Pays sans frontières? The transigent concept of borders in the 21st century

Posted on 16th September 2015 by De Moura

At a time when Europe’s migration crisis is reaching unprecedented peaks, it seems timely to contemplate the issue of borders.  They represent a concept that many of us take for granted and yet spare little thought for what they actually represent.  This is certainly the case in much of Europe, where the innovative system of a borderless ‘Schengen Zone’ resulted in freedom of movement for hundreds of millions of people across the continent, but is now in danger due to the influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

In the course of building De Moura, borders have been crossed many hundreds of times, some more straightforward than others.  The Spanish-Portuguese border for instance, is claimed by some historians to be the world’s oldest demarcated land border, and it is undoubtedly among the oldest, being governed by the ‘Treaty of Zamora’ and the ‘Treaty of Alcanizes’, which recognised Portugal’s status as an independent Kingdom and formally delineated its borders in 1143 and 1297 respectively.  In the course of the country’s history, the border area has witnessed tumultuous events, such as the War of the Oranges, the precursor to the ‘Peninsular Wars’ in which Portugal was invaded by the Spanish under pressure from Napoleon, but gradually driven out with the help of the British.  Fast-forward to the early 20th century and the dark days of the Spanish Civil War were accompanied by discreet logistical support from the Portuguese dictator António Salazar as he dispatched shipments of arms across the border to his ideological ally, Francisco Franco.  Nowadays, the contrast with history could not be greater. The sight of a crumbling border post, coupled with a faded old sign, partially obscured by overgrown vegetation, is often the only indication that the traveller is about to cross an international frontier, steeped in such history.

Henri Chatelain's 18th Century Map of the Kingdoms of Spain & Portugal

Treaty of Alcanizes

Nautical boundaries are particular interesting, and can exemplify a meeting point between civilizations, such as the case of the Strait of Gibraltar and the mere 14 kilometres between the of the southern tip of Andalusia and the distinctive silhouette of the Moroccan coastline around Tangier.  While easily within reception range of radio stations, it yields a slightly surreal experience to drive along the Spanish coastal road as the Islamic call to prayer echoes out from the other side, reflecting the great historical divide between European Christendom and North African Islam since the Reconquista which ended in 1492 and resulted in the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula.  Add to this mix the additional dimension lent to the area by the British sovereignty over the miniscule territory of Gibraltar, in force since 1713, and the Spanish pene-exclave of Ceuta on the Moroccan coastline, with its Arab and Portuguese past rulers, one can truly appreciate the complex cultural legacy of the region.

Map of Iberia c.1210

A defunct checkpoint on the Portugal's border with Spain

Nevertheless, it is extraordinary to witness the extent to which ideas, language and other social influences can transcend even the most stringent of borders, and weave their way into seemingly opposing cultures.  In the world of design, it is illuminating to observe the variation of style as one travels.  The feature of symmetry derived from Islamic architecture which endures in Spain and Portugal, the Germanic, Alpine influence on display in Italy’s Südtirol as it draws closer to Austria, and the quintessentially Basque architectural characteristic of half-timbered walls painted in ox-blood red or fishing-boat blue which can be seen on both the French and Spanish sides of the border are but a few examples of this.

Examples of cross-cultural influence in design, see our pieces of 'Islamic Lusterware', 'Italian-Swiss Stoneware', and the 'New Illustrated Map of the Douro'.

Cofre Arabe | Al Andalus collection


Further Reading

Fa, Darren; The Fortifications of Gibraltar 1068-1945, Osprey (2006)

Kennedy, Hugh; The Great Arab Conquests, W&N (2008), Ch.9 ‘Spain & Portugal’

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