A Sense of Spain
Caliphs, Catholicism, Columbus and Conquistadores
Frederico Garcia Lorca – great Spanish playright and poet murdered during the 1936-1939 Civil War – once wrote that “In Spain the dead are more alive than the dead in any other country”. His point – that Spain's present is inextricably connected to its past – is one that no visitor to Spain can ignore.
To see how this came about, we first have to look – in brief, I promise – at Spain's history?
- Spain wasn't always the unified state it is today: until the late 15th century it was a collection of independent “kingdoms” – Castille, Catalunya, Aragon, Valencia, Andalucia, Galicia, Extramadura and Navarre, to name a few . The legacy of this fragmented world can still be found today – in, for example, the difficulties the central government in Madrid has in imposing its will over the autonomous provinces (the Basque country and Catalunya, in particular), and the intense rivalry between soccer teams from different parts of Spain, notably, of course, Real Madrid and Barcelona – though, as we'll see later, their intense rivalry has even more to do with events during the 1936-1939 Civil War.
- From around 750 AD much of Spain was under Islamic rule, governed by a Caliph based in Cordoba . At this time, it was probably the single, most tolerant region in Europe; Jews and Christians lived and worked together in Muslim Al Andalus – modern-day Andalusia. Today, visitors rightly gaze in awe at the beauty of the Mesquita in Cordoba, but behind it lay something even more wonderful - an awareness of art, architecture, mathematics (al-gebra, for example, was largely an Islamic creation) and medicine greatly superior to that of the rest of Europe.
- All this came to an end with the culmination of the Reconquista. The marriage of the second-cousins (the degree of consanguinity obliged the Pope to give them a special dispensation!) Isabella I of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469 created a unified power dedicated to ridding Spain of Islam - and, by the 16th century, also those who converted to Christianity (the “conversos”), and Jews. The surrender of Granada – the last remaining Muslim enclave – in January 1492 was their crowning triumph; not for nothing were they given the title “Los Reyes Catolicos” by a grateful Pope. As in Nazi Germany, purity of blood became the watchword!
- Against this “anti-Islam” background, Spanish Catholicism took on the very distinctive character – deeply conservative and monarchist – that, some would argue, it retains to this day: remember the Spanish Inquisition, or just watch some of the films of modern Spanish directors like Pedro Almodovar – La Mala Education, for example – to find evidence of this influence writ large! Not only did successive generations of Spanish “Bourbon” monarchs rely on the Church's support, but – come the 20th century – it was crucial in securing General Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War.
- 1492 was a very important year for another reason too: on 3rd August Christopher Columbus set sail from Cadiz on the voyage that eventually led to the discovery of the New World. The rise and fall of Spain's Empire ranks alongside Catholicism as the one of major themes in its history from the 16th to the end of the 19th century.
- Spain's may have been the first modern empire, but it was very different to those that followed. Its creation owed everything to a lust for gold and other precious metals, and nothing to the building of strategic, military or trading bases : Christian beliefs soon took a distant second-place too. All went well for a century or so; Spain dominated Europe and conquered swathes of Latin America, including what was to become California .This was the era of the Conquistadores from Extramadura - conversos-***-mercenaries-***-adventurers like Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro who, between them, destroyed most of the Aztec and Incan Empires. But the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 foreshadowed three centuries of uninterrupted decline , culminating in 1898 – Spain's annus horribilis – with the traumatic military defeat by the USA and the loss of its last, major colonies – Cuba and the Phillipines.
This then is a sketch of the uniquely Spanish heritage that awaits visitors (and into which MI has involved itself - big-time).
Next, we will turn to Madrid; the first “port-of-call" for most visitors; today's capital city , but 500 years ago?