Jews in the Muslim World

One of the great ironies of the Middle East conflict is that Jews and Arabs are, in a deep sense, brothers–they both hail from the same region, Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages and Judaism and Islam are faiths of the same Abrahamic tradition. As with Greeks and Turks (see post of 2008.10.28), or Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, it seems that genetic/cultural/historical kinship and familiarity help breed contempt. But looking back in history, we see that antipathy between Jews and Arabs, or between Jews and Muslims more broadly, is far from a historical constant–much like real brothers, the two peoples have often lived side by side, peacefully coexisting.

In fact, our trip through the Muslim world has been almost equally a trip through the Jewish world, because so often throughout history where there were Muslims, there were Jews, and where there were Jews, there were Muslims. The connections between the populations were and are that intimate (not least in Palestine, of course). Through the photographs below, a journey through the Jewish populations (some of them, alas, now historical) of the Muslim world, radiating from Israel to Central Asia and Morocco, to Europe.

Even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a part of the state of Palestine under any future negotiated scenario, has a Jewish presence–in this case a building acquired by a right wing Israeli group imperiously announces its Jewish Israeli ownership.

Hasidic man with child looks over Jerusalem and the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount.

Ever since the days before Moses, Egypt has been home to a Jewish population. (Graham Hancock suggests in his book The Sign and the Seal that a Jewish community based in now Aswan at one point had possession of the Ark.) Below, a picture taken through the locked gate of the 19th century Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue of Alexandria. Fear of anti-Jewish terrorism has the synagogue under constant guard.

Syria was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds/thousands of years, and the old city of Damascus contains a large Jewish Quarter. All but a handful of the Damascus Jews have, sadly, emigrated to the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, leaving their impressive family homes to be renovated as hotels and restaurants, and in many cases artists’ studios, in what is fast becoming a trendy part of town. The first two images are from Bait Farhi, a wealthy Jewish home that is being converted into a hotel (a translation of the writing in the first: “a fruitful vine by a spring” from Genesis 49:22). The third image is the studio of Mustafa Ali, a Syrian sculptor. (See post of 2008.04.07.)


In Iran, many more of the local Jews–some 25,000–have stayed, apparently able to live their lives and practice their religion in peace, as the autocratic/theocratic government continues the historical practice within Islam of letting people of other Abrahamic faiths practice their religions relatively unmolested. (Many Iranian Jews have of course chosen to emigrate, most famously to Beverly Hills.) In this photo, a Jewish man stands outside the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran.

Yet further east was the domain of the Bukharan Jews, who lived not only in Bukhara but in other Central Asian cities, developing a unique culture that was a significant part of the religio-ethnic mosaic of that region. They even had their own language, Bukhori, which was something like Farsi/Tajik written in Hebrew characters. The most visible landmark of the Bukharan Jews in Bukhara may be the cemetery (first image), but a walk around the old city in now Uzbekistan reveals many more remnants of the Jewish population, including a synagogue (second image) and old Jewish homes such as Akbar House, now a bed and breakfast (third and fourth images). (translation of the writing in the fourth: again, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring” from Genesis 49:22)



The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Many Bukharan Jews have also settled in Queens in New York City.

Equally famous for its resident Jewish population, including thousands who remain today, is Morocco, half a world away. All of the great historical cities of Morocco have a large Jewish quarter, known as the mellah.

The narrow streets and tall buildings of the mellah in Marrakesh show how densely populated these ghettoes were.

Jewish life continues in some of the mellahs. Here, Al Azmeh Synagogue in the mellah of Marrakesh.

Large Jewish cemeteries show how much greater were the historical Jewish populations of these cities. The first two images are from Marrakesh, the rest from Fez. In the fourth and fifth images, a small synagogue/museum attached to the cemetery next to the Fez mullah. The Arab decor in the second and fifth images shows how local Jews were very much a part of the local culture (as well as the universal Jewish culture).




Another synagogue, in the Fez mellah

As in pretty much everywhere else they lived, Jews performed a significant role in the commerce of Morocco. Here, a Jewish funduq, or caravansaray/inn in old Fez.

Moroccan Jews were not only in the big cities. In the first image, a Jewish cemetery in the Skoura Oasis, near the town of Ouarzazate. In the second image, the ruins of a synagogue in the Jewish Kasbah of Amezrou, near Zagora in the Draa Valley further south (see post of 2009.01.11 on the multiethnic Draa Valley).

What was in African Morocco was of course also in Moorish Iberia, and there were Jewish populations in all of the cities of Spain. In the first two images, the alleys of the Juderia, or Jewish quarter, of Cordoba (the minaret/steeple of the Great Mosque visible in the first image). In the third and fourth images, an old synagogue in Cordoba (note again the “Arabesque” decoration). The fifth image is a statue of Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher–Jews were the third of the “three cultures,” along with the Muslims and Christians, that made Iberia during la Convivencia the great intellectual hotbed that it was (see post of 2009.02.04).




But of course la Convivencia was not to last, as the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquista and imposed their policies of ethno-religious cleansing. (See post of 2009.02.02.) In part because the Iberian Jews were so closely associated with the Moors and were suspected of being pro-Muslim conspirators, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree or Edict of Expulsion in 1492, exiling all Jews from Iberia. Many of the Sephardi Jews ended up in areas that were part of the (Muslim Turkish) Ottoman Empire, which sent boats to Spain to help transport them. (To the Ottomans, the skilled and wealthy Jews were highly desirable immigrants that the Spanish, blinded by their extreme sense of religious orthodoxy, were foolish to give up.)

The Old Synagogue in the old city of Sarajevo, now a museum of Jewish history in the region. Local Jews continued to use the Ladino language, a Jewish language derived from Spanish.

The Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) Synagogue in Sarajevo, built in the early twentieth century for the Eastern European Jews not of Spanish origin.

The Sofia Synagogue in now Bulgaria, one of the largest in the region, built to accommodate the descendants of the Sephardi Jews who settled in that part of the Ottoman Empire.

Strictly speaking it is not a part of the Muslim world, but a city known for its trade with the East of course had a local Jewish population that could make use of the significant Jewish mercantile networks throughout the East. A couple images from the “original” Jewish ghetto, in Venice.

Andalusia / Al-Andalus

In the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba, an Arab-style waterwheel, or noria, like those found in Hama, Syria

Washington Irving in his famous Tales of the Alhambra mentions that the Moroccans of his day (the late 1820s) spoke of eventually retaking southern Iberia and restoring Moorish/Arab/Muslim rule to Andalusia. In the current world order such a Moroccan encroachment into Spain and the European Union is not realistic, but the spirit of Moorish Andalusia is very much with us today, not only in terms of the Moorish influence on Spanish culture generally (see post of 2009.02.01), but a definite awareness of the uniqueness of Andalusia as a historical blend of Christian and Muslim. Not only do Arabs and non-Arab Muslims feel a connection to Andalusia that they do not feel to the rest of Christian Spain, but also Spaniards (perhaps through Andalusia) seem to have adopted sympathies to Arabs that are a far cry from their ancestral rulers who led the Inquisition.

Andalusia’s ties to Morocco and the Middle East are often used to orientalizing effect for tourists. In the first image, Moroccan leather goods for sale in Seville. In the second image, advertisements for Arab-themed entertainment in Granada. In their defense, many of these establishments are run by Arab immigrants, not only from Morocco across the Strait but from the Middle East as well.

This hammam has been restored as a ruin/museum, but others have been restored for actual bathing by tourists. We visited one in Granada and were disappointed–a fairly sad facsimile of a hammam if scoring for authenticity (and coed–the sacrilege).

Muslim tourists–even non-Arab ones–are drawn to Andalusia for its Arab Muslim history. In the first picture, British tourists of South Asian Muslim descent at the Medina Azahara outside Cordoba. In the second picture, Malay students at the new Granada Mosque taking a break from sightseeing.

The memory of an Arab Iberia very much lives on in the Arab world.

Moors evicted from Iberia after the Reconquista settled in an entire district of Fez known as the Andalusian quarter (first image). The second image is of the Sahrij Medersa in the Andalusian quarter, perhaps the most beautiful in Morocco.

Al Andalous is the inspiration for this barbershop in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, as well as the brand of underwear being sold in Fez.

Half a world away in Doha, Qatar, this curtains and furniture store commemorates Arab rule over Iberia.

One of the most puzzling little aspects of the global taking of sides in the Middle East conflict is the very common phenomenon of pro-Palestinian Spaniards. Pro-Palestinian graffiti is more visible in Spain than anywhere else I have been, keffiyeh are popular accessories among Spaniards and in parts of Palestine the only other tourists other than us were Spanish. I think the real reason for this is the popularity of leftist politics in Spain (perhaps a backlash against Franco) that tend to favor the underdog cause that is Arab Palestine, but perhaps two more interesting factors are also causes: 1) that modern Spaniards feel guilt for their ancestors’ anti-Arab crimes during and after the Reconquista or 2) that modern Spaniards recognize that, genetically, they are part Berber and Arab, descendants of the Muslim Moors who chose to stay in Iberia and convert, and therefore have sympathies for their Palestinian kinsmen. (I do recognize that these theories are somewhat ridiculous, and would really appreciate if someone could enlighten me on the phenomenon.)

Pro-Palestinian / Anti-Israeli graffiti, in Seville and Granada



The Alhambra

Its reputation is beyond mere renown, a complex of buildings that is widely considered to be one of mankind’s greatest cultural achievements. The Alhambra represents, in the form of architecture, the loftiest heights of Moorish civilization in Iberia and the fruit of the melding of Muslim, Christian and Jewish ideas that was la Convivencia. Like many other great treasures, subjected to much deterioration and modification in its history, the Alhambra is now one of the great tourist attractions of Spain, the heart of the city of Granada.

The significance of Granada to Moorish history in Spain is tremendous. Granada was the very last stronghold of the Moors in Spain when in 1492 it fell to Ferdinand and Isabella, marking the very end of almost 800 years of Muslim rule in Iberia. Upon completing the Reconquista, Ferdinand and Isabella presided on their throne from the Alhambra, where Christopher Columbus had his audience for the financing of his voyage West. As a historical center of Muslim life in Spain and a great University town, Granada retains a cosmopolitan atmosphere, its souvenir shops filled with goods imported from the Middle East, much as they might have been centuries ago.

For this post, mainly photographs of the Alhambra.

The Alhambra sits on a hill overlooking the town of Granada. On top of the hill from which the second photograph was taken sits the new Mosque of Granada (2003), serving Moroccan immigrants and other Muslim residents and visitors to the city in a sort of grand return of Islam to the city.

The internal courtyards of the Alhambra, some of them separating parts of the building constructed at different periods, throw the interior open to light.

The Alhambra, like other celebrated palaces around the world, was as much a feat of landscaping as architecture. The Mirador de Lindaraja, of Debussy fame.

One of the most famous parts of the palace is the Patio of the Lions, with its many intricately decorated columns, and spectacular domed halls nearby. [The Lion fountain in the middle was under renovation during our visit.]



Much of the beauty of the Alhambra is in the intricate ornamentation.



The stuccowork in the Alhambra comes from the same tradition as the 9th century stucco in the Nain Mosque (first image) and the 14th century stucco of the Oljeitu Mihrab (second image), both in Iran.

The tilework is of course also celebrated (and also related to Iranian craft). The second and third images are from the hammam located inside the complex. Alhambra tesserae are said to have inspired M.C. Escher.


The conquest by the Catholic Monarchs resulted in some large scale as well as small scale changes to the building.

The Crusades Continue

Of all the verbal gaffes of former President George W. Bush, few come to mind that were more controversial and troubling as his use of the word “Crusade” to describe our war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. [Perhaps to call it a gaffe–rather than a sort of Freudian slip or intentional political ploy–is generous.] The problem with the word is of course that by comparing the war in Iraq to a historical war waged in the name of religion by Christians against Muslims, Bush suggested that the motive for the modern war was also religious, a continuation of some sort of historical feud between Christianity and Islam. And, coming from a man who professed to hold deeply evangelical Christian beliefs and who was supported by most of America’s radically religious right, this–that there was some sort of religious basis for the war–seemed all too plausible (especially after we failed to discover WMD).

(Let me be clear (as our newly-inaugurated President is apt to say): We are not destined to a “clash of civilizations.” Periods of peaceful, pragmatic coexistence are just as common in the past as incidents of religious conflict. And, if you consider every time the banner of religion is carried as a standard into war, there is usually an equally compelling economic or demographic force that lay under.)

At the time of the earliest Crusades, southern Iberia was very much a part of the Muslim world, in full control of the Almoravid and other Moorish dynasties; the Crusades action took place all the way across the Mediterranean. But Crusades-like Christian/Muslim violence made its way to the Iberian Peninsula, and by the end of the thirteenth century, Christian kingdoms had reduced Moorish holdings in Iberia to more or less modern Andalusia. Even before the time Ferdinand and Isabella completed the Reconquista with the defeat of Granada in 1492, Moorish rule was reduced to isolated cities surviving essentially as tributaries to the Castilian crown.

Ferdinand and Isabella. Some Spaniards today may think of them as heroes of the Reconquista, and Americans may think of them as the visionaries who financed the discovery of the New World, but I can’t help but think of them as the Milosevic of their day. Putting aside the actual conquest itself–territorial conquest was of course much more of an accepted norm back in those days–the ethnic cleansing that Ferdinand and Isabella undertook, most infamously in the Alhambra Decree that expelled all Jews from Iberia (the Sephardic diaspora). Their tools in creating a Christian Spain were forced conversion and expulsion–of people who were native to Iberia and whose ancestors had lived there for *hundreds* of years. It is no wonder that these were also the rulers responsible for genocide and the institutionalization of race slavery in the New World.

Unfortunately, I am sorry to report, a Crusades mentality continues in the Catholic Church of Spain, at least in Cordoba. As I mentioned in my previous post, Cordoba is home to the Great Mosque of Cordoba, a tenth century wonder of a mosque that celebrated Cordoba’s status as the capital of the Umayyads in Spain. In the early 13th century, after the conquest of Cordoba by the (Christian) Castillians, the church decided to convert the mosque into a cathedral. Perhaps recognizing that no building that they built could quite replace the mosque as an architectural achievement, they cut a huge rectangle into its halls to build a church *into* the building. The effect is somewhat surreal–you enter a mosque and at some point suddenly find yourself in a typical Catholic cathedral–but the construction project was also in its way a sort of compromise between historic preservation and establishing the primacy of the Catholic Church. [See posts of 2009.02.01 and 2008.11.10 on reuse of religious sites.]

That said, the Archdiocese of Cordoba has produced a totally reprehensible pamphlet that serves as tourists’ main guide to the building. Perhaps ashamed of the fact that today the construction of the church inside the mosque is viewed as a sort of architectural crime, and that the church inside is of far lesser interest to the average visitor than the atmospheric remains of the mosque, the pamphlet is little more than a religious diatribe commemorating the victory of Christian over Muslim, an “us versus them” that is disconcerting to read in the European Union of today:

“It was a joyful day for the entire Christendom, when the Great Mosque, an Islamic temple without equal in the world, which was renowned for its artistic beauty and its symbolic value for the world of Western Islam in terms of political and religious importance, was purified and sanctified with Christian rites after the reconquest of the city by the hands of Saint Ferdinand III, and transformed into a Church of Jesus Christ, dedicated to the Mother of God.”

“It is a historical fact that the basilica of San Vincente was expropriated and destroyed in order to build what would later be the Mosque, a reality that questions the theme of tolerance that was supposedly cultivated in the Cordoba of the moment.” [It is true that the mosque was built on the site of a former church, but it is likely that there was negotiation–whether completely fair we do not know of course–over the site. The relative levels of tolerance in the age of the Moors and during the Inquisition is beyond dispute.]

“It was a matter of recuperating a scared space that had suffered the imposition of a faith that was distant from the Christian experience. . . . Thus the reforms of the Cathedral were motivated by the need to restore the cult that had been interrupted by Islamic domination, and they were a response to the desire of contemplating Christian symbols, or the inconvenience of celebrating the Liturgy amid a sea of columns.”

“Thus the beauty of the Cathedral of Cordoba does not reside in its architectural grandeur, but in the apostolic succession of the Bishop as a symbol of his pastoral service and the unity of the Church, founded upon the Word of the Lord, the sacraments, and the community of believers.”

This, from the people who were guilty of ethnic cleansing and the many other crimes of the Inquisition.

To end this post, some photos of the Great Mosque of Cordoba:

Outside the main building, a courtyard similar to that in Seville (see post of 2009.02.01) is accented with a minaret/steeple.

One of the many doorways–mosques often have many entrances to facilitate the at-times huge flow of people who rush in at the prescribed prayer times.

Inside, the colonnaded hall that is so famous and the landmark feature of the building. The bicolored arches are said to have been inspired by Roman/Byzantine architecture.


Byzantine mosaic also ornaments the spectacular mihrab, arguably the most spectacular ever made.


A look down one row of columns reveals the disruption in the building; while the columns continue in other directions, a huge rectangle in the building was cut open to build a soaring cathedral into the mosque, filled with light.

The work done to build the church of course required some disruptions in the original structure.

The church is a beautiful one, but the most surprising thing is how once inside it, it feels like a church that could be almost anywhere else–and not at all in the middle of a mosque. Sixteenth century King Carlos V reportedly said, “You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.”

As the pamphlet repeatedly points out, before the mosque, there was actually a church on the site. The old mosaics of St. Vincent’s.

Reuse of Religious Sites (Part II)

In my post of 2008.11.10, I discussed a common phenomenon: the reuse of religious sites. In that post, I covered the Umayyad Mosque, a Pagan to Christian to Muslim conversion in Damascus; the Ayasofya, one of the greater Christian churches ever built, and now mosque/museum; and the Selimiye Mosque, an almost comical cathedral-turned-mosque in Cyprus. (That post is probably worth reading for some background and general thoughts on the practice.) Now a few months further into our trip, I thought I would revisit that topic, with some more examples.

Andalucia, Spain, where we are now, is one of the relatively few regions in the world where Islam (a relatively recent religion, compared to others) was at once dominant, but then overwhelmed by another faith. (The part of Palestine that is now Israel and parts of India come to mind as the only other major examples–other places that went Muslim stayed Muslim.)

Arab/Muslim influence on Spanish culture is not to be underestimated. In architecture, the decorative arts, language, music, dance and countless other aspects of civilization, the footprint of the Muslim period–after all, more than seven hundred years of history–is almost everywhere in Spain (and the New World, through Spain). Such iconic elements of Spanish culture such as ceramic tiling, flamenco and the cheer “Olé” are from the Muslim era in Iberia, as are words such as alcazar (al qasr) and ojalá (Allah). The mix of Christian Spanish and Muslim Arab brought us the great scientific and philosophical flowering called la Convivencia, which some believe helped usher in the European Renaissance through its introduction of classical and Eastern teachings into Western Europe. The Inquisition was successful in destroying this peaceful coexistence and its benefits, but even if essentially no Muslims (or Jews) were to remain in Spain, the brick and mortar of countless mosques survived the transition–as churches.

I am saving the greatest example of mosque-turned-church, the Mezquita or Great Mosque of Cordoba, for the next post, but below are pictures of other mosques and religious structures from the Muslim era, reused through to the present.

The church of Santa Maria la Mayor in Ronda may originally have been a Roman pagan temple and then a Christian church, but its most recent past life as a mosque is immortalized in the remains of a mihrab, visible inside.

Many church steeples in southern Spain clearly had past lives as minarets. The most celebrated is the tower of the Seville Cathedral, called La Giralda (first image), which is almost identical, save reornamentation on the uppermost levels, to the other minarets built by the Morocco-based Almoravids, such as the Koutoubia in Marrakesh (second image).

Below, a lesser minaret/steeple at San Sebastian church in Ronda

The minaret/steeple of San Juan church in Cordoba clearly reveals its much older age, compared to the rest of the church.

The minaret/steeple of San Marcos church in Seville. There are countless more examples.

Minarets are often the most recognizable survivors–presumably because the Christians found it convenient to keep such significant and majestic features, while they were willing to build a new church alongside–but other features also remain. Near the Giralda in Seville, a domed “koubba” of clearly Moorish origin (first image). A similar Almoravid “koubba” in Marrakesh that was part of the Ben Youssef Mosque complex was used for ablutions (second image).

The courtyard of the Seville Cathedral, known as the Plaza de las Naranjas (note that the Spanish–and English–words for the orange, like the fruit itself, came to the West through Persian/Arabic) clearly occupies the remaining open part of the main courtyard of the old mosque (compare to the courtyard of Cairo’s Mosque of ibn Tulun in the second picture below).

The use of the Moorish style in the interior of this chapel in San Pedro church of Seville argues that such styles can be said to be very much Spanish and in some sense native to Spain–as suitable for use in decorating a church as a mosque. Mozarabs (Christians living in Arab Iberia) and Mudejares (Muslims living in Christian Iberia) bridged a synthesis of culture that resulted in some of the greatest notes of la Convivencia, such as the Alhambra (post to come).