Andalusia: Once Upon A Time

A few weeks ago in our post on Holy Toledo , we described the era of peace among people belonging to the three religions of Abraham. Christianity came to Spain in Roman times, and the Visigoth invaders were Christians, too, gradually moving from Arianism to Roman Catholicism. Muslims conquered the peninsula in the early 700’s, and the next two hundred years were a kind of golden age, as more and more Jews arrived and the rulers were religiously pluralistic.

Just as Latin was the preferred language in Roman times, Arabic was the language of government and, increasingly, scholars. Jewish and even some Christian books were written in Arabic.  Classes in math, philosophy, geography, medicine and more were held in that language.

“One culture, with three religions” is how the arrangement is often explained. The theme of John’s sabbatical, “trees and rivers,” points to our investigation of ways humans use religion to separate ourselves and, less often, to unite. The three branches of the monotheistic family tree stayed separate. Unlike the branches of a river coming together, Jews, Christians, and Muslims never merged, but they got along fine.

One Culture…olives

The landscape of al-Andalus is shaped by the olive tree.   IMG_5226.jpgThey live a long time: one was apparently planted during 1700 years ago, during the Roman Era.  Spain is the biggest producer of olive oil these days, and plenty of the stuff we buy in the US with Italian labels was shipped in tankers from Spain.  We toured an old olive oil mill near Granada, and saw the grindstone used to make a paste of the olives after soaking them in several changes of salt water.  Below is the giant arm of a press.  The olive paste is put in layers between woven mats and the oil is squeezed out into jars in the floor.


There’s olive oil at most meals, and a dish of olives often arrives with your glass of beer or wine.  A typical breakfast is toasted bread, olive oil, a tomato sauce made with onion, garlic, vinegar, and olive oil, and serrano ham on top.  And speaking of food, the famous Spanish tapas are really wonderful.  You just point to what you want, and faster than you can say “happy meal,” a little plate arrives.  At some bars, they calculate your bill based on the number of toothpicks left on your plate (one per tapa).

One culture…tapas


One Culture, but tribal

Soccer rivalries are worldwide phenomena, but in Seville, for example, there are two teams, Sevilla FC and Real Betis.  Parents have been known to bring ultrasound photos of their unborn kids to the team office to enroll future fans, and a “mixed marriage” in Seville more often is green versus red than Catholic versus, well, non-Catholic.  In the photo below, a young man is buying a team jacket for his son.  The store is apparently agnostic and sells both sets of apparel, but the dad is buying Betis.


One Culture, one dance

You have to include Flamenco in any description of the culture of Andalusia.  Both genders learn it as children, and performances feature the characteristic sad vocals, virtuoso guitar, and intense style of dancing: foot-stomps and taps, evocative arm and hand gestures, and a very serious face.  img_5057Dancers don’t look at the audience.  They look down without looking defeated. It’s an introverted art form, brooding and reflecting on what’s happened.

Somehow, without understanding a word, we knew the artists were describing suffering, and resolution to triumph over suffering.

Flamenco is dramatic, full of regret and determination.

One Culture, Three Religions

1. Christianity

Before Christianity, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain plus Portugal) was full of shrines.  Celtic priests.  Holy places.  Sacred trees.   Christian Romans brought the religion of Jesus here very soon after his death and resurrection appearances, and tradition names the Apostle James son of Zebedee with first preaching the gospel here.  Anyway, the Romans were increasingly Christian, especially after the Edict of Constantine, and then the Visigoths–Arian and then Roman Christians–took over for a couple hundred years as the Dark Ages got darker and darker.  James is known here as Santiago, and became the patron saint of Spain during the Muslim Era and the famous pilgrim trail Camino de Santiago ends at one of his traditional burial places.  img_5049

We learned that Columbus has several burial places, too, though most of his bones are probably in this gold box in the Cathedral of Seville.  (Four kings for pallbearers, huh?  Pretty important guy.)

When the Syria-based Muslims conquered Spain in 711-712, Christians were able to keep their religion, as were Jews, but paid taxes at a higher rate.  The north of Spain was never really Arabized like the south.  A very slow wave of re-conquests as the Spanish call them pushed the various Muslim rulers back, culminating in 1492 in Granada. Catholic Christianity under Ferdinand and Isabella reigned supreme after that.

Some kings were fanatics about spreading Christianity.  Others simply delighted in the massive treasure being looted from the New World, and Catholic Spain was the dominant world power for a hundred years.  img_5047Churches built at the time seem almost obscenely ornate.  Check out the gold-covered carvings on the wall behind the main altar in the Cathedral of Seville, the port which unloaded all that American treasure.

What pleased us more was to discover that at least some of the great Muslim architecture was preserved, even if plenty of mosques were torn down and the marble, bricks, and tiles recycled into churches or monasteries.  In the picture below, the amazing Muslim minaret of Cordoba was turned into a Christian bell tower beside the Cathedral.  We walked up the 39 ramps inside, big enough for the guy who sings the 5x/day call to prayer to climb it on horseback!


Christian kings and bishops often hired Muslim architects, tile masons, plumbers, and water-engineers for their huge projects, because they were much more experienced than anyone else.  Here’s a portion of a tiled room in the Alcazar in Seville.  Our guide took delight in showing us the place in one corner where the tile masons just slapped whatever tiles they had left at the end of the job, some of which didn’t fit the pattern at all.


img_5159The Christian King Charles V who was also the Holy Roman Emperor built a palace for himself and his new bride the Queen of Portugal in 1526.  It’s in the huge Alhambra complex in Granada, which was the last bastion of Islam (and Judaism) for the two hundred years leading up to 1492.  He made sure it was grander than anything the Muslims had built, and as Roman-looking as possible.  This is a portion of the courtyard.

2. Judaism

Very little room for Jews in Spain; none at all after 1492.

Among Jews, Andalusia was known as Sefarad, and their descendants today are known as Sephardic.  As we mentioned in our Toledo post, Jews flocked to certain Iberian cities under Muslim rule, where they found careers in universities, governments, and trade, and where they found protection for their religious traditions.

Their neighborhoods were called Juderias, or Judiarias, and were located in the least desirable quarters of the cities.

At the sephardic Museum in Cordoba, across the street from the synagogue, we read the stories of scores of Conversos–former Jews–subject to the Inquisition.
img_5117Even generations after baptism, former Jewish families were suspected of secretly lighting sabbath candles, teaching their children Hebrew verses, and merely pretending to believe Church teachings.  Here’s a modern painting of a young Jewish man from that time in Cordoba.

I was happy to find the memorial to Maimonides in the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba.  I’d studied his Guide For The Perplexed and selections from Mishneh Torah at Harvard Divinity School, and smiled to find streets nearby named for him and his fellow genius Averroes (Ibn Rushd).  Maimonides taught science and philosophy, elaborated on the idea of an oral as well as written Torah, and wrote the 13 Principles of Faith, which are a bit like a Jewish Creed.  He read Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek writers, in Arabic.  He wrote about the problem of a good God creating people so obviously capable of evil, His understanding of Jewish Law was unparalleled, and he’s still one of the most-quoted authorities.  img_5115He commented that it is better to find 1,000 guilty men innocent than to execute one innocent man.  Here I am, next to a statue he’d have declared idolatrous, but which I am glad some later, presumably Christian, benefactor commissioned.

Maimonides is also known as Rambam, an acronym of his proper name and title, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimonides.  He taught that reason is more important than blind faith, and argued against superstition and religious intolerance.  Nevertheless, when the puritanical Almohads took over Muslim-ruled Spain from the more tolerant Almoravids, he and his family were forced to leave the country.  They ended up in Fes, Morocco, which we’ll be visiting over Christmas vacation, and where he wrote his famous commentary.  Then they went to the Holy Land, and ended up in Egypt.  He became the most famous doctor in the land, treating patients of many languages, religions, and cultures.  He is buried on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, in Tiberias, though Cairo also claims to be his last resting place.

Across the street from the Sephardic Museum in Cordoba is the historic synagogue, sadly closed on the day we were there.  When the Pope heard that the local (Christian) ruler was permitting Jews to build a house of worship tall enough to rival a nearby church, he wrote a scolding letter.  The synagogue was built anyway.  Here’s a photo of the courtyard, courtesy of wikimedia.  It doesn’t look very tall, does it?


3. Islam

Our favorite monument to the Golden Age of cooperation among the three religions is the Cordoba Mosque/Cathedral.  It grew in stages.

  1. Visigoth church
  2. Shared church and mosque for awhile after Muslim conquest
  3. Church razed; big new mosque
  4. Mosque doubled
  5. Doubled again
  6. Even bigger
  7. Small cathedral built inside after Christian reconquest


This picture shows the pillars and the trademark striped double arches of the prayer area.


And then here is the church, like a courtyard in the center of the forest of columns and arches.  The architects showed such respect for the work that came before them, and echoed the Muslim artistry again and again.

The other fantastic Muslim building we visited was the sprawling Alhambra, a city within the city of Granada.  It was built by the last of the Muslim dynasties to rule in Spain, the Nazrids, who got their start in 1238.  Inside the walls are palaces, gardens, a stairway whose railings are miniature aqueducts, a fort, a monastery, and residences for thousands of people. img_5133

The architects designed the Nazrid Palace to keep amazing you as you walked further into its halls and courtyards.  The fountain is guarded by nine marble lions. Water flows through scores of channels in the marble floors, and high ceilings and lots of lattices keep breezes constantly moving.

You might remember the first of the Five Pillars of Islam: “there is no God but God.” The inscription below is quite similar.  You see it all over the Nazrid Palace, because it was their motto: “There is no conqueror but God.”  Was it a defiant reminder to the Christian re-conquerors who wanted every inch of Spain back, including Granada?  Or a humble acknowledgement by a family who rules now, but might not long endure, that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away (Job 1:21)?


al-Andalus today

Finally, here are three pictures I really enjoyed taking, each helping me put peaceful coexistence into perspective.


First: the pulpit in the Mosque-and-Cathedral of Cordoba.

I am not sure I could manage to deliver a sermon with a bull looking up at me from below.


Second, a young couple takes selfies in front of a mosaic depicting the most glorious moment in the history of their home town, Málaga.  You can’t see it really well, but the scene shows the Muslims (Moors) handing the key to the city over to the reconquering Christian soldiers and clergy.  Like so many of us, they are so wrapped up in their own world that history becomes just a decorative backdrop.  They’re at Plaza España in Seville.


And the third picture was more than five hundred years in the making.  Thirteen years ago, the tiny but growing Muslim community in Granada moved into their own mosque, designed to recall most of the pictures on this page and the Golden Age of cooperation and peace.

It features a garden with fountains, an Islamic Study Center, and a prayer area with a careful replica of the niche from the gigantic Cordoba Mosque (the one with the red and white striped arches).

I wish I could say there’s a functioning synagogue in any one of these cities, but I don’t think there is, although there is a small Jewish population.  Someday, maybe.

Sepharad Spain Tile

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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.

One thought on “Andalusia: Once Upon A Time”

  1. Thank you, John. I enjoyed your description of this part of Spain and heartened by your account of the history of cooperation among the three major religions. Your calling as a teacher comes through. I’m happy to say that I have a “Moorish” ancestor on my mother’s side.


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