of the Wind Mill or of the Christ.

Once in the medina, dominated by a fortress already disappeared, the medieval streets lead to the mosque. After the Christian conquest in 1498 it became the church of Santa María la Mayor. From the former mosque has survived to this day the mihrab arch, Moorish style, decorated with stylized plant motifs. Has a curious façade of overlapping balconies. In the crypt exhibits an interesting collection of facsimiles of incunabula: the Codex of Manchester, The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry or the Bible of Tours that reminds the Irish Gaelic incunabula illuminations. The facade of the church is united to la Caseta de la Torre, the Tower Hut, a small whitewashed Moorish building that had been an isolated a chapel. 

From another old mosque was preserved the brick minaret, which was subsequently also the steeple of San Sebastian church, in Abul Bacca poet square, also disappeared. Moorish origin is also the Giant's House, a mansion that retains the plasterwork of the arcades and the main hall. It owes its name to the statues that decorated the outer corners of the building, now only one remains. Another Moorish mansion is the Palacio de Mondragón. Here dwelt the last Benimerin king of Ronda, Abd al Malik, before the Taifa was annexed by the kingdom of Granada. Its last occupant was the Governor Hamet el Zegrí. It has a beautiful courtyard from the sixteenth century in Mudejar style that leads through an arched doorway horseshoe to a Moorish garden with good views over San Francisco neighbourhood. Currently houses the Museum of Ronda. Poking to the river gorge, the Casa del Rey Moro houses inside the Arab mine that could supply water to the city in case of emergency and that is accessed over two hundred steps down a staircase carved into the rock. The rest of the building, from the eighteenth century, was owned by the Duchess of Parcent, Doña Trinidad Schultz and gardens were designed by the French architect who thought those of Maria Luisa in Seville and the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, Jean Claude Forestier.

Newer are the palaces of the Marques de Salvatierra and the Marques de Moctezuma, the first was given after the conquest of the city by the Catholic Kings in 1485 to Don Vasco Martin de Salvatierra and has a splendid Baroque facade influenced by Indian mansions, with male figures carved with their tongues showed to passersby while the women figures shyly covered. The second owes its name to the heirs of the last Aztec emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin.

In Dolores Street, next to a dwelling house, is the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows, an open chapel dating from 1734 in which the support columns representing various characters, all with a rope around his neck, it is said that here the death row inmates raised their last prayers before being executed.

Part of St. Teresa of Jesus lies in the city, specifically a hand, the left, preserved uncorrupted in a reliquary. It seems that since her remains were exhumed in the sixteenth century and the Discalced Carmelites of Avila received the precious reliquary, this was passed from hand to hand until it finally was deposited in the church of La Merced.

Handy were also the bullfighters who paraded through the Ronda bullring, one of the oldest and most beautiful in Spain with a double arched circle for five thousand spectators. Here Hemingway was portrayed in 1959 with the Niño de la Palma, Cayetano Ordoñez.

Three bridges connect both sides of the deep gorge. The oldest and lowest height connects the San Miguel neighbourhood with Alarcon Mill Street. It was called the Roman Bridge, Arabic Bridge or Tanneries Bridge. The Old Bridge is single arch and Arab origin but was completely rebuilt in 1616. Above it runs the Calle Real. For years it was called New Bridge, until the new New Bridge gave its present name: Old Bridge. This leads to the Arch of Philip V, a 1742 door that probably replaced an older one that became known as the Moor’s chair. Concluded, the newest one, in 1793, after forty two years of works, with its spectacular views over the city and nearly three hundred feet above the bed of Guadalevin River, has become the city landmark.

It would have been a perfect, though dangerous, launch pad for testing Ibn Firnas wits.

© J.L.Nicolas


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