Mezquita de Córdoba, from the website Periodista Digital, 2015
Mezquita de Córdoba, from the website Periodista Digital, 2015

From palaces to parades: How Spain treats its Islamic past

In the gardens of the Royal Alcázar of Seville stands a simple, unadorned column with a short, poignant inscription written in Spanish: ‘The city of Seville to its poet-king Almutamid ibn Abbad, on the 9th century of his sad exile, 7 September 1091, Rachab 384’. Centuries after the city was re-taken by the Christians during the Reconquista, the Alcázar has become a popular tourist attraction officially owned by the city Seville itself. Several districts were remodelled over the centuries, but the bulk of the Moorish-built premises have not only remained unchanged, they have also been renovated and proudly marketed as one of Seville’s many wonders. Some rightly consider the Alcázar along with other monuments built by Muslims such as the Tower of Gold and La Giralda as the pride of Seville.

Alcázar of Seville from the webpage Real Alcázar
Alcázar of Seville from the webpage Real Alcázar

What is interesting is to look at Spain in the context of pressing political events, namely, the US President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban on seven Middle-Eastern countries, the rise of France’s right-wing Front National party, and the looming threat of international Jihadist Terrorism.

For over seven and half centuries, Spain had been defined by an armed struggle that was both territorial and ideological in nature and the memory of this conflict continued to shape it centuries after it ended. Over time, Spain has become a country that diligently preserves and restores the centuries-old Islamic architecture and markets it with pride as a tourist landmark. And palace gardens of the land once known as al-Andalus now hide memorials of its powerful Muslim rulers. This means that many aspects of Spain’s historical memory have intricate ties to both its Christian and Muslim past.

Hostility and heritage

Territory of Al-Andalus at its greatest territorial span, Aprende Lengua de Signos, 2013
Territory of Al-Andalus at its greatest territorial span, Aprende Lengua de Signos, 2013

For centuries, the northern kingdoms of Christian Spain were inextricably bound to the conflict with their southern, Muslim-dominated lands, called al-Andalus. The Christians saw this as a struggle to reclaim a land lost to Islamic invaders – a struggle commonly called the Reconquista. For centuries after it was won, the country continued to identify itself by this struggle, and its effects can still be seen today: not just in palaces, paintings and statues, but in smaller details of everyday life too.

Legendary figures from the period of the Reconquista are remembered for how they fought against their Muslim opponents: Don Pelayo, who forged the shattered remnants of the Spanish Visigoths into the Kingdom of Asturias and who began the long war of resistance against the Emirs of Cordoba, or Jaime I ‘the Great’ of Aragon who conquered the island of Majorca and turned his kingdom into a regional power. Or El Cid, the one who, a legend tells, resisted in the city of Valencia against the fanatical Almoravids and whose corpse supposedly frightened away scores of fresh enemy troops – such was the awe and terror he inspired in them.

Certainly, traditional views of Spanish history have tended to divide the struggle between the Christian and Islamic kingdoms as a clear case of ‘Us’ against ‘Them’. For a very long time, the defeated Visigoth kingdom was seen as the ‘True’ kingdom of Spain, and the kingdoms that came after were styled as heirs to the lands once belonging to these legitimate rulers. Conversely, the Muslim kingdoms were seen as the enemy, the invaders, and the phrase “Sufrimos la invasión…” (“We suffered the invasion…”) has been used when talking about the Umayyad conquest of Spain in the early 8th century CE. The apostle Santiago (Saint James), the patron saint of Spain, was given the sobriquet Matamoros or ‘Moor-killer’, a sobriquet which became a Spanish surname still in use today. The word Moro – literally ‘Moor’, the historical term for what was the primarily North African-descended Muslim population of Spain – is still used as a racial slur for people of North African or Middle Eastern origin. The Islamic Shahada “There is no God but God and Muhammad is His prophet” is commonly translated as “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s prophet”: a translation some scholars argues is a subtle way of making the rest of society view Muslim communities and cultures as the ‘Other’.

Yet even during the Franco dictatorship, Spain has not only invested more resources into preserving the relics elements of its Islamic past, but it has also renovated and restored them. Seville is one such example; along with the Alcázar, the city has also marketed the Tower of Gold and the tower of La Giralda – the latter once a minaret and now the bell-tower of what is currently the Cathedral of Seville – as part of the city’s landmarks and tourist attractions. Both were built by the Berber Almohad dynasty of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE, and La Giralda in particular is, along with the Alcázar, a lucrative tourist attraction.

Monumento a Averroes, Córdoba, Medicina fuera de la medicina, 2014
Monumento a Averroes, Córdoba, Medicina fuera de la medicina, 2014

Certainly, one could make the case that Spain’s interest in its Islamic past is purely economic: a pragmatic move to exploit a source of revenue to its fullest. And still, one finds details that do not appear essential and yet they were included anyway: memorials, made with the apparent intention of honouring the important figures of what was once al-Andalus. If one visits La Giralda there is a striking detail that catches the eye: two ceramic plaques on the wall of its ground floor. One is written in Castillian Spanish and explains the tower’s origins and history. It provides details on the Almohad Caliph who ordered its construction as well as speaks about changes made to the tower over its history. The plaque ends with the message ‘This inscription was made in the year 1984, as an exaltation of the eighth centenary commemoration of the construction of this great and marvelous minaret’. The plaque next to it repeats the same message, but is written entirely in Arabic.

These memorials do not stop with plaques and columns: Abd al-Rahman I, the first independent Emir of Córdoba, has a statue in Almuñécar in the province of Granada. The philosopher and medical pioneer Ibn Rushd has a statue situated close to the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba – itself another example of Spain’s preservation and renovation of the remnants of al-Andalus. Currently, Ibn Rushd is more commonly known by the name Averroes, is considered a key figure of Spanish history whose name has been given to two separate medical centres in Madrid alone.

Statue of Al-Mansur at Calatañazo, Wikipedia
Statue of Al-Mansur at Calatañazo, Wikipedia

Al-Mansur, the General and de facto military dictator during the Caliphate of Cordoba, conducted over fifty successful military campaigns against the Christian kingdoms of the north over twenty-five years, most famously razing the city of Santiago de Compostela – one of Spain’s most famous cities – to the ground in 997. Supposedly he forced the survivors to drag the bells of their destroyed church all the way back to Cordoba. One would not expect that such a figure, responsible for such destruction, would have a single statue dedicated to him. He has two: one in the city of Calatañazor, site of his likely-fictitious defeat at the hands of a coalition of Christian kings, and another in the city of Algeciras, where he was born. Both were built recently.

This is not a new phenomenon, but one with a certain historical precedence: The Song of El Cid, one of the oldest works of Spanish literature (dating from at least the 13th century), has the titular legendary hero refer to his Moorish ally Abengalbón as his ‘natural friend’, and this character is consistently described and depicted as noble and good throughout the whole tale. The last Muslim ruler of Granada and al-Andalus, Muhammad XII (colloquially known in Spain as Boabdil) was depicted in two nineteenth-century oil paintings by the Spanish painter Pradilla. In the first, he is seen surrendering the keys of the city to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and in the second, he is portrayed as looking back wistfully at the city he once ruled while he departs to permanent exile. An entire Spanish architectural style (called Mudejar) was created as a result of imitating the style of the Moorish palaces of Granada, Seville, and Medina Azahara. Even the official Spanish term for the shade of green used in the current flag of Andalucía is ‘Umayyad Green’ after the Umayyad dynasty which ruled in Cordoba from the 8th to the 11th centuries.

There comes a point when one feels that such actions seem to go beyond exploiting mere economic interests, but how far beyond is difficult to say.

Festivals and films

Spanish popular culture has seen its own variety of looking at its Muslim past. The most visually-striking one are the Moros y Cristianos festivals, in which local towns and cities put on lavish costumed parades where people dress in extravagant style of Christian or Moorish clothing. With much ceremony and theatricality, they symbolically perform the ‘capture’ and ‘retaking’ of the city itself through mock battles. This tradition is very much beloved throughout whole Southern Spain.

Moros y Cristianos parade, Valencia, Wikipedia, 2005
Moros y Cristianos parade, Valencia, Wikipedia, 2005

In cinema, one of the most interesting examples was the 2003 animated film titled El Cid: La Leyenda (El Cid: The Legend), which follows exploits and adventures of the legendary Spanish hero. Although aimed primarily at younger audience, the film attempted to create a complex picture of the time and its people: There are heroes and villains among both the Christians and the Muslims, with the villains at the court of Castille being power-hungry and treacherous nobles, while Yusuf, the Almoravid king, is a brutal invader who terrorises the Moorish people under his rule. During his travels El Cid is helped by a number of allies, among them Al-Mutamin, the Moorish prince of Zaragoza. Not only is he, and his followers, depicted as loyal, noble and brave, but it is they who make up the bulk of El Cid’s army, crying out “Allah is great!” before charging into the film’s final battle to aid him.

It is interesting to note that these same Moorish allies, hailing from the city of Zaragoza, speak neutral Castillian-Spanish accents while Yusuf, the film’s main antagonist and the only individual explicitly stated to be from North Africa, has a ‘stereotypical Arab accent’. Such an apparently simple choice can be read in many ways, possibly even as an attempt to illustrate common ground between the Andalusian Moors and the Castillian Christians.

“Refugees welcome”

While some European nations have seen a rise in nationalist sentiment and xenophobia, Spain (along with Portugal) has remained relatively unaffected, with newer right-wing parties so far unable to enjoy the success and popularity of the new left-wing progressive party Podemos. This has led to what some have called a more ‘open’ attitude toward the Refugee Crisis affecting Europe. Since September 2015, a great banner has been hanging from the Madrid City Hall reading ‘Refugees Welcome’. Last Saturday 18thFebruary saw thousands of people marching in Barcelona demanding (“Queremos acoger” – “We want to take in [refugees].”) that the government stays true to its word and takes in the refugees it promised it would. So far it has taken a number far below its pledge from 2015.

Could it be that Spain’s open acceptance of its Muslim past has contributed to this more open attitude? Perhaps stating such a conclusion may be reading too much into things. No nation is untouched by xenophobia, and Spain is certainly no exception. The Reconquista is popularly seen as a matter of ‘Us’ against ‘Them’ and Spanish popular culture still tends to stereotype Muslim-majority countries, even if this is hardly something unique to Spain. And yet, Spain has diligently preserved this part of its historical heritage and even paid homage to a number of Muslim rulers, generals and philosophers. One therefore cannot avoid feeling there is something deeper at play and this adds a fascinating layer to Spain and the manner in which it its history.

Studied journalism for four years at the University of Stirling, in Scotland before completing a one-year Master’s degree in Edinburgh. Before then, my father’s career in the oil industry meant that my family and I lived in a number of different countries on four-year postings, including Nigeria, Holland, Oman, and Malaysia, before finally moving back to Spain.

After completing my university studies in 2011, I moved back to Spain and began my current ob of working as an English teacher in Madrid.

I write articles for the European Strategist in my free time and continue to be passionate about film, art and history.

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