Archive | January, 2012

Stargazing amidst history

15 Jan

After Christmas I had the opportunity to stop in the town of San Cosme y Damián to learn more about two fields I like: astronomy and history. My friends Kevin, Joanna, Taylor and I met up with fellow volunteer and fantastic guide, Zach, who lives in San Cosme, to get the tour of this charming town, along the Río Parana.

San Cosme Mission columns

San Cosme y San Damián was the site of one of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay, and it’s the only site in Paraguay that has been reconstructed significantly (new roofs, doors, pillars and other items were added to save the deteriorating buildings and convert them back into usable spaces). This particular mission moved a few times after its original founding in the 1630s. They established the current site in 1760. The mission was one of 30 Jesuit missions scattered through Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina (one of which is my town, Santa Rosa). The missions were in a sense, mutually beneficial to the Jesuits and the Guaraní indians who lived there. The Jesuits got to spread their religion, and the indians got some level of protection against slave traders.

Inside the church at San Cosme

Today, the church is still used as the community’s church, and some of the rooms are used for meetings and classes.

Jospeh Mary and Jesus

Zach showed us around the site, starting with the ruins. The church is large and features lots of beautiful (but often termite damaged) wooden statues, carved by the residents of the mission.

Zach points out details

We then proceeded to check out all of the other rooms in the building, with Zach pointing out details like lovely painted ceilings, interesting metalwork, and beautiful stonework.

Painted ceiling

One special part of the site is the sundial, built by the priest Buenaventura Suárez. He would become recognized as the first astronomer in Paraguay. The sundial is extremely accurate during winter, and cool to see, as it’s the oldest sundial in Paraguay (and the only one used in any of the missions).

Sundial

Another cool part of the ruins is the remainder of the main entrance. The white and red stones feature intricate carvings, including the 3 cherubs (a motif popular with the Jesuits) and a bat (an image important to the indigenous people).

Entrance arch

After touring the ruins, we got the opportunity to visit the Buenaventura Suárez Astronomical Interpretation Center. The town, working with the national tourism agency, decided to build this center as a way to connect with the roots of the town and bring tourism to the site. Buenaventura Suárez was well know around the world for his astronomical work, including predicting solar and lunar eclipses. He also built his own telescope using local materials. Thus, it’s fitting that this center is named after him.

planetarium

The Center features an audiovisual room (where you watch some cool videos about Jupiter and learn about Guaraní constellations), the only public planetarium in Paraguay, and a telescope.

Telescope builidng

The site also features an armillary sphere, a cool way to visualize how the stars move in relation to time of day, location and season.

The crew checks out the armillary sphere

It was a really fun experience to get to learn about astronomy in Paraguay and use the telescope to see, among other things, Jupiter and some of its moons.

I was really impressed by the whole site. It tapped into my geeky interests perfectly. I would definitely recommend a stop for anyone who finds themselves in southern Paraguay. Check out all the pictures from my visit on flickr.

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