Thursday, January 14, 2010

Leiden: Here are the keys but where is Peter?

‘... And I am back!’
I am in Leiden, an ancient small city in the Netherlands. I will be here for three months, a visiting research fellow at the Afrika-Studiecentrum, Universiteit Leiden. During the three months that I am out of Nigeria, I hope to blog regularly. Welcome to Leiden!
Leiden is truly an ancient city. It is said to have been a small cluster of huts during the Roman occupation about 150 AD. Then it was known as Leithon. About 1050 AD, it became “villa Leyden” and its fortifications were first built. Stone buildings were erected as from about 1450 AD—and some of these buildings are still standing. In fact, Pieterskerk (Peter’s Church) was built in 1473 and is still standing—an awesomely magnificent edifice. The people still treasure their old bicycles. In fact, it’s as if the older is the better among the Leidenaars.
What interests me most is the Leiden coat of arms. Yes, this little city has its own coat of arms complete with its own flag and public holidays. (The Nigerian government promised immediate arrest, detention and worse to anyone found with the old Biafran flag or currency!). The Leiden coat of arms is a red lion holding a rampart on which there are two crossed red keys. The books say the lion stands for strength and defiance—as demonstrated in the refusal of the people to surrender to Spanish siege in 1573-74 in spite of severe starvation. The siege was lifted—as the Spanish army left on October 3, 1574. These days, that day of relief is celebrated annually with utmost pomp in Leiden. The two crossed keys, the books say, symbolise the keys of Heaven handed over to Peter by Jesus Christ with the words, in Matthew 18:19, “I will give you the keys of heaven...”
Everywhere you turn in the city, you see the two crossed red keys: on the entrances of bars; on public dust bins etc. Peter’s keys are everywhere but where is Peter? Beyond the keys, there is nothing in the present to show that the Bible and Christianity were once so central in the Leidenaars’ scheme of things, so central that Peter’s keys became Leidernaars’ identity and symbol of faith and hope. The few Leidenaars I’ve talked with are proud to say that they have no religion. They are also happy to say that few subjects are taboo here, that same-sex marriage is okay and that they were raised by permissive parents etc. Not only this, my colleague tried all he could but was not able to find a church last Sunday: the maps suggest that there are only two churches in this city of about 120,000 residents. Pieterskerk is now more of a tourist centre, a museum than a worship centre. Well, many Leidenaars go in there once a year for the October 3 Thanksgiving.
How does one interpret this metamorphosis? Leidenaars are known for the pride they take in the history of Leiden and their unshaken commitment to preserving their cultural practices: about 20 museums that dot this little land, bicycles, flowers, gin and art works, all confirm this. Somehow, religion seems to have slipped away within the fingers of the custodians of Leiden culture. Cultural preservation is indeed a collective but subjective and selective process.

Or maybe it was that Christianity did not really take firm roots at Leiden in the first instance; not as much as it did in, say, equally ancient Oxford (UK) or even in the US. The Calvinists drove away the Catholics from Leiden in the summer of 1566 and replaced them with what and whom? And what of this old popular saying among the Dutch (Leidenaars inclusive): “God made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands”. That saying isn’t heading in the same direction as ‘In God we trust’, is it? Leidenaars appear to have been very practical rather than religious—even in their far past. When the siege of 1574 was on, they printed emergency money and on the notes they wrote “Haec libertatis ergo” meaning “These, then liberty”. God had no place in it. Those words have been part of the Leiden coat of arms since after World War II. (Nigerians appear to be more religious than practical. Maybe the truth is in the combination: practical, socially relevant religion).
Tot zien!

1 comment:

Loomnie said...

Great to see you've resumed blogging again!