Monday, September 25, 2006

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.


Blogger Panday said...

If you don't mind a small plug for my own site, I wrote (peripherally) about the Reconquista in my blog on August 13th, the anniversary of Cortes' conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Enjoy :-)

9/25/2006 06:00:00 AM  
Blogger Jamie Irons said...


Some analysts seem to think Islam's current aggressiveness is a sign that it is in its death throes; others see things as in your post and Steyn's America Alone...

Whichever it may be, there is no question all too many in the West have not yet awakened.

Does it really seem possible that the huge London mosque would be allowed to be come like its little brother in Finsbury, a center of radicalism and the preaching of hate? Somehow I just can't see the Brits as having gone that far down the multicultural tube. But perhaps I am unrealistic.

Jamie Irons

9/25/2006 06:48:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9/25/2006 07:14:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Another good reference on the Reconquista is "A Society Organized for War", by Powers (1987). The entire book is online at

It goes into some detail on the invention and evolution of 'charters' for organizing civic functions under the chief executive and commander-in-chief (King). The civic functions included military responsibilities.

One can make a good argument that the energy of the reconquista was diverted from North Africa to the 'new world'. The Columbus expedition was part of the big 'capture of Granada' celebration.

9/25/2006 07:20:00 AM  
Blogger Tim P said...


A very good historical analysis. However, like Jamie above, I have a different view of its interpretation.

The reconquista brought Spain into a new golden age that culminated in her greatest age. It was Spain who underwrote Columbus's voyages of discovery and who led the way in the discovery and colonialization of he Americas. With all of the good and bad that it brought.

Modern islamo-fascism on the other hand offers no hope of greater things to come. It heralds a new dark ages where totalitarian ruthlessness and intolerance are coupled with the imprimatur of god's authority and death to any who think differently. An arid and sterile wahabbist view of the world that would make the most dour Calvinist shudder. Should Europe go the way of al-Andalus, there will be no new golden age. It will be a step backwards, for all the world.

Another similar analogy and perhaps a more apt one might be the collapse of the late Roman empire to the barbarians. While the religious similarities are not as close of a fit, it is similar in many ways in that an ossified and sclerotic society and empire succumbed to barbaric hordes and whose collapse pushed Europe into the dark ages from which it took over 500 years to emerge.

9/25/2006 07:33:00 AM  
Blogger geoffgo said...

Yeah, 500 years to start over.

And those barbarians didn't have nukes.

9/25/2006 08:37:00 AM  
Blogger desert rat said...

There had not been a European occupation of the Levant for those 500 years, either, geoffgo.

Is it coincidence that the rebirth of the Reconquista, after 500 years, corresponds to Europe's return to the Levant?

9/25/2006 08:44:00 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

Another similar analogy and perhaps a more apt one might be the collapse of the late Roman empire to the barbarians.

History never repeats itself precisely, but I think that's about the best analogy we have. Whereas the conquering Moslems pouring out of the Arabian Peninsula after the birth of Islam were a forward-looking movement (the one true, simple faith displacing, as the Arabs undoubtedly saw it, a corrupt and doctrinally impenetrable Christianity), but the jihad now is fundamentally atavistic. Victor Davis Hanson in a post today on National Review links it to other movements violently romanticizing a past that never was, especially fascism. The difference is that, in Germany and Japan at least, fascism took root in two of the more advanced nations in the world. The jihad now is essentially a parasite on the achievements of other civilizations.

9/25/2006 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger Ed onWestSlope said...

I look forward to any references to the Reconquista, which deal with the subject in a general way.

The apparent lack of publications may be, in part, due to the Spanish being relegated to a minor role in western history after the ascent of England.

Not so much a 'winners writing the history' as much as the defeat of the 'hordes' appeared relatively unimportant compared to the large changes in Europe and worldwide conquest, treasure and colonization.

9/25/2006 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

"I've said this in earlier posts at Belmont Club but I'll repeat myself. I believe what we are observing in Europe (and America) is a transient response to the Cold War. Over the decades of the Cold War, the Soviet Union spent billions of dollars on agitation-and-propaganda directed against western society. Our culture took a major hit due to this propaganda attack and we're still recovering."

Bingo. We won the Cold War, but we lost the propaganda battle in many places. As the flagship for 'the West' and capitalism, the US was particularly bloodied.

9/25/2006 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger demosophist said...


"We've got seven decades worth of poison in our system that needs to get flushed out. Probably everyone who was an adult in the 1990 will need to die from old age before this cleansing is complete. Until that time, we'll have to treat moonbats and nihilism as a fact of life."

I'm thinking it won't take that long. The primary ingredient in undermining the humanism of the left, so that they can now embrace what are patently immoral positions and argument are the contributions of Michel Foucault. What hasn't caught up with this movement yet, is the fact that Foucault himself repudiated the core of his multicultural philosophy. When that finally catches up to the "opinion leaders" of the left the movement will fold up like a cheap suit.

9/25/2006 11:58:00 AM  
Blogger Pyrthroes said...

"Radical Islam" is not a contemporary phenomenon, nor even one that post-dates TE Lawrence after WW I. The jihadist currents we see today have always been present, but dominate only when Islamists seep into moribund cultures already hollowed out.

Constantinople in 1450; the Moghul invasions that devastated Northern India, and for centuries drew the Subcontinent into an economic and social death-spiral; and now, post-1918 Europe, bereft of confidence, nursing a self-fulfulling fear of re-playing Flanders Fields.

However: Today's crypto-fascist Salafists with their Wahabi paymasters are creatures of the post-1945 global petro-dollar economy. When alternative energy sources become significant --cheap, convenient, plentiful-- Islam's terrorist-tax revenues will dry up in short order. Then camel drivers and rug merchants will revert to their sand dunes, and since no Muslim worth the name ever knows or understands anything, that'll be it for another thousand years, if not forever.

We give this until 2030, at a maximum. By then, a weirdly disembodied "emergent order" comprising all the networked cyber-terminals in the world will have put Islam on notice that Allah is no longer willing to permit murderous psychopaths to invoke His name.

9/25/2006 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

While Spain was energized by the Reconquista in some ways it was crippled in others. For so long as conquest depended solely on willpower and grit, Spain was a great power. "Ships of wood manned by men of steel" as its extraordinary fleets, which penetrated into every fastness, were described. But.

But Spain also developed, I think, certain absolutist and obscurantist characteristics as a legacy of its fight with Islam. The Spanish fanaticism, which outfaced even the Islamic variety was poor equipment for exploiting the economic and technological changes that were to come.

The principal danger is fighting a fanatic, radical Islam is that we may become as grim and doctrinaire as the Jihadis. Win the war but lose your soul, or at least part of it. But are no few tribesmen in arid Iberian hills, and we ought to be able to beat back fanaticism if only we had a healthy -- not and excessive -- dose of self confidence. I think Eggplant has a point in saying Marxism poisoned our minds for 70 years and we are still excerting the stuff from out system. Until we awaken from its stupor we will remain vulnerable to cults which would not have even affected the West had it retained even a sensible amount of self-esteem.

9/25/2006 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger Consul-At-Arms said...

Thanks for the history lesson. I've linked to you here:

9/25/2006 04:10:00 PM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

C-low if you're right then we need to get all the Jews out of Europe. They will be the big time loosers.

9/25/2006 04:16:00 PM  
Blogger Gudovac1941 said...

I'll support Turkey's admission to the EU when they return the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) back to the Patriarch

and a Christian Mass is held there again preferably on Sept 1st.

9/25/2006 08:28:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger