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.

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