An incredible and beautifully decorated 12th-century Islamic bathhouse has been uncovered during renovations of a popular tapas bar in the centre of Seville, in southern Spain.
1. Surprising renovations
Cervercería Giralda is a tapas bar and restaurant founded in 1923 and located on Calle Mateos Gago, a street near the city’s Cathedral and centre, and a popular wining and dining spot for residents and tourists. Last summer, the owners decided to take advantage of local roadworks and the coronavirus pandemic to begin long-delayed renovations, however little did they know that the work in the bar’s walls and vaulted ceilings would turn out to be so important.
2. Local legend
Over the years there had been local talk and legend, as well as the odd historical document, suggesting the site of the bar may have once been an ancient hammam, however this was overlooked by most as they assumed the bar’s retro look was from the neomudéjar , or Islamic revival style, in which architect Vicente Traver built the bar and hotel above it in the early 1920s. Antonio Castro, one of the Giralda’s four co-owners, said of the rumours, ‘not all the historians were convinced and some thought it was all much later’. Even the archaeologist, Álvaro Jiménez, who was working on the renovations, knew of the rumours but considered them unlikely.
3. Discovering the baths
However, last July, as the team gently chipped their way through the plaster that covered the ceiling, they uncovered a skylight in the form of an eight-pointed star. Jiménez said, ‘As soon as we saw one of the skylights, we knew what it was; it just couldn’t have been anything but a baths’. He explained, ‘We just had to follow the pattern of the skylights’.
Soon they uncovered an intricate piece of design, dating back to the 12th century during the rule of the Almohad caliphate, a North African Berber Muslim empire, which at its height controlled much of what are now Spain and Portugal as well as a large part of North Africa.
‘Decoratively speaking, these baths have the largest amount of preserved decoration of any of the known baths on the Iberian peninsula.’Álvaro Jiménez, archaeologist on the site
Jiménez described how, ‘Decoratively speaking, these baths have the largest amount of preserved decoration of any of the known baths on the Iberian peninsula’. ‘Absolutely everything here is decorated, and, luckily, it’s survived. The background is white lime mortar engraved with geometric lines, circles and squares. On top of that you have red ochre paintings of eight-pointed stars and eight-petalled multifoil rosettes. Those two designs alternate and entwine and adapt to the different geometric shapes of the skylight holes’.
4. The future of the discovery
There is still a lot of whitewash which needs to be cleaned in order to reveal the red paint beneath, however the hammam-cum-bar has now been conserved and repaired. The bar is set to open in two or three weeks, with its new and unique discovery on show for all customers to enjoy. Jiménez described how the baths and the bar have ‘been reborn and become something wonderful; it was the right people, the right time, and a bit of luck’.
Castro and his partners are certainly looking forward to this new chapter in the bar’s long history, and toasting the foresight of Vicente Traver. ‘This was a pretty well-known bar before, but now people will be able to come in and have a beer or a glass of wine in a bar that’s also a 12th-century hammam’ said Castro. ‘It’s a good thing that the architect back in the 1920s respected the baths – others might have chucked everything out, so we’re grateful to him.’