The 11 centuries of the Leyre Monastery resist fire
Leyre Monastery (Navarra), located in the mountains of the same name.
Leyre Monastery (Navarra), located in the mountains of the same name.PABLO LASAOSA

Not even the fire that has devastated the Sierra de Leyre in recent hours has managed to make the inhabitants of the monastery of the same name leave the place. Three of the 22 Benedictine monks who live there, including the abbot, Juan Manuel Apesteguía, have remained in place despite the threat of fire; the rest were transferred to the nearby Castillo de Javier. The abbey is located just 50 kilometers from the Navarran capital, in the Sierra de Leyre, from which it takes its name. It is one of the most important monuments in Navarra, dating from the 9th century and its history is linked to that of the Autonomous Community. In fact, inside is the pantheon of the first Kings of Navarre, where the remains of 19 people rest. The monastery, one of the oldest in Spain and one of the few that is still inhabited almost continuously, only stopped having inhabitants after the confiscation of Mendizábal, but since its restoration in 1954, it has always housed monks.

A forest firefighter rests in the shade of a Foral Police car during the forest fire in the Sierra de Leyre.
A forest firefighter rests in the shade of a Foral Police car during the forest fire in the Sierra de Leyre.PABLO LASAOSA

The most worrying situation with the fire was experienced on Wednesday mid-afternoon, when the fire reached only two kilometers from the pre-Romanesque complex. The concern, explains the abbot, was mainly due to the presence of smoke and the existence of three monks in poor health and with mobility problems. Not so much due to the proximity of the flames and their possible effect on the infrastructure, since the 59-year-old Apesteguía from Pamplona details, “it is difficult for these stone buildings to be affected by fire. So there was little objective risk.” Even more so because it is a reconstructed building with concrete inside. However, he clarifies, “there was concern because you never know if the fire can surround you. The unlikely is one thing and the impossible is another. In any case, when the monks were evacuated, “they left quietly because the wind was changing direction. The wind was blowing to the other side and it was noticeable in the sense of smell and sight because there was no more smoke”.

In the monastery they have experience with fire. A little over three decades ago, another great fire reached the edge of the estate where the monument is located: “We were all 30 years younger and I remember that it was night and the monks stayed with the firemen. Between all of us we connected the hoses to the trucks. One of the vehicles stayed to pour water and the other two went to the swamp for more. Between twenty monks, then younger, we could move the hoses. I had to be with the flashlight right with the firefighter who was throwing water on the flames”. On that occasion, as on this one, everything went well: “Thank God, at three in the morning we were able to return home. The entire front of the mountains was burning, it was very sad, but we are left with the satisfaction that we were able to defend the term that the Navarrese had entrusted to us”.

Juan Manuel Apesteguía, abbot of the Leyre Monastery.
Juan Manuel Apesteguía, abbot of the Leyre Monastery.PABLO LASAOSA

It is the story of an abbey that, even now, continues to make history: the fire has not been able to with its walls and neither with its tradition. The Monastery of Leyre is, together with that of Silos —where the monks who re-inhabited the enclosure came from— the only two in which Gregorian is still studied and chanted. Gregorian chant is, in fact, cultural heritage of humanity and, as Apesteguía defends, the basis of current music. Hence the importance of maintaining it.

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The Benedictine community is younger than others around it. Of the 22 monks that make it up, five are in their twenties – the youngest is 22 – and their knowledge of new technologies is helping them preserve a piece of the past: they are transcribing the manuscripts on a computer and adapting them to the present. An arduous task, but which supposes, says the abbot, a “challenge for them”. The project is “indigenous, for home”, but they use the web to open it to the public, who are invited to participate with them in the masses and acts that they carry out daily. It is something alive, he claims, because it can still be heard live, in an 11th century church and sung by monks. It’s been four years now and the goal is that what they end up editing is an “expression of our culture”. They know what they have, he concludes, which is why “we have to take care of it and make it betteras we Navarrese say”.

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