by Thomas J. Abercrombie
Vol. 174, No. 1, July 1988.
Through parting curtains of drizzle the lights of Africa dissolved into the widening gray dawn. Climbing back on deck with course corrections and hot coffee, I watched the last ghosts of lightning dance off the flanks of Morocco’s Jabal Musa just astern. To the east a fine day was building; already the first breezes stiffened our sails and, gently heeling, our small chartered sloop Nejmah–Arabic for “star”–started to gallop.
“Perfect weather for a morning’s sail–or an intercontinental passage,” said my Spanish shipmate, Rafa, beaming from behind the wheel. Here the narrow Gibraltar Strait is one of the few places a sailor can combine the two. The radio forecast confirmed our optimism, and as Rafa eased our bow to 015 magnetic to allow for the tide, I switched the dial back to Spain’s Radio Flamenco. We scanned the rising mists ahead for our landfall, snapping fingers to a Gypsy guitar.
“Ole, que bonita!” Rafa exclaimed. “Wow, what a beaut!” A beacon for mariners since the dawn of seafaring, the famous Rock was one of the Pillars of Hercules (Jabal Musa, twice as high behind us, formed the other). For the ancients they marked the boundary of the known world. To the occupying British, strategic “Gib” with its history of heroic sieges remains a monument to empire. Spain vociferously claims the tiny peninsula, a natural extension of its own soil.
Rafa–Rafael de Tramontana y Gayangos, the Marquis of Gaudacorte–measured the scene with his own thoughts. Before Spain lost Gibraltar to England in 1713, the Guadacortes ruled hereabouts. A grandson of Dr. Pascual Gayangos, Spain’s first modern Arabist, Rafa now presides over the Fundacion Gayangos, a Madrid-based institute to promote cultural exchange between Spain and its Muslim neighbors. For me the stronghold marked the first stop on a journey into a neglected corner of Europe’s history, a distant time when Muslims ruled Spain, and Islam visited its mind on the West.
The creed of Islam had been revealed to the seventh-century prophet-statesman Muhammad in distant Arabia. It spread swiftly, embracing the entire desert peninsula by the time of his death in 632. Six years later Syria and Palestine fell to the zealots. From their new capital in Damascus, Muslim armies fanned eastward through Mesopotamia to India and Central Asia, westward to the Nile and across North Africa. A century after the birth of Islam, its call to prayer rang from minarets all the way from the Atlantic to the outskirts of China, an empire larger than Rome’s at its zenith.
History named these Muslim conquerors of Spain “Moors,” probably because they arrived by way of Morocco. The Moors themselves never used the term. They were Arabs, from Damascus and Medina, leading armies of North African Berber converts. Most married into Spanish and Visigoth families or took fair- skinned Galician slaves to wife; soldiers all, they brought no women with them. From this heady mix of race and culture sprang the Moorish civilization, an adventure that would last 900 years, one that would change the face–and the soul–of Spain forever.
Rafa and I were bobbing in the wake of Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Muslim general. With soldiers and horses in four borrowed boats, he crossed from Ceuta on the African side–as did we–and set up his beachhead on the narrow ledge below the Rock where the town of Gibraltar huddles today, then dispatched the tiny fleet back to ferry the rest of his army.
In the spring of 711, Tariq marched northward from Gibraltar with 12,000 Muslims. At the Rio Barbate, south of Cadiz, the invaders met the hastily gathered forces of Spain’s Visigoth king, Roderic. “Before us is the enemy; behind us, the sea,” shouted Tariq, drawing his scimitar. “We have only one choice: to win!”
For an already faltering Visigoth rule, the battle of Barbate proved the mortal wound. King Roderic was slain; his body was never recovered. Whole battalions deserted, and the Christian army crumbled. The Islamic conquest of Spain was thus set in motion.
“Only recently have the Spanish begun to approach their Islamic past,” Rafa said. “We take pride in our sangre pura, pure blood. No Catholic wants to face the thought of Moors on the family tree. “But we are finding that much of what we think of as ‘pure Spanish,’ our architecture, our temperament, our poetry and music–even our language–is a blend from a long Arabic heritage.” In the weeks ahead I would find even more marks of the Moors on the face and heart of Spain.
Only two hours from the African coast we sailed Nejmah past Europa Point Light and into the lee of the Rock to tie up at Marina Bay, just below the lofty Moorish castle built by Tariq’s successors. Shops, warehouses, traffic-clogged streets, quays, and dockyards now cover any traces of the first Arab conquerors, all except one: The name Gibraltar descends from jabal Tariq, Arabic for “Tariq’s mountain.”
I visited the hillside Arab fortress with a knowledgeable Gibraltar friend, Richard Garcia, a former schoolteacher with a passion for the history that crowds his town. Along the way Richard showed me Moorish walls, traces of an Arab gate, the domed baths now housing Gibraltar’s small museum. Narrow lanes and steep stone steps led us up a block of modern high rises that today fills the large castle yard to the 80-foot-high tower that dominates the town and its harbor.
“Abu al-Hasan, a Moroccan king, refurbished the tower in 1333, and he built it to last,” Richard said, pointing out small starburst patterns that pocked the ramparts. “Cannonballs barely scratched the ten-foot-thick walls. “The tower suffered 14 major sieges,” he said. “Several times its defenders were starved out, but no army ever took it by force.”
I was surprised to find the fortress still inhabited. The high-walled keep, just below the tower, serves as Gibraltar’s lockup. Douglas Gaetto, an officer at the jail, showed me its newly painted cell blocks and what must be the world’s smallest soccer field, squeezed into the prison yard. In cellars below we prowled rows of dungeons used for solitary confinement until the turn of the century. They faced on to a gallows courtyard and a lime pit once used to reduce corpses of the condemned.
“We have only eight ‘guests’ at the moment, small-time smugglers mostly. All short-termers,” Officer Gaetto said. “We are looking forward to newer, larger quarters. Money will surely be appropriated. The problem is–as always on this tight little island–where to build it?”
Gibraltar’s claustrophobia was aggravated during Spain’s 16- year-long closure of its narrow land border, a ban lifted only in 1985. At his office I talked about the isolation with Jon Searle, then editor of the Gibraltar “Chronicle.” “We are 29,000 people perched together on two and a half square miles of cliffs and beaches,” Searle said. “The blockage deepened our siege mentality. We developed more ties with Tangier across the strait.” And of Spain’s oft voiced claims to the Rock? “The British Empire is history now. In the age of the missile, Gibraltar’s strategic value has dropped,” Searle said. “Britain just might be happy to let Spain have it. But how can it, really? We Gibraltarians are bilingual, our culture tied to both Spain and England. But we prefer to remain under the Union Jack. In a recent referendum only 44 voters cast their lot with Spain.”
Still marveling at the vagaries of history, I followed the conquering footsteps of Tariq ibn Ziyad northward. After the victory at the Rio Barbate he had moved swiftly. One by one the Spanish cities fell to him, often betrayed by their own citizens long chafing under the Visigoths. Early in 712, after a perfunctory siege, his Muslims galloped through the gates of the Visigoth capital, Toledo. The Christian armies, those left, were pinned in the northernmost mountains of Spain.
Hemmed by walls, moated by a loop of the Rio Tajo, Toledo remained for nearly 400 years a stronghold of the Moors, who spun its tangled web of steep streets and narrow plazas. Its role as a border fortress is today recalled by the huge military school that sits atop an adjoining bluff.
In 1085 Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon wrested the city from the Moors; the Reconquista, or Reconquest of Spain by the Christians, had begun in earnest. But for several centuries after Toledo’s recapture, the city remained bilingual, tolerant. Alfonso X patronized an important 13th-century translation school where Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars collaborated to render Arabic manuscripts into Latin–masterpieces like the commentaries on Aristotle by Ibn Rushd (Averroes); works on algebra and mathematics by al-Khwarizmi (from whose name comes our term “logarithm”); and the Canon of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), which remained Europe’s standard medical textbook for 500 years.
Christians raised a cathedral befitting a capital of Castile and dozens of churches and convents. Toledo remains the country’s religious capital; its archbishop still reigns as primate of Spain. Today synagogues and mosques have been restored and splendid palaces opened to the public–museums to display Toledo’s abundant heritage. The whole city has been officially declared a national monument.
Artists and artisans, plying old Moorish crafts, still prosper. On Calle Santo Tome a shopwindow sparkling with gold drew me inside to the friendly workbench of master craftsman Modesto Aguado-Martin. With a jeweler’s hammer and steel point he deftly laid 24-carat thread into delicate patterns scored on a black iron platter. “We turn out Madonnas, Bible scenes, and Star of David motifs, all popular with tourists who day-trip down from Madrid,” Senor Aguado said, tapping away. “But, as you see, we specialize in arabesque designs. “The art of damascene, as its name implies, came here from Damascus,” he continued, the tiny hammer never missing a beat. “This is an authentic Toledo design; it could have come from the dome of a tenth-century mosque. Pure Arabic.”
A local sculptor, Maximo Revenga, took me to a Toledo museum he helped restore, the Taller del Moro, literally, the “Moor’s workshop,” although it never served as such. It was built during the 14th century as a palace in Mudejar style, a lavish blend of Arab and Gothic architecture that graces many Spanish monuments. Its high salons, arches, and alcoves were worked in yeso, an art the Arabs mastered, carving plaster walls with breathtaking patterns of flowers, geometrics, and calligraphy.
“Yeso is a demanding medium, requiring patience to master and speed to execute; the carving is intricate and must be finished before the plaster hardens. “I studied the technique here at Toledo’s School of Applied Arts,” Revenga said. “Now I’m teaching it here. We must preserve this art; Toledo has dozens more Arab-style buildings– throughout Spain there must be hundreds–that need loving care.”
The darker side of Toledo’s past chilled my last afternoon in the city–an exhibit of old torture implements at the Hermandad gallery across from the cathedral. It included a rack, branding irons, skull squashers, thumbscrews, an iron maiden. The grisly display was assembled, according to the city’s Council of Culture, to remind us that even today “human beings are victims of physical and psychological torture in many parts of the world….”
I retreated back into Toledo’s quiet gray streets dogged by ghosts. It was here, long after Alfonso VI, that the first victims of a growing Christian bigotry perished at the stake. In 1469 Prince Ferdinand of Aragon wed Princess Isabella of Castile; the marriage would unite Christian Spain under their rule. While waging war against Moorish potentates to the south, they would view as a threat Muslims and Jews in their own lands. In 1480 they established the Spanish Inquisition. Before it was over, three centuries later, thousands of Muslims and Jews had died; an estimated three million people were driven into exile. Shorn of its leading businessmen, artists, agriculturists, and scientists, Spain would soon find itself victim of its own cruelty.
A train ride south through sun-swept Andalusia brightened my mood. Here, across the warm, undulating landscape that nurtures rows of grape vines and olive and citrus trees, Islamic culture sank its deepest roots. Small wonder. Mediterranean Spain is a mirror of Morocco, a close cousin of the Levant. Here the Arabs felt at home. Indeed to a desert Arab, Andalusia–from the Arab al-Andalus–competed with descriptions of heaven in the Holy Karan: “gardens dark green…springs pouring forth…fruits and dates and pomegranates….” In 756 Prince Abd-al-Rahman, who had escaped massacre when his dynasty was overthrown in Syria, planted his capital at Cordoba on the fertile banks of the Guadalquivir (from the Arabic al-wadi al-kabir, great river) in Andalusia’s heartland.
Under Abd-al-Rahman III and his successors, 150 years later, Cordoba blossomed into a metropolis of half a million with, according to contemporary chroniclers, 21 suburbs, 500 mosques, 300 public baths, 70 libraries, and miles of paved, lamp-lighted streets. The largest city in western Europe, Cordoba stood with Baghdad and Constantinople as one of the great cultural centers of the world.
Cordoba’s pride today is its venerable Mezquita, or mosque, which in 1986 celebrated its 1,200th anniversary. Begun by the first Abd-al-Rahman, it was enlarged and embellished to become what is considered today the epitome of Moorish architecture. From its quiet Patio of the Orange Trees, past fountains where the faithful once performed their ablutions, I entered the 600-by-450-foot shrine, rivaling in size Islam’s holiest in Mecca. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I wandered through the forest of jasper, marble, and porphyry columns, some 850, that support the tracery of double-tiered Moorish arches. Nineteen doorways, before they were walled up, let in light and air and extended the theme of the columns to the rows of orange trees in the courtyard.
My footsteps led me to the mosque’s domed mihrab, or prayer niche. From behind its scalloped marble arches, amid the splendid mosaics designed by Byzantine carftsmen, Cordoba’s rulers once led Friday prayers. Flowing Arabic calligraphy adorning the walls exalted Cordoba: “…praise to Allah who led us to this place….”
In the dim vastness I hardly noticed the cathedral. After the Christian Reconquest, Catholics reconsecrated the Mezquita as a church and for 300 years held services there. Then the clergy persuaded Emperor Charles V to raise a cathedral in its midst, despite strong protests from city leaders. Later, inspecting the baroque incursion, Charles confessed disappointment: “By installing something that is commonplace, you have destroyed what was once unique.”
From smaller parish churches issue the spirit and spectacle of Cordoba’s Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Thousands of Cordobans line narrow streets and wrought-iron balconies to watch the processions. Their religious intensity reflects the passion that drove medieval Christians to oust their Moorish occupiers.
Twenty churches participate, circulating about 50 pasos, or platforms, set with ornate statuary. “Different scenes each day recall the Madonna, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Burial,” explained a Cordoban friend, Luis-Eduardo Prieto Rico. We finished our fried squid and garlic shrimp at El Triunfo, a small restaurant near the Mezquita, then wedged into the throng at the Plaza de las Tendillas to witness one of the processions.
To the beat of distant drums, the solemn escort arrived: files of 200 or more penitentes, ghostlike in long robes cinched with ropes and tall pointed hoods. Most carried long flickering tapers or swung smoking silver censers; others bent under heavy oaken crosses. Behind marched women of the parish veiled in black lace mantillas. The drums grew louder as the paso appeared from around the corner, in a blaze of light, swaying with the measured footsteps of some 30 bearers straining beneath it. The life-size Virgin sat draped in lace and rich brocades above banks of fresh white roses that perfumed the air. A hundred enormous candles set her silver halo aglitter and caught the sparkle of tears on her radiant face.
The drums stopped, the paso paused, and suddenly a woman in the crowd broke into song, a passionate saeta, the flamenco hymn for which Andalusia is famous. The words were Spanish, but the mournful melody echoed Arab and Gypsy origins:
Like the precious stones of a jeweler,
The tears that flood your lovely eyes….
The stunning solo had its effect; throughout the applauding crowd around me I saw many eyes moisten as drums took up the beat and the paso moved on into the night. The quiet cool of morning is the time to stroll Cordoba. After a strong, black cafe solo at the Bar Mezquita, I followed one of the twisting cobblestone lanes that fan outward from the mosque through the medieval Muslim quarter, some so narrow that a stretched handkerchief spans their walls. They lead to small plazas, some holding statues of Cordoba’s famous sons: the Roman Seneca; Arab philosophers Ibn Hazm and Ibn Rushd; Maimonides, major Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages; the 15th-century general, Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, “El Gran Capitan”; Manolete, greatest of bullfighters.
Potted geraniums and carnations splash color on the tidy white-washed houses that line the lanes. On many of the massive wooden doors, as on those in Fez or Damascus, hang heavy iron knockers in the form of a hand–the hand of the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, according to one legend; another says the fingers recall the Five Pillars of Islam: the creed, prayers, alms, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
As in Muslim cities, a Cordoba house acknowledges the outside world only begrudgingly through small windows, iron- grilled and shuttered, turning its attention inward to the center of family life, the patio. At Number 8, Pozo de Cueto, near the river, I got out my key and let myself in. “I cannot imagine a house without a patio,” said my landlady, Senora Antonia Ortiz de Marin, bringing coffee and small glasses of amontillado, the local dry sherry. Now that the children were grown, she and her husband, a retired policeman, rent rooms during crowded Holy Week.
“How else, in such a small space, could we have had a private garden in the city?” she said. “A safe place for the children to play?” Our patio was typical. Entered through a Moorish arch, it was paved with arabesque tile work and softened by flowers, an herb garden, and orange trees set in pots around a fountain. I recalled that one of the Arabic words for home was muskin, from the same root as sakun, peace. Even in the heart of the city, my room looked down on a tranquil world of its own, under a private square of blue sky.
Of the extensive royal architecture that once crowded Muslim Cordoba, little survives. By far the grandest palace, a Versailles of its time, was built by Abd-al-Rahman III five miles northwest of the city at the foot of the Sierra Morena. For 25 years, until its completion in 961, he lavished on it a third of the royal budget, naming it Madinat al-Zahra, the City of Zahra, after a favorite concubine. Under his son and successor, al- Hakam II, it grew into a small city; double walls, each as thick as 15 feet, enclosed half a square mile. According to one account Hakam’s family, his generals and viziers, scribes and translators, workmen and shopkeepers gave it a population of 20,000. The royal bodyguard added 12,000; the harem, 6,000 more.
“There was nothing visible when archaeologists arrived in 1910,” said Antonio Vallejo, director of excavations, when we walked together down the terraced palace grounds. There were cypress and olive trees, a litter of fallen columns and capitals. “Foundations outline the caliph’s mansion, the mosque, 400 houses, the ancient market, aqueducts, formal gardens, pools– even a zoo,” Vallejo said. “We have restored one of the buildings, the magnificent audience hall.”
Amid its tattered splendors, where Hakam once received embassies from Europe and the East, I conjured up scenes from the “Arabian Nights” of turbaned notables and veiled dancing girls. Suddenly my daydreaming was interrupted by a vision coming through an archway, a tall Moor in white robes and pointed black beard.
“Salaam Alaykum!” he bowed, “I am Hakam II–of course, just for today.” Francisco Bernal Garcia, an actor from a local troupe, smiled. We were soon joined by a dozen of his colleagues, taking their places on thick cushions set on sumptuous carpets in the center of the marble floor. While a television crew arranged its lighting, several hundred ten-year- olds filed noisily into the chamber, girls costumed in makeshift veils and slippers, the boys sporting burnt-cork goatees and cardboard scimitars.
“We are reenacting Caliph Hakam’s reception for emissaries of King Ordona IV of Leon in 961,” Francisco explained. “It is part of a program to bring history to life for Cordoba’s schoolchildren.” But Madinat al-Zahra underscores another of history’s lessons: Even great powers are mortal.
Barely 50 years after its completion, the great palace lay sacked and leveled, as the caliphate dissolved into a score of bickering city-states. Amid the chaos that followed, many Muslim rulers became clients of northern Christian princes, and religious boundaries often became obscured. The famous Christian knight El Cid (his nickname derives from the Arabic al-sayyid, lord) changed his allegiance with the gusty political winds, now to fight for the emir of Zaragoza, now to help a Christian king, now to rule over Muslim Valencia.
The fall of Toledo drove Spanish Muslims to desperation. They sent for armies of the Berber fundamentalists, the Almoravids, who poured in from Morocco to stem the Christian advance. But they soon seized power for themselves to unite Muslim Spain with North Africa, which they ruled from their capital in Marrakech. Gradually these desert warriors succumbed to Moorish luxury, and half a century later another wave of North African puritans, the Almohads, crossed the strait to supplant them. In 1170 the Almohad ruler, Yaqub Yusuf, moved the Spanish capital to Seville.
Sweeping views of Seville can still be enjoyed from Sultan Yaqub’s minaret, one of three sister towers he commissioned. Two others survive in Rabat and Marrakech. From 20 stories up the eye pans from the red-tiled roofs of Seville’s medieval hub to the distant rim of modern apartment blocks and factories and beyond to the glowing countryside that nurtures Andalusia’s largest city. When Christians destroyed Yaqub’s mosque, they spared his minaret and topped it with a belfry and the giant bronze weathervane, or giralda, that gives it its popular name. Today La Giralda serves as the steeple for the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe.
Seville, in one word, defines Spain. That is the reason why Bizet chose it as the setting for his opera “Carmen.” And why romantics like myself are drawn back–to the spectacle of the bullfight at the Plaza de la Maestranza, where glittering matadors perfect their cruel ballet of bravery and death. Or to clap our hands to the rhythms of guitars and staccato heels during a Gypsy lament:
A woman is like your shadow.
Pursued, it runs away,
Ignored, it follows you….
Or even join the sweater-and-jeans set at a noisy cafe flamenco in Triana to whirl through a sevillanas, the folk dance popular now all over Spain. Or just relax by the whispering fountains under the peach trees in the gardens of the Alcazar.
Within its high walls the Christian king Pedro the Cruel erected in the 1350s his own palace. He imported Muslim architects from Granada, whose designs reflect the cultural overlap of the times. Escutcheons on the walls of the royal bedchamber feature the lion rampant of Leon and the towered castle of Castile emblazoned with Arabic script:
Glory to our sultan Don Pedro.
Allah aid and protect him.
“Seville’s Alcazar is the finest example of Mudejar architecture in Spain,” curator Dr. Rafael Manzano said. “But it is more than just a museum. It is the royal residence whenever the King visits Seville.” Dr. Manzano recounted the legend of the Alcazar’s peach trees. “A romantic 11th-century ruler, al-Mutamid, also famed as a poet, married a northern beauty. Although happy as queen, she pined for the snows of her native hills. So al-Mutamid, it is told, ordered the gardens of the Alcazar planted with wild peach trees. Each spring, to this day, they bank the gardens with snow-white blossoms.”
Against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada’s eternal snows, the drama of the Moors was to play itself out. When Cordoba fell to the Christian Reconquista in 1236 and Seville 12 years later, Muslim lands shrank to a 200-mile-long bastion in Spain’s rugged southeast, curving from Gibraltar to past Almeria. Here sultans of the Nasrid dynasty ruled from their stronghold at Granada. From 1248 to 1354 they raised their masterpiece, a palace- fortress, the Alhambra.
Today from its high hill, Sabika, the clay-red Alhambra (from the Arabic al-hamra, the red one) looks down on two Granadas. One is the sloping Albaicin quarter–austere, labyrinthine, Moorish. The second is the newer city–noisy, businesslike, baroque–that sweeps along broad boulevards out onto the Vega plain. From the rooftop of his restored Moorish house in the heart of the Albaicin, Professor Miguel Jose Hagerty and I enjoyed a sweeping view of the Alhambra. Born in Chicago to Irish parents with gypsy roots, Professor Hagerty graduated from Notre Dame, where he majored in Islamic Studies. He now teaches Arabic and lectures on Arabic poetry at the University of Granada.
“Arab Spain nurtured scores of poets. Many of its rulers– al-Mutamid and Abd-al-Rahman I, for instance–were poets in their own right,” Professor Hagerty said. “Strict Islamic tradition discourages the making of ‘graven images,’ so painting and sculpture never flourished among the Moors. Instead they channeled creative energy into language. With its wealth of vocabulary, its sonorous sounds, its flowing calligraphy, Arabic is well suited to the task.
“Little has been translated,” he said, but he recalled lines that survived the journey into Spanish and English. From Ibn al- Sabuni:
I present you a precious mirror,
Behold there the beauty that consumes me
O furtive love, your reflection is more yielding
And better keeps its promises….
Then he countered those lines with a stanza by another Sevillian romantic, Ibn Ammar:
Slaves in the realm of love
Are the only truly free men.
Professor Hagerty and I climbed to the Alhambra. The lofty mansions of the Nasrid sultans make up the most visited site in Spain. It is a miracle that they survived the centuries. They were defiled by squatters, eroded by neglect, brutalized by Charles V’s massive Renaissance addition–a brick among lace pillows–and confounded by misbegotten restorations. Nevertheless the Alhambra endures, a sublime Oriental meld of artifact and nature.
Here the walls themselves speak–if you know Arabic. We traced out poems in the supple calligraphy of the friezes, archways, and fountains. In the upper gardens we found a couplet by Ibn al-Yayyab that praised Allah for providing the sparkling palace with
…its light of virtue
And the peace of its shadows….
A marble fountain bragged,
No greater mansions I see than mine
No equal in East or West.I had to agree. Even in the oil-rich Arab countries of today architects with unlimited budgets have yet to match the Alhambra.
Arabic poetry was crafted, above all, for recital and song. Its lyric forms, zajal and muwashshah, some say, inspired the first ballads of the European troubadors. The soul-stirring adagios of cante jondo, the deep song of Gypsy flamenco, still trace moods and rhythms to this lost age. Jaime Heredia, a local flamenco singer, told me: “A Moroccan orchestra recently came to Granada to join us in concert. It was fantastico. We were up half the night playing encores.”
I had missed the concert, but in Fez and Tetuan I had heard that music, the same melodies that once entertained courtiers in the Alhambra, played and sung by the descendants of Spanish Muslims expelled during the Inquisition centuries ago. They still convene regularly to keep alive their musiqa al- andalusiyyah.
“We had language problems, of course,” Jaime said. “But we agreed on one thing: Musically we were brothers.” Throughout Spain today the art of flamenco is being threatened by its commercialization in floor shows called tablaos; these count on dramatic lighting, amplifiers, and curvaceous dancers to attract larger audiences. Sacrificed in the process is flamenco’s hallmark, its duende: soul. But a night owl can still sample flamenco puro when Gypsies gather at Jaime Heredia’s bar, La Fuente, in Granada’s Albaicin for a misa de doce, literally a “midnight mass,” slang for a flamenco bash.
Well after midnight young Bautista arrived with his guitar, the sign for Jaime to close up shop and aficionados to gather. A small, broad-shouldered man in sweater and jeans, Heredia didn’t look “flamenco.” Where was the flat hat, the bolero jacket, the high-heeled boots? No matter. The guitar starts to ripple. Snapping fingers pick up the beat of a fandanguillo, and Jaime’s voice lights up the darkness:
A chorus of children’s laughter
Flows past an unseen river
Bittersweet strains recall a former love.
The guitar fires another fusillade of minor chords, stopping everyone in mid-drink. Jaime presses his hands together. Sweat gathers on his brow, veins on his neck bulge, and the powerful voice again stabs the room, a “deep song” of Gypsy anguish. The words, stylized, blurred, are lost to my untrained ear, but closing my eyes, I hear an Egyptian chanting from his minaret.
What about the lyrics? I pressed Jaime when the session finally broke up. It was daylight now, and regular breakfast customers were already demanding their coffee and brandy. “Not easy, senor,” Jaime apologized. “The song is about love and death and God–ah, but no one could understand who was not suckled at a Gypsy mother’s breast.”
The remote villages of the Alpujarras, halfway up the southern flank of Mulhacen, Spain’s highest peak, were the last domains of the Moors in Spain. Many towns like Beninar, Almocita, Bubion, and Mecina Alfahar still wear their Arabic names, as does Mount Mulhacen–and the Alpujarras itself.
The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella sealed the fate of the faltering Granada sultans. Catholic Spain, finally united, continued to force the Muslims toward the sea, town by town. In 1492, the same year they launched Christopher Columbus on his historic voyage, Their Catholic Majesties rode into Granada to preside over the abdication of the last Moorish ruler, Muhammad Abu-Abdullah–Boabdil, as the Spanish call him.
On the way to the Alpujarras, I paused above Granada at the pass called Suspiro del Moro, the Sigh of the Moor. It was here Boabdil stopped to look back and shed a tear over his lost kingdom. According to legend his domineering mother, Aisha, berated him: “Fitting you cry like a woman over what you could not defend like a man.” For a century more, Muslims held the Alpujarras’s rocky folds and raided into the Christian lowlands, often igniting rebellions, until the last of the Moors were driven into exile in 1609.
The autumn day breaks late over the valley’s brim at mile- high Bubion, waking the village slowly. I rubbed my hands together against the chill as I left my small pension. The first wisps of smoke drifted from conical chimneys atop slab roofs that staircase down the hillside toward the church square.
From nearby Capileira I set off on horseback with a farmer, Antonio Jimenez Estevez. We rode upward over narrow terraces through the last warm colors of autumn–orchards of red-leafed cherry trees and golden chestnut, bordered by yellow poplars and evergreen. For a while we followed the gravel way, Europe’s highest motor road, that leads to 11,000-foot Pico de Veleta; then we turned off along a medieval acequia, or irrigation canal.
It brought us, after a mile or so, to a stone reservoir called, in Spanish, an alberca. The old watering system–and its Arabic- derived nomenclature–was still in use. “This is one of three canals on this side of the Poqueira Valley built by the Moors,” Antonio said. “Twenty years ago, when I was a boy, we still ran water mills on this one.” Now there was also a modern dam, a small hydroelectric plant, a larger canal.
We crossed a stream and walked our horses to the top of a rocky bluff. Beneath a sweeping snowscape, we came to the stone hut that serves as summer camp for the Jimenez family’s upper fields. We sat under a walnut tree on the edge of the threshing circle while Antonio’s young nephew, Jose Luis, hitched a team of mules to a wooden plow. Fall plowing would be the last chore before closing camp for the winter. A cousin waved a loud ” Hola!” as he set off walking, in a cloud of dust and tinkling of bells, toward Mulhacen with the family’s 400 sheep. Antonio’s uncle Juan brought us local white wine, slices of the air-dried ham for which the Alpujarras is renowned, and a bowl of pears.
“Our terraces are small, the soil grudging, the season short,” Antonio said. “Most of the men leave the Alpujarras to make their fortunes. I spent seven years in the orange groves of Valencia. “But I am back now to stay. Life is too hectic, too crowded on the plains. This is home.”
The quiet crags of the Alpujarras look down on another world, lying only a dozen crow-flight miles away. An hour of hairpin turns dropped me from an eagle’s next–alpine, traditional, and poor–to the Mediterranean–tropical, cosmopolitan, and booming. If the Alpujarras speaks of the past, the Costa del Sol plays the Spain of tomorrow.
At his office at the Costa del Sol Tourist Board, promotion manager Diego Franco said, “Historically, our two greatest enemies were the sun and the sea. One cursed us with a blistering climate; the other brought pirates.” I had noticed that atalayas, or watchtowers, still guard every jut of land along the coast and that the older towns stood well into the cooler, protected foothills.
“Today, sun and sea are our stock-in-trade,” he said. “Last year 50 million visitors came to Spain, one for every Spaniard and then some. It’s an invasion–but a peaceful one.”
The coast from Torremolinos to Estepona has crystallized into a 45-mile-long tourist metropolis: hotels, condominiums, restaurants, cafes, discos, amusement parks, casinos, boutiques. Many foreigners who come for a holiday decide to stay. An estimated one million pensioners from Great Britain alone have bought a piece of the Spanish sun.
At the other end of the scale stands Marbella. I checked in at the trendy Puente Romano Hotel, hoping for some cultural exchange with its jet-set regulars–the Countess Gunilla von Bismarck, perhaps, or Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Sean Connery, Christina Onassis. Now, during the low season, I found tranquillity instead–in an Arabian setting. My whitewashed stucco villa opened on a beachfront oasis, where a burbling stream flowed under olive and lemon trees past stands of bamboo and camellias, all shaded by palms that dropped ripe dates on my balcony.
“Allah akbar! Allah akbar!” The familiar call to prayer drifted in from the mosque across the street, Mezquita del Rey Abdul Aziz, built by Saudis who play or invest here and dedicated to their founding king.
All over Marbella and nearby Puerto Banus are other signals that modern-day Moors have joined the “peaceful invasion”; signs in flowing Arabic script point you to the Lebanese Delicatessen, the Banco Saudi-Espanol, the Near East Insurance Agency, to Arab doctors, a Muslim cemetery.
At Puerto Banus, Syrian-born Ahmed Mahayni, sales manager for Gray d’Albion, showed me the company’s domed and turreted condominiums–a half-mile-long complex finished in marble and gold-tinted tile and commanding a view of the harbor’s gleaming pleasure flotilla. I leaned toward Unit 507, a multi-level, four-bath, two-pool, hanging-garden extravaganza. But I had to admit that, at 1.5 million dollars, it was too tall for my purse. “We have smaller apartments, some for as little as $270,000,” Mr. Mahayni said.
Near the Andalucia Plaza Casino, I sipped coffee with Mokhles “George” El-Khoury, a Christian Arab who moved to Puerto Banus from Beirut to run a building-management firm. “Andalusia reminds me of Lebanon–without the wars and politics,” George said. “You have the mountains, the sea, the fine climate of olives and palm trees. The Spanish are a warm people, not stiff and formal like many Europeans. The food is much like ours, so is the shape of the houses and the towns. To an Arab–well, Andalusia feels like home.”
Nowhere is this more true than in the old Muslim capital of Cordoba, where I spent my last Spanish days. I was awakened there early one morning by the clatter of workmen at the Mezquita across the street. From my window I watched a burly stonemason score a half-ton block with his screeching power saw, while another drove wedges into the kerf to split it off square. On wooden rollers they sweated it into a gap in the timeworn wall. Thus, for more than a thousand years, have Cordobans furbished their beloved Mezquita, first as mosque, then as cathedral.
No other artifact more richly evokes the golden age of the Moors, a stormy millennium that dovetailed two faiths, two cultures, two continents. Throughout, while king and sultan fought bitterly for the hand of Spain, ordinary life prospered as Arab, Visigoth, Castilian, and Berber worked together to forge the brilliant civilization that helped lead Europe out of the Dark Ages.
Ultimately the cross replaced the crescent. The Moors themselves faded into history, leaving behind their scattered dreams. But Spain and the West stand forever in their debt.
courtesy of: http://www.millersv.edu/~columbus