Spain: Moorish Traces and Basque Country

Starting in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Jews and Muslims, and Columbus helped Europe become “unstuck,” Spain became the biggest world power.  They conquered, colonized, and looted America.  Millions of indiginous people died from enslavement, unknown diseases, and genocides.  In Spain, those details don’t usually appear in the story.

“Hispanidad” refers to Spanishness.  Spanish Places.  In the center of the northern city of Zaragoza is the Fuente De Hispanidad.  It’s a gigantic map of Latin America, minus México because they couldn’t buy the lot next door, I guess.  Here’s a Google Earth Satellite photo.


Here’s a picture of the fountain I took.  There is a nice walkway along the Equator…


After sunset–which is happening awfully early these days–we visited the Aljaferia (“Palace of Joy”) built by Abu Jafar al-Muqtadir in the late 1000’s CE.  At the time, Zaragoza was the capital of an independent Arab-led Muslim kingdom.  Part of the original palace still stands, a square tower with those wonderful “horseshoe” arches.

The reconstructed entrance to the palace also features a metal detector, because the palace now also houses the regional parliament of Aragon.


The thousand year-old, restored mosque is just inside. Here’s a picture of the mosque’s niche facing Mecca, courtesy of WordPress Blog Stars In Symmetry:

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Zaragoza is famous in Spain for its widespread use of Moorish architecture and architects, even after 1492.  Here’s a wall from the Catholic Cathedral, courtesy of the blogger Joseph Cerrone (my photo of this same wall was taken on a rainy day).  Representational art is frowned upon in Islam, and thus calligraphy and intricate geometric designs take over.


We’re headed for several more Spanish cities where Islam was an important influence: Toledo, Córdoba, and Granada.  And although they were banned for centuries, Muslims are slowly returning to Spain, mostly immigrants from Morocco, a former colony.

The story of the Basques is a great example of cultural survival.  Fortunately, they were strongly Catholic, although not so much since the Franco era, 1939-1978.  They speak a very old language full of Z’s, K’s, and X’s which is unrelated to any other language in Europe.  The survival of their language is a miracle.  Their country straddles the Pyrenees Mountains, in Spain mostly, but partly in France.  They also speak the official languages of whichever country they live in, but in Spain, their nationalism is flourishing, as well as a fading separatist terrorist movement, E.T.A.

From Zaragoza, we drove to The Basque Country, where suddenly everything is green, where the mountains are small but steep, and where signs are in both languages.  We were curious about the survival of this small nationality, and about how they fared in the Civil War 1936-1939).  The capital of Basque Country is Gernika, better known by its Spanish name, Guernica, and tragically famous for being saturation-bombed by German planes on April 26, 1939 in a chilling rehearsal for World War II.

The Peace Museum in Guernica tells the story of a woman whose house was not spared, and who survived the attack in a bomb shelter.  Hundreds of her neighbors were killed in their houses, in the streets, or in shelters not dug deep enough into the mountainsides.  The Euskal Herria Museum houses the Basque Regional Parliament, and on the front steps, Lynnell (below) asks one of the curators what role the Catholic Church plays in modern Basque society.  The answer is not so different from what we heard in earlier cities: “most people are only Catholic in name.  The Church was so deeply entwined with militarism and the Franco regime that hardly anyone is religious any more.”  The Church has never apologized for supporting the military coup that launched the Civil War, or cheering the deaths of trade unionists, Basque nationalists, and the idealist hippies of the 1930’s who called themselves anarchists.


The modern center of Basque life is probably Bilbao, though Guernica is where the beloved Oak Tree stands, under which centuries of Basque Councils have assembled to hammer out laws and procedures.  In Basque, it’s called Bilbo, and I am not sure if Tolkein named Mr. Baggins with this city in mind.  The great landmark in Bilbo is the Guggenheim Museum:


Neither of us really loved most of the art inside, but what do we know?  There was one wonderful film in the round, shown on eight screens.  Sam Taylor-Johnson filmed a small BBC orchestra playing Sigh, composed by Anne Dudley.  The filmmaker had the musicians mime every gesture and facial expression but without their instruments.  The result was, for us, winsome and beautiful.  It wasn’t as if they were pretending.  It felt completely real, and reminded us that “it’s the musician that matters, not the instrument.”  Her film ended up being our favorite.

John’s last picture for this post is a painting of the Basque Saint Ignatius of Loyola, from the museum in Guernica.  Ignatius founded the Jesuits along with five others, and the Jesuits were the vanguard in the Catholic Church’s “Counter-Reformation,” accepting Protestant critiques of the Church’s corruption, but insisting that the essence of Christianity was still what Rome said it was: tradition, sacraments, saints, and the sort of discipline which would make an army officer proud.


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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

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