Saturday, April 16, 2011

British are latest invaders of Spain, and not the worst

St. James Church, Lakewood, Ohio, shows Arabic influence in its pointed arches and decorative mosaics (Examiner photo)
On my first trip to Europe about 25 years ago, I was with a group that was given lessons in history and culture in all three cities we visited -- Genoa in Italy, and Seville and Barcelona in Spain.

When I returned I happened to be back in my hometown of Lakewood, Ohio, standing in front of St. James Catholic Church and was struck for the first time by all the Arabic influence in the facade, obvious to me now after seeing Moorish architecture in Seville. The pointed arches and the decorative mosaics were clearly influenced by designers steeped in Islam.

Were the Irish Catholics of St. James parish aware of this irony? The founding pastor was. He authorized a design from a Sicilian church of the 12th century whose craftsmen likely included Muslims. (The church’s architectural history is explained here.)

To the victors...

Since that time I have visited many more places around the Mediterranean, and the history has a sameness to it, with only the names and dates changed. The prosperous residents of a place are set upon by armed invaders who want their land, their mines, their trade routes, their gold, etc. Thousands are slaughtered, a new language and culture are introduced, great palaces and places of worship are built, and mighty walls are fortified to protect it all until the next horde of armed invaders comes along. 

The nightmare of history

I believe this is part of what the character Stephen Daedalus is referring to in Joyce’s novel "Ulysses" when he says, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." The history we learn is a story of warlords who happen to employ squads of artists and poets to glorify their conquests and who subsidize the religion that makes their triumphs divinely justified.

Bull ring, Malaga, southern Spain

Roman theater, also in Malaga, Spain

In Spain the story goes something like this: the Iberians were set upon by the Celts from the north about 1,600 B.C. My travel book says that the Spanish word for beer, cerveza, is of Celtic origin. It figures -- Celts and beer.

The Phoenicians and Greeks arrived in the south and east somewhat later. The Romans and the Carthaginians (Phoenicians whose city was near modern day Tunis and was puzzled over by George C. Scott in "Patton") battled over Spain and the Mediterranean for several hundred years. The Carthaginian general Hannibal used Spain as his base of operations to lead his armies and elephants all the way to Rome.

We learned about all of this in 10th grade Latin class, including the famous phrase of the Roman politician, Cato the Elder, who ended all of his speeches with the phrase, "Carthago delenda est" -- Carthage must be destroyed. And so it was, in 146 B.C.

In the waning days of the Empire, the Romans themselves were set upon in Spain by the barbarian tribe known as the Vandals, who gave their name to juvenile delinquents everywhere. The Romans brought in their own band of thugs, the Visigoths, to hold off the Vandals, a task they evidently executed well.

They may have been thugs, but the Visigoths were Christians and they built many churches. These churches, however, were replaced by mosques, starting in 711, when  Arabic-speaking Muslims known in history as the Moors quickly conquered the Iberian peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal).

The term "Moor" is a fairly imprecise term to describe all of the Muslim dynasties that successively ruled over Spain for eight centuries, but it does serve to distinguish them from the Christians.

The Moorish occupation makes Spain quite different from Italy and France. Spanish is filled with Arabic words (azucar for sugar and azafran for saffron are two common ones), and the Islamic architecture was so admired by Christians that many churches incorporate the styles. 

At the Alhambra palace in Granada, the Moorish influence is apparent.
Today we hiked up to the Alhambra palace in Granada. It is a fantastic place with many vestiges of the Nasrid dynasty, the last holdout to fall to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492, the eventful year in which Columbus sailed to the West and the Spanish expelled the Jews from the peninsula.

Bushes shaped into battlements in the Alhambra

The British are among the most recent invaders of Spain, albeit peaceably. As many as 600,000 of them may have relocated, mainly to the southern coast. Their ready cash fueled a construction boom in which local public officials did not always follow laws for zoning and housing regulation. Things were especially out of hand in Marbella, as this story indicates. 

No slaughter this time, no new religion introduced, only British accents noticeable in many parts of Andalucia. 

The Alhambra palace and fortress dominate the city of Granada.

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