In August, as rhetoric surrounding the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan grew increasingly virulent, Newt Gingrich entered the debate. The proposed center had been called Cordoba House, after the Cordoba Initiative started by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Cordoba was chosen because of its historical significance, and is described on the Initiative’s website as a place where “…Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life.” Gingrich’s speech, however, claimed to expose the true meaning behind the name Cordoba: it was a symbol of Islamic triumph over Christianity, and of the subjugation of non-Muslims to shari’a law. Gingrich invoked the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the third largest mosque of medieval Islam, recalling the church that stood in the same place before the structure became a mosque in the eighth century. In a letter on his website, Gingrich wrote: “The true intentions of Rauf are also revealed by the name initially proposed for the Ground Zero mosque – ‘Cordoba House’ – which is named for a city in Spain where a conquering Muslim army replaced a church with a mosque. This name is a very direct historical indication that the Ground Zero mosque is all about conquest and thus an assertion of Islamist triumphalism which we should not tolerate.”
Using this ancient example, Gingrich extrapolated that the founders of the community center sought to turn another holy site (here, Ground Zero) into a center of Islamic power. Couched in the politically correct vision of coexistence, he argued, was an insidious form of political Islam waiting to take over lower Manhattan and institute an Islamic state like the Caliphate of Cordoba. Gingrich’s articulation of a violent, triumphalist vision of Cordoba was remarkably potent. It gave a veneer of historical respectability to an otherwise untenable position, and pundits and politicians latched onto it. In response, proponents of the project began referring to the community center by its address, Park51, rather than the now-tainted association with Cordoba. But Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf continued to refer to the center as Cordoba House in his September op-ed in the New York Times, and to insist on a vision of Cordoba made up of people of different faiths living in the same city and learning from one another.
Cordoba has long been a polarizing symbol. The arrival of Muslim armies on the Iberian Peninsula in 711 followed the expansion of the nascent Islamic empire through the footprint of Rome. For the next seven centuries, Iberia was home to a substantial Muslim population, made up of immigrants and locals who intermarried and became largely indistinguishable. Sizable Christian and Jewish communities lived peacefully under Muslim rule. Cordoba, previously a provincial Roman city in decline, became the capital city of the Umayyad emirate and, eventually, caliphate. It housed the largest library in Europe, a vast palace complex and a congregational mosque in the center of the city. In the early years, Arabic sources record that the Christians and Muslims of Cordoba shared the former church of St. Vincent – one half remained a church, and the other a mosque. Eventually, as the Muslim community grew, the Muslims of Cordoba bought the other half of the building from the Christians and began construction on the Great Mosque. Over the next three centuries, several rulers expanded the mosque, each extension following the aesthetic model set in the eighth century: forest-like rows of horseshoe arches made up of alternating red and white voussoirs.
In 1236, King Ferdinand III of Castile conquered Cordoba and consecrated the Great Mosque as a cathedral. Cordoba had long been a target of the Christian kings, since its richness and importance as the historic center of Islamic Iberia meant its conquest would symbolize the broader triumph of Christianity. Today, the Great Mosque is a functioning cathedral, and visitors encounter the unusual experience of hearing Mass echoing through the hypostyle arches and across the mihrab inscribed with passages from the Qur’an. In the 16th century, a particularly zealous archbishop decided that the conquest of Cordoba would be best demonstrated by the insertion of an Italianate cathedral into the center of the mosque. The cathedral now rises above the mosque, subverting the geometric unity of the building in a symbol of triumph that upset even proponents of the Inquisition.
Since the conquest of Cordoba in the 13th century, the city has become a potent image for Christians and Muslims alike. For many, Cordoba signifies a bridge between east and west, a civilization based on tolerance that built a remarkable shared culture. Many authors and leaders from around the world have been inspired by Cordoba’s culture. Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai wrote a book detailing how he would make Dubai the new Cordoba, using the city’s diversity to create a rich culture. Others have been filled with nostalgia for its loss. Muhammad Iqbal’s evocative Urdu poem inspired by the Cordoba Mosque recalled the glory of medieval Islam and hinted toward a dawning return to greatness.
Some see Cordoba only through conquest – either the arrival of the Muslim armies in the seventh century, or the arrival of the Christian army in the 13th. As such, they disregard the intervening years to focus on the victory of one religion over the other. The annual feast day of St. James, known in Spain as Santiago Matamoros (the Moor Slayer), includes the construction and then destruction of a façade that resembles the Great Mosque of Cordoba on the Cathedral of Santiago. Using fireworks, organizers blow up the façade to celebrate a saint whose miracles are said to include assistance in battles against Muslims.
Another, far bloodier series of explosions was also cast as a continuation of a historic fight. On March 11, 2004, violent extremists ignited 10 bombs in Madrid’s commuter train system, killing nearly 200 people. A spokesman for the Madrid bombers explained that they were settling old scores with Spain.
Ironically, Newt Gingrich’s vision of Cordoba mirrors that of the Madrid bombers. For both, Cordoba signifies the triumph of one monolithic religion over another, and of the subsequent destruction of the losing religious community. For both, Cordoba serves as a call to arms. To them, Cordoba is a warning of the dangers of close interaction among different religions. But this vision of Cordoba belies the deeply complex interaction among different religions that defined medieval Iberia. Though there were times of conflict during much of Islamic rule and continuing well into the Christian period, Jews, Christians and Muslims called Cordoba home, spoke the same languages, studied the same books and worshipped alongside each other. For the last thousand years, those who seek to replace complexity with single-minded zeal, those who aim to define the universe through polarized religious conflict, have contested Cordoba’s history. The debate over the community center in lower Manhattan is just the latest locus of an ongoing fight between those who cast Muslims and Christians as irreconcilable enemies and those who emphasize their long and shared history.
Abigail Krasner Balbale is a candidate for the PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where she focuses on the political and cultural history of Islamic Spain.
For many, Cordoba signifies a bridge between east and west, a civilization based on tolerance that built a remarkable shared culture. Many authors and leaders from around the world have been inspired by Cordoba’s culture. Others have been filled with nostalgia for its loss.