In Search of a Lost Spain
In the southern part of the country, churches and streets hold the remnants of eight centuries of Islamic rule.
The ceiling of the Hall of Ambassadors in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain. Built by Peter I of Castile (1334-69), the structure is an example of the Mudéjar style of architecture, in which Islamic ornamentation and building techniques were overlaid with Christian meaning.Credit…Richard Mosse
Photographs by Richard Mosse
- Nov. 3, 2022
ON A MORNING of haunting heat in Seville, I sought out the tomb of Ferdinand III. There, in the Gothic cool, older Spaniards came and went, dropping to one knee and crossing themselves before the sepulcher of the Castilian monarch. There were men in staid tucked-in shirts, gray checked with yellow, and women with short-cropped hair and knee-length dresses, slim belts around their waists. They sat in pews under a coffered ceiling, dourly communing with El Santo, the patron saint of what would come to be called La Reconquista — the man under whom five and a half centuries of Muslim rule had in 1248 come to an end in this town: Seville, or Ishbiliya, as it was known then.
On a banner above the altar, silver letters against a crimson ground read, “Per Me Reges Regnant” (“By Me, Kings Reign”). The Virgin of Kings, dressed in orchid pink, gazed down at this scene of historical piety. Black-haired putti, prying and vaguely deviant, swarmed around her. The organ played. Latin chants filled the ribbed recesses of the largest Gothic church in Christendom, which retained as its belfry the fabled minaret (La Giralda, or “weather vane”) of the 12th-century mosque on whose bones it had been built.
It was not merely to escape the murderous heat of that June day — we were in the midst of an ola de calor in Andalusia, with temperatures reaching 115 degrees Fahrenheit — that I entered the tomb of Ferdinand III; it was because I wanted to begin my journey through the ghost lands of Muslim Spain by seeing with my own eyes an inscription I had heard about. I looked for it on the sarcophagus of the sainted king, which was partially concealed by the gold of an altar rail. Standing up among the worshipers, I caught a glimpse of what was no less wondrous now in real life than it had been in my reading. There were four plaques in the four languages of medieval Spain — Hebrew, Arabic, Latin and Castilian — the last of these commemorating the victory of “the great king Don Ferdinand, Lord of Castile, Toledo, León, Galicia, Seville, Cordoba, Murcia and Jaén” over a land that was soon to become toda España to the conquering Christians, Sefarad to the Jews and Al-Andalus to the defeated Muslims.
The plaques marked a Christian victory, but it was not (yet) one that came at the detriment of a plural Spain. The conquering king’s son — Alfonso X, El Sabio, or “the Wise” — had grown up steeped in the Arabic culture of Al-Andalus. It was only natural that he should feel at home in its different liturgical languages. The plaques used the Hebrew calendar (the 22nd day of Sivan 5012), the Islamic Hijri (the 20th day of First Rabia 550) and the Gregorian (May 31, 1252, although history marks his death as the day before) interchangeably, as well as Quranic phrases, such as radi Allahu anhu, “may God be pleased with him,” to celebrate Ferdinand. But if there was something a little heartbreaking about this familiarity, this ease, this effortless switching between religious cultures as if between selves, it was because this Spain of three natures was on the eve of destruction. “Remarkable — and poignant,” write the authors of “The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture” (2008), Jerrilynn D. Dodds, María Rosa Menocal and Abigail Krasner Balbale, “given that later historical perspective from which we now read them, knowing that Jews and Muslims would be expelled from Spain and from the memory of what had ever constituted the Castilian community — is the use of the place names Sefarad and Andalus to mean Spain.” But how does a place so steeped in diversity come unstuck? What makes a society succumb to that primal cry for a limpieza de sangre, a “purity of blood”?
Stepping out into the garish day, I stood for a moment at the base of La Giralda — it rose, a broad pitiless mass, some 350 feet into the blue, its summit covered in an enthralling, ever-repeating expanse of sebka, a pattern of interlacing multifoil arches (shabka means “net” or “ring” in Arabic) in which the play of light and shadow is reduced to a game of inches — considering the history of Islam in Spain.
There are, I want to say, three societies in the world — Spain, the Balkans and India — that have known this particular kind of history, namely centuries of Muslim rule among large swaths of an unconverted population. Each of these places has experienced periodic cycles of religious violence and ethnic cleansing, whether it was the Balkans in the 1990s or the bitter partition of India in 1947 that left more than a million dead and caused the largest peacetime migration in the history of humanity. What makes Spain unique is that here the aims of ethnic cleansing were fully realized. There are still Muslims in the Balkans. There are, despite partition, which saw the creation of a predominantly Muslim Pakistan, still 200 million Muslims in India. Spain alone achieved pure erasure. Yet everywhere in this part of Spain, in tangible and intangible ways, we were surrounded by the remains of the Moorish past. They were there in the honey-drenched and cinnamon-dusted pastries (pestiños) that the Andalusians ate during Holy Week; there in the Spanish use of fulano to mean “so-and-so” (from fulan), a version of which we had in India, too; they were there in grand monuments, such as La Giralda or the Mezquita of Cordoba, and the Alhambra in Granada. But they were also there in quiet, unspoken ways, such as in the Alcazar (from al-qasr, or “castle”) of Carmona (Qarmuna), 20 miles away from Seville. The old Moorish castle sits in the midst of the classic Spanish white town at the crest of a hill of burned yellow grass, a brooding presence with its horseshoe-arch entrance and its shattered crenelations. “Shards” is the word historians have used to describe these vestiges, and they exist everywhere — consider how almost one-third of English’s vocabulary can be traced to the Norman Conquest of 1066 — but what makes them radioactive in Spain is that the heirs to that past were systematically expelled. The silence one feels then, standing in the patio of the church of El Salvador in Seville, where the arches of the old mosque, with their characteristic capitals of Roman spolia, are still visible amid mashed oranges lying at the feet of trees laden with fruit, is not natural. It is an enforced silence.
SEVILLE IS A city of shadows,” writes V.S. Pritchett in “The Spanish Temper” (1954), “which tunnel under a dense foliage that is dead still, and pleasure seems to walk with one like a person, when one is alone. There is never too much light.” On that first day, walking through narrow streets decked with shadow curtains — cortinas de sombra — clinging to an ever-shrinking margin of shade, I was simply dazed by the Saharan heat. I’d spent many summers in the hills above Seville, but I had never known it to be so hot so early in June. In bars, into whose awnings sprinklers had been fitted that released timed bursts of cooling mist, I could make out through their permanent air of afternoon wainscotings of azulejo — literally “little stones” in Arabic, glazed tiles cut in geometric patterns.
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I was in a European town of white buildings picked out in browns, ocher and burnt umber, trying to imagine its Muslim past, aware that to even think of these categories as mutually exclusive was itself a distortion of history. Spain, like India (where I grew up), had been part of that original Arab expansion when, within a century of the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, the armies of a new conquering faith reached as far west into Christian Europe as Poitiers in France, where they were defeated by Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, and as far east as Hindu Sindh and Multan, in what is today Pakistan. “A hymn to the virtues of exile” is how Menocal describes the history of Al-Andalus in her 2002 book, “The Ornament of the World.” It opens with the tale of an exiled Omayyad prince, Abd al-Rahman I, escaping a massacre in Syria, from which he fled to North Africa as his family’s sole surviving heir, and founding the Emirate of Cordoba in 756. The Omayyads, who traced their origin to the Mecca of the Prophet Muhammad, were Islam’s first dynasty. They had conquered great stretches of the classical world, from Sassanid Persia to Coptic Egypt and the Byzantine Levant. In 711, within a year of the conquest of the western reaches of India, Tariq ibn Ziyad had led a Berber, Syrian and Yemeni army across the Strait of Gibraltar (also known as Jabal Tariq, Tariq’s Mountain), defeating the Visigothic king Roderic. The Visigoths (western Goths) were one of many Germanic tribes who had taken up the mantle of Rome, ruling Spain since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
Abd al-Rahman I, also known as al-Dakhil, or the Entrant, gave the Omayyads a second lease on life in Spain, even as their power was being smashed throughout the rest of the Islamic world. A new dynasty was on the rise. The Abbasids (of Harun al-Rashid and “Arabian Nights” fame) would go on to replace the Omayyads as caliphs — from khalifa in Arabic, “successor” (to Muhammad) — turning Baghdad into the capital of the now-vast Islamic empire. But what makes the history of Islam in Spain read, as W. Somerset Maugham writes in “The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia” (1905), “far more like romance than like sober fact,” is that it opens with the unlikely establishment of Abd al-Rahman’s emirate, which at its apogee in the 10th century would comprise the entirety of Spain, save for the Atlantic north. Al-Andalus is the term we give to all of Muslim Spain, its borders expanding and shrinking over the course of eight centuries, political configurations changing, emirates rising and falling. (Andalusia, the province, derives its name from the same word, for it was here in the south that the Islamic presence lasted longest.) The demise of Al-Andalus came in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus sailed to America, with Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Spain, handing over the keys of Granada to the Catholic monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. “Don’t cry like a woman for what you could not defend like a man,” Boabdil’s ball breaker of a mother is said to have told him (no doubt apocryphally), as he cast a teary glance back at the city he would never see again, emitting what my guide at the Alhambra described as el suspiro del moro: “the sigh of the Moor.”
Spain is a land of churches upon mosques upon churches. This was not new in itself. I had spent months in Damascus, where the Omayyad mosque had been built on the remains of an old Byzantine church that in turn sat on the Temple of Jupiter. In India, I had seen mosques reuse the columns of old temples that filled the imprints of Buddhist viharas. There is nothing more natural (not to mention practical), when conquest is swift and building materials scarce, than to repurpose the sacred to fit the demands of a new time. What was unnerving was the silence of the people who might have been heirs to these ruins. As evening fell and the dome of heat lifted, I found myself at an opening at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, an old monastery turned into a ceramics factory that had been converted into a museum. Talking to the vivacious Margot Molina, a former journalist at El País, I expressed my interest in the role of Al-Andalus in the Muslim imagination. Her reply reinstated the silence that had been stalking me all day. “But you cannot ask them,” she said, “because they’re not here.”
THE NEXT MORNING, before the heat robbed the day of every trace of freshness, I went to the Alcazar of Seville, built by Peter I (Peter the Cruel) of Castile (1334-69). The great-great-grandson of El Sabio had created what is among the finest examples of an art particular to Spain. Mudéjar — drawn from the Arabic mudajjan, “permitted to remain” — refers in the first instance to Muslim populations who chose to stay in cities under Christian rule after La Reconquista. It refers, as well, to an architectural style, one of the glories of this syncretic culture, in which Christian rulers, like Peter I, commissioned Muslim craftsmen to imbue the building techniques and ornamentation of Al-Andalus with Christian meaning.
The spirit of those early days of La Reconquista had been assimilative rather than destructive. Alfonso X had styled himself King of the Three Religions, and ran a massive translation enterprise out of his capital, Toledo (Tulaytula), transmitting classical Arabic texts on botany, philosophy, law and medicine across a Europe awakening to renaissance. Well versed in the literary culture of Arabic himself, he would have regarded men such as the Aristotelian theorist Ibn Rushd (born in Cordoba and known to Christendom as Averroes), or the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (another Cordovan) and even the great historian Ibn Khaldun, who wrote of civilizational decay, and whose family were from Seville, not as foreigners but merely his countrymen. Translation, absorption, reconsecration, getting old stones to say new things — this had been the special genius of medieval Spain, and it was in this tradition that Peter I, who had been in an alliance with the sultan of Granada, built his Alcazar.
Wandering among rooms dripping with muqarna (“stalactite vaulting”) and walls embroidered with arabesques (ataurique, from al-tawriq), I found myself in the Courtyard of the Maidens. There, against a famous scene of a rectangular pool of greenish water surrounded by multilobed arches, Ahmed, an Egyptian living in Spain, was taking a picture of his mother, who was visiting from Cairo. Birds flew upward into the tent of blue behind the pink of her head scarf. Ahmed was in a structure built by Christians who were celebrating the art of an only recently vanquished Islam. “How did it feel?” I could not help but ask. “The most beautiful,” Ahmed said, giving me a smile of tobacco-stained teeth, “the most authentic. We call it a lost paradise.” Then, perhaps aware of the oblique angle at which he stood in relation to this work of art, he added, “It’s like seeing your own culture from another perspective. It’s Islamic, but it’s Spanish.” The walls were decorated with Arabic inscriptions celebrating Peter I, employing the Granadan creed “There is no Conqueror, save Allah.” Ahmed had been trying to read them, but without success. “It’s hard,” he said. “I don’t think it was made by Arabs.”
It was the Spanish philologist Américo Castro who in 1948 first used the term convivencia to describe the coexistence of Muslims, Jews and Christians in medieval Spain — one that inspired many volumes of history that sought to graft the ideals of the secular present onto a medieval past but was met with fierce polemical rejoinders, such as Darío Fernández-Morera’s “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” (2016). It is probably best, given how treacherous these waters can be, to treat the “ethnoreligious diversity of Al-Andalus” — as Brian A. Catlos does in his 2018 book, “Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain” — less as an “ideal” than as a “fact.” It is a fact that Jews, Muslims and Christians, including Mozarabs (from mustarib, meaning “Arabized”), lived side by side here for the better part of a thousand years. They intermarried. They participated in a shared intellectual enterprise. They assimilated (and expanded) the art of the Other. They collaborated against their coreligionists when it suited their interests. They each used religion instrumentally, sometimes to be generous, sometimes to be cruel. For some 900 years, Spain was a plural society. And then, around the early 1600s, it was not. What changed?
It was the question that was uppermost in my mind when I met Miguel Ángel Tabales, 58, an archaeologist at the University of Seville conducting excavations in and around the Alcazar. He was waiting for me near the exit dressed in a loose blue shirt and sandals.
“You’re in the heart of the taifa period here,” he said as he greeted me, his enthusiasm pushing through his careful, halting English. Taifa means “party” or “faction” in Arabic. The Emirate of Cordoba, after a period of fitna, or “calamity,” in the early 11th century, fell apart, giving way to a glorious age of city-states, or taifas, of which Seville had by far been the greatest.
Tabales now likened the poet-emir al-Mu‘tamid (1069-91) to Rome’s Caesar. During his reign, the river Guadalquivir (from al-wadi al-kabir, “the great river”) had a different position than it does today, making it more conducive to trade. The city grew exponentially, from some 185 acres to 740. “We see it in our investigations,” Tabales said. “Each house is the same Islamic house.” Yet al-Mu‘tamid, in an era of political instability but creative efflorescence, made a catastrophic mistake. After the fall of Toledo to the Christians in 1085, he lost his nerve and invited the Almoravids, a Berber dynasty who practiced an austere form of Islam, to cross the strait from North Africa and help him drive back the Christian advance. They were happy to oblige but, after witnessing the chaos of Al-Andalus, they returned a few years later, not as allies but as conquerors. Al-Mu‘tamid was deposed and became another entry in Al-Andalus’s catalog of exiles. “Oh, that God might choose that I should die in Seville … !” he would write longingly from North Africa.
On the way to Tabales’s office, I asked about the multilingual inscription on the tomb of Ferdinand III. “This is very common after the Reconquest,” he said. “It gets even stronger in the 14th century. When the danger of war was out, the Castilian kings had no problem with minorities. Once they had won, they were more accepting of Muslim influence in the arts” — though not so much, he added pointedly, in politics and religion.
If the early spirit of the Reconquest had been assimilative, by the 15th century attitudes began to harden. The Catholic monarchs, Tabales said, referring to Isabella and Ferdinand, “established a political skeleton in which religion was given the first position.” One monarchy, one religion became the order of the day, and it was not merely Jews and Muslims who were forced underground. Arabized Christians had to forsake their Mozarab rite in favor of Roman Catholicism. “It was never easy for the minorities,” Tabales said, suggesting that they were ever at the mercy of political calculations. “It’s a myth, the convivencia.”
As he spoke, I was transfixed by a marble stone, draped in a red cloth, next to the table where we sat. As we were leaving, I asked him about it. He looked at me in astonishment. We were in the stairwell. “But it’s the whole history of Seville,” he said, insisting we go back upstairs.
The stone, he explained, pointing to a second-century inscription in Latin, had been given by the oil producers of Seville to the goddess Minerva. Under the Visigoths, whom Tabales referred to as “the Germans,” it became part of the superstructure of a column in a fifth-century cathedral. With the arrival of the Muslims, it was inverted and made part of a doorway. “The city,” Tabales said when we were in the street again, standing under the shred of a Muslim arch, “is full of spolia.” But Tabales was not romantic about this use and reuse of old stones. To him, it represented a language of power, of appropriation and reconfiguration. Struggling to recall the Arabic name for it, he said spolia were used to indicate “the upper position of Muslims over Christians.”
“IF I COULD go back to any year,” said Reyes Abad, 44, a researcher in architecture and cultural identity at the University of Seville, “I would go back to 1248,” the year the Christians marched into Seville.
She and I were walking home from what was once known as the Gypsy quarter of Triana (Atrayna) on the right bank of the Guadalquivir. Abad, who wore a long dress, had dark Andalusian features and almond-shaped eyes. Earlier, she had made a point of saying that her name was likely Moorish. “Can you imagine,” she said, “those Christians coming from the north, which was cold and damp, to what was by then a Muslim city?”
Abad had told me about her doctoral thesis, which addressed the ways in which the architecture of La Reconquista had paralyzed Seville’s relationship to modernity. “Seville was the model,” she said, “the blueprint for how other cities would look” following the Reconquest. Here, as in other parts of Andalusia, an original period of subsuming and reconfiguring Islamic buildings and using Muslim craftsmen to produce Christian art — like that in the Alcazar — gave way to a triumphalist Renaissance architecture. Abad saw, in its unnatural scale and the rupture it represented, something almost sinister, as if the Reconquistadores were making up in size for the cities they had depopulated. That controlling relationship to buildings, she felt, brought forth a “pedagogical architecture,” so that even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Seville had been unable to unclench its fist, unable to embrace movements such as Art Nouveau that were sweeping through other parts of Spain. “We have been a symbolic city for so many years,” Abad lamented as we crossed the Guadalquivir.
As we entered Triana — the sun was setting — Abad pointed to an alley leading down to the river: Callejon de la Inquisición. “You can imagine what happened there,” she said. “They killed them and threw them into the river.”
On Castilla Street, the Hermandad del Rocío de Triana — one of many brotherhoods associated with the Andalusian pilgrimage of El Rocío — had gathered. There were ancient ladies in floral dresses, with tiny battery-operated fans, and middle-aged men and women, some members of a famous band called Siempre Así. Handsome Andalusian boys threaded a course between them, wearing loafers, collared shirts and embroidered leather belts. Each, old and young alike, wore a medallion with the coat of arms of the brotherhood on a green ribbon around their necks. An icebox full of wine and beer lay on the ground. When Abad introduced me to our host for what felt like an open house, telling him that I was writing about the legacy of Al-Andalus, he grinned and said, “I’m polygamous.”
Every now and then a trickle of pilgrims — young girls in beautiful flamenco dresses with shawls around their shoulders, young men in gray hats — would arrive, but the attendees of the nearly 400-year-old pilgrimage, which had been canceled these past two years because of the pandemic, were in for another disappointment. The heat was such that the pilgrims’ wagons had been diverted. The main chariot carrying the Virgin would still pass through, but the drama of pilgrims following in its wake would not now occur. The others were more disappointed than I was. I found it incredibly moving to see the arrival of that silver chariot all lit up with white lights. The singing, the cries of “viva,” the tolling of bells. Then it was over, and the street, so full of commotion and anticipation moments before, emptied within minutes.
“We didn’t destroy what we inherited,” Abad had said to me. “We changed the symbolism, the language.” In fact, as had so often been true in Spain, both things occurred. Just as the Muslims had absorbed and reconsecrated the keyhole arch of the Visigoths and destroyed the Basilica of San Vicente in order to build their Mezquita, so, too, did the conquering Christians absorb what had gone before while proclaiming their victory through acts of destruction.
Abad wanted me to meet Fátima Roldán-Castro, a professor of Arab and Islamic studies at the University of Seville. “One of her subjects,” Abad texted me, “is discourses of alterity.”
“Alterity,” Roldán-Castro said on my last day in Seville — I was about to catch the train to Cordoba — “was an acknowledgment of difference.” It stood in contrast to otredad, or “otherness,” which she said “could be not very nice.”
We sat in a cafe outside the University of Seville, set in an old tobacco factory with a sweeping neo-Classical facade. Roldán-Castro wore a green beaded necklace, yellow sunglasses, pink lipstick and a long black dress. In telling me of the deep influence of Moorish culture on Spain — the use of almonds in food; 4,000 loan words from Arabic, such as aceite, “oil” (which comes from az-zait), or ojalá, “God willing” (from law sha’ Allah) — she focused on how the fall of Granada in 1492 had coincided with Columbus’s voyage to the Americas.
“A new world was beginning,” Roldán-Castro said. “It was necessary to make a Catholic Spain without Muslims,” adding what I had heard others say, too: “It was a deal.” Which is to say, it was born out of expediency, rather than religious passion.
It was Roldán-Castro who first told me about Aljamiado, the secret language of the Moriscos — Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity. Catlos defines Morisco as “Muslim-ish.” Isabella and Ferdinand had given their Jewish and Muslim subjects an ultimatum: Convert or be expelled. Many chose conversion, Jews becoming conversos, Muslims Moriscos.
But if there was one great lesson to be drawn from the history of Al-Andalus, it was this: When a majoritarian atmosphere takes hold in a society, as it most surely had in Spain, no concession is ever enough. The conversions of the Jews and Muslims to Christianity only excited fears of bad faith. From those fears came the Inquisition, ushering in an era of book burnings, autos-da-fé and crypto-identities. What makes it so painful is that these were the same people, with a shared culture, and Aljamiado, for all the suspicion it aroused, was — like Urdu in India, which uses a Sanskritic grammar with a Perso-Arabic vocabulary and script — simply a Romance language written in the Arabic script.
Roldán-Castro spoke to me of Mudéjar art, which she described as an artistic language emerging out of a Christian fascination with the legacy of Al-Andalus. “I don’t know of another place,” she said, referring to the singular phenomenon of victorious Christians continuing to work in the creative medium of a now-vanquished Islam, “where a culture keeps on being alive, but with a different mentality, in the Middle Ages,” adding that something similar did occur in Sicily, but perhaps not in quite so striking a fashion. If Al-Andalus was a place of longing in the Muslim imagination, its place in the Spanish imagination alternated between fetishization and a willful forgetting. This was, after all, still a country where a close friend who grew up in a village in Andalusia remembered his school friends saying, “Los moros para el otro lado del estrecho” (“Moors to the other side of the strait”).
As Roldán-Castro spoke, an uncomfortable thought occurred to me: Was it easier to embrace the art and culture of a people one had subjugated, or expelled? In the United States, there had been no contradiction between enslaving Black people and embracing so much of their culture, from music and dress to food and language. When I asked Roldán-Castro if the absence of Muslims in Spain made it easier to adopt their art and culture, she said, “It’s a very difficult question. It’s not only about religion, it’s about any way in which your neighbor might be different from you.”
QURTUBA! THERE ARE few names that exert more power over the Islamic imagination than the Arabic word for “Cordoba.” It was here, at the mosque Abd al-Rahman I first conceived, that the poet Allama Iqbal — the spiritual founder of Pakistan — was inspired in the early 20th century to sing his lament among these “enduring foundations, these columns without count” for the lost emirate of Al-Andalus and for “the upheaval raging in the Muslim soul: that godly secret which dare not find utterance.”
I had been here 18 years before, to this “white and taciturn” city, as Maugham described it, with its stately Roman bridge, where the writer had been “astonished to meet people in European dress rather than Arabs, in shuffling yellow slippers.” I had come specifically to see the Mezquita but found it closed. I took it as a sign and went away. In the two decades that elapsed, the building grew and expanded in my imagination. I saw images of what some have described as a forest of 800-odd columns, with their double arches, resembling Roman aqueducts, the alternating voussoirs in burnt red and cream. I read of the bishop who, in the 16th century, 300 years after the mosque had already been converted into a church, planted a Renaissance cathedral squarely within its confines, drawing from his king — the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Carlos I of Spain) — the most withering of all reprimands: “You have built here what you, or anyone else, might have built anywhere; to do so, you have destroyed what was unique in the world.”
Cordoba itself had become laden with meaning for me. If, as Maugham writes, half the charm of Andalusia lies “in what you divine rather than what you see,” I divined the ninth-century poet-musician Ziryab walking these streets, come from the Abbasid court in Baghdad to teach the plebes out west about everything from the latest Persian hairstyles to how to eat one’s dinner in courses. I divined blue-eyed Abd al-Rahman III, who was three-fourths Spanish Basque, staking claim to the title of caliph in 929, gazing out from his palatine complex, Madinat al-Zahra, on a hill four miles away. I divined that fabled, perhaps imaginary, fountain of mercury on its rolling base that flashed silver for guest after astonished guest. The city that had started as a mere outpost in the eighth century, a cutting from the felled Omayyad tree propagated on foreign soil, had two centuries later grown into one of the premier cities of Islam.
No amount of Google image searching prepares you for that first arresting glimpse, at the Mezquita, of the horseshoe arch picked out in umber and draped in arabesques, a symbol of one culture fertilizing another. It stopped me in my tracks, the sight of it embedded into that outer wall of honeyed stone. I had been in mosque after mosque, from Indonesia to Morocco, but this felt utterly new in inspiration and conception — it felt, odd as it is to say it, European. I stumbled into the cool of a sea of arches, imagining the right-and-left movement of the Islamic prayer that would send them dancing. I wandered through Mudéjar chapels and stood before the strange spectacle of a Christ crowned by interlacing polylobed arches in Pompeian red and white. I came at last to that famous mihrab, whose ribbed ceiling of gold and large-leaved foliage, like a dream of verdure in the desert, returned me instantly to the Omayyad mosque in Damascus. Here was an Islam hungry for the material world, bolstering its spiritual message with new influences, now Greek mosaics, now Roman engineering. As Hindu numerals traveled west, the Persian dome traveled East, and Islam became like a petri dish for the cross-fertilization of the classical world.
Outside this church upon a mosque upon a church, a potbellied Arab sat on the steps, conspicuously reciting his Quran. Beyond was the belfry of the cathedral, in which the minaret of the old mosque had been buried. Many over the years have confirmed the view of Charles V. The church has been described as a “pustule,” and there is little denying that while it is ordinary, the mosque is extraordinary. But I have to confess, I quite like the discordant note it strikes, what Richard Fletcher in “Moorish Spain” (1993) describes as “architectural evidence of strife.” For me it felt like a civilizational equivalent of the New York therapist’s maxim: “Where there is hysteria, there is history.” It was especially poignant, given my upbringing in India. Even as I write, a temple is rising in Ayodhya, in the northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh, on the ruins of a 16th-century mosque that was destroyed in 1992 by fanatics who claimed it had been built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. The Mezquita is a reminder of what the wounds of history can drive men to, but it is also proof of hysteria wearing itself out, of people moving on, of the past growing cold.
FIVE HUNDRED YEARS after the fall of Granada, the last emirate of Al-Andalus, a mosque had risen in the city in 2003 — the first to be constructed in Spain since La Reconquista of 1492. It overlooked the white Moorish neighborhood of Albaicín falling at its feet like a petticoat. The heat, the solemn shape of cypresses, the new mosque on that old stage: It was all very suggestive. Spain now had a Muslim population of 2.25 million people, the majority of them North African. The ancient drama of the coexistence of Christianity and Islam on the Iberian Peninsula was beginning again.
Moments before, I had seen the legendary door that Boabdil had left from. My guide at the Alhambra had spoken of how he had asked Isabella and Ferdinand to seal it shut in perpetuity. The Catholic monarchs honored this most minor clause in the terms of surrender but betrayed Boabdil in more significant ways, especially regarding the assurance that Muslims would be allowed to practice their faith. That assurance was a restating of the ancient Islamic code upon which the plurality of Al-Andalus had been founded. Dhimmis, or protected peoples, non-Muslims, had been allowed under Islam to follow their religion unmolested so long as they acknowledged the superiority of Muslims and paid taxes. That law had been in force during the early centuries of La Reconquista, too. But as a new Catholic Spain asserted itself, a creed of uniformity became the order of the day, the old diversity regarded almost as a contaminant. Within a few years of the fall of Granada, the Inquisition came to town. There were public bonfires of Arabic books. Morisco revolts ensued, and more restrictions followed.
To destroy a people one has first to dehumanize them. One has to tell them they are nothing, that their history and culture are nothing. The final order of expulsion did not come until the early 17th century, when tensions between the Spaniards and the Ottomans were high, and Spain’s then-diminished Muslims more suspect than ever. It came after the book burnings, the forced conversions, the demands upon a people that they erase every aspect of their identity only to find their tormentors questing after further proof of their sincerity, almost as if the very same people who had created this world of shadows were now afraid of them. No amount of historical memory could save the Moriscos. All those centuries of intimacy, of living cheek by jowl, of building a shared culture, mattered not a jot. The history of Al-Andalus, like that of Germany in the 1930s, reminds us how feeble a protection cultural assimilation is against the primordial scream for a limpieza de sangre.
In Las Alpujarras, the mountainous region an hour’s drive south of Granada to which the last Moriscos of Al-Andalus had fled, there is now a community of Muslim converts and their families. When I asked one of its residents — Medina Tenour Whiteman, a half-American, half-British 40-year-old — what had brought her parents to Granada, where she was born, she said, “They had gone because there was this whole dream of reviving Islam in Europe.”
Whiteman grew up in Britain, feeling, she said, very much the “alien, the weirdo,” struggling with how being the Muslim daughter of converts in Britain meant engaging in what felt to her like a form of “dress-up,” using Arab or Pakistani culture to legitimize her Muslim-ness. In Spain, there was none of that. The memory of an autonomous European Islam still ran in the marrow. What she loved about living here was what she had loved about visiting Bosnia, too: “I can be exactly as I am.”
Whiteman, who has written guidebooks and travel guides for Muslims in Spain, had met a man from the province of Extremadura in the west who still recalled his grandmother going to the basement of her house and praying in the Islamic manner, with no conscious awareness that the washing and kneeling were part of Muslim ritual. “The Muslims they were getting rid of,” Whiteman said, speaking of the expulsions of the early 17th century, were not Arabs or Berbers but “indistinguishable from the Christians carrying it out.” The narrative of the Reconquest had been applied centuries later to what she saw as a simple act of ethnic cleansing.
When I asked Whiteman about what Al-Andalus meant to Muslims, she said, “We can’t help but be aware that something extraordinary took place here. A flourishing — of the word, of knowledge.”
At the same time, she was wary about growing too attached to that history. She had prayed the Friday before at the Granada mosque. It was magical, performing the stations of Islamic prayer as the sun sank behind the Alhambra, yet, like all magical things, it was also a little unreal. The Quran, Whiteman said, urges you to celebrate the wonder of the natural world. “It doesn’t say, ‘Go and look at beautiful mosques and palaces,’ so there is a part of us that gets a little fixated on the vestiges of Muslim power,” she said.