The Lost Rivers of Seville

I’ve long had a fascination with those bits of a place that have been lost and largely forgotten, such as Seville’s second bullring, and one aspect of this in urban areas is the old watercourses that have been buried or diverted, and disappeared from view. My interest began in London, with rivers like the Fleet, the Walbrook, the Lad Brook and the West Bourne, and has continued now that I live in Seville.

The city of Seville is on the banks of the River Guadalquivir, and although the valley is quite wide and flat, there are uplands not too far away from which streams drain into the main river.

Indeed, the main river itself has seen substantial changes since the beginning of the 20th century. Before that time the areas of Seville near the river had been subject to frequent, and sometimes severe, flooding, the result of snow melt in the mountains above Córdoba and the winter rains. In addition to this the old port on either side of the Torre del Oro had become silted up, and inaccessible to modern commercial shipping. This resulted in an ambitious project to deal with both these problems.

It can be seen on old prints and paintings that just below the old city the river followed a big looping curve to the right (west) of its present course. In the early 20th century a completely new artificial channel was created that cut off the loop, and allowed the modern port of Seville to be built. Later, another new channel was cut to the west of Triana that takes the main flow of the Guadalquivir (the last stage of these works was completed around 1990 for the expo of ’92). The river that you see now by the old city is therefore the original course, but it no longer connects to the new river at its inland end, preventing floods in the city centre. Perhaps most surprisingly, the site of the April Fair is built on land reclaimed from the old course of the river.

Although it’s difficult to visualise now, there was also a second channel beside the main river that ran from near the Barqueta Bridge, through what is now the Alameda de Hercules, along Sierpes and Constitución to near the Torre del Oro. The Vikings used this route to attack the city in the 9th century (one of their longboats was discovered beneath the Plaza Nueva), but most of it was drained when the city was expanded in the 11th century. The northern section, however, remained as a stagnant lagoon until the 16th century, when it was cleared and drained to create the Alameda de Hercules. A small stream whose be springs fed the water cisterns under the Plaza de Los Pescadores, and which can still seen in the crypts beneath El Salvador church, also ran here.

The last of our lost rivers is the Tagarete. This ran around the east and south of the city, just outside the walls, and though its course was diverted to the north of the city in the 20th century the small culvert where it joined the Guadalquivir can still be seen near the Torre del Oro. Also still visible are the culverts that fed the moat around the Royal Tobacco Factory. Sometimes a substantial stream, and sometimes almost dry, depending on the season and the rains, it was often noxious and polluted, as it ran past both the mediaeval tanneries and the slaughterhouses outside the Puerta de la Carne.

Nowadays there is almost nothing to show where these rivers ran, although if you know where to look in the layout of the streets, with a little imagination you can almost see them as they were, and how the city itself might have appeared in those bygone days.

Three Icons

Three Icons

Pretty much wherever you go in Seville, or in whatever you read about the city, the images of three of its buildingsare inescapable. They appear on postcards, as souvenirs, or decorating the walls of shops, bars and other public places, and have become enduring symbols of the city.

The Giralda Tower

giralda tower at night

The most famous of these buildings is undoubtedly the Giralda, now the bell tower of Seville cathedral, but originally the minaret of the Grand Mosque that occupied the site in the time of the Moors. The tower was built between 1184 and 1198 by the architect Ahmad Ben Baso, and is similar to other famous minarets in Rabat and Marrakech. There are also a number of copies of the tower in the United States, most notably in Kansas City.

The top of the original tower was immediately below where the bells are today, and was surmounted by four copper spheres, but these were lost in the earthquake of 1365, and replaced by a cross and bell. The bell tower and the weather vane that gives the tower its name (girar is Spanish for turn) were added in 1568, making it 104 metres tall.

Inside, the tower is climbed by way of a ramp, rather than stairs, (the muezzin used to ride his donkey to the top to call the faithful to prayer) and whatever else you do in Seville you have to go up and enjoy the view over the rooftops of the city.

The Torre del Oro

torre del oroThat the second of Seville’s visual icons, the Torre del Oro (Gold Tower) also dates from late Moorish times is a testament to the importance of this period to the cultural development of the city. The distinctive twelve-sided tower was originally built as part of the city’s defensive system along the Guadalquivir river, when Christian forces began to seriously threaten the Islamic heartland of al-Andalus in the early 13th century, but failed to prevent the city falling to Ferdinand III in 1248.

It’s thought that it got its name from the golden glow of its reflection on the river, though another theory says it was because the tower was used to store gold offloaded from the ships returning from the Americas.

It has survived being used as a gunpowder store, and proposals by the city council to have it demolished. Nowadays it houses a small naval museum, whose entrance, now at road level, could once only be reached by a walkway over an arch whose far end can still be seen just inside the building on the opposite side of the street.

Plaza España

The Plaza España, in Maria Luisa Park, was built as the centrepiece of the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition, and is the masterwork of the architect Anibal González. The plaza with its central fountain and the huge semi-circular facade of the pavilion are instantly recognizable from thousands of postcard pictures, photographs, and films such as Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Lawrence of Arabia and The Dictator.

plaza espana

Below the long colonnaded walkway are the alcoves with representations in ceramic tiles of historical scenes from each of Spain’s provinces, and at each end are almost disneyesque towers (unfortunately these are not open to the public to climb, as they would give great views across the park). There is also a boating “lake” spanned by four bridges that lead from the central plaza to the pavilion, and everything is decorated with a profusion of colourful ceramics.