Spain’s Blurred Cultural Divides (or how Newt Gingrich can’t even get xenophobia right)

The Alhambra, from Mirador San Nicolás

The Alhambra of Granada: Muslim Nasrid Fortress; Holy Roman Emperor Charles V's palace; Catholic churches and ex-mosques in view. Photo taken outside the Saint Nicholas church in the Albayzin "Muslim quarter" of the city.

Newt Gingrich states,

“The proposed “Cordoba House” overlooking the World Trade Center site – where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks – is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites.  For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term.  It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.” [Emphasis mine.]

I’ll overlook Gingrich’s gross overstatement of the historical facts (this excellent post by a medieval historian refutes his statements in detail) and get to the more glaring irony in his statement. Say hello to the “world’s third-largest mosque complex,” that symbolic victory over Christian Spain (which before the conquest was neither unified in religion nor statehood):

Yep, that just makes ya tremble in fear of Islamist conquerors, doesn’t it? Newt Gingrich uses Córdoba as an example of the Muslim destruction of Western or Christian culture, yet the very building in question stands today not as a mosque, but a cathedral. (Ironically, the world’s third-largest Christian complex lies a couple of hours’ drive away in Seville – a mosque converted into a cathedral after the Catholics conquered the Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus.)

A not-so-subtle assertion of Catholic superiority in the post-reconquista Nasrid palaces of Granada

But I think there’s a better lesson in Córdoba and medieval Spain than a simple “who-oppressed-whose-culture-at-what-time” argument. The Iberian peninsula’s unique location both geographically and historically (the bridge between Africa and Europe; the southern limit of the Roman empire; the northern limit of the Umayyad caliphate; a reluctant modern abandoner of monarchy) give Spain a cornucopia of cultural clashes, harmonies, and completely new creations – an example of how different groups come and go from the ruling class, but the culture beneath them evolves as its own independent force. Such wide cultural influences are found in the region’s languages, art, architecture, genealogy, music… really just about anywhere you look.

Parts or the whole of the Iberian peninsula since the beginning of written history has been ruled at times by Phoenicians, Greeks, Visigoth Romans, Berbers, Arabs, Catholics, Socialists, Fascists, and finally a modern democracy. Before the united kingdoms of Castille and León retook Granada in 1492, a state could only hold onto its reign for a century, maybe two. (The exception to this may be the Cordoban caliphate, which held much of the peninsula from 716-1031.)

So while rulers came and went pretty quickly, the people stayed much the same. Christians under Muslim rule – the Mozarabs –  adopted Arabic culture and language, but not the religion. When the Catholic monarchs took the final Muslim stronghold at Granada, they promised the Muslim inhabitants could continue in their faith as Mudéjar Spaniards. (They did, however, expel all the Jews at the same time.) Not much later, though, the Spanish Inquisition defied the Mudéjars’ expectations by forcing their conversion to Christianity. They did so, at least in name, but their cultural traditions continued at such a strong level that the “Morisco” name was eventually used as an accusation of these citizens’ continued Muslim allegiance. (Much like Newt Gingrich’s usage of “Islamism” as a way to denigrate Muslim Americans’ place in our society.)

Sultanas de Merkaillo by Ojos de Brujo: A great example of Spain’s broad cultural mix. The lyrics are relevant, too; here they are in English.

All these groups of second-class citizens tremendously influenced period architecture, art and music. Today, the most devout Catholic Spaniard will speak with reverence for monuments built by Jewish, Muslim and Catholic hands. The ability to combine such strong cultural traditions, preserve them, and make something new out of them at the same time is pretty remarkable. al-Andalus and Spain were practicing post-modernism centuries before modernism was born! The United States’ “melting pot” has nothing on this.

I don’t want to claim that cultural influence confers equality or power. I’m speaking of a region with a tumultuous history of conquest after conquest, succeeded by revolution after revolution. I just want to show how regardless of political constructs or the dominant class, Spain is a great example of diverse cultures coexisting in a way that both continues strong traditions and promotes the creation of new ones at the same time.

(All photos in this post ©2009 Zeke Weeks.)

One comment

  1. Great post Zeke, I will now have to wikipedia everything you said the rest of my weekend. Thanks. Also, BIG fan of Ballmer Peak method here for Saturdays. Do it.

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