Granada: Abadia del Sacromonte

Why did you visit?

I took the tour because it was included with my Granada Pass. I had not heard of this place prior to planning my trip to Granada. I knew they had ancient manuscripts from quickie research on the internet and the Secret Granada book. The tour disappointed me because they only showed us about a dozen ancient texts – I was dreaming about walking through rows of massive shelves filled with ancient texts.

I rode the bus most of the way up to Abadia (Abbey). I wasn’t sure if the bus stopped at the abbey or not, so I got off a bit early and hiked up a little dirt trail that went the rest of the way up. The road to get up there winds back and forth, and the hiking trail goes fairly straight up (a bit steep, but not awful). It kept crossing the street. Given the lack of traffic, one could walk up via the street.

At the Abbey, they didn’t permit photography – exterior and the big interior court yard were the only locations where photography was permitted. And they didn’t let you go through the place unsupervised – it was take their tour or bust. The tour mostly focused on Christianity, which I don’t get real excited about – fancy robes worn by the clergy and Jesus statues of various types. To my surprise, the cave chapels were appealing. (The main church space was beautiful, worth going just for that.)

When I think back to my visit, and do more internet research, I conclude that the tour was a strip tease of sorts. The place is full of secrets. And the tour only gave tiny peeks, while dressed up as showing everything. The tour was in Spanish – which I still haven’t learned despite obvious necessity – but if you point and speak, I can sort of get the gist. I’m sure I missed a lot of details. But I’m pretty sure they didn’t let us see the famous Lead Books.

What are the “Lead Books of Sacromonte”

The Lead Books were found buried in the ground along with the relics of St Cecilio when an old mosque was demolished in the late 16th century. In the 17th century, the books were hauled off to Vatican City and eventually declared fakes by the Pope. They were returned to Spain – and ended up being stored at Abadia del Sacromonte – in 2000. Nobody has been allowed to study or read the books for centuries. Maybe someday Google can sneak in and scan them (and translate them).

What I find fascinating about these books, is that they are an attempt to blend and mix the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Spain had a great cultural diversity during the later centuries of Moorish rule. These book are speculated to have been written during the Moorish rule. Unfortunately, once the Moors were kicked out of Spain, Christianity was applied with a sledge hammer – and became highly focused on the aspects of Christianity that explicitly are not Jewish or Islamic – Jesus in particular.

Writing novel religious texts with new or potentially heretical ideas has been popular throughout history. To give them credence and acceptance, the writers claimed that the texts they wrote were actually ancient texts, newly discovered.

Does anybody study old manuscripts?

I have fantasies of doing so, but when it comes to ancient texts, it becomes quickly obvious that my language skills are atrocious. The US public school system fails to understand how important it is to be able to read and understand ancient manuscripts. Well, they did offer Latin in high school, and I didn’t take it; I also failed to understand the importance of language skills beyond English. Sigh. As an adult, I have struggled to learn to read Hebrew. But I’m missing Arabic, Greek, and Latin. Nevermind the stranger, less common, local languages spoken around Europe.

One can find translations in English to read of the many ancient texts still in existence, but understanding ancient texts requires a lot of historical and cultural knowledge in addition to just getting the words read off the page. It can be hard to assess how accurately a given translation sticks to the intended meaning of the text.  The translator has to really understand and avoid biases to create an accurate translation.  I’ve spent time studying translations of some ancient Buddhist texts, and accuracy can vary widely  Many translations prepared in the 1930’s – 1950’s are done through a lens of Christianity that gets the details down but uses coded words (like “Lord” for “Buddha”), and loses the real meanings of the texts.  Recent translations are much better.  But even then you need to do some research on the translator and be careful.

What really fascinates me about old books, is their complexity and difficulty.  For many old texts, over the centuries, people have written commentaries, which provide lots of insights about the meaning and ideas – and present many different understandings of those ideas, rather than a unified “it means this” simplicity.  I enjoy these because they give me lots of things to (mentally) chew on.

Why did they make the original church from an underground cave?

There is no clear answer, but I think that the hole dug when finding the trove of relics and books, was expanded into a large enough space to use as a chapel. The underground cave chapel today is not completely underground – it seemed to be sunk 5 or 6 feet deep into the earth, with a normal roof built over it, which is above my head when I stand outside next to it.

The entry and interior court yard, and large chapel space that were included on the tour, and the museum space showing off the clergy robes, etc, were in a normal above-ground building. So the caves were the original church, but when they expanded, they built above ground in the normal fashion.

What was the best part of your visit?

I opted to walk back down to Granada. After riding the bus up, I concluded that it is not that far a distance. The abbey is built up high on a hill. As a result, it has fantastic views of Granada – but most impressive, it has fantastic views of the Alhambra and Generalife. I stopped at the Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte on my way down.