For the past 10 days, over this holiest of weeks, the boom of thunder has for the greater part replaced the thud of the devotional drums that usually ricochet along the ochre millennial walls of the old city here in Caceres. Floating above the din alternately created by pattering rain or rattling snare drums, two distinct yet intertwined sounds have been heard, the shuffling of thousands of tourists' feet and that sweet ka-ching of working cash registers in times of crisis.
These seemingly disparate sounds had been creating a bit of mental cacophony here in the heart of a rather soggy Extremadura, that is until the other day when a curious headline or two in one of the local papers suddenly merged all those different sounds into some sort of commingling harmony.
I was surprised to read, given the timing, the unsurprising news that there had been a 50% decline in seminarists since 2006 in the land of the conquistadors, something I would bet is not unique to this corner of Iberia. Turn the page to find, 'Tourists, more recreation than religion', again strange with the thickening devotional fervour in mind, but there was still no coalescence until I came across a piece on a Chinese buddhist who was devoted to the so-called Black Christ, a 25-year-old procession that is now one of the most popular here in the city.
The three pieces fused and became a ringing eastern minor chord that suddenly brought to mind a near-forgotten history from the vast steppe of Central Asia via an exhibition offered at the British Museum. The satori was a figure of a Nestorian Christian or Church of the East saint, from Samarkand, that could have easily been mistaken for a seated Buddha, that is if it weren't for the crosses that he is wearing.
But how does the man-made steppe out here next to Portugal connect with the one that stretches beyond the Caspian Sea?
Semana Santa, for me, has always represented an essential Spanish dichotomy. Year round, the beautiful churches across the country are invariably deserted save for the soon-to-be-wed, the about-to-be-dead and the paying-to-be-led tourists all of whom willingly top up the coffers. I've yet to meet a Spaniard who actually takes the Pope at his word on things like condom use and cohabitation before marriage. They might respect his opinion, but given the two options... Yet come the blooming of spring, the growing brotherhoods burst at the seams while solemn standard bearing communist mayors march front and centre with a hooded retinue and civilly-wed actors give opening speeches to the unblinking.
The two scenarios are hard to reconcile, but if there is one thing about Semana Santa, it's popular, and that in the purest sense of the word. Writing back before the civil war, the journalist Manuel Chaves Nogales tells of the people of Seville, in alternating years, disobeying both the republican government's and church's ban on processions. Each year the venerated images got their spring airing whether authorities liked it or not. The recent dispute in Madrid shows that things have not changed as much as some would think.
Now here was this successful Chinese businesswoman, owner of restaurants and spas, staring out of the paper expressing her devotion to the fourteenth century crucifixion figure that is paraded every year.
There's a warped line of thought these days that tries instil the belief that Christianity is somehow a western invention. From Benedict to Aznar, we constantly hear about the Christian roots of Europe but forget that while Israel may participate in Eurovision, Bethlehem is decidedly found on the same continent as Beijing. From that iron age manger, the gospel not only spread north-west to Europe, but south-west to Ethiopia and east to Persia, branching into India, Central Asia and finally reaching China in 635 via the Silk Road. Multilingual merchants spread the word from Aleppo to Xian, gathering souls and making a profit along the way. For Nestorians weren't hampered by a missionary-only outlook to proselytizing, if a gold piece were to be made, rules could be bent and even dogma could be overlooked.
Atheists may one day march on Maundy Thursday. Perhaps, though even more unlikely, laws may be passed that would strengthen the secular nature of the country, making such marches unnecessary. Locally recruited seminarists may also one day fall to zero, increasing the likelihood of grandparents listening to mass given with decidedly Polish or South American accents. But this local businesswoman was like the Nestorian merchant-missionaries fifteen centuries ago along the Silk Road, though in reverse, the image of that piece in the British museum come to life out here along the silver road. As long as the thuds remain popular, the shuffle and cash-ing will continue to syncretically blend into harmonious notes.