The Elephant’s Well

Ten kilometers west of Cordoba lies Medinat Al-Zahra, the Shining City, built as the most beautiful city of the world by Abdurrahman III in 929, on the occasion of declaring himself the caliph of Andalusia, as a sign of his independence from the Sunni caliph of Baghdad and the Shiʿa caliph of Cairo. Today, only the central part of the city is standing, deprived of all its ornaments, carvings and noble wall coverings, but even in it ruins, it clearly testifies to its former beauty and richness.

Directly above the city rises the Sierra Morena range, a national park whose springs once supplied the city with water. One of these springs is a few kilometers above the town, in the main square of the present-day town of Santa María de la Trassierra. The spring is today surrounded by a regular granite well, with a large animal carved from pink limestone on it. Its shape, ears and legs are of an elephant, only its nose is too short, as if the sculptor found impossible to accept the existence of an animal carrying its tail on its face.

Although the statue looks old, it is just the copy of a really old one. Its original stood in the woods a kilometer away for a thousand years, until 1988, when it was transferred to the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace in Cordoba. Since then, a copy stand in the original place, too, but in order to boast with it not only to hikers, but also to all other visitors of the town – for example to those who come to the excellent Candil restaurant across the street –, the municipality also erected a copy here, in the main square. None of the three has any information board.

According to radiocarbon dating, the original sculpture may have been created sometime between 982 and 1193, that is, during the heyday of the Shining City. We also know its cause and function. It stood next to the Valdepuentes aqueduct, known by the Latins as Aqua Vetus or Aqua Augusta, which had supplied water to the expanding city of Corduba since the time of Emperor Augustus. The architect of the Shining City, Maslama ben Abdallah renovated this aqueduct in the 930s to provide the caliphal city with water. And not long after, Caliph Abdurrahman, or one of his high-ranking courtiers, had a pleasure garden built here, in the Valley of the Roses, which was also irrigatd by the water of the Aqua Vetus. As evidenced by the opening on its forehead and the bed of a tube carved in its temple, the elephant was the well statue of this water somewhere at a prominent point in the garden, just like the lion statues in the garden of the Alhambra.

The origins of the elephant, like most relics of al-Andalus, are enveloped in a legend that Manuel Pimentel has included in his book of legends of Medina Azahara. The legend, like the tales of the Thousand and One Nights, has a swirling structure: leaning over it, we see another legend. According to it, Maslama ben Abdallah roamed in the Sierra Morena in search of building materials for the new city of the caliph, and everywhere talked to the locals in hope for information about the materials on the site. This is how he met a hermit in the woods, a connoisseur of the traditions of the Christian world of two centuries earlier, who told him the following legend:

The Romans conquering southern Hispania, had to wage war with the Carthaginians, who regarded the region as part of their own colonial empire. To fight them with weapons equivalent to theirs, a large group of combat elephants were brought over from North Africa, and with their help they could oust the Carthaginians. Thereafter, the elephants were stationed at the headquarters of the legion at the foot of the Sierra Morena, but their feeding during in the dry and barren years put the camp’s logistical capacity to test. Eventually, the centurion in charge of the camp decided that since the Carthaginian threat was over, the elephants would have to be killed. However, their caretaker, who felt sorry for them, preferred to release them. The herd set out for the green mountains, where the head elephant stopped at a point in the valley, and turned a large rock out of the ground. From under the rock, abundant water flowed and gathered in the form of a large lake at the foot of the rocks.

Combat elephant. AD 5th-century Roman mosaic in the town of Huqoq, Galilee

The centurion was informed of the fountain, and hurried to the spot. However, he slipped at the shore of the newly formed lake, and fell into the water. His armor would have pulled him to the bottom of it, but the elephant with its snout reached after him and lifted him ashore. The centurion then ordered the elephants to receive ample provision until their deaths. An aqueduct wa built from the lake to supply the center of the province, Corduba. And in the decades that followed, the two aging males, the centurion and the elephant, were often seen walking together in the mountains above the city.

Pilate and his dog walking with Ha-Nocri until the end of times in Vladimir Bortko’s movie The Master and Margarita

On hearing the legend, Maslama ben Abdallah renovated the Roman aqueduct and led the water of the Elephant’s Well to the new city of the caliph. And when the hermit died, he had an elephant statue carved on the shores of the lake in memory of him and his story.

The original statue next to the Aqua Vetus in the 1930s

So far the legend. Its core is certainly an attempt to explain the origin of the lake accumulated near the ruins of the aqueduct. And the elephant is an Arab well statue erected after its restoration, a unique work in Muslim art which otherwise rejects sculptures and modeling living beings. However, in al-Andalus, existing in close contact with European culture, this ban softened in many cases, as we shall see later.

The wise rabbit and the Elephant King at the Moon’s Well. From the Arab animal tale collection Kalila wa Dimna, 16th century, MET

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