Photo courtesy of Centre d’Estudis Ignasi Iglésias.
Sant Andreu parish church
The Sant Andreu parish church pictured during the Week of Tragedy, after it had been attacked and burned.
Sant Andreu is a quiet, leafy neighbourhood of Barcelona, situated only 15 minutes by metro from Plaça Catalunya. The murmur of families going about their daily business and the remnants of its former village life make it hard to believe that Sant Andreu is a place with a bloody and troubled past.
The history of the area dates back to 218 BCE, when it was populated by Romans who took up residence there after the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, taking advantage of the fertile soil for wine making. However, the first written mention of the area is from 980 CE, when a document of inheritance mentions the settlement’s historical name of ‘Palomar’, described as a place for hunting wood pigeons at the foot of Collserola. It wasn’t until the 11th century that the area was documented as ‘Sant Andreu de Palomar’, named after the local church of Sant Andreu that was the central point of the village.
The area flourished peacefully until 985 when the first of several bloody incidents that would come to define Sant Andreu for the next thousand years took place. An ambitious Moorish nobleman called Abi Amir Muhammad (who was known as ‘Almanzor, the victor of Allah’) arrived in Palomar from the lands of Al-Andalus with a brigade of Berber mercenaries as his personal guard. They were crossing the Iberian Peninsula on a campaign aimed at reconquering it for Islam. In Palomar, Almanzor was successful in his religious crusade: he and his men sacked and burned the Parroquia de Sant Andreu, an important symbol of Christianity at the time, and considered one of the region’s leading churches.
In 1105, Bishop Berenguer Bernat of Barcelona oversaw the rebuilding of the Parroquia de Sant Andreu as a Romanesque temple, eager to restore it to its former glory and as a symbol of local defiance in the face of the Moorish threat.
However, trouble was brewing again for Sant Andreu de Palomar in 1115 in the form of Ali Ibn Yusuf, the leader of the Almoravid Berber dynasty who led his armies up from Morocco to face Alfonso I of Aragon. His army, renowned for its ‘death over defeat’ ideology, left a trail of destruction across Iberia, burning and sacking every important landmark they came across, including the restored Parroquia de Sant Andreu.
The attack was not taken lying down. One of Bishop Berenguer’s successors, Olegarius (who was appointed bishop of Barcelona in 1116), mediated an alliance with surrounding Mediterranean kingdoms against the Almoravid raids that were targeting coastal towns and obstructing trade routes. The bishop saw the potential in Sant Andreu de Palomar as a centre of Christendom and consecrated the church again in 1132, building extra sections onto it with the intention of giving it cathedral-like status. Olegarius was later entombed in Barcelona cathedral and canonised in 1675 for his service to Christianity.
After many years of fighting against Islamic forces, Sant Andreu de Palomar bred its own army of foot soldiers. Made up of farmers and shepherds, they took to the lucrative business of becoming soldiers of fortune under the pay of the King of Aragon, as part of the Almogavars troops. These soldiers were well known for their fighting tactics, excelling in the art of attacking cavalry horses, bringing them to the ground so they could then finish off the unfortunate dismounted knights with maces and pikes.
One of the most infamous brigades of the Almogavars was the Catalan Company led by Roger de Flor, a former Templar knight. They took the fight to the Byzantine Empire, looting and killing their way across Asia Minor; so infamous did they become that unruly children in many places were warned that if they did not behave, the Catalans would come to get them.
In 1640, Plaça Orfila, the central square of Sant Andreu de Palomar, became a footnote in the history of Catalunya. It was the meeting place of The Reapers, a group of local farmers who felt they were being mistreated by the king of Spain, Felipe IV, who had installed troops around Catalunya, garrisoning them here in-between campaigns during which they drove the French out of the Pyrenees.
One of the farmers was injured by a Spanish soldier in Plaça Orfila during a gathering and the incident served as the spark that ignited the event called El Corpus de Sang (Bloody Corpus Christi), when, in an act of vengeance, farmers stormed the home of the viceroy of Barcelona and savagely murdered him. The uprising became known as ‘The War of the Reapers’ (La Guerra dels Segadors), and the revolt is still remembered today in the Catalan national anthem while Plaça Orfila became known as the ‘square that weathered a thousand battles’.
In 1897, Sant Andreu de Palomar was annexed to Barcelona becoming a district of the city and dropping ‘Palomar’ from its name to become simply ‘Sant Andreu’. This caused some unrest amongst the fiercely independent population, which didn’t like the idea of being under the thumb of Barcelona.
Just over a decade later, in July 1909, a week of turmoil began in Barcelona when the Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Maura called up reserve troops from the city’s working classes to reinforce Spain’s failing colonial aspirations in North Africa. Growing discontent amongst the working classes, who feared they were about to be drafted into the military, was ignored by the establishment and Barcelona erupted into a rebellion led by anarchists with anti-colonial and anti-clerical ideals, who took to burning churches and convents. The Parroquia de Sant Andreu was attacked and burned twice during this week, which became known as the ‘Week of Tragedy’.
Xavier Gómez, a local historian for Sant Andreu, explains that “from the annexing of Sant Andreu to Barcelona in 1897, there was an undercurrent of discontentment amongst a population that didn’t like the idea of being controlled centrally from Barcelona. During the Week of Tragedy, with help from the anarchist movement, the population went into full revolt against the establishment.”
Some 30 years later, during the Civil War, Sant Andreu became a focal point for Franco and his bombing campaigns. The area is littered with forgotten bomb shelters including the famous landmark of Café Versailles that still exists today in Plaça Comerç, and which doubled as a bunker and underground card den during the fighting. “The government was clever to keep the fighting in Sant Andreu to a minimum by installing two armories,” explained Xavier Gómez. “One which housed the rifles and one which housed the firing bolts. That way the government prevented internal struggles amongst the different factions in the district.”
The most recent attack on Sant Andreu took place only 26 years ago. On June 19th, 1987, ETA launched its most prolific attack to date with the bombing of the neighbourhood’s Hipercor by the Comando Barcelona Section; 200 kilogrammes of explosives were placed in the car park of the supermarket located on Avinguda Meridiana. Twenty-one people died and 45 were injured. The attack was seen as a turning point in the public’s perception of ETA and they began to rapidly lose support, with even political members of the Basque nationalist party condemning the attack. A monument to the victims of the bombing by American conceptual artist Sol Watt was erected in nearby park Can Dragó, entitled ‘Tall Irregular Progression’.
Today, even though Sant Andreu is a peaceful district of Barcelona, there are still daily struggles: a controversial plan by the Ajuntament of Barcelona to knock down houses that were built at the turn of the century to make way for a green space has the district up in arms. Residents have launched a campaign entitled ‘Salvem el Casc Antic’ (‘Save the Old Town’) to preserve those houses that have been earmarked for demolition. “This is another example of the rebellious nature of Sant Andreu fighting the centralism of Barcelona,” says Xavier Gómez, “showing that we still have village life in our veins.”