Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Stories from Early Islamic Iberia (711-911)

By 475, a Germanic (Visigothic) Christian state had taken control of almost all of Roman Christian Iberia. By 589, its rulers had become Roman Catholics.

In 711 a Muslim army invaded Iberia from Carthaginia. Later reinforced, it took control of almost all of Iberia by 718. The area of Iberia controlled by a Muslim state came to be known as al-Andalus, or Andalusia, with its capital, beginning in 717, in Córdoba.

755 Abd al-Rahman 1st (731-788), last surviving prince of the assassinated Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, completed his escape by arriving in Iberia in 755. Within a year, he had taken control of the Muslim state there.

The Mosque of Córdoba started as church building constructed around 600. Abd al-Rahman bought it in 784 and had it converted into a mosque. Rulers after him continued to enlarge and beautify the mosque for the next two hundred years.

In constructing and expanding the Mosque's main hall, workers began with Roman columns, took the unusual step of adding double arches above them to allow a higher ceiling, and used jasper, onyx, and marble to beautify the whole. By doing so they created a unique architectural masterpiece and one of the most beautiful buildings of any kind in Olympia. People of all social classes then used the hall for centuries to pray, listen to sermons on Fridays, teach, and argue legal cases.

Spanish Christians captured Córdoba in 1236. Immediately they started using the Mosque as a church. Their greatest sin, however, occurred in the 1500s when they constructed a large mediocre church building right in the middle of the prayer hall. The result embarrassed even the emperor Charles 5th who had authorized it.

In 778 a small battle occurred in the Pyrenees near the village of Roncesvalles as Charlemagne was leading thousands of troops out of Iberia. It had no historical significance. A group of armed Basques attacked the last soldiers returning to Gallia and made off with some loot.

The legend of the battle, however, lives on to this day in the Song of Roland: our oldest existing literature written in French. In the poem, Roland and his men are betrayed by his step-father. They are attacked not by Basques but by Muslims. Roland, his closest comrades, and their men fight bravely, slaughter many, but are overwhelmed by the sheer number of their enemies. Roland decides too late to blow his ivory hunting horn for help from the army marching ahead of them. He and his friends die but Charlemagne hears Roland's mighty blast, returns and defeats the Muslims, discovers the treachery of Roland's stepfather, and has him executed.

Catholic Christian tradition tells us that the apostle James son of Zebedee preached the gospel of Jesus in Iberia around AD 40 before returning to Jerusalem where he died. His disciples took his body to the sea and placed it in a boat. An angel then miraculously guided the boat back to Iberia where grateful Christians then buried the body of their patron saint. During the turmoil of the times which followed, however, they forgot where.

This same tradition tells us that, in 814, a monk miraculously rediscovered the marble tomb containing the body of Saint James, or Santiago, in Galicia: the northwest corner of an Iberia otherwise controlled by a Muslim state from Córdoba. Alfonso 2nd, Christian ruler of Galicia, heard of this discovery, became the first pilgrim to Santiago, had a church building constructed at the site, and endowed communities of monks to care for the site and for the pilgrims who would follow him. Millions did and continue to walk to Santiago de Compostela even today.

Rediscovery of the body of Santiago inspired the weak and squabbling Spanish Christian rulers remaining in northern Iberia to unite and attack their far stronger Muslim neighbor to the south. Catholic Christian tradition even tells us that, in 834, St. James miraculously appeared on a white stallion and led a vastly outnumbered Christian army to victory against a Muslim army. After this he became known as St. James the Moor-slayer (Santiago Matamoros) and the cry of Spanish Christian armies ever since has been“St. James and strike for Spain.”

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.