Posted by: daveed | July 9, 2008

A city’s secret

This is the official motto of the Spanish city of Sevilla, an Andalusian jewel that has been the possession of Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Moors and Spaniards. In that order.

A pitiful rainy day I spent there some years ago with my brother. I say pitiful because it is truly a city to be explored on foot and experienced from the outside. Weather, alas had other plans for us and we decided to cut our intended two-day excursion short. We would see this emblem everywhere, notably on hoary old public buildings. During our last hours there, fortified against the rainy chill thanks to my multiple samplings of jerez at many different tapas bars, I mentioned to my brother that I wanted some memento with this mysterious phrase on it. Immediately he pointed to a t-shirt novelty shop that was displaying various garments all proudly emblazoned with “NO-8-DO.”

Embedded within the emblem is a curiously cryptic pun. The knot-like symbol in the center is a graphic representation of a wool hank, which in Spanish is called una madeja. Wool was important to Sevilla’s economy during its pre-industrial days, and the symbol helped the city’s illiterate—buyers, merchants, porters, taxmen—identify it in commercial transactions.

The emblem thus reads read “No-madeja-do,” which apparently sounds like “no me ha dejado” . This phrase, which translates as “she did not abandon me,” has two possible origins. One was that it was uttered by Ferdinand III when his forces took the city from the Moors in 1248, referring to the city’s unwavering loyalty to Spain’s Christian kings during centuries of Muslim rule.

It’s also attributed to Alfonso X, again in reference to the city’s fidelity, this time during the civil war between royalists and supporters of his upstart son, Sancho. In this instance, Sevilla remained true to Alfonso, even throughout a brutal siege of the city by Sancho’s army.

Regardless of who said it, the fascinating part is that someone centuries ago made an odd little riddle out of a slogan, undecipherable to all save those who intimately knew Sevilla. That it would be obscured or hidden within a symbol, using the word for that symbol, then parsing it in rebus-like fashion to form a coherent phrase speaks to me a need for secrecy and not happy accident.

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