There is a strange legend about the ornate sloping archway that forms the main entrance to Havana's resplendent Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) Necropolis. Three beautiful sculptures representing faith, hope and charity crown the 71-foot-tall stone structure, and many Cubans have told me it actually is the tomb of Christopher Columbus.
Farfetched? Not really. Columbus died in 1506 and was buried in Valladolid, Spain, but in 1526 his body was exhumed and moved to Seville, Spain, to be buried with his eldest son. In 1542, his widow had his body moved to the Dominican Republic. In 1795, the Spanish sent his remains to Cuba for safekeeping from the French, demanding that they be returned to Spain after the Spanish-American War. However, the Cubans say, his body was never returned to Spain. Instead, in what is called the switch conspiracy, another body was sent to Spain in its place. Interestingly, the archway/tomb remains the tallest tomb in all of Cuba.
True or not, the cemetery is dazzling. Occupying 7.5 percent of the surface area of the city of Havana, it remains the largest monumental and fourth largest marble statuary in the world. Its statues, monuments, mausoleums, pantheons and tombs represent every architectural style from Romanesque-Byzantine to art deco. Declared a national monument by the Cuban government, this breathtaking cemetery with its broad, tree-lined avenue is an open book of legends, stories and history conveyed in stone and marble.
Symbolism is rampant among the graves. Crosses, lambs, circles, garlands, emblems, scales and Masonic symbols are intricately carved in marble and limestone. The epitaphs are intriguing, powerful and often tender. There are poems, quotes from literature, intricate mosaics and breathtaking stained glass.
This home to some of the loveliest imagery in the world is an egalitarian place of rest. Here lie everyday Cubans as well as famous artists, writers, scientists and revolutionary patriots. There are monuments to Cuban victims of World War II, ball players and firemen. There is even a monument to the American Legion.
The regal, black-marble pantheon is adorned with an Imperial Eagle and honors veterans of the American Civil War as well as Americans who died in the Spanish-American War. You will be surprised at the number of Americans buried and honored throughout this grand Cuban necropolis
(open 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission is $1).