The Amazing Collaboration of the Iberians


The Amazing Collaboration of the Iberians Tillism طلسم

As we walk between the olive trees along a dirt path, I wonder how old they are. A cylindrical extraction from the bark to the core is enough to find out the age of a tree. But olive trees are a challenge because they tend to be gnarled and twisted. Could they be the variety that was brought over from modern day Palestine 6,000 years ago? by the Phoenicians? For some reason, I had thought it was the Greeks.

Why visit museums?

Museo Arqueológico Nacional
Exterior of the National Archaeological Museum

Thursday mornings at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional are usually quiet —that’s why I’m here today. On cooler days, I sit in the Plaza Colón and sketch the Neoclassical exterior of the museum. When it’s hot, I go inside and slip through the cool silence to the time olive trees were first planted on the Iberian Peninsula. I lean over the glass to look more closely at the 2,000 year old tools used to make fabric on household looms, carved figures wearing tunics and dresses made from that fabric, statues made of limestone —the result of amazing collaboration between the early settlers in Spain.

On every visit, I discover something new, and it’s this excitement that keeps bringing me back. Each fragment of information is another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of human history. I doubt that I will complete this puzzle in my lifetime, but even if I connect enough pieces to see something tangible and accurate, I will be content.

Colors of the past

Today, I stand in front of four Damas Iberas. One of the noblewomen is from the province of Granada, in Andalusia. Carved from limestone, she was once painted brightly in red, brown, black, and blue. The colors have almost disappeared now, but even without them, she still looks regal. Near her are the other three Damas, each one more elegant than the other.

Later, I tell Anniqua that even if I was allowed to touch them, I’d feel too intimidated. “They’re not like the friendly statue of Cervantes in Toledo.”

She laughs as she remembers the photo she took of me hanging on to the arm of Cervantes on our visit to that precious city just outside Madrid.

Who is the Dama de Elche?

Of the four women, the Lady of Elche is most captivating. Her intense gaze and determined expression gives her the look of a powerful woman. Is it her jawline? or the way her lips are gently but firmly closed? Either way, it’s hard to take my eyes off her. I wish we could have a conversation in the quiet of this cool room.

While these sculptures of Iberian noblewomen are clearly very detailed, their true beauty lies in them being the result of a synthesis of at least three cultures. The jewelry worn by the Damas of Baza and Elche  are clearly Phoenician filigree work and the form of the sculptures is without a doubt influenced by both Phoenician and Greek styles.

As always, I am curious to know more. Who had the Phoenicians and Greeks looked to for inspiration? Where had they learned their skills?

Damas Iberas

I find a tiny piece of the puzzle which fits nicely in the huge expanse between pre-historic humans and the Ancient Greeks

Have you heard of kouros? Freestanding life-size Greek and Egyptian statues of young men? Well, Ancient Egyptians had developed techniques for this kind of stone sculpture centuries before the Greeks discovered it. Then the Greeks took this knowledge and developed it further – much, much, further. Then, they shared their knowledge with other cultures —in this case, it was the Iberians.

Egyptian & Greek Sculptures
Egyptian & Greek Sculptures

Venus de Milo and other Greek statues are made of marble, but Iberians chose to work with limestone. While the light translucent color of marble gives the appearance of living flesh, and both marble and limestone carve easily, limestone is able to withstand sharp blows without fracturing easily. The crisp lines and gentle curves of the Damas in the museum make that all too apparent. Also, limestone was, and still is, the most accessible material on this land. I know because I’ve seen it.

What is El Torcal de Antequera?

Anniqua and I visit a massive formation of limestone called El Torcal de Antequera. This is the material that connects Nefertiti, Tanit, and Venus de Milo to the Damas Iberas, each culture passing its skills to the next.

It’s cold up in the Sierra del Torcal mountain range, so we step into the cafeteria.

They haven’t found a lot of weapons from this time in history,” I tell Anniqua.
“It is quite obvious,” Anniqua replies, “when you’re busy creating, there is little time left for war and violence.”

We may have differing opinions on other matters, but here I nod in agreement as I sip my coffee in this otherworldly nature reserve.

At the time, I don’t know that the whole region is pretty much made of limestone.

Limestone along the coast too?

A few months later, I am trying to keep pace with an incredibly energetic 81 year old, the owner of an olive grove on the outskirts of Malaga city. Adolfo owns these hills on the southern coast of Spain.

As we walk between the olive trees along a dirt path, I wonder how old they are. A cylindrical extraction from the bark to the core is enough to find out the age of a tree. But olive trees are a challenge because they tend to be gnarled and twisted. Could these be the variety that was brought over from modern day Palestine 6,000 years ago? by the Phoenicians? For some reason, I had thought it was the Greeks.

I’ve found another small piece for the infinite puzzle I’m trying to put together.

Adolfo points out the carob and almond trees sprinkled in between the olive trees.

“I planted these when I was a little boy because I was sick of caring for our goats,” he explains with a chuckle.  

I laugh with him because I know what he means. I too grew up on a farm —in Pakistan. Animals are smelly and need a lot more care than trees, especially olive trees.

  • International cooperation - Iberian and American

Adolfo and his family have invited my husband and myself for Sunday lunch. They only know of us through our friend, Ross, a young American from Minnesota. Ross is now part of their family, and from the moment we arrive, we too feel like family.

Lunch is served with an open view of rolling hills dotted with olive trees and the turquoise blue water of the Mediterranean. Multiple high-spirited conversations switch between Spanish and English. Good food, easy laughter – if this isn’t a good thing, I don’t know what is.

Adolfo and my husband don’t share a language, but they do share the same desire to communicate, to share stories. Ross, the interpreter, translates as fast as they speak. I am amazed at his linguistic dexterity. Rocio, her mother, and I, switch between the two languages more easily.

Somewhere into our conversation, I discover Rocio has had a DNA test done and discovered she is 87% Iberian. 87% Iberian!! This is probably as pure as anyone can be given the way humans traipse around the planet planting their seed at every given opportunity. I search Rocio’s face and find the delicate facial features of the Lady of Elche, the same jawline, and the same intense gaze.

So, here I am at last, having my conversation with the Dama de Elche, and yes, she is as wise and intelligent and regal as I had imagined her to be in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid.

Dama de Elche and Rocio
Dama de Elche, Rocio’s ancestor?

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  1. Amazingly Rocio does look like her ancestor. I believe that besides physical features some of the personality traits also get passed on, I suppose it depends on how much mixture one has. Really enjoyed reading this post.

  2. I love this story and your discovery of an 87% Iberian woman. Remarkable how deep her roots must go.

    • Yes, I couldn’t believe my ears. Especially since I come from a family that’s always on the move. And Rocio’s resemblance to the dama is incredible.

    • Thank you! I wish we knew more. I’ll keep searching. The history of Spain is very well preserved. I like how all peoples are represented regardless of their origin. My next post is about Ancient Greeks in Spain.

  3. Amazing! Love it!! Thanks Selma, for your beatiful words to my family. It was a pleasure have lunch with you guys!!

    • Thank you! The pleasure was entirely ours, Rocio. It was a Sunday to remember. Your family is lovely and I’m so glad to know them. xoxo

  4. I enjoyed this post so much that I have read it more than once. It’s all so very interesting and I love the way that you have such an enquiring mind and great perception. Your words makes me wish that I was there too .I can even smell that special elusive aroma that Spain has!

    • Thank you so much! I have done the same even though I wrote it myself. I think we are our thoughts, they brighter they are, the brighter we are – and vice-versa. And I think it applies to the thoughts of those around us – we are so affected by the energy of the people we share our space with.

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