Andalusia: A Love Story

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February 23rd 2014
Published: February 23rd 2014
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The Mosque–Cathedral of CórdobaThe Mosque–Cathedral of CórdobaThe Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba

The Roman bridge of Córdoba across the Guadalquivir river.
The blinding Andalusian sun beats down on the parched arid land, as can be expected in the frying pan of Spain at the height of summer. The mercury passed 100F sometime just after breakfast and hasn’t paused since. Yet in here, walking the vast prayer hall of the Mezquita–catedral de Córdoba, amidst its forest of a thousand pillars of red and white horseshoe arches, we are cast in the cool and tranquil shadow-palmed oasis. The few tourists sharing the place with us, somewhere between the columns lost in the vastness, further accentuate the sense of calm. Yet the way it manages to cast its spell of reverence over you is testament to the power of its architecture.

Our kids have been holding up surprisingly well; four-year old Kiva is taking pictures and making movies like the rest of us tourists, with the nifty gadget Grandma bought him; whilst two-year old Mandalay tugs at Papa’s leg to be carried. We were earlier told that our children weren't allowed to sit down anywhere inside the complex, so I throw her up on my shoulders to maintain the peace, and continue on. Then, seemingly out of nowhere a figure emerges to admonish me

Alhambra, Granada
for this apparent transgression. The security guard gestures aggressively to me that Mandalay should immediately get down off my shoulders. I answer simply, with a confused expression, so as not to break the serenity.

“This is a Cathedral!” he says, by way of answer.

“I thought it was a Mosque?” I retort.

In April 2010 a group of Austrian tourists entered The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba. These tourists were predominantly Muslim. They stopped at the mihrab indicating the qibla, the direction of Mecca, and several of them began their prostrationsfor prayer. Security guards quickly swooped down to prevent this from happening. Two of the men refused to comply with these orders and when the security guards attempted to physically stop them, a scuffle broke out. In the fray two security guards were injured, police were called, and the two Muslim men arrested.

After the incident, Spain's Catholic clergy reiterated that they would not be allowing any other religions to practice inside the Cathedral. Church authorities also recalled that archeologists had shown that, prior to the construction of the mosque in the eighth century, a Christian temple had stood on the same spot.

In 711 Muslim forces invaded what is today Spain and Portugal, and in seven years conquered virtually the entire Iberian Peninsula. Christians greatly outnumbered the Muslims. But the new rulers weren’t there to convert the local population and were met with little opposition by offering generous surrender terms which presented an improvement on the harsh conditions imposed by the previous Visigoth rulers.

This area became known as Al-Andalus (Andalusia) The Land of The Vandals, after those who had previously occupied the region. In the west, we are taught a hazy notion of what followed for the next eight-hundred years. That Muslim marauders came from North Africa in the 8th Century and defeated a disparate bunch of divided barbarians. They remained in Spain until the land was re-conquered by the united forces of Christianity from the north. Meanwhile, at the exact same time, following on from the collapse of the Roman Empire, up in ‘Europe,’ the population was settling into several hundred years of intellectual darkness, known colloquially as the “Dark Ages”. However, with the re-conquest of Spain, there was a flourishing of European culture from the 15th Century onwards, which rose from the ashes. The story goes that the Europe of today is a combination of classical civilization with Christianity… a thousand year glitch in-between.

We entered Andalusia from the southwest, from Portugal. The first city we came to was Seville, and it was hot. Learning that the nearest campsite was located way out past the outskirts on the other side of the city didn’t seem like the most favourable option. But neither did navigating Old Town Seville’s little one-laned-one-way streets, without a city map. We found a place to park; I entered the midday furnace on foot, found a café, a couple of coffees, some take-out for the kids, flipped open the netbook, tapped into their WiFi, and booked something on Hotwire.

A hotel inside the Olympic Stadium, no less; made surreal by the facts that the Olympics in London had just entered their second week, there never were any Olympics in Seville, and the hotel was virtually empty. This was also a tidemark moment in our trip; for to avoid any repeats of similar last-minute whimsies we booked our hotels somewhat more scientifically, the day or two before, which meant our tent stayed in the boot for the remainder of our time in Spain.

After the trip in from Portugal that day I was more than happy to put my feet up with kids and watch the Olympics on TV, whilst Jennifer took the local bus into town for a late-afternoon/early evening sightseeing session, with promise to return with home some Andalusian take-out. She returned invigorated.

The next day we started our visit at the impressive Plaza de España, with its 19th century quasi-moorish style, which have seen it appear in a few Star Wars movies. An afternoon amble through the old town to marvelous Alcázar of Seville.Then the iconic Giralda, the former minaret that was built upon to change it into a bell tower when the mosque was converted the Cathedral of Seville.

During the drive east we decided to forego the pull of the beaches down south or a voyeuristic stopover in Gibraltar, as Seville had whet our appetite for Granada and a visit to the most renowned building of Spain’s Islamic legacy, the Alhambra.

We stayed in a hotel outside the centre of Granada up in the hills overlooking the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The advantages of this were that it was a degree or two cooler, greener and we had a pool. Descending down into the Valley in which the city resides, we entered Granada at the El Albayzín. However, once there, navigation becomes a bit of a nightmare as those little labyrinthine streets of Granada’s Moorish medieval past, a world heritage site in their own right, weren’t built for the cars of contemporary tourists. Top that with blocked-off streets only accessible for residents and that fact that we had no idea where we were actually going, saw us driving around in geometrically intricate circles. Then with dusk almost upon us we threw in the towel with the aid of a small gypsy cartel who pledged to look after our car for a few Euros.

Navigating the El Albayzin on foot was no less challenging, particularly as time was fast approaching sunset O’clock. But there is no doubt once you’ve arrived at the viewpoint as the narrow green valley opens up beneath and the magnificent Alhambra stares back at you in the golden light from across the valley. The Alhambra viewed from here doesn’t strike you as beautiful. From here it is imposing fortress, and an excellent example of the "architecture of the veil," whereby its beauty lies in the inner spaces not visible from outside. The burly fortified walls are built atop what is essentially a forested cliff-top, giving it this wonderful contrast of rose-hued brick over forested green, as Muslim poets described it - "a pearl set in emeralds."

But once the sun goes down the show isn’t over for El Albayzin. This is a great place to have a meal, out in the streets, in the warm evening air, late into the night, Spanish style. It was not unusual to see other families with small children out dining at 9-10 O’clock at night. It is always a pleasure traveling in places where children are not perceived as a species to be banished from public sight/site. Our bed and breakfast times consequently became later the deeper into Spain we travelled.

The next day, after a customarily late breakfast we left for a day at the Alhambra. One would think it being just a few minutes down the hill and across that valley our journey would be straightforward; after all, last night we could practically touch it. However, the steep valley separating us from it had
Kiva as touristKiva as touristKiva as tourist

Alhambra, Granada
no roads traversing it, so to get there we had to drive an extremely circuitous route involving navigation through parts of the old town, new town; out onto freeways and through road tunnels.

Down through the years I have visited some of the most beautiful mosques in the world, encapsulating many architectural styles; The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Palestine, Jama Masjid of Herat, Afghanistan, Imam Reza shrine, Mashad and Masjed-e Imam Mosque, Esfahan, Iran. The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey. The Ummayyad Mosque in Damascus. Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei. The Badshahi Mosque, Pakistan. The Registan, Samarqand, Uzbekistan… as well as myriad palaces and forts which have cultivated in me an appreciation for Islamic architecture, its symbolism and significance.

The Alhambra is like nothing else. After you’ve queued for your ticket (which, due to popularity you must book online in advance), you then wait again for your time-slot for admittance as each allocation of people is admitted in 30 minute segments, to control traffic. We chose to kick back for 10 minutes in the first rooms of the Palacio Nazares whilst everyone charged around us; meaning we could pretty much have the

Alhambra, Granada
place to ourselves - that is, until we were swallowed up by the next invading party.

This is not the conspicuous grandiosity we have grown used to seeing in contemporary times. The Alhambra is an essay on philosophy, it is human, and it is superb. It flaunts its cool contrast, its mirror-like pools reflecting the heavens; its ingenious use of water shows both its mastery and reverence. Today, we largely take water for granted. It comes out of our taps at home. But for many civilizations and many millions of peoples both present and past, it is the most exceptional resource there is. Water is life. And to build a palace such as this with its magnificent gardens was a demonstration of not only art and beauty, it was a demonstration of man's mastery of nature. A man made oasis surrounded by a starkly contrasting wild, forbidding, arid landscape.

In contemporary western culture we tend to think of white-sand beaches, clear blue sea and palm trees as paradise. These gardens were the ancient analogy of paradise. The word paradise itself is from the Persian meaning, "a walled-in compound or garden." The Garden of Eden would have looked much like this.

Next up for us was Córdoba. The capital of Alandalus, a thousand years ago it was adorned with paved lighted streets, sewage works, running water, bath houses, libraries and free schools. London by contrast at this time was a bunch of sodden mud huts by the Thames and wouldn’t see these kinds of advances for another seven hundred years.

Since western history largely brushes over the significance of this chapter in European history it is something of a lost, forgotten (tacitly ignored) civilization. But as Northern Europe suffered through the “Dark Ages”, it wasn’t dark at all in Al-Andalus… far from it. In fact if you take the belief that the history of science and philosophy is a steady accumulation of knowledge from the Persians and Greeks through to the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, to today -- with that thousand year glitch in between-- it wouldn’t take a 3rd grader to see that the Islamic Golden Age fits neatly into those ‘missing’ centuries, and far from the world holding its breath, or stagnating, for a thousand years, the march of progress continued in their hands.

Before Islam began its advance across much of the known world the Arabs, Greeks, Indians and Persians had never previously connected as a whole, except via trade. Yet after Islam conquered these lands, their respective pearls of wisdom were assimilated in a great dialectical font of knowledge... In the years which followed, this knowledge was translated, studied, implemented and improved upon in creating the greatest civilization the world had ever known, easily matching the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance to come. It attracted the brightest intellectual stars of the Middle East, and people came from all over Europe to learn Arabic, and draw from the wisdom and ideas in art, science and culture - astronomy, philosophy, medicine and agriculture. For hundreds of years this was the prestige culture of the ages.

Many argue this Golden Age of learning is directly attributable to the Muslims' religious tolerance of Christians and Jews which led to the flourishing of culture and ideas, living and working side-side in relative peace, in the spirit of La Convivencia, "the Coexistence". For the time period, Spain was tolerant for sure, and these peoples were treated far better than conquered people could expect elsewhere in this era, when Christian Crusaders marauded across Europe to the Holy Lands slaughtering everyone in their wake.

However, compared to today’s standards Christians and Jews were considered second-class citizens under law; forced to accept the superiority of the state and its religion, not allowed to carry weapons, marry Muslim women or own Muslim slaves. Society was split along religious and ethnic lines, with Arabs at the top, followed by Berbers and then recent converts to Islam, Christians and Jews. As the Islamic empire declined due to internal in-fighting, however, more territory was picked off by Christian forces from the north, and Muslims in Christian areas found themselves facing similar restrictions to those they had formerly imposed on others.

The next town visited, Toledo, the jewel of Al Andalus, is majestically situated above the Tagus River which defensively wraps around it. It was also the capital of the Spanish court until it moved to Madrid in the mid 1500's. But perhaps its most important contribution to world history was as the place where the accumulated knowledge from around the world was translated into Arabic and Castilian and then exported throughout the rest of Europe. It was also the first major city to fall to the Christian Reconquista in 1085. For present day visitors, ambling up and down the steep cobbled streets of the medieval old town and the view of Toledo from across the Tagus River, El Greco style, is something else.

We planned to skip Madrid, but ended up lost in its southern suburbs when we missed our junction. Our destination was Segovia, a town I had seen featured on a travel show some years earlier and wondered how it could be I knew so little about this magical place. I could write an entire blog about the place alone, but in the interests of this story I'll rein it in.

In 1492, the year Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas, the Muslims had lost all power in Spain when they surrendered their last stronghold in Granada. Under the terms of the surrender its inhabitants were allowed to continue their customs and faith unmolested. Yet in that same year, at the Alcazar in Segovia, Ferdinand and Isabella signed the Jewish expulsion order from Spain. Then In 1502, in an about turn, the Muslims were also made to choose between conversion and expulsion.

It is estimated that as many as half the Jews residing in Spain at the time decided to be baptized and convert to Christianity to avoid expulsion. However, most of these conversos would subsequently be hunted down and executed in the Inquisitions that followed. Officially all Muslims remaining in Spain had been forcibly converted to Christianity in 1502; however these Moriscos were also suspected of secretly practicing their former religions and many were burned at the stake.

Many of the mosques and synagogues were destroyed, built upon, or simply converted into Catholic places of worship. In some instances, as with the Giralda in Seville, these new structures have become iconic in their own right, and have gone onto influence architecture the world over to this day. At Granada - the last stand of Islam in Spain - the Alhambra was modified, built upon and defended by its new Christian conquerors. The Grand Mosque of Cordoba had a cathedral nave built inside it. However, this modification sits less credibly inside the former structure, with Charles V (who commissioned its construction) famously commenting, "they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city." An architectural culture clash if ever there was one. But this wasn't about creating harmony.

These modifications provide an excellent illustration of culture itself in play; and how the conquering culture adopts and modifies elements even from that culture it seeks to destroy. Varying degrees of assimilation are inevitable. Culture never dies. And, today, 500 years after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, one doesn’t have to do much digging to find their influence living on in contemporary Spanish culture.

For Muslims, visiting Seville, Cordoba and Granada, these places engender both pride and wistful longing. Mohammed Iqbal, an Islamic poet, visited Cordoba in 1931, and was one of the first Muslims allowed to pray in the mosque in years. So moved was he by the beauty of the place that he immortalized the mosque in a famous poem under the title of Masjid-e-Qartaba:

"O Mosque of Cordoba!
For thy existence and thy glory
Thou art indebted to the tender passion that is immortal.
In this way, thou, too, are eternal."

"Philosophy, art and poetry, or any other form of literary or artistic activity is shallow and insincere if it is not fed with the blood of the heart. It is no more than empty structure of word and sound, paint and oil, or brick and stone, possessing neither life nor beauty nor freshness. Works of art, of whatever excellence they may be, cannot endure without the intensity of inner passion, depth of love profundity of eagerness. When a drop of love's warm blood falls upon a piece of marble, it turns it into a beating heart ...

- And here I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing:

Life is fleeting, evanescent, a surge in the river of time, and death the inescapable fate of everyone. Yet this impermanence lives on through love. Love is the essence of life. You owe your being to love, the word of God, the ecstasy that brings luster to earthly forms. Love is the light of life.

To Love, the Mosque of Cordoba owes its existence, the history of which shines through the architecture. Love manifest in bricks, mortar and marble.

Ownership of these bricks and mortar, or perhaps more importantly the land on which it stands is not up for debate. But whether Muslims should be able to pray there, it is not for me to say. As an objective observer - a tourist - this building speaks to me regardless of who prays in it.

Should it be divided like the tomb of Abraham in Al Kahlil Hebron, where worshippers are separated by bullet proof glass because twenty years ago almost to the day an American born Jewish settler walked into Ibrahimi Mosque with an assault rifle and massacred 29 Muslim worshippers as they knelt to pray? Should Jews be able to pray at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque? Should The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba be secularized like the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul? Or are these tinder box issues better left alone?

In our culture we are apt to equate love with possession. But like a flower, if plucked, love will wither and die. If the Catholic inheritors of this building love it so much, would they give up their sole possession to share this beautiful co-creation with others? Evidence suggests not.

"The shared use of the cathedral by Catholics and Muslims would not contribute to the peaceful coexistence of the two beliefs," a statement from the bishop's office said. Perhaps they are right, at least in the world we live in today. But if the magnificent history of this one building encapsulates anything it is the essence of impermanence.

“Nothing endures but change.” ― Heraclitus.

Additional photos below
Photos: 86, Displayed: 35


23rd February 2014
The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba

A slice of paradise!
Fab photos and excellent historical and philosophical perspectives on one of my ab fab fave parts of the world! Oh, the brilliant blending of cultures in that Moorish Golden Age--how lovely and inspiring to visit its remnants. We can hope for a time when Muslims and Christians can worship together and tuckered-out children sit down in sacred spaces. Love in Andalusia, indeed!
24th February 2014
The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba

Love in Andalusia, indeed!
Since my visit I’ve been lost in naïve musings about these buildings and what they mean to people today and through the ages. More specifically ‘who loves them most’? Love lost is a powerful emotion, but so is love lost and found. Unrequited love is a dangerous state of mind, and then again Hell has no fury like a lover scorned, and other clichés. Now I’m even more confused as you seem to be insinuating you love this part of the world more than me.
24th February 2014

MarvelIing the marble
History of Spanish civilisation...preserved in its opulent finery...captured in your words and lens...marvellous...simply marvellous.
24th February 2014

MarvelIing the marble
When a drop of love's warm blood falls upon a piece of marble, it turns it into a beating heart ...Marvelous indeed!
25th February 2014

Stunning architecture
Mandalay is growing up before our eyes. Your kids are seeing some amazing sites. It will be interesting to see the impact it has on them. Thanks for your perspective and meanderings around a lovely country rich in history and traditions.
26th February 2014

These experiences will feed into the individuals Kiva and Mandalay become, for sure. But I guess we’ll never truly be able to gauge the specific impact as we’ll have no test subjects for comparison!
25th February 2014

Sights not sites. Maybe they are seeing some great sites also.
28th February 2014
The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba

biutifull church

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