Medieval hammam discovered in Seville tapas bar

LONDON: An Islamic bathhouse dating from the 12th century has been discovered during renovation works in a tapas bar in the Spanish city of Seville.

The owners of the Cerverceria Giralda had taken advantage of low footfall last year due to the coronavirus pandemic to make long-overdue changes to the bar, which opened near the city’s cathedral in 1923 and is named after its bell tower, which was once the minaret of the city’s Great Mosque.

Rumors had long abounded that the site had formerly been a hammam dating from the city’s period under Almohad rule between 1147 and 1238.

Those rumors had been put down to the building’s appearance, which was heavily influenced by the Islamic revival style popular in the 1920s and much admired by Vicente Traver, who founded the bar and accompanying hotel in the same building. 

Antonio Castro, one of the bar’s current owners, told The Guardian newspaper: “There was talk that there were baths here, but not all the historians were convinced and some thought it was all much later.”

But Castro and his partners decided to invite local archaeologist Alvaro Jimenez to inspect the site during the renovation.

This helped lead to the discovery of its true origins when some chipped plaster fell away from the ceiling to reveal a skylight in the style of an eight-pointed star.

“As soon as we saw one of the skylights, we knew what it was,” Jimenez told El Pais newspaper. “We just had to follow the pattern of the skylights.”

The true scale of the find, however, revealed that the site was one of the most historically significant discoveries from the period in years.

In total, 88 ornate skylights, ranging across five different designs, have been recovered, forming a constellation across the ceilings of the site.

The bar’s entrance, it transpires, was one of the hammam’s warm bath rooms, which had an octagonal domed roof supported by columns. The Cerverceria Giralda’s kitchen was the hammam’s “hot room.”

“Decoratively speaking, these baths have the largest amount of preserved decoration of any of the known baths on the Iberian Peninsula,” said Jimenez.

“Absolutely everything here is decorated, and, luckily, it’s survived. The background is white lime mortar engraved with geometric lines, circles and squares,” he added.

“On top of that you have red ochre paintings of eight-pointed stars and eight-petalled multi-foil rosettes. Those two designs alternate and entwine and adapt to the different geometric shapes of the skylight holes.”

Fernando Amores, another archaeologist who worked on the discovery, told The Times newspaper: “This important discovery gives us an idea of how other baths could have been during the Almohad period, especially in Seville, which was one of the two capitals of the empire, next to Marrakech.”

The finds have all been preserved and incorporated into the Cerverceria Giralda’s renovation, which is set to reopen to the public in a few weeks’ time, and will surely make it an important archaeological destination in future.

“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 (Traver) back in the 1920s respected the baths — others might have chucked everything out, so we’re grateful to him.”