It is not the collision of the tectonic plates that I am alluding to here or the drift of the continents nudging each other out, it is the mighty clash of dominant religions from the adjoining Continents. The religion of Islam from the East (the Middle East and North Africa) crossed over to the West in Spain and clashed for centuries for prominence.
Spain was the battle ground of two dominant religions vying out for territorial gains. Islam from North Africa and North West of Middle East eyed Spain some twelve centuries ago as the gateway to Europe for religious expansion. Obviously, the dominant religion (Catholicism) of the region resisted and fought back and what happened during the next few centuries not only shaped Spain but also the whole of Europe.
Recently I travelled to ‘Classical Spain’ with the Riviera Travels visiting places like Seville, Cordoba and Granada, among others, where Islam came, conquered and eventually beaten and relinquished the gains some centuries later in the face of relentless adversarial reaction from the indigenous religions.
Our travel started when we landed at Malaga airport (a southern coastal city of Spain), when Riviera Travels grouped together tourists from Manchester and South of England and brought them through Manchester and Gatwick airports. We spent the night at a 4* hotel which was some 1100 ft above the sea level and hemmed in on the sloping banks of a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. After a drink reception in the evening followed by buffet dinner where I came to know other tourists, I retired.
Next morning, we travelled to Ronda, a small town on the outskirts of Sierra de Grazalema national park trekking a scenic route past Marbella (a holiday resort famous for night clubs) and on the way managed to have a glimpse of Gibraltar across the sea. It is surprising that for such a desolate rocky mountainous outpost, two countries went to battles a number of times over the centuries. We spent nearly five hours in Ronda, which is famous for bull fighting, in particular. It is claimed that bull fighting started in Ronda, but other cities like Seville and Madrid would dispute that vehemently. After having fantastic mixed tapas for lunch, we went to see the ‘new bridge’ connecting two hill cliffs over a gorge of some four hundred feet drop. The sound of cascading water in the gorge is soothing, but the sight of hundreds of feet of almost vertical drop is awesome. As I looked from the bridge down the gorge, I saw people trekking along the small stream meandering along the boulders, rocks and some tropical trees.
Another three hours of bus trip took us to the famous city of Seville. After checking in at the hotel at the centre of the city, we went to have ‘tapas tasting’ at a local restaurant (given free for Riviera travellers) and then after the dinner, we went to see the famous ‘Mushroom Tower’. This ‘Mushroom Tower’ has a fascinating history. Some twelve years ago, Seville politicians had the bright idea of digging a tunnel across that area to construct a relief road. As they dug, they started getting more and more Roman artefacts and then they found a Roman burial chamber. Obviously, they could not demolish the Roman Remains for the relief road. They built an archeological museum on the burial site and a fantastic mushroom bridge towering over the surrounding areas (some three hundred feet above the street level) had also been built. The site now is a major tourist attraction.
Seville is a place bristling with numerous historical and cultural monuments from both Islam and Christianity. The next morning, we had been taken by a bus to have a whirlwind tour of the city – so that afterwards we could go and see individual attractions at our leisure. We saw Seville Cathedral with the Giralda, Alcazar palace, the bullring and then we walked through the Maria Luisa garden to Plaza de Espania (half-crescent palace).
Seville Cathedral (Spanish: Catedral de Santa Maria) is a Roman Catholic cathedral. It is the third largest cathedral in the world (after the St Peter’s cathedral in Rome and St Paul’s cathedral in London). Seville was conquered by the Umayyad in 712 AD. The Almohad caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf decided to construct a grand mosque in the city in 1172 on the site where a mosque was built in 829 by Umar Ibn Adabbas. The grand mosque that was built was massive in size (15,000 sq.m. internal space) but it was not completed until 1198.
Shortly after the conquest of the city by Ferdinand III, the grand mosque was ‘Christianized’ by converting it to city’s cathedral. In 1401, city’s leaders decided to build a massive cathedral on the site so grand that people would say after its completion that the leaders were simply mad. The work was not, however, completed until 1506!
But some aspects of the grand mosque were preserved. The courtyard for ablution for the Muslim faithful was preserved. Now it is a long pool of water, some 15 ft wide, with fountains on both sides criss-crossing the pool and orange trees adorning it. Also, the minaret of the mosque (some 342 ft high) was kept, but converted into a bell tower, known as La Giralda, which is now the iconic symbol of the city. There are wide ramps, not steps, that lead up to the bell tower. The muezzin used to go up the ramps on horse back to the bell tower to carry out calls for prayers five times a day! The cathedral also contains Christopher Columbus’ burial site.
Alcazar is a royal palace, built for the Christian king, Peter of Castile, on the site of an Abbadid Muslim residential fortress. The name Alcazar comes from the Arabic word al-qasr (the castle). The castle, with its extensive garden, was used as a royal palace by the Moorish rulers. It is still being used as a royal palace and, in fact, it is the oldest royal palace in Europe. In 1987 the cathedral, the adjacent Alcazar palace complex were all given the status of World Heritage Sites.
In the evening, at 9pm, we went to the Flamenco performance. The gypsies from Southern Spain created the flamenco dance and music since their arrival at Andalusia in the 15th century. It is said that the gypsies came from a region of northern India called Sid, which is now in Pakistan. The folk-lore of Andalusia is conveyed by vibrant expressive dance, trapping of feet and the accompanying music. It was very entertaining.
After spending three nights in Seville we headed for the famous Moorish city of Cordoba. We did not spend night in Cordoba, but spent the whole day there. We visited the Royal Palace, the famous Mezquita (mosque) and a museum. Cordoba, during the Moorish time, had the largest library in the world and the Cordoba University is reputed to be the oldest university (older than Oxford by centuries). After lunch we headed for Granada through the countryside covered with olive groves and absorbed the spectacular views of Sierra Nevada Mountains.
We stayed in a hotel in Granada right on top of a mountain next to the Alhambra palace. Next morning we walked to Alhambra Palace and spent literally the whole day exploring various avenues and absorbing the lifestyles and traditions of bygone days. The history and tradition of Muslim rulers were conveyed to us by a local tourist guide. That the ruler would come in to one of the chambers (which chamber would not be disclosed previously for security reasons), sit on a high chair to give audience to the public is still being practiced by many Muslim leaders in many countries. (It is said that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh practiced the same tradition). The following morning we went on a train tour (actually a bus shaped like a train) of the city, had lunch there and came back in time to board a bus to go back to Malaga airport.
After the hectic seven days we headed back to England.
A Rahman is an author and a columnist