The hammam on Mateos Gago street, in the southern Spanish city of Seville, is located just a few meters away from the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral, and for a century it has been the most crowded of the city’s Arab baths. The thing is, customers were not going there to immerse themselves in water, but rather to pour liquid down their throats: the baths were concealed under a popular bar named Cervecería Giralda.
In the early 1900s, the architect Vicente Traver converted the building into a hotel, thus concealing (and preserving) a bathhouse dating back to the 12th century, during the days of the Almohad Caliphate that ruled Al-Andalus.
The ancient structure emerged again last summer when the bar underwent some renovation work. The work exposed high-quality murals that are unique to Spain and Portugal. The find came as a big surprise as everyone had previously thought the structure was nothing more than “a Neo-Mudejar pastiche,” in the words of Fran Díaz, the architect in charge of the refurbishment.
“The most important thing is that we realized the bath was completely painted, from top to bottom, with high-quality geometric decoration,” says Álvaro Jiménez, an archeologist who has supervised the work. “The drawings were made in red ochre on white, and large fragments were preserved on the walls and vaulted ceilings. This is the only surviving Arab bath with an integral decoration; until now, the only known examples had paint just on the baseboards.”
“It’s been a complete surprise. This is an important discovery that gives us an idea of what other baths might have looked like during the Almohad period, especially in Seville, which was one of the two capitals of the empire together with Marrakech,” adds the archeologist Fernando Amores, who collaborated on the project. “The hammam is very near the site of the main mosque, which was also built in the 12th century, and which also explains its much richer decorative elements.”
The first probes under the false ceilings at Giralda – one of the most popular venues in Seville’s historic center – soon unearthed several different kinds of skylights known as luceras. This discovery triggered a completely different approach to the reform work, which began focusing on the complete recovery of the Arab baths.
“Given the relevance of the finds, architecture took a step back and made way for archeology. The solution we found to preserve the baths while allowing the space to keep functioning as a bar was to use a metal cornice to crown the traditional wall tiles put there by Vicente Traver and which are now a part of the establishment’s personality; the original wooden bar counter has also been preserved,” notes Fran Díaz.
The 202-square-meter tapas bar, which opened in 1923, will continue in operation when the work ends next month.
The venue’s main space, where the bar counter is located, was once the warm room of the hammam, a space covering 6.70 square meters with an eight-sided vaulted ceiling resting on four columns. One side opens into a rectangular room with a barrel vault that is 4.10 meters wide and 13 meters long, once serving as the bath’s cold room. The kitchen area is where the hot room must have been, although the only remaining vestige is a portion of an arch.
The baths were accessed from Don Remondo street, where the dry area used to be, notes Álvaro Jiménez, who wrote his PhD dissertation on the remains of the Almohad mosque, now the site of Seville’s Roman Catholic cathedral.
The restoration work unveiled 88 skylights in different shapes and sizes, such as stars, lobulated designs and octagons, that together are much more elaborate than decorations found in other Arab baths from the same period.
Amores also highlights the paintings in the arches of the warm room, made in a zigzagging style meant to represent water. “Nearly all the representations in the Islamic world allude to paradise,” he notes.
The uniqueness of this bath does not rest solely on its latticed paintings, but also on the five rows of skylights in the cold room – other baths have three, and sometimes just one. The cold room, which for the last century has served as the bar’s eating area, lost two meters in 1928, when Mateos Gago street was widened.
In order to understand the structure of the baths, which were typically built by the state and handed over to third parties for management, an expert named Margarita de Alba used photogrammetry techniques to recreate what these spaces must have looked like in the 12th century when Seville was known as Isbilia.
“There is documentary evidence in Christian texts from 1281 about the so-called baths of García Jofre, described as adjoining a property given by King Alfonso X to the Church of Seville. The next testimony is from the 17th-century historian Rodrigo Caro, who said that the vault you see when you enter from Borceguinería [the earlier name for Mateos Gago street] is not a bath, writing: ‘I’d sooner believe these are relics from some circus or amphitheater.’ Even the art historian José Gestoso said the vault is ‘of Mauritanian tradition, a construction that is frequently seen in Seville monuments from the 15th and 16th centuries,” says Jiménez, illustrating how popular belief held that the García Jofre bath had disappeared due to the passage of time.
But it was there the whole time. In the 17th century, there was a major reform that took down the vault in the warm room and rebuilt a much lower one to make room for an extra floor above it. “The building was ‘Italianized’ and the original columns, probably made from reused Roman columns, were replaced with others made with Genoese marble. All the skylights were shut. Our theory is that it became the premises for a merchant who built his home over the shop,” adds Jiménez.
The 20th-century architect Vicente Traver could have torn down the remains of the bathhouse, but he chose to protect and preserve them. And now, customers of Cervecería Giralda know that they are having their beers inside an Almohad hammam.
English version by Susana Urra.