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Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Nestorian Epiphany

Por: | 28 de abril de 2011

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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.

Caceres 1

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.

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LO QUE SE PUEDE, USTED Y YO LO SABEMOS: RECOGER LA CABEZA Y SEGUIR...


Las derrotas no gustan ni siquiera a quienes han hecho leyenda con ellas, pero menos gustan a quienes han construido sus leyendas sobre las victorias. Este es el caso de Estados Unidos, cuyo papel en las dos grandes guerras europeas constituye el entramado sobre el que se asienta el relato de una superpotencia benefactora y altruista, imprescindible y todopoderosa, cuya tarea esencial es salvar a la humanidad.

Is this the multiculturalism that the EU project is trying to promote? Buddhists posing as catholics smacks of a bit of opportunitism but perhaps the image of a tortured man really does move her soul. Why not, after all we let Israeli teams play for the UEFA cup, so why shouldn't Buddhists play for Rome, or at least the Holy See, that little country within a city?

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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