Women’s Travel Gold Winner: In Search of a Shining Moment

By Anne Sigmon

We all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits.
―Michel de Montaigne, The Compete Essays

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
― Martin Luther King Jr., speech in St. Louis, March 22, 1964

The front page pictured a lifeless Syrian child, dusty limbs splayed in the gray rubble of Aleppo. I felt cold and lost. That poor boy might be a little brother, perhaps to one of the mischievous kids I saw roistering on the playground when I visited Aleppo in 2010, not long before war overwhelmed the city. He could be the son of the jovial grinder in the bazaar—the boy who giggled at me when I stopped to have my pocket knife sharpened. Or perhaps he was the adored sibling of the girl who peeked out from her mother’s abaya to wave when I stopped in the spice market.

As I looked up from The New York Times, my vision blurred with angry tears. The historic medieval city of Aleppo—which I once so loved—had been reduced to a bombed-out flashpoint in the barbarous Syrian Civil War.

That newspaper story appeared in May 2013. Not much has changed since then. Sectarian violence still rages across the Middle East, much of it fueled by religious hate. The news still burns with images of dead children. Even after decades of savage bombings—from Baghdad to Aleppo to Istanbul; from New York to London, Madrid, Paris and Orlando—there seems no end. How can we humans do that to each other? I wondered. To children? Why can’t we be more tolerant?

Perhaps Andalusia might hold a clue. These days, Spain seems just as fraught as the rest of the world with religious suspicion and intolerance. But it hadn’t always been that way. Recently, as I was preparing for a trip there, I’d read about a magical time—a time when Muslims, Christians, and Jews together created a glorious florescence of art, science and literature centuries ahead of the European Renaissance. The seat was the almost mythical al-Andalus—Andalusia.

A province of southern Spain today, from the eighth to the twelfth centuries Andalusia reigned as the world’s most admired cultural center. It was ruled, not by Western kings, but by a Muslim dynasty originally from Syria. Al-Andalus was the “ornament of the worlda medieval nun once wrote. That’s also the title of a book I’d read by historian María Rosa Menocal.  Reading the book, I wondered how a feudal society, often in conflict, achieved the kind of tolerance that eludes us today. I hoped to learn more during my visit.

A month later, I was there, in Andalusia, the land the Romans called Hispania. Wandering the ancient capital of Córdoba, I meandered across the Roman bridge built in the time of Emperor Augustus, the first century CE. The old stone gleamed golden in the sun, glinting off the sixteen graceful arches that span the river Guadalquivir. A wisp of clouds drifted overhead in the sapphire-blue sky. I could almost imagine myself trailing the great Roman orator Seneca the Elder, who was born and died in Córdoba, as he made his way across the eight-hundred-foot span. In his eighties, Seneca would have walked slowly, perhaps with a staff, laboring uphill toward the Roman Forum and the new Temple of Augustus. Imperial Rome worshiped the emperor like a god.  But the Jews and early Christians in Andalusia were, nonetheless, free to practice their one-god religions, however peculiar they may have seemed to the Romans.

After Rome fell, the Visigoths ruled what was then called Hispania. At first the Goths—who practiced a liberal form of Christianity called Arianism—were tolerant of the Jews. But after they embraced Catholicism in 589 CE, things turned ugly. Anti-Jewish decrees forbade Jews to marry Christian women. Jews were not allowed to own slaves—thus barring them from slave-dependent agriculture. In 613, the Visigoth king issued an edict that all Jews must be forcibly converted to Christianity.

I felt squeamish just reading about it. Why was it so important that everyone share the same religion? I’ve never understood that mindset.

As a symbol of their conversion, the Visigoths built a grand church—the Basilica of San Vicente—on a hill overlooking the Roman bridge. All that remains of San Vincente today are some pieces of mosaic floor, a carved stone sarcophagus, odd pieces of scalloped stonework, and enigmatic crouching figures set into column bases.

The early persecution of the Jews in Spain ended, surprisingly, after a young Syrian prince escaped the overthrow and murder of his family—the Umayadds—in Damascus, hid in Morocco, and finally sailed across the Mediterranean in 755 CE to lead a vibrant new Muslim dynasty in Spain. His name was Abd al-Rahman. His dynasty, based in Córdoba, lasted for almost three hundred years.

By long tradition, Muslim rulers had allowed both Christians and Jews to practice their faiths. They were all “people of the book,” followers of the one God of Abraham. At the beginning of al-Rahman’s reign, the Muslims worshiped in the Christian basilica. But al-Rahman wasn’t satisfied. History records his great longing—shared by his heirs and successors—to recreate the lost grandeur of the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus.  He bought the basilica from the Christians and, to replace it, started work on what he hoped would be the grandest mosque in all Islam. After seeing it for myself, I believe he succeeded.

The calming magic of the Great Mosque enveloped me as soon as I stepped over the threshold. In the hypostyle hall, a hypnotizing array of double horseshoe arches—vivid in alternating stripes of white stone and red brick—marched toward infinity. Yellow light radiated from lanterns that swung low in the dim hall. Scents of incense and earth drifted by, the mineral smells of great age. The enormous arches are lifted up, as if to heaven, by an army of 850 columns cut from veined marble, some gray, others red or green or white. Antique capitals perch atop the columns, some with delicately carved acanthus; others with broken palms. At 250,000 square feet, the space feels endless, a cavernous hymn to God. Sitting there, in the quiet, my own worries were reduced to specks of dust.

Many of the materials used to build the Great Mosque were reclaimed from Córdoba’s past. Some of the capitals had their first use in the city’s Roman temple; some marble columns graced the Visigothic Church of San Vicente—fragments of old faiths singing praises once more.

History records that Abd al-Rahman yearned to re-create in Córdoba all the grandeur of his lost Umayyed homeland in Damascus—not just in architecture, but in science and the arts as well. He hungered to build a great center of learning and refinement with contributions from the best minds, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish. This sensibility was shared by his successors, who turned Córdoba into a prestigious center of art, commerce and scholarship. In al-Andalus, almost everyone spoke Arabic, the recognized language of art and science. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Córdoba was the jewel of Europe with a library system that was the envy the world. Scholars and booksellers flocked to the city. A tenth-century chronicler, whose name is lost to history, described Córdoba as “the highest of the high … the homeland of wisdom … the garden of the fruits of ideas.”

To many historians, that was a golden age, a flourishing of spiritual and intellectual life. It’s been called “La Convivencia”— coexistence—a time when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace. Others say that idea is mere myth.

By all accounts, Muslim Spain was never an egalitarian society. Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived side by side, yes. But Christians and Jews were second-and third-class citizens. Among other inequities, the government forced them to pay a “tribute tax” to practice their religions. There were “intractable differences and enduring hostilities,” Menocal says in Ornament of the World. Yet “they were still able to nourish a culture of tolerance.”

The political situation deteriorated over time. By the end of the tenth century the Muslim unity in al-Andalus had collapsed. The Iberian Peninsula had devolved into a constellation of small principalities, with Muslim states (called taifas) in the south and Christian states in the north, each striving to outdo the others. Alliances weren’t necessarily drawn along religious lines. Muslim princes often allied with their Christian counterparts. Scholars, artists, poets and intellectuals of all faiths were in high demand to ornament the competing courts in distinctive Andalusian style. Despite the turbulent politics, the eleventh century was still a bright period of cultural achievement.

Then the light began to dim. In the twelfth century, fanatical Berber Muslims from Africa wrenched control from the Umayyads in Spain. The Berbers preached uncompromising jihad against Christians and Jews and, over time, stripped the minorities of most of their rights.

Sitting in the courtyard of the old Córdoba synagogue, I imagine the chilling sight of ten thousand mounted men bearing down on me, their robes billowing with speed, heads swathed in white turbans, their faces masked by blue cloth scarves trailing behind them. I see only their fierce eyes and the sun glinting off the blade of deadly scimitars. In the end, my only choices are: convert to Islam, escape the country, or die.

At about the same time, the crusade movement bred an equally zealous Christian ideology and a frenzied clamor for a reconquest of lands lost to the Arabs. In 1212, the Catholic Pope Innocent III rallied European knights to a crusade in Spain. When it was over, Christian princes had conquered all of the Muslim principalities of al-Andalus except for small far-south redoubt in Granada.

The eerie parallels to our own twenty-first century conflicts made me shudder. How little we’ve learned from history. I thought of Syria and the glittering masterpieces of architecture that so inspired Abd al-Rahman. They stood as a beacon to civilization for two millennia—and dazzled me when I visited in 2010. Now so many of these treasures are lost, blown to rubble in the madness of the past five years.

After the reconquest, the Christian capital moved eighty-seven miles east to Seville. The Muslims were now the subjugated, many of them pushed south to Granada.  Others stayed put in Christian-held areas. They acquired a name: Mudéjar, meaning unconverted Muslims who submitted to the rule of the Christian kings. It probably started as a slur, but later the term also defined the triumphant style of art and architecture that characterized the era—an exuberant fusion of gothic, renaissance, and Islamic form.

One of the most splendid achievements of Mudéjar art is the Real Alcázar, the original Muslim fortress defending Seville. Over time, the Alcázar evolved into a royal palace, first for the Muslim princes and, later, their Christian successors.

Remarkably, even after the reconquest, much of the old spirit of tolerance still survived to enrich Seville’s culture. The Christian kings of the thirteenth century fostered a cosmopolitan court that encouraged learning. Jews, Muslims and Christians all had prominent roles.

A walk through Seville’s Alcázar, especially in the late afternoon when the crowds are thin and the cicadas thrum, is more than a trek back in time; it’s a magic carpet to another world, at once more brutal but in some ways more tolerant than our own. My favorite spot is the “new” palace, built by the Christian King Pedro I in 1364. Vibrant arabesque tiles and elaborate white plasterwork decorate nearly every inch of the interior walls.

Outside on the lovely Patio of the Maidens, I sat in a corner, on a low marble platform. Water burbled in a long rectangular pool surrounded by orange trees in fragrant bloom. Reflected in the water, the building’s columns seemed to dance toward me. Tile stars shimmered as if they still hung in the sky. The breeze fluttered with the sounds of a dove calling, the flap of a bird’s wing, a riff of Arabic music from someone’s audio guide.

Arrayed among the stars, vines and flowers are cartouches in Arabic calligraphy that speak to the cultural integration of the palace’s builders. My favorite: “In Praise of Allah and our Sultan Pedro.” Other inscriptions: “Power belongs to Allah.” “There is no victor but Allah.” Allah. God.  الله. The one God of all the people of the book.

On my visit to Andalusia, I’d hoped to learn how a great society of mixed religions lived in harmony for hundreds of years and produced one of history’s greatest artistic cultures. Instead, I found that it was never that simple. That world was never harmonious. Still, even though there was almost constant conflict, long centuries of familiarity had softened religious extremism. Each community was willing to learn from the other.

Andalusia’s long experiment in multicultural tolerance failed in the end. Medieval Spain eventually succumbed to a fanatic crusade mentality that gripped both sides. In this atmosphere of paranoia, the Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in 1492 by the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella. Al-Andalus, once the center of world culture and refinement, had lost its way.

Are we any different today? The radical hate that destroyed al-Andalus still rages around the world, particularly in Syria. The artistic patrimony of the original Umayyad civilization lies in ruins. Half a million Syrians have been killed. Half the population is homeless. Seven million people have fled the country and wander the globe, many of them unwelcome, in search of a new life. By the end of April 2014, the UN reported, almost nine thousand children had been killed in the war. After that, things got so chaotic, the UN stopped counting.

When I start to grow despondent about this, I try to think of al-Andalus. Stars still shine in the Alcázar. The art, and its message of tolerance, still speaks to us—a tribute to the one God they all worshiped and a shining beacon of hope. Christians, Muslims and Jews found tolerance once. Perhaps, one day, we will find it again.

“I go into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue
and the Christian church and I see one altar.”
—Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi, eleventh century Sufi Muslim philosopher, The Essential Rumi


Anne Sigmon is a California writer, stroke survivor, and autoimmune patient who covers adventure travel for people with health limitations. Her stories about travel to remote corners from Burma to Ethiopia, Iran, and Uzbekistan appear regularly in magazines and anthologies, most recently Wandering in Cornwall: Mystery, Mirth and Transformation in the Land of the Ancient Celts, Bradt Guides’ To Oldly Go, and Charleston and the South (2016).

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