The old and the new
One of the more curious gaps in popular history is the lack of a first rate account of the Spanish Reconquista, the name given to the 800 year campaign by Christian kingdoms in Spain to expel Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. Writing a dramatic history of the Reconquista is hard because it went on for so long. So long, in fact, that both sides had changed character over the intervening 8 centuries, one side morphing from the tribal Visigoths to the kingly state of Ferdinand and Isabella and the other going through a succession of Islamic regimes. Although it began largely as a local affair between the Iberian kingdoms and the Muslim Caliphate by the end it had become a European-wide cause, possibly because Europe itself was experiencing a resurrection of identity lost since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Samizdata reviewed one of the few book length treatments of the subject, The Reconquest of Spain by D. W. Lomax.
The Reconquista, viewed from today, more than five hundred years after its conclusion exhibits what is to modern eyes a strange reversal of roles. The Muslims were the cosmopolitans facing essentially backward tribesmen who sought shelter in the rugged terrain of the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslims had the contemporary New York and the Christians possessed the contemporary Afghanistan. Time after time the Caliphate launched punitive expeditions only to watch their efforts reversed as they left. The Christian kingdoms eventually enlisted demography into their arsenal of weapons. They would depopulate certain areas in order to create buffer zones against the Caliphs; and whenever they seized a town or city from the Moors they would immediately populate it with their own peoples to prevent its recovery.
In its last stages the Reconquista became a literal Crusade involving all of European Christendom, a movement which had its own heroic figures, theorists and goals. Again the symmetry is striking. It is the Muslims who are infidels; and the Christians who create their own military-religious orders to defeat them. Wikipedia notes:
In the High Middle Ages, the fight against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula became linked to the fight of the whole of Christendom. The Reconquista was originally a mere war of conquest. It only later underwent a significant shift in meaning toward a religiously justified war of liberation (see the Augustinian concept of a Just War). The papacy and the influential Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy not only justified the anti-Islamic acts of war but actively encouraged Christian knights to seek armed confrontation with Moorish "infidels" instead of with each other. From the 11th Century onwards indulgences were granted: In 1064 Pope Alexander II promised the participants of an expedition against Barbastro a collective indulgence 30 years before Pope Urban II called the First Crusade. Not until 1095 and the Council of Clermont did the Reconquista amalgamate the conflicting concepts of a peaceful pilgrimage and armed kight-errantry. But the papacy left no doubt about the heavenly reward for knights fighting for Christ (militia Christi): in a letter, Urban II tried to persuade the reconquistadores fighting at Tarragona to stay in the Peninsula and not to join the armed pilgrimage to liberate Jerusalem since their contribution for Christianity was equally important. The pope promised them the same rewarding indulgence that awaited the first crusaders. Later military orders like the order of Santiago, Montesa, Order of Calatrava and the Knights Templar were founded or called to fight in Iberia. The Popes called the knights of Europe to the Crusades in the peninsula. After the so called Disaster of Alarcos, French, Navarrese, Castilian, Portuguese and Aragonese armies united against the Muslim forces in the massive battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212). The big territories awarded to military orders and nobles were the origin of the latifundia in today's Andalusia and Extremadura, in Spain, and Alentejo, in Portugal.
It was a struggle of tit for tat. The last Muslim outpost in Spain capitulated in 1492 about 40 years after the Turks destroyed the long-weakened Byzantine empire at Constantinople. Not only did the competing forces swap territorial conquests, they also exchanged each other's religious landmarks as trophies. Constantinople's greatest church, considered the 8th Wonder of the World, became the mosque Hagia Sophia; the Muslims evening the score of the Reconquista, which converted the Mosque of Cordoba into the Cathedral of Cordoba in al-Andalus, thereafter to be known as Andalusia. Yet despite this back and forth, Europe was gradually gaining the upper hand. Among the factors which shifted the balance was technology. A slowly declining Islamic world had become vulnerable to the burgeoning population and increasing technological sophistication of Europe. By the beginning of the 20th century the Islamic world had almost forgotten in past splendors and Europe bestrode the world. But nothing lasts forever. As the 20th century rang down the curtain on decades of self-destruction it seemed to Islamic observers that European civilization had lost its vitality, self-confidence and demographic strength. It had cut its own throat: first in competition for empire, then through fascism and then a lingering and malignant Communism. The tide was ready to turn again.
Mark Steyn's new book, America Alone: the end of the world as we know it emphasizes the demographic and cultural collapse of Europe in the face of an Islamic conquista; in which he argues the Old Continent may have already ceased to struggle. The editorial synopsis at Amazon summarizes Steyn's thesis this way:
The future, as Steyn shows, belongs to the fecund and the confident. And the Islamists are both, while the West—wedded to a multiculturalism that undercuts its own confidence, a welfare state that nudges it toward sloth and self-indulgence, and a childlessness that consigns it to oblivion—is looking ever more like the ruins of a civilization. Europe, laments Steyn, is almost certainly a goner. The future, if the West has one, belongs to America alone—with maybe its cousins in brave Australia.
And as if to underscore the parallels of today's demographic struggle with those long forgotten events in Spain and Constantinople, of which the Cathedral of Cordoba and the Hagia Sophia were tokens, we learn from the Telegraph of a mega-mosque rising in London that will stamp its image on 2012 Olympics. The mosque as the symbol of the future Britain.
It will be the largest place of worship in Europe, a gigantic three-storey Islamic centre, with schools and other facilities, able to hold at least 40,000 worshippers and up to 70,000 if necessary. ... It will be called the London Markaz and it is intended to be a significant Islamic landmark whose prominence and stature will be enhanced by its proximity to the Olympic site. When television viewers around the world see aerial views of the stadium during the opening ceremony in six years' time, the most prominent religious building in the camera shot will not be one of the city's iconic churches that have shaped the nation's history, such as St Paul's Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, but the mega-mosque.
And that would be fitting.