Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Medieval Spain

I’m taking a class by this title this semester taught by a visiting professor from Princeton University. Our studies span a place and a time in the world I know very little about: the relationships between Christians, Muslims, and Jews on the Iberian Peninsula from the time of the Muslim Conquest in 711 until 1492 when the Christians regained control and officially expelled both the Muslims and the Jews.

However, the time between the 11th and the 13th centuries is often referred to as the Golden Ages, a period when Muslim Spain was flourishing in art, language, and culture (while the crumbling Roman world plunged into agricultural, economic, and financial struggles).  Muslim caliphs employed Christian and Jewish physicians and advisors in court and commissioned great “scribing sessions,” where the three religious cultures would pool their linguistic resources translating from Arabic to Hebrew to Greek to Latin.

This period also overlaps with what historical scholars call the convivencia, or coexistence of the three faiths in an environment of relative peace, for over three centuries.  While one can argue that economic ties brought the three faiths together, the reality of their intermingling lives turns up in Hebrew poetry that uses Arabic linguistic tropes and themes, Muwallads, or Christians who converted to Islam, and even the way Jewish temples and Muslim mosques were converted into Christian churches and cathedrals following the Christian Reconquest of the land in the 1400s.

A guest lecturer on Tuesday showed us a slide of a synagogue in Toledo which featured quotes from the Koran on the walls of its arabic-inspired arches and architecture!  As an Anthropologist, the conversion of many of these temples into churches fascinates me; many Spaniards today hardly acknowledge the Jewish presence in the north of Spain, to the point that they cannot remember where the Jewish quarter was.

And yet, the Muslim and Jewish peoples and the time of the convivencia lingers in the structure and walls of those buildings that today they call churches. While the convivencia was certainly not without violence or uneven power dynamics, and it’s not necessarily a template for interrelgious dialogue, its historical development and reality, and the culture that emerged from this religious pluralism is truly unique and fascinating.  Do we find examples of convivencia in our communities and lives today?

A photo from our honeymoon of one of the three ancient Jewish synagogues remaining, this one in Cordoba. Note the Hebrew script below the Arabic art!

Photo Credit 1


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