The history of Cordoba

Low angle view of La Mezquita Mosque and Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

We’ve had an interesting conversation going on in a recent comment thread about how the media cover Islam and Christianity. Some people have speculated that political correctness or moral relativism harms some media coverage. I wonder if it might just be some problems with history. A GetReligion reader sent in this CNN article cheerily headlined “Muslims in Spain campaign to worship alongside Christians.”

It takes a while before you realize that this pleasant campaign involves protests, such as rolling out prayer mats in the middle of the cathedral in Cordoba, Spain. Late in the story, we learn that the protest “turned violent.” It’s just an unbelievably bizarre way to write up something most Christians in the world would find threatening. But that’s not even why I’m highlighting it. Here’s the portion that caught my eye:

Today, at the original Cordoba mosque in Spain, there is no call to prayer, only the ringing of church bells. That’s because the former mosque is now a working Catholic cathedral, performing a daily mass.

It’s been a Cathedral since Spain’s Christian monarchy conquered Cordoba in the 13th century and more than a million visitors walk through its doors every year.

Depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion hang underneath the distinctive red-and-white arches of what was once the Muslim prayer hall. Cordoba’s dazzling “mihrab” — the sacred alcove from where Muslim prayer is lead — still stands as a separate part of the site and is one of the main attractions for tourists.

In fact, the site remains significant for Muslims as a symbol of Islam’s golden age of learning and religious tolerance. The Mosque of Cordoba was once famed for allowing both Christians and Muslims to pray together under the same roof.

Oh so much to comment on. For instance, the story literally never mentions how the mosque came to be. And that’s a serious flaw in this case. We learn that the Christians “conquered” Cordoba in the 13th century. We don’t learn anything about this conquering, such as that it was part of something called the “Reconquista.” And why was it called that? Because the Christians were “re-conquering” the land that Muslims had taken from them. This basic history is not mentioned. This means that the article also fails to put the religious identification of Cordoba in larger context. How many years has it been

Perhaps more importantly, the story doesn’t mention that the original building being discussed was known as the church of St. Vincent before it was known as the Mosque of Cordoba. Not that there is much resemblance between those two buildings. The mosque really was an architectural feat. But still, we need to know our history. On that note, I’m not entirely sure if the mosque was famed for allowing different religions to pray together so much as the previous incarnation of the worship space — that is, the Church of St. Vincent — in the early years after the Muslim conquest. The Muslims conquered Cordoba in 712. Work on the Mosque didn’t begin until 784 and it didn’t become the large structure it’s known as until the late 10th century. The co-worshiping happened, I’m pretty sure, prior to Umayyad emir Abd-ar-Ramman I’s conquest of Cordoba a generation after Muslims first took the city. He’s the guy who started the mosque project. He’s also one of the great Muslim rulers of history.

Cordoba has been in the news a bit recently because it’s the proposed name of the proposed mosque that’s had everyone from Hamas (pro) to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (con) weighing in. Or at least it was the proposed name. I’m not sure if the plan has changed on account of some Americans finding the name too provocative.

On the other hand, imam Feisal Abdul Rauf wrote that he chose the name “after the period between roughly 800 and 1200 CE, when the Cordoba Caliphate ruled much of today’s Spain, and its name reminds us that Muslims created what was, in its era, the most enlightened, pluralistic, and tolerant society on earth.” So you have two wildly different views.

If you are interested in the topic, I think this Tablet (a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture) piece has some interesting things to say about how neither interpretation may be fully accurate:

According to Princeton historian Mark Cohen, the notion of convivencia, of medieval Spain as utopia, began with mid-19th century German-Jewish historians. Disappointed to find that emancipation did not equal equality, they crafted a long-ago world of true Jewish freedom as the model that their own world failed to live up to. “They looked back nostalgically to Muslim Spain, and said, ‘Look there,’” Cohen told me. “They wanted to embarrass the Christians.” They were not demanding a state of their own; on the contrary, they were demanding the right to live freely in another people’s state and, moreover, to be considered members of that people.

A subsequent batch of historians, under the spell of early-20th-century Zionism, cast medieval Spain not as a utopia but as, according to Cohen, “an unmitigated disaster.” They did so in order to argue that “Arab anti-Semitism is firmly rooted in a congenital, endemic Muslim/Arab Jew-hatred,” which in turn buttressed their case for a country of, by, and for the Jewish people.

So, which of those versions is right? Neither, Cohen said. In one essay, he refers to a “myth” (the German historians’ heaven) and a “counter-myth” (the Zionist historians’ hell) and asserts that the truth lies somewhere in between. Those who hold up the period as an ideal are exaggerating: “In a medieval situation,” he argues, “where you have monotheistic religions living in proximity, there is no such thing as toleration.” (In other words, tell “toleration” to the Jews of Granada, many of whom were massacred by angry Muslims in 1066, or to Granada’s Jewish vizier at the time, who was crucified.) And those who downplay the extent of tolerance and pluralism exaggerate, too. “If by convivencia,” said Cornell historian Ross Brann, “we mean that cultural and social proximity, conversation, and interaction among Jews, Muslims, and Christians were significant and productive,” then convivencia was real.

It’s great to see the current conflict used as a hook for a deeper exploration of some important themes. And it’s a good reminder that the current conflict isn’t being seen for the first time, even if many of its aspects are new. A good understanding of religious history could go a long way to helping find resolution.

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  • Bill

    Thanks, Mollie, great post. And thanks for holding dear both the right of conscience and worship, yet realizing that something more might be going on.

    Historical perspective is so important. If you’ll indulge me, might I offer a tip of the hat to medieval historians. It’s a difficult job. A good one (particularly from the early middle ages/late antiquity period) must know several dead languages as well as Latin and Greek. Old Arabic doesn’t hurt, either.) A Ph.D. in Medieval History is mocked these days as not as worthy as MBAs, yet their work is important and their credentials harder to come by. If we don’t know where we’ve been, we really don’t know where we are. [Full disclosure: I'm not an historian; Economics is my background.]

  • Martha

    I’d be perfectly happy to see the Muslims returning to the former mosque-turned-cathedral in Cordoba, the day we see the Christians returning to the former church-turned-mosque in Hagia Sophia.

    As ever, there are two sides to every story.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Cordoba offers a fascinating look into the complexity of religious history.
    The Visigoths conquered Spain, and brought their religion with them–so they built a church in Cordoda. Muslims conquered them, and eventually built a mosque where the church was. When the Christians drove the Muslims out, they took a mosque and converted it to a church.

  • kjs

    I suppose it’s better that no one proposed the mosque & community center in Manhatten be called “Ayasofya House.” That history is less complicated & far less conciliatory.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I’d be perfectly happy to see the Muslims returning to the former mosque-turned-cathedral in Cordoba, the day we see the Christians returning to the former church-turned-mosque in Hagia Sophia.

    That’s right. Jesus was forever saying, “You first!”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Journalists should have more courses on history instead of courses on how to use i-pods (or whatever) so they won’t make chronic fools of themselves when they put gross misinformation into the media flow.
    The best two volume work in English on the way Jews and Christians were treated under Islam is by Egyptian historian Bat Ye’or. The first volume is “The Dhimmi–Jews and Christians Under Islam.” The second is “The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam–From Jihad to Dhimmitude.” Dhimmis are those “people of the Book” who are treated as low level ciitizens under Islam.
    The book includes very many documents written by contemporary Islamic, Jewish, and Christian historians and writers.
    Were Christians killed for not becoming Moslem?? (A favorite refrain from uneducated reporters has been a chronic: “No!”) But they were –regularly. The documents give away one trick they used that fools people about it. Christians were regularly slaughtered for over a thousand years if they didn’t apostasize from Christ. After that apostasy one had to choose to be a Moslem or a “nobody”– a virtual living death under Islam.
    Before reporters blather about historic Moslem tolerance they should read the book “Witnesses For Christ–Orthodox Christian Neomartyrs of the Ottoman Period 1437-1860″ by Nomikos Michael Vaporis. This thick book has hundreds maybe thousands (I didn’t count) individual biographies of heroic Orthodox Christians who wouldn’t apostasize at sword point.This book only very lightly scratches the surface of the wholesale bloody treatment of Christians under Islam. It is a miracle there are any Christians left in the Middle East.
    As for the fantasies about Spain: From Bat Ye’ors book a list of Moslem atrocities: 981: Zamora and kingdom of Leon: destruction and the deportation of 4,000 prisoners.
    985: Barcelona: destroyed by fire, nearly all citizens massacred or deported.
    987: Coimbra virtually all wiped out.Leon also.
    997: Shrine of Santiago (Saint James) de Compostela pillaged and razed to the ground.
    1,000: Castile put to fire and sword; population enslaved and deported.
    “After its conquest in 712, Spain became the terrain par excellence for the jihad in the West of the dar al-islam.” (The only “golden” times were when Christians and Jews properly groveled without complaint). Their holy book–the Koran expects nothing less according to many Islamic interpreters.

  • Jerry

    “after the period between roughly 800 and 1200 CE, when the Cordoba Caliphate ruled much of today’s Spain, and its name reminds us that Muslims created what was, in its era, the most enlightened, pluralistic, and tolerant society on earth.”

    Mollie, thanks for taking up one of my hot buttons – historical perspective. As others have said, understanding history is no game for the weak.

    I’ve emphasized in its era because that is a critical clause to use to evaluate his statement. Any challenge to his statement has to be made in the context of that era.

    By modern ideals, every era in the past was one of darkness, suffering and limitation. Armies of all sorts committed atrocities and butchered the local populace in order to set up kingdoms with themselves on top and the conquered people on the bottom.

    It’s hard work to put things like the Cordoba mosque into a historical perspective which includes how Christians dealt with Jews during that era which has striking parallels and includes the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland by the first Crusaders in 1096 as well as more positive interactions between Christians and Jews (pogroms and other atrocities happening later) http://ksumail.kennesaw.edu/~bstevens/JewishOther.htm

    And it’s all too easy to see that era with a modern perspective. Some, of course, compare medieval Spain favorably to the genocide conducted against the native Americans by Christians and how the US was founded with slavery in the Constitution and supported by use of Biblical texts.

    So to provide a complete historical perspective, we need at least a book and perhaps a library shelf of history books.

  • J

    I found an interesting article written from Muslims in Canada. Here is a link to the article:
    http://www.ottawacitizen.com/sports/Mischief+Manhattan/3370303/story.html

    I’m not sure if the writers were journalists or writing a letter to the editor (“citizen special”). The information they provide is not full of details but is definitely coming from one of the only (that I’ve seen) Muslim perspectives that is against the building of the mosque so close to Ground Zero.

  • Bill

    It’s hard work to put things like the Cordoba mosque into a historical perspective which includes how Christians dealt with Jews during that era which has striking parallels and includes the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland by the first Crusaders in 1096 as well as more positive interactions between Christians and Jews (pogroms and other a

    Jerry,

    Historical accuracy requires pointing out that the slaughter of Jews in the First Crusade was condemned by Pope Urban II and local bishops; that it was committed by the huge, unruly, peasant mob that comprised the first responders to the pope’s call; that the slaughter was precipitated by a violent strain of apocalyptic theology as well as anti-Semitism and simple greed, and that the mobs eventually met their own slaughter in what is now Turkey. (The organized knights who arrived in the Holy Land later in the 1st Crusade fared much better.)

    There were compelling reasons for Urban II to preach that crusade. Among them were the constant military pressure the Christian east was facing from the Islamic world, notably the Seljuk Turks. The Holy Land was Christian territory before it was taken by force.

    You are absolutely right that we can’t try the past in a modern court. There was blood on many hands, and enough blood to soak those hands thoroughly. It’s also proper to note how the Crusades devolved into sacking Constantinople, putting Jerusalem to the sword, and ending up after several centuries far from the Holy Land, killing French Cathars. The dogs of war are wild pups; one never knows where they’ll run or who they’ll bite.

    On a related note, the inquisitions (not the Spanish Inquisition, which was a government program) were not quite the sinister things we moderns have been led to believe. There were rules of evidence; confessions obtained from torture were not allowed. Given the choice of being arbitrarily dropped into an oubliette by an all-powerful prince, I’d have preferred to stand before a court of inquisition.

    If the distant past was full of darkness and cruelty, what can one say about the 20th century. Solzhenitzyn observed that all those horrors can happen anywhere, anytime. They are not confined to any time period or any national boundary. They run through the human heart.

    I think there’s a ghost in there.

  • Jerry

    If the distant past was full of darkness and cruelty, what can one say about the 20th century. Solzhenitzyn observed that all those horrors can happen anywhere, anytime. They are not confined to any time period or any national boundary. They run through the human heart.

    I think there’s a ghost in there.

    And yet, in spite of or maybe because of terrible wars, the idea that everyone is created equal has gathered strength and grown from a hope for the future into an expectation on the part of billions of people and increasingly part of human experience.

    From that perspective, the fight against those who would stuff women back into worse than they were treated in 7th century Arabia is the latest round in the fight to bring into full flowering the idea of equality.

    Some might even see the Hand of God in this gradual unfolding. And that is an “Almighty” “ghost”.

  • Bill

    Amen, brother.

  • Shawn

    Isn’t it interesting that Ferdinand and Isabella were the same monarchs that commisioned Colombus to sail the ocean blue? Thank goodness.

    It is true that the King and Queen expelled both Muslims and Jews from Spain. 500+ years later, it is easy to criticize. Life was rough in those times–all over the world.

  • Julia

    As I understand it, Ferdinand and Isabella wanted to expel the Jews because they were thought to have cooperated with the Muslim take-over of Spain, and enjoyed a favored position above the Christians in that Muslim world.

    I don’t know if that is true, but I’ve read that Ferdinand and Isabella considered the Jews to be Muslim collaborators and allies. Anyway that was the supposed reason for ferreting them out for expulsion if they had not honestly converted.

    Anybody know anything about that?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I don’t know but let’s try to stay focused on media coverage.

    Thanks.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    tell BobS. that the Visigoths may have “brought their religion into Spain”, but the locals were Roman Christians, and the Visigoths were Arian Christians.

    Christianity goes back to St. James the Apostle.