Thursday, May 05, 2011

Pilgrims still come to honor St. James in Santiago de Compostela

In the square in front of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, school kids listen to a rock band that was part of a rally to promote use of the Galician language.
We’re in Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage mecca for over 1,000 years and the center of the autonomous region of Galicia in northwestern Spain. It still attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year, who pay homage to Santiago, or St. James, one of the 12 apostles, whose remains are supposed to be in the cathedral here.

On the day we were in the church, the priest saying mass recognized pilgrims from Norway, Germany, France and the U.S., among other places. In the Middle Ages it rivaled Rome and Jerusalem as a pilgrimage site, and people still hike and bike the route. Sant Iago is known also as Matamoros, or Moor-slayer, because he is supposed to have appeared on horseback during a crucial battle and inspired the Christians to victory. It is probably not a good idea to promote that aspect of the saint these days.

The cathedral was packed for mass on a Monday.
One of the two official languages in the region is Galician, which is closer to Portuguese than Spanish for historical reasons that only a few language geeks like me would be very interested in (geek oriented article here; Spain has four official languages, including Catalán, Galician and Basque).

A friend from Galicia, Miguel Castro, tells me that between 80 and 90 percent of Galicians can speak the language but choose not to for political reasons. The language was banned for 300 years.

I can decipher written Galician, but it’s a slow process and I miss a lot of the meaning. The excellent local history museum has all its  displays described in Galician. Only after going through a couple of the rooms did I notice that in each there was one inconspicuous card holder that had translations into Spanish. It was as if they did not want you to find the translation.

Spanish is the daily language for most people here, but I heard Galician spoken in some museums and restaurants. If I  understand the context, such as a guide describing a church, I can sometimes follow it, but it’s mostly unintelligible.

We went from one medieval town, Salamanca, famous for its university, to another, famous for its cathedral and relics of a saint.
Fishing, farming and tourism

In the local newspaper there was an article in Spanish about the guy who caught the season’s first salmon, a 13-pounder, but all his quotes were in Galician, so the interviewer presumably spoke the local language with him. Also, there was some cultural news about books and music written completely in Galician.

On the long train ride to Santiago from Salamanca, the countryside seemed less intensely developed and cultivated than eastern and southern Spain. Galicia has the highest percentage of workers engaged in farming and fishing of any region, with 17% of the jobs in those sectors in 2000. (Academic paper on the subject here.)

The countryside and the museum I mentioned were a reminder that most of the world has lived in villages and small towns until very recently. In the U.S. in 1880, half the population was employed in agriculture while today it’s 2 or 3 percent, a huge change in a little more than a century. The process was slower in Spain, so many areas still have a rural feel, and Galicia is one of those.

Cindy and I liked this side chapel in the cathedral (below), where you can see the red cross of St. James in the seashell niche. The sword commemorates his warrior role, and the seashell is associated with the coastal pilgrimage route all along the Bay of Biscay from France. 

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