CENTURIES after the fall of the last Moorish enclave of Granada in 1492, it is said that the descendants of Spanish Muslims living in the Moroccan cities of Faiz and Marrakesh were still holding on to keys to their ancestral homes left behind in the Andalusian cities of Malaga, Granada and Almeria. They clung to the hope that they would return home one day. That day never came.
Many of us originating in the subcontinent grew up with nostalgic notions of the glories of Muslim Spain in the Middle Ages — some based on reality and some mere fantasy. Our attachment to memories of a far-flung Arab/Islamic empire that vanished long ago is a powerful testament to the dedication of Muslims of the subcontinent to all memories that are Islamic. There is, nevertheless, little evidence that there was any contact between the Muslims in India and that of Spain during the peak of their grandeur.
I first visited Spain as part of an international work group when I was a student in England in the 1960s. The country and its institutions, at the time, were in the firm grip of General Francisco Franco. Unlike most countries of Western Europe, there was no political freedom in Spain and Catholic religious tenets greatly influenced everyday life. Evidence of poverty was common and in respect to services and efficiency, the country resembled a third-world society.
Modern Spain, however, is much different. It has blossomed under democracy and its standard of living today (per capita income $16,500) is approaching that of the rest of Western Europe. The country that, for many centuries, waged wars and conducted the infamous inquisitions in the name of Catholicism, no longer recognizes state religion under its 1978 Constitution. It is currently experiencing a low birth rate, common with many other European countries, and had to import a large number of immigrants last year in order to keep its industries and other services functional.
As my son, Zubair, and I waited for our connecting flight to Philadelphia at Washington’s National Airport on new year’s eve, the beautiful, newly-built airport — a masterpiece of modern architecture — looked desolate and forlorn. Only a few shops and restaurants were open and there were even fewer customers. In the aftermath of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, the airport had been servicing less than half its usual number of flights. We were the only passengers on the commuter plane to Philadelphia, apart from two others that turned out to be US Sky Marshals. After landing at Madrid’s airport, we found the custom and passport check procedures chaotic, somewhat reminiscent of the situation one expects in developing countries. Zubair has acquired an elementary knowledge of Spanish which proved helpful to us throughout the trip.
We took a train from Madrid to Cordoba on the day of our arrival. The ride was both comfortable and enjoyable. Lunch was served on the train with proper crockery and cutlery — a luxury that is fast becoming history on aeroplanes. Cordoba is a small city now and the train station reflects its current diminished stature. However, in its glory days in the 10th Century, when it served as the seat of the western Islamic Caliphate and a vast empire, it is reported to have had 113,000 homes, 70 libraries, numerous mosques and miles of illuminated and paved roads, facilities unrivalled in the rest of Europe. Travellers visiting the city were struck with awe and admiration. Only Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire, could rival it in magnificence.
We had reserved hotel accommodation in the old Jewish quarters in Cordoba, said to have changed little during the past thousand years. With its narrow lanes, whitewashed houses and neatly arranged patios, the quarter gives the appearance of a mediaeval enclave. It is surrounded by a massive ancient city wall and all the historic sites, the Jamia Qurtuba, (now Mezquita of Cordoba), Roman Bridge and Madinat al-Zahra, the fabled city built by Caliph Abd-al-Rehman III, were in easy reach. Orange groves, laden with fruits, are a ubiquitous sight in Cordoba, adorning pavements and private homes.
For a long time, the Spanish skipped the Islamic period of their nation’s history, pretending as if it did not exist and characterizing it as an era of the colonial occupation of their land. As commented by a visiting Turkish-American young lady whom we happened to meet at the mosque while waiting in line, “The realization has finally come that the Arabs made a major contribution to Spanish civilization and that era is an integral part of the country’s history.” This realization is manifest in several ways. Within a few yards of our hotel, we saw a statue erected by the city of Abn Rushd (Averroes in the West) (1126-1188 AD) — the celebrated Muslim physician and philosopher who reinterpreted the work of Aristotle for western scholars. Close by stands the statue of Musa-ibn-Maymun (Maimonides in the West), a most renowned Jewish physician, philosopher and rabbi of the Middle Ages who was born in Cordoba in 1135 AD. He spent most of his working life in Cairo as the personal physician of Sultan Salah Uddin. Several other statues of lesser-known Muslim poets and thinkers also brighten the city parks and thoroughfares.
The most venerated monument in Cordoba is, of course, the Friday Mosque, which is now known as a mosque/cathedral and attracts a large number of tourists. The mosque fell prey to the universal rule of the day that the places of worship change hands following military conquests. They belonged to the victors, no longer the vanquished. The mosque was built by Amir Abd-al-Rehman I, the first Umaiyad Amir of Cordoba, in 785A.D. It was subsequently expanded by his successors, Abd-al-Rehman II and Al Hakam, who added an exquisite Mehrab (pillar). The mosque’s outer quadrangle, used to perform Wuzo (ablutions) in the olden days, today is covered with orange trees. The mosque itself is vast in size and completely covered with very little natural light coming in. A visitor is stunned by the sight of forest of graceful arches and pillars, some 850 of them, built with Granite marble and Jasper.
The Spanish government has done an excellent job of the restoration that is constantly going on, and has now successfully recreated and restored some of the original beauty of the mosque. The main building is surrounded by numerous small Catholic chapels, all highly ornamented with gilded artwork. When we visited the mosque, it was early morning and a chilly breeze was blowing outside. It was cold inside and the mosque was suffused with a mysterious, soothing milky light emitted by many ornate Moorish lamps hanging by the ceilings.
The Muslim/Arab power in Spain reached its zenith during the reign of Abd-al-Rehman III (912-961A.D.), when almost all the Iberian Peninsula was unified and he assumed the title of Caliph. His reign was characterized by complete religious tolerance and Jews and Christians rose to positions of power and eminence. In 930A.D., he built the sumptuous city of Madinat al-Zahra, in honour of one of his favourite wives. It was located only a few miles from Cordoba, on the slopes of Sierra Morena. Excavation work has been in progress for many years and some ruins of this majestic city have been uncovered.
The government is now attempting to painstakingly recreate some of its past splendour. The main throne room where the Caliph received ambassadors and dignitaries has been largely restored to its original style. It is said that here, in the past, stood a shallow bowl of mercury which shimmered with reflected sunbeams, dazzling royal visitors. Even today, the view from the upper reaches of the vast vista below is breathtaking. The beautiful city of the Caliph Abd-al-Rehman III had only a brief life span. Barely 80 years after its birth, Madinat al-Zahra was ransacked and destroyed by marauding Barber tribesmen from North Africa. Weakened and devastated by internecine fighting, Cordoba was finally conquered by King Fernando III in 1236.
As we prepared to leave Cordoba for Granada, the clouds started to lift and the once mighty capital of the western Muslim empire glistened in brilliant sunshine under a deep blue sky. The city might have lost its worldly power, but its enchanting natural beauty remains eternal.