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The Ceiling of the Seventh Heaven

October 14, 2013



Today is Columbus Day and I’ve no doubt many of my fellow bloggers will be airing opinions as to whether or not Columbus was a hero or a villain. I think it fair to say that never was the world changed so much by a person who didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing, but instead of dwelling on this I want to relate an experience from a trip Mrs. Chatterbox and I made to Granada, Spain.


Mrs. C. and I had traveled to Granada to visit the legendary Alhambra, a place once described by a poet as a pearl set in emeralds, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together peacefully for nearly eight hundred years, a site of remarkable technical innovations and scholarly achievements—The Alhambra boasted hot and cold running water at a time when Parisians were living in mud huts along the Seine.


We passed from one room to another, dazzled by the splendors of Islamic architecture and design, the gurgling of water from low fountains mingling with the scent of blooming jasmine, the golden ceilings looking like they were fashioned by massive bees. We entered the throne room, tilted back our heads and took in the Ceiling of the Seventh Heaven. Islamic art doesn’t permit the depiction of humans but this faded masterpiece is rich with symbols. According to tradition, there were one hundred levels to reach heaven and this ceiling depicts the last seven, beyond which was paradise:


On each level of heaven, Muhammad met the prophets of different ages:

  • In the first heaven he met Adam
  • In the second heaven he met John the Baptist and Jesus
  • In the third heaven he met Joseph
  • In the fourth heaven he met Aaron
  • In the fifth heaven he met Moses
  • In the sixth heaven he met Abraham who welcomed him with: “Good Prophet, good son.”
  • In the seventh he met Allah.

There is a tranquility about this complex of buildings in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but tranquility was in short supply when Ferdinand and Isabella decided to remove the Moors from the Iberian peninsula and join the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile to create modern Spain. While these monarchs fought their wars with the Moors, a pesky Italian pestered them for ships for a harebrained voyage to discover a new trade route to India.


Ferdinand and Isabella continually put off Columbus saying they couldn’t think of financing such a venture until their war with the Moors was concluded. Granada and the Alhambra fell to Christian armies in 1492 forcing the Moors to return to Northern Africa. Ferdinand and Isabella set up their court in the Alhambra’s throne room, beneath the ceiling of the Seventh Heaven.


In the center of the mosaic floor is a marker. I stood on it and felt chills run up and down my spine. On this spot Columbus addressed the new monarchs of Spain. No one knows exactly what he said but his meaning must have been plain:


“You two have put me off for years by making promises that you’d finance my voyage once the Moors were thrown out of Spain.” Maybe at this point Columbus paused dramatically to let his eyes wander around the splendid surroundings, crowned by the grandest ceiling in Spain. “It’s time for you to keep your word.”


On the spot where Mrs. C. and I were standing, Ferdinand and Isabella gave permission and agreed to finance a project that would forever change the world. It’s impossible to feel the full impact of events set in motion on this very spot, the plundering of the New World and the misery brought to millions of native peoples, yet there are few places on earth where you can stand in the footsteps of so much history. Mrs. C. and I had traveled from the New World back to the old to taste this history, repeating the circle begun here, beneath the Ceiling of the Seventh Heaven.



Alhambra in Granada, Spain




Ceiling of the Seventh Heaven








One day It would be nice to go about and see things like this. Until then I'll just continue to read about them!
By: David Walston on October 14, 2013
I always wonder why we say he discovered "America" when really he just "discovered" Cuba and other Caribbean islands.
By: PT Dilloway on October 14, 2013
You could write a history textbook that would be infinitely richer and more interesting than anything else out there.
By: Shelly on October 14, 2013
Like you, I will never put aside the knowledge of what was done to natives already living here. For people to travel here, "discover" a land that was not lost, and to think they were worth more than the people living here already, is a horrible legacy. But yet, it is what it is. It did change so much. I always enjoy reading of your travels. You are full of good info and it is interesting to see the places you have seen.
By: CiCi on October 14, 2013
What a lot to think about. Strange how the centuries seem to meld together into one...
By: The Broad on October 14, 2013
Being of Italian descent I can say he was an awful opportunist and carried the early genes of the Mafia in our country. The New World would have been developed eventually...he was just in the right place time after time.
By: Tabor on October 14, 2013
A spirit for adventure and discovery. Today is also Thanksgiving Day in Canada. :-)
By: Daniel LaFrance on October 14, 2013
Well done CC. I thought Columbus was brave and innovative, did not realize he was just a dumb asshole that happened to bump into some land and then murdered all the lovely people who claimed they owned everything on the entire continent. I thank your readers for enlightening me to the real truth. Isn't history simple?
By: Cranky on October 14, 2013
i liked your description of columbus - didn't know where he was going or what he was doing - even after he got here. :)
By: TexWisGirl on October 14, 2013
I agree wholeheartedly with CiCi!!
By: fishducky on October 14, 2013
What an amazing place to stand and feel the weight of history! When i taught a history class, i asked them, after giving them both sides of the facts about Columbus, if they thought he was a great man or not. One very astute young lady replied, "He was a great man, but not a good man."
By: mimi on October 14, 2013
Your descriptive story sends chills up my spine. I appreciate learning about Islamic teachings too. The Ceiling was appropriately named. Thanks for a very meaningful Columbus Day post.
By: Robyn Engel on October 14, 2013
You're a marvelous history teacher, Stephen. I love reading and learning from your stories.
By: Scott Cody Park on October 14, 2013
Columbus had more courage than I. He sailed off into the unknown. Given the scientific knowledge of the era, I don't think I'd have made the same choice. I would have been too terrified. I guess that means not much would change. Back in Isabella's time, I'd be a nobody because I'd be too scared.
By: Michael Offutt on October 14, 2013
I would like to make one minor correction to your post Saturday was Columbus Today is the day that the folks who're screwing things up in DC have decided we need to celebrate They're as ignorant as Columbus. They just don't have any excuses Freakin' maroons!!!
By: Ivan Toblog on October 14, 2013
...and I just realized I have to create my own line breaks when I post to your blog I may not comment again
By: Ivan Toblog on October 14, 2013
You are an excellent teacher. Your perspective includes many views of the subject. Most people think Columbus only made one voyage to the west but that is not the case....he was a multi voyage sailor of fortune. Oma Linda
By: Oma Linda on October 14, 2013
interesting how one man did change the world for better or worse.
By: Kathe W. on October 14, 2013
Happy Columbus day to you!
By: red on October 14, 2013
Or, as George Costanza (of "Seinfeld" fame) would say, "It's the Moops! Moops! Moops!"
By: Pixel Peeper on October 14, 2013
I've never jumped aboard the "Columbus Was An Asshole" campaign. He was typical of his time and probably no worse or better (if cocky and arrogant) than many of his contemporaries. White Europeans didn't have a monopoly on evil and misery has been a constant all through human history from Assyrian atrocities to Aztec heart ripping to Japanese internment camps to planes flying into the World Trade Center. Black, red, yellow, brown, AND white, some of us are monsters. The good news is that the vast majority are not. At any rate, Im glad Columbus Day is over. Now I can get my mail.
By: Al Penwasser on October 15, 2013
Your travels have brought you to amazingly pretty settings. As a history buff, love seeing the places where important things happened that shaped our world as we know it today. It's particularly fun to realize that some of histories greatest discoveries or events were the result of someones major screwup.
By: Cheryl P. on October 15, 2013
You always have a way of taking me to exactly where you are with your descriptions. Great post.
By: Blondie McBaffled on October 15, 2013
I wish you could have been my history teacher because I just might have paid attention. What a great depiction of what took place. Awesome post!
By: Bouncin Barb on October 15, 2013
I wonder why I thought Granada was an island belonging to the UK? Lovely story and descriptions, Stephen. :-)
By: Lexa Cain on October 15, 2013
I've heard how beautiful it is in Alhambra but never been. To think that all those years ago, men had such talent to create things like that AND to think how different beliefs could live together so peacefully for so long. Great post.
By: Rum Punch Drunk on October 16, 2013

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