Many years ago I visited the curious Church, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, in Córdoba, Spain. In the center of the enormous church is a Renaissance Catholic cathedral.It is surrounded by a massive network of arches brightly decorated with red stripes, supported by 856 columns, a model of magnificent Moslem architecture. Starting in 784, the Islam invaders took over this then Visigoth Christian Church and over a period of two centuries converted it into the Great Mosque of Córdoba. In 1236, with the Spanish Reconquista, it was again converted into a center of Catholic worship, and a cathedral nave was inserted into the middle of the structure. What I was experiencing, though I did not realize it at the time, was a remnant of a golden age of multiculturalism in Spain.
This age was ushered in by Islam. In the eighth century, the Muslims invaded Hispania. What they found there were settlements of Jews and Christian Visigoths. The name of the conquered land was changed to Al Andalus, and Abd-ar-Rahmancreated unified rule and proclaimed himself Emir of Córdoba.
Islam recognizes the kinship of “People of the Book”, and offered the inhabitants of Al Andalus protection and tolerance.With the Caliphate of Abd-ar-Rahman III, multiculturalism saw an age of tolerance and partnership. There was freedom of worship. Citizenry had access to libraries, lighting, and bathing, which had been the province of only the royalty. The old Roman canals were revitalized, magnificent gardens were planted, and agriculture flourished (curiously called the “Green Revolution”). Poetry, science, music, literature, trade and theater blossomed. The knowledge, wisdom, and artistry of the disparate cultures were cultivated and found creative expression.
Civil war brought about the fall of the Caliphate in 976 A.D. What ensued was an era of intolerance. Muslim preachers/poets initiated a series of attacks on the Jews of Al Andalus. More radical, conservative North African Muslims invaded Spain and were scandalized by the luxury enjoyed by the Al Andaluzan Muslims, and began a process of purification, that included the expulsion of Christians and Jews. Pope Alexander II wanted to clear the Muslims out of Europe, initiating a movement of intolerance that later became the Crusades and found eventual expression in the Spanish Inquisition.
On the Southern tip of Al Andalus, the region of Grenada, geographical isolation enabled the last vestige of multiculturalism to flourish until Ferdinand and Isabella married and unified Reconquista forces to overtake Grenada in 1492. The Alhambra, with its gardens, fountains, colors, and, most remarkably, intricately and lavishly garnished palace, remains a beautiful vestige and tribute to the Islam tolerance that tapped multiculturalism’s potential.
Today, Spanish Muslims are prohibited from worship in the Great Mosque of Córdoba.