When an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 struck the city of Puebla, Mexico on June 15, 1999, it damaged many of the arches and vaults of the fine churches and civic buildings near the zócalo, or main square. Less noticed was the harm done across the river to a humble Guadalupe chapel in the late 17th-century church of San Juan del Río, whose ribbed dome sustained several structural cracks.
One of only two in Puebla that date from that period, the dome tells a fascinating story about the architectural legacy of the city and the surrounding region—a legacy that blends indigenous Mexican, Spanish and Moorish traditions into a beautiful yet practical whole. The type of ribbed dome at San Juan del Río, along with many of the city’s other colonial architectural elements, are of the mudéjar style. The name probably derives from the Arabic mudajjanun (“those permitted to remain”), and the construction technique can be traced back to al-Andalus in southern Spain, the region ruled by Muslims from the eighth to the 15th centuries, and to North Africa. It was brought to the New World by the Spanish and built by Native American craftsmen.
The Public Autonomous University of Puebla recently established a Center for Hispano-Mudéjar Studies, led by architecture professor Dolores Dib Alvarez, whose maiden name, Dib, is that of her Syrian grandfather. The center’s mission is to bring together Mexican, Spanish and Moroccan scholars to document the continuities, lineages and growth patterns between and among their cultures. “We Mexicans always say our country is a melting pot,” she says, “but we often argue over which flavors are dominant. In Puebla, both in its architecture and its bloodlines, I think the Arab flavor is unmistakable.” Indeed, a monument in the zócalo honors Puebla’s Syrian-Lebanese immigrant community. (read more in Aramco)