I am surveying the triumphant 3-arched facade of the mighty Cathedral of the Incarnation in Granada, Spain, which took nearly 250 years to complete. This Renaissance church was built on top of what was once a mosque. The Reconquista Christians felt so strongly about their one-time rulers that, instead of building the church on favorable footing only 500 yards away, they chose to destroy the muslim house of worship to build on its sandy soil instead. Now, that is carrying a grudge.
Later, I stand atop the Alcazaba fortress tower that offers a commanding view of the city. It is part of the fabled Alhambra Palace, the last great Moorish stronghold in Europe, and it must have made for an impregnable defensive position, buttressed was it was by 100,000 Muslims living in the surrounding city. Yet today, the flag of Spain flies over the complex, because in 1492, after 700 years under the boot heel of the Moorish authorities, the Catholic Monarchs of of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, after a long and bloody war, accepted the surrender of the last sultan of Granada, Boabdil.
Later in the day, I tour the Hall of the Ambassadors in the Palacios Nazaries, which is where the Moorish sultans once held sway. The room is also within the Alhambra complex, and the Quaran is etched into the plaster covering most of the walls. Listen carefully, and you can hear the whispers of a thousand lost souls above the gurgling water, which flows, it seems, everywhere within the palace. And it was in this exact spot, in 1492, only months after the Christian victory, that Queen Isabel approved, over the objections of her advisers, the crazy scheme of a young explorer to find a new route to India. Christopher Columbus bent his knee in gratitude, and the rest is history.
Granada is inextricably linked to Islam via the Moors just as Christianity is indelibly woven into the fabric of this city. Many scholars tell us that the Muslim rulers fostered a flourishing culture devoted to art, science, and literature, and that they allowed a great deal of freedom to their Jewish and Christian subjects. Yet, if that is true, why did the Christians revolt? And, why did they do the best they could to destroy every last mosque in the city? Why did they eventually feel the need to eject all of the remaining muslims from the country nearly 200 years later? Are these the signs of a people grateful to their benevolent Muslim masters? Or are they the signs of two civilizations which are completely incompatible with each other?
The truth is, Moorish rule was largely intolerable for the non-muslim peoples. While Christians were allowed into some high-ranking positions within society, they were considered dhimmis, alien minorities who were forced to pay special taxes and wear identifying clothes. Frequently, they were the targets of pogroms which ended in death or exile for thousands of them. Harems were filled with captured Christian women, and bishops were burned alive. Far from some kind of earthly paradise, the harsh rule of the Moors was actually a living hell for much of the Christian minority. It is for that reason that, although they tried to assimilate the muslims into Catholic Granada, in the end they found it impossible and had to forcibly eject them.
As I enjoy a decent vino blanco at a restaurant near the Church of Saint Nicholas, I watch the lights come on in the Alhambra across the gorge as night falls. Softly, the walls and towers of the palace glow amber against the deepening purple of the night, and as the stars appear overhead, there is a magical feeling that there is something special about this place…about the Alhambra…about Andalusia. So many secrets it seems to hold. So many untold stories. So many possibilities, hidden within the shadows of its ornate screens and hidden cornners. Yet will we ever know the answers?
At the Royal Chapel, next to the cathedral where Ferdinand and Isabel rest, there is a treasury, and it contains the most important artifacts from the reign of that noble pair. There aren’t many such items in the room. The queen’s crown. The king’s sword. A cape. The treasure box that held the collateral for the loan needed for Columbus’ voyage. And under a glass case, a book opened to a page depicting an icon of Christ crucified on the cross, along with some beautiful calligraphy calling for Faith and Strength. It is Isabel’s personal prayer book, now over 500 years old, but it gives us a clue to what real Christians used to think was worth fighting for. Answers, if you want to look for them.
I see a new Europe now. It doesn’t believe in God (though thankfully there are pockets in Spain, Italy, Ireland, and others), but it does believe in tolerance. It believes that all people everywhere are the same, and that Europe can take them all in and absorb them into a multicultural rainbow because after all, we must always respect other cultures, even if they do not respect ours. I wonder what Isabel would think of that? I wonder if the Muslim refugees pouring across the borders into Europe have as little faith in Allah as the indigenous Europeans seem to have in their God? And I wonder why atheist Europeans think that this new experiment in assimilation will work any better than it did the last time?