In this new series, we'll be taking a look at the esoteric, the paranormal and the odd in various places throughout Brazil. I thought I'd start with Brasilia, since this is one place I actually have a first-hand experience with - a whole lifetime's, in fact.
Brasilia might at first glance seem be different, a bit quirky, but it all goes way farther than that. As I've always said to anyone who'll listen, Brasilia is the weirdest city in the world, in the sense that there is no other place, at least in modern times, that is even close to similar to it. Now, perhaps that's a bit dramatic, but I'll let you be the judge of that.
Now, when it comes to ages-old cities, it's hard to see a lot of intentionality when it comes to the designs and patterns of the city. They grow organically, and have the marks of hundreds of generations and their respective beliefs and methods. However, cities such as Washington D.C. or Brasília, which were planned to be capitals of nations, have a coherent vision behind them.
Brasilia was founded in 1960 by President Juscelino Kubitschek (who bears many resemblances to another famous JK, John Kennedy - in fact, JFK was sworn into office 11 days before Kubitschek stepped down), following a mandate from the 1891 Constitution that a new capital city should be founded at the heart of the country. Brasília was, actually, Kubitschek's meal ticket in the presidential campaign.
What few people know, however, is the inspiration behind Kubitschek's vision for Brasília:
"Taken by my admiration for that autocratic visionary, Akhenaton, whose almost legendary existence I had happened upon in my readings in Diamantina, I took advantage of my stay in Egypt to undertake an excursion to the place where there had been Tell El-Amarna/Akhetaton."
Akhetaton, or "Aton's Horizon", was Akhenaton's dream of a city dedicated to the Sun God, Aton. As I'm sure many of you know, Akhenaton was an Egyptian pharaoh who broke off with the ages-old religion of the region, eschewing an entire pantheon in favor of only one god. He built a new capital city, with an overtly solar motif. Whether you see the triumph of monotheism in the past 2,000 years as a result of Akhenaton's actions of not, his city did not last long.
Many Spiritists believe that Juscelino Kubitchek was the reincarnation of a pharaoh, if not of Akhenaton himself. Kubitschek's home state of Minas Gerais* is a hotbed of Spiritism, and Kubitschek himself was a Spiritist - his ascension to the presidency was akin to, say, a Catholic president getting elected in a highly Protestant country. It is doubtful, though, that he believed himself to actually be a pharaoh.
|Or is it?|
The Solar symbolism in Brasilia is absolutely undeniable, though. Probably the city's most famous building is the National Congress building, and on April 21st, the date of Brasília's founding, the Sun rises exactly between the two towers. Astronomical alignments were, of course, a noteworthy feature of Egyptian architecture. In Brazil it's quite significant as well, as can be attested by the flag, which features 27 stars representing 26 states and the federal district (as seen in the sky at Rio de Janeiro on November 15th, 1889) - the flag deserves a whole post of its own, though.
The residence of the President in Brasília is called the Palace of Dawn, or Palace of the Rising Sun if you prefer. As a matter of fact, the city is all about the rising Sun. One of the guiding principles behind the city in that one can see the horizon at all times, regardless of where one is.** This why, in the original Brasília, buildings taller than six floors were only allowed to be built along the smaller vertical axis. The weather contributes as well: Brasília's climate is the cerrado, the South American savannah. Thus, the Sun shines practically all year long, and rain is relatively scarce (it's so dry here that often the air humidity is so low that it would be grounds for a state of emergency anywhere else - that's why I always get sick the first few days I'm in a coastal city).
There's even a saying here that says that, since Brasília is a thousand kilometers away from the nearest ocean, "the sky is Brasília's sea". And indeed it is. Since it's so dry, the city is extremely dusty, and these reddish dust particles create an unparalleled sky when mixed with the sunrise or sunset light.
The very name of the city suggests Solar light. Brasília is evidently derived from Brazil, which was taken from the characteristic pau brasil, or brazilwood. This tree was highly sought after because a red dye can be produced from it - the root br- suggests fire, as in the words 'bright', 'brilliant', 'brazier', 'brave', 'brown' and so on (and my own name, Bruno). 'Brasília' is pronounced the same way as "Bras Ilha", which essentially translates to "fire island".
Below is the sketch that won Lucio Costa the contest for the design of the city, the so-called Pilot Plan:
It's called the Pilot Plan due to its similarity to the shape of a bird, the supposed inspiration for its design. The this bird faces the East and the rising Sun tell me that it's clearly phoenix symbolism. Each wing (the neighborhoods are actually called South Wing, where I live, and North Wing), is roughly eight by two kilometers, which happen to be the dimensions of the original Tell Al-Amarna (it also faces the same direction).
Juscelino Kubitschek himself died under mysterious circumstances, after the military seized power the U.S.-backed coup in 1964. There was a brouhaha recently about exhuming his corpse for another autopsy, but nothing was found - officially. His legacy, however, clearly lives on. He enjoys the same hero-president status in Brazil as JFK does in the US, though we are much less historically-minded as a people. Below is the cover of a TIME magazine edition depicting Kubitschek as a Solar hero:
The weirdness, though, goes way beyond that. Brasília is surrounded by places full of mystical connotations, such as the Chapada dos Veadeiros, which features a so-called "UFO airport", and the Snorer's Sierra, where legend says there is a portal to the Inner Earth (or to Atlantis, depending on your source). As Chris Knowles pointed out recently, much of the architecture seen these days seems oddly "ufoidal", and this is no less true in Brasília.
Since Brasília was built in a mostly uninhabited region, there are people from all corners of the country, lured by the positivist vision of a Solar utopia. Syncretism pretty much runs wild here, to the point that many practices and beliefs are hard to describe. I probably have more friends who pray to orixas than friends who go to church. Sadly, evangelicalism is widespread, and I'm pretty sure their techniques were imported through the same channels that fed the military in the 1960s.
There is certainly much more, but that's for a future post. Suffice it to say that there is much more to this odd city than might appear, and unfortunately people usually can't see beyond the superficial layers. There's even an effect in Brasília where strangeness is the standard to the point that people aren't aware of just how palpable the weirdness is.
Akhenaton's Solar city as a monument to the future may not have turned out quite the way he imagined it, but it's clear that after all these years his dreams have yet to fade away.
* The capital of Minas Gerais translates to Beautiful Horizon
** Brasília was the first modern city to be declared a UN World Heritage Site