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Andalusia's Journey

Despite the richness of Andalusia's Islamic past and its indelible presence in Spain's subsequent history after the Reconquista, for years the Church and royalist ideologues stressed the purgation of Spain's Islamic and Jewish heritage, insisting that Christian Spain was restored in 1492 as if little had happened to disturb its ascendancy in the seven preceding centuries. Not for nothing has the cult of Santiago (Saint James) been highlighted in Catholic Spain: St. James was, among other things, the patron saint of the Spanish in their battles against the Moors, hence his nickname Matamoros, "Killer of Moors." Yet, classical Mudejar art, with its typically florid arabesques and geometrical architecture, was produced after the Muslims were defeated. As far away as Catalonia, Gaudí's obsession with botanical motifs shows the Arab influence at its most profound. Why did it linger so if Arabs had represented only a negligible phase in Spanish history?

The Jews and Muslims who weren't thrown out or destroyed by the Inquisition remained as conversos and Moriscos, men and women who had converted to Catholicism to preserve their lives. No one will ever know whether the identity they abandoned was really given up or whether it continued underground. Miguel de Cervantes's magnificent novel Don Quixote draws attention to its supposed author, the fictional Arab Sidi Hamete Benengeli, which—it is plausibly alleged—was a way of masking Cervantes's own secret identity as an unrepentant converso. The wars between Muslims and Catholics turn up again and again in literature, including of course the Chanson de Roland (in which Charlemagne's Frankish army is defeated in 778 by Abd ar-Rahman's men) and Spain's national epic, El Poema del Cid. About 60 percent of the Spanish language is made up of Arabic words and phrases: alcalde (mayor), barrios (quarters of a city), aceite (oil), aceitunas (olives). Their persistence indicates that Spain's identity is truly, if perhaps also uneasily, bicultural.

It took the great Spanish historian and philologist Américo Castro, who taught for many years at Princeton, to establish the enduring pervasiveness of the country's repressed past in his monumental work The Structure of Spanish History (1954). One of Spain's finest contemporary novelists, Juan Goytisolo, has also inspired interest in Andalusia's Arab and Muslim origins, and done much to reassert Spain's non-European past. His Count Julian, which centers on the treacherous Catholic whom Spaniards hold responsible for bringing in the Moors, challenges the myth that Visigoth Spain's rapid fall in 711 can be explained by nothing other than the nobleman's betrayal.

Andalusia's identity was always in the process of being dissolved and lost, even when its cultural life was at its pinnacle. Every one of its several strands—Arabic, Muslim, Berber, Catholic, Jewish, Visigothic, Roman—calls up another. Cordova was a particularly wonderful case in point. A much smaller city today than under Abd ar-Rahman I, it is still dominated by the mosque that he began in 785. Erected on the site of a Christian church, it was an attempt to assert his identity as an Umayyad prince fleeing Damascus, to make a cultural statement as a Muslim exiled to a place literally across the world from where he had come.

The result is, in my experience, the greatest and most impressive religious structure on earth. The mosque-cathedral, La Mezquita, stretches effortlessly for acres in a series of unending double arches, whose climax is an incredibly ornate mihrab, the place where the muezzin or prayer leader stands. Its contours echo those of the great mosque in Damascus (from which Abd ar-Rahman I barely managed to escape when his Umayyad dynasty fell), while its arches are conscious quotations of Roman aqueducts. So assiduous was its architect in copying Damascus that the Cordovan mihrab actually faces south, rather than east—toward Mecca—as it should.

The great mosque was later barbarically seized by a Christian monarch who turned it into a church. He did this by inserting an entire cathedral into the Muslim structure's center, in an aggressive erasure of history and statement of faith. He may also have had in mind the legend that Muslims had stolen the bells of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, melted them down, and used them in the mosque, which also housed the Prophet Muhammad's hand. Today, though the Muslim idea of prayer remains dominant, the building exudes a spirit of inclusive sanctity and magnanimity of purpose.


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