Journey to the Heart of Andalusia.. Folllowing in the Footsteps of Al-Ghassani

Journey to the Heart of Andalusia.. Folllowing in the Footsteps of Al-Ghassani

Did they know from the start that Andalusia would only be a passing dream? Those young Arabs and their Berber comrades who crossed the water barrier found an extremely fertile and defenseless land before them, whose hills were covered with dense greenery that gave them shade. This is the meaning of the word Al-Andalus, the name they gave to this strange place. It was an unknown and unfamiliar scene for those men coming from the expansive desert, where everything was brilliant and clear. They did not believe that a land with such characteristics could be a permanent reality. In spite of the passage of seven centuries, they always felt that their residence there was temporary, a dwelling-place without permanence, standing on the edge of imagination and a dream. Perhaps the Arab and Muslim inhabitants of Al-Andalus were the only people who continued to anticipate their terrifying collapse for more than 200 years as if it were a destiny that they could not ward off or find any escape from it.

Many emotions were turning over in my mind as I began my first steps towards the land of Andalusia. It was difficult at times to discover the remains of that Islamic dream which populated this land. It had been concealed, and its massive edifices had been eliminated or turned into churches. In spite of that, I carried my own map with which I intended to explore this place, an ancient map which covered more than five hundred years of the age when Al-Andalus was lost.

When my friend the photographer and I drew up a plan for the trip which we intended to make, the owner of the car hire firm to whom we went stared at in astonishment. This is the strangest and most difficult plan to visit Andalusia that I have seen, he said. It goes long distances along the coast, penetrates the mountains and crosses ancient bridges over rivers.

And what s wrong with that? I asked.

It is not a modern plan, he said. It doesn t take into account the fast roads which shorten all these distances. It s a trip that is taken by people to whom time does not matter. Was he hinting surreptitiously at our feeling, as Arabs, about the value of time? That was not the time for an argument, in any case, and we did not need a strong car. So I said, You are right, to some extent. We did not make this map, it was made by an Arab traveler who visited Andalusia about 500 years ago. We are only following in his footsteps. The man s practical sense had been aroused, so he said, In that case, I must increase the value of the insurance on the car, as this trip could destroy it. Thus began our trip to the heart of Andalusia, going in the footsteps of Muhammad Ibn Abdulwahhab Al-Ghassani Al-Andalusi Al-Fasi who began his journey in 1690 AD, about two centuries after the fall of Al-Andalus, a full century, but the effects of the fall had still not healed.

The Journey and the Traveler

Al-Ghassani was no ordinary man, he was an aggregate of men of his age, as one might say: an author, a poet and a scholar on the situations of states and kingdoms. He was noted for the breadth of his knowledge and his speed in copying books and manuscripts. Also, he was not an ordinary copier. He used to absorb what he copied and memorize what he saw. Perhaps this photographic memory was what brought him close to Maulay Ismail, the Sultan of Morocco at that time. He appointed him his clerk, and then minister plenipotentiary to carry out tasks and missions that he would ask him to do.

His journey also was not usual. The Sultan had sent him on a specific mission, to rescue the Muslim prisoners and save the captured books. In 1689, one year before the beginning of the journey, the Moroccan King had fought a major battle against the Spaniards, in which he had not only been able to recapture the Moroccan city of Al-Araish, but had also taken prisoner a large number of Spanish soldiers who were in the garrison of the city. To complete this victory, Maulay wanted to exchange the Spanish prisoners he was holding for about 500 Moroccan prisoners who were held in Spanish territory, as well as 500 Arabic manuscripts. These books had originally been the property of the previous Sultan of Morocco, Maulay Al-Sharif Zaydan. They were rare manuscripts which this bibliophile Sultan had collected from the Arab countries, and added to them a rare collection of Andalusian manuscripts. But one of the Spanish pirate ships had seized them.

Hence the importance of this journey with its cultural and human dimensions. Although two centuries had passed since the fall of Al-Andalus, the question of the prisoners from the remaining Andalusians, and the prisoners from the Hispano-Moroccan conflict who were added to them, still existed. It was not confined in its dimensions only to the two warring sides, but also extended to several European countries and to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. It became a matter of concern to thinkers and Muslim theologians, and was a constant subject of negotiations and embassies between Morocco and Spain for a period of two centuries.

Some historians, like the famous orientalist Kratschkowski, cast doubt on the declared purpose of Al-Ghassani s journey, and assert that its real aim was an attempt to conclude peace with Spain. If this is true, it does not conflict with what Al-Ghassani declared, because the release of prisoners or looted property is of necessity one of the fruits of any peace. Whatever may have been the purpose of the journey, Maulay Ismail made an excellent choice of the ambassador he decided to send. He was not only an experienced politician, but also a political scientist, educated in history and a first-class master of description. As the Syrian poet Nuri Al-Jarrah says of him in the introduction he wrote to Al-Ghassani s journey, He steers clear of any fabrication, prejudice or forgery, and is characterized by great integrity and a spirit of tolerance in a difficult period of Islamic conflict with the West, during which a spirit of blind fanaticism prevailed in Europe. Even the Christians were not safe from its evils in the courts of the Inquisition.

Our journey, then, was in the footsteps of Al-Ghassani, and about 313 years after him. The world had changed except for a few things. There are no longer Muslim prisoners of war in Spain, but hunting down Arabs and Muslims has not stopped to this day. There is no longer an Inquisition, but the hysterical shouts of the West against Islam are still continuing. Add to this that there is a kind of overwhelming longing that leads me, I and many Arabs, to that place in southern Spain. It is the land of lost dreams and hypotheses that never came true. I still remember the words of the Editor-in-Chief as I was getting ready to make this journey. You must close your eyes and imagine for a moment that Granada did not fall at the time determined for it. Could Christopher Columbus possibly have come to its Arab and Muslim rulers and ask them to finance his journey to the New World? I wonder, if that had happened, how would America look today? This hypothesis was not so wildly fantastic. This walled city, which stood firmly on its own for 150 years, might possibly have resisted for a few years more until gold came to it from the New World. Then who knows what would have happened after that?

The Beginning and the End

In Gibraltar (Jabal Tariq or Mount Tariq), my colleague the photographer and I stood for long hours trying to take a clear photograph of it. It is not a mountain in the generally understood sense, but a huge rock whose summit is surrounded by clouds however bright the sun may be. Thus it has a constantly frowning appearance, and is usually not photogenic. It is rather like a huge lion, with its tail to the sea and its head pointing towards Spanish territory. One can see the summit of this mountain from the Moroccan city of Sabta (Ceuta). Perhaps this view is what planted the dream of conquering this land in the mind of the Governor of Morocco himself, Musa Ibn Nusayr, before he sent his commander Tariq Ibn Ziyad to it. Jabal Tariq is the ancient, traditional access route to this part of the Iberian Peninsula. Since we memorized Tariq Ibn Ziyad s traditional sermon, The sea is behind you and the enemy is in front of you, this mountain has occupied a place of pride and nostalgia in our souls. Although all the events of past history are open to argument, Jabal Tariq represents a rare pivotal point in the history of Islamic conquest. This was the first and last time that the feet of Arab Muslims stepped on the soil of the European continent, which has always been used to trampling on the soil of others.

Al-Ghassani s journey was not easy at the beginning. A rough sea obstructed the entry to the harbor of Sabta of the massive ship which had come to convey him. So he was compelled to board a small boat in order to be able to reach it in the open sea. When he arrived at Jabal Tariq or Jabal Al-Fath (Mount Conquest) as it used to be called he found that it was still frowning. At its foot was an impregnable fortress full of cannon, ammunition and soldiers. The Spaniards had benefited from the lesson of the Arab conquest and turned the place into a military base. Even the harbor there was of no commercial importance, its work was confined to supporting the garrison. The distance which separated them from the Moroccan coast was no more than fifteen miles. Al-Ghassani affirmed: Nobody ever crossed to Al-Adwa (a name that the Moroccans called Andalusia, meaning the separate place) by sea, except from the Berber side, and Al-Adwa was not conquered the first time, nor was a crossing made to it after that, except from opposite Jabal Al-Fath.

But Gibraltar is no longer a Spanish garrison. On its summit was the British flag imposes its presence on the place, a rare piece of land that has remained part of the British Empire whose sun has set, something it shares with the Falkland Islands. At the entrance to the harbor, the British soldier looked at us suspiciously. He inspected the passports of me and my colleague, and then shook his head in refusal: We can t allow you to enter, this is British territory, and you don t have the necessary visa.

We have a Schengen visa, which enables us to enter most European countries, we said.

Except Britain, he answered.

I have come here before, my colleague the photographer said, "and we used to enter without problems."

After 11 September, everything's changed," the soldier said brusquely.

Directly in front of the gate there is a small, modern statue. The inscription written on its base explains that in was erected in May last year, 2002, and represents an impoverished Spanish worker, leaning on his bicycle and holding a small box in his hand containing his lunch. It is a reminder of hundreds of Spanish workers who head for the base every day to work in it. It is also a symbol of the unremitting Spanish demand for the restoration of this piece of land to its sovereignty. The problem here is not in the British refusal of this, but in the refusal of the inhabitants of the territory themselves to return to Spanish control.

Britain seized this vital location, which controls the entrance to the Mediterranean, in 1704 during the war between it and Spain known as the War of the Spanish Succession. Although Spain laid a total siege to Gibraltar for four years until 1779, it failed to regain it. Britain clung to it with an iron grip. Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and Aden harbor were the three most important points on which the British Empire relied in its route to India. In spite of the decline of this empire, it still controls Gibraltar. In its interior is one of the largest top secret hiding places which contains the most advanced equipment in the world. It monitors the movement of shipping in the whole of the Mediterranean. Thus it represents a strategic location which has not lost its importance up to now.

In 1967 the first elections were held under United Nations supervision to determine the opinion of the inhabitants on joining Spain, which at that time was under the rule of the terrible dictator General Franco. It was no surprise when the result came as a refusal by the inhabitants to return to their mother country. In spite of decades of democracy in Spain, and the reopening of its closed border with Gibraltar, the position of the inhabitants has only changed slightly. This may be due primarily to the fact that the inhabitants of Gibraltar have not known anything other than British rule for long decades. Also these inhabitants are not pure Spanish. They are a mixture of various races: Spanish, Portuguese, Moroccan, Jewish, Maltese and English, and have no loyalty except to their own interests. It is strange that Spain, while desperately demanding Gibraltar which refuses to unite with it, does not want any kind of talk or negotiations about giving back the two towns of Ceuta and Melilla, which have been under Spanish occupation for a long time, to Moroccan sovereignty

A Blessed Tree

Was the coastal road along which Al-Ghassani went on his way to Cadiz as enchanting as it is today? On the extended coast known as the Costa del Sol, a long chain of small towns and resorts rise up which are the destinations of tourists, particularly rich ones, from every place in the world. It is a massive movement of tourism which has helped to activate this part of southern Spain, which used to be the poorest with the highest rate of unemployment. But the coast has now been transformed, thanks to good use of sea water and the warmth of the sun, into an inexhaustible gold mine for the Spanish treasury. Construction activity is incessant all along the southern coast. Every day a new area rises up on the stretch from Gibraltar to Banalmadena to Algeciras to Tarifa. All these names still preserve their Arabic roots, even if their ancient landmarks have disappeared. Professor Abdullah Anan, the famous historian on Al-Andalus, says regretfully, Ancient Andalusia today looks a completely Christian country. You hardly feel, when you are traveling around it, that this country once used to be the home of an Islamic Arab nation, except for the few remains you come across in Granada, Seville and Cordoba.

Although I agree with his opinion, I believe that there is an effect which cannot be ignored, and which will continue to remain widespread as long as the world continues to exist. , namely the Arab olive tree. The Arabs brought to Andalusia two great trees which still give Spain a special character different from the remainder of European countries: the olive tree, which the Arabs brought from the valleys of Syria, and the date palm, the noblest of the Earth's trees, which they brought from the depth of the desert. The numbers of palm trees may be relatively few, but there are millions of olive trees, indeed they are the pillar of the agricultural economy in Spain. All along the road these trees undulate above the hills and valleys and extend over wide areas, while from the villages where we stopped at times the fragrance of olive oil rose from the small presses which work tirelessly.

In a meeting with Dr. Jimenez Amazir, Professor of Islamic History at the University of Cordoba, he gave credit to the Arabs. This is a new view which Spain began to take recently towards that period of its history. "The Arab heritage in the realm of agriculture does not stop at the olive tree. The credit for cultivating all these hills and valleys is due to the Arabs. Before them, most of the land was a wilderness, and agriculture was confined only to narrow valleys where there was water. But it was the Arabs who introduced the system of irrigation canals which helped to raise the water higher and make it available all year round. In this way wide areas of previously uncultivated land were cultivated, and this is the real wealth of Andalusia."

All the pioneers of agriculture in the Arab heritage came from Al-Andalus. Nobody else achieved such a high standard of science in the techniques of agriculture as they did until our present age. It is enough for us to know that their influence was not confined only to Andalusia, but also extended to southern France and Switzerland. It is said that the Arabs introduced the seeds of buckwheat, which is among the most important produce of these regions. And the Arabs also brought the seedlings of the palm trees which adorn the coasts of the Riviera.

A Meeting with the Prisoners of War

We stopped following the footsteps of Al-Ghassani, and it was good that we did so, because a contrary wind had delayed his departure once again and forced him to remain in Jabal Tariq for nine whole days, and we had to try to catch up with him as his ship entered Cadiz, or Calis as it was also called, the largest port in southern Spain. There he received his first official welcome, and its Governor came out in a boat decorated with roses and furnished with rugs and silk. He apologized to him because of the delay which had occurred to him at sea, and led him into the city. But more important than that was that he finally met the goal which he had come to strive for, namely the Muslim prisoners of war. We met in the city of Calis with the prisoners of war, men, women and children, and they were happy, and they were reciting the creed, invoking blessings on the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, and praying for victory for our commander Al-Mansour Billah (the one whom God had made victorious, namely Maulay Ismail). So we kept them in mind and promised them a good outcome, that our commander, God give him victory, would not abandon them since God had granted him grace. It was a holiday for them, for they were delighted at this joy from Almighty God, particularly since they had realized that our commander, God grant him victory, would not have had any purpose or intention in collecting all the Christians who were in captivity except in order to release the Muslims from the infidel enemy, may God destroy them.

It is clear that these prisoners were free, not confined in a prison or behind a wall. But on the other hand, they had to carry out the most degrading tasks, and were exposed to ridicule and persecution by the local inhabitants. Al-Ghassani witnessed that himself in other cities. Cadiz was the first of the cities which experienced the prosperity of Spain in the Middle Ages. Gold, which ships carried from America, poured into its harbor. Work and commerce were prosperous there, and the Spanish masters were in need of a great deal of cheap manpower to carry out this work. Consequently Spain did not want to get rid of these prisoners of war, except in exchange for a reasonable price.

What aroused Al-Ghassani s astonishment was that the city only had a small wall which was facing the sea, from where invaders ships could come. Apart from that it was open to the rest of the territory of Spain. It seems that the idea of the unified central state which fears only a danger coming from outside was new to Al-Ghassani s thinking. He came from Moroccan cities surrounded by walls on all sides, uneasy and anxious, not knowing from where the next blow would come, from the enemy lying in wait outside, or from hostile tribes in the interior.

Al-Ghassani continued his journey, following the southern Spanish coast from Santa Maria to Jerez, a city whose inhabitants were all Andalusians, but they stayed in their places because they had become Christians. They were domesticated , as history books called them, even though some of them hinted covertly to Al-Ghassani that they took pride in their ancient Arab origins. In this city his sea journey ended, and he began his penetration of the land, in the depth of Spanish cities.

To the Rhythms of Flamenco

In the mountainous town of Utrera, the time came for Al-Ghassani to rest a bit. The inhabitants, who all had Andalusian roots, welcomed him. In spite of their religion outwardly being Christianity, they were a mixture of old Muslims, Jews and gypsies, who found in this place the protection that they were seeking. In the evening everyone brought their musical instruments, and they all began to dance and sing. Al-Ghassani, the sedate minister, must have seen the authentic Andalusian dances for the first time, the most important of which was the Flamenco.

I do not know how Al-Ghassani felt, but the Flamenco dance astonished me when I saw it performed naturally by its original people, it is a stern type of dance, in which vehement movements of the body are combined usually with strong facial expressions and the sound of music which depends on sharp chords on the guitar strings. Falmenco is an authentic Andalusian dance, but its roots are diverse, coming from Morocco, Egypt, India and Greece. Most researchers believe that it was nomadic gypsies who brought the rhythms of Flamenco to Spain, when they came to it in the fifteenth century. It mingled with Arab music which existed in Andalusia, and with the music of the Jews who, like the gypsies, were fleeing from the persecution to which they were exposed at the hands of the Catholic kings in Europe, and only found protection and security under Arab rule.

In the Flamenco display which I saw, the female dancer s body, taut and devoid of any piece of excess flesh, was erect and alert as she drummed on the floor with her feet in protest. She did not see us specifically, nor did she try to give us enjoyment from her dance so much as to express all the feelings imprisoned in that body. When she calmed down slightly, the sound of the singing would become louder and sadder, vestiges of the songs of the troubadours who used to wander ceaselessly in all parts of Al-Andalus, singing the old adwar and muwashahat. At the end of the show, Juan, the guitar player who led the group of singers, told us: Spanish music is trying to find a different way. Since the 1980s we have been preoccupied with running after jazz tunes and rock rhythms. We were looking for fast, modern rhythms. But now we are trying to return to pure Flamenco music, for our music to be more Andalusian.

Over the Rugged Mountains

The most difficult stage of Al-Ghassani s journey was crossing the Ronda Mountains. I do not how he could endure that on the back of a mule, or how many days that took him. The modern journey by car was hard and very dangerous. The rugged mountains take you up to the top, and the view of the deep valleys makes you feel that your fate is hanging on a frail thread. We were surrounded by forests of olive trees, and the mountain terraces which still remain from the days of Al-Andalus, and which look very similar to the terraces of the mountains of Yemen.

But a visit to the town of Ronda is worth all that hardship. It appeared suddenly in front of us from the midst of the mountain peaks like an unreal dream, surrounded by deep valleys. Its white houses looked as if they had snatched their existence from that awesome silence which isolation allows it. It still preserves its ancient Andalusian character just like when Al-Ghassani visited it, the narrow, winding lanes, the low houses whose courtyards are decorated with mosaic, and that huge gorge which cuts the mountain and the town lying on it into two parts, connected only by an old Andalusian arched bridge, still with its same stones and carvings. Under this arched bridge flow the waters of the famous River Tajo. The sight of that divided town can never leave one's memory. Ronda was one of the rugged strongholds which Ibn Battuta visited before the fall of Al-Andalus, and he described it thus: It is one of the most impregnable strongholds of the Muslims, and one of the most beautiful to describe. Ronda still preserves its beauty, even if you do not find any of its impregnability. What inspires sorrow in it is those Andalusian ruins which still remain: four domes are what remains of a mosque that has been turned into a church, a solitary minaret, a stone arched bridge that fights against time, the remains of an Arab bath and a wooden norice board on which is written in Arabic: There is no god but God. o you who are seated, praise be to God, for you are lucky.

Cordoba and its Captive Mosque

Al-Ghassani did not enter the city of Granada, he contented himself with only passing by it and spending the night in a Valley nearby. I wonder whether he avoided entering the city because of the memory and sadness that it would arouse in his soul. It was the last stronghold which fell, and it contained more prisoners of war than any other city. But Al-Ghassani does not explain the reasons for that. However, the prisoners were waiting for him in any case at the gates of Cordoba. And when we came near to the city, its inhabitants came out to meet us, and those prisoners of war who were in it came out, proclaiming the Muslim creed and praying for victory for our commander Al-Mansour, and Christian boys were saying what the prisoners of war were saying. In eloquent conciseness he expressed the ordeal of these prisoners, at whom even small children mocked. But Cordoba also brought him a prisoner of another kind, namely its Grand Mosque.

Al-Andalus did not fall with the surrender of Granada as many people believe, but the real fall was the day that Cordoba fell into the hands of the Castilians in 1236, in fact more than a century and a half before the battle of Granada. In Cordoba the end was as bitter as the beginning was brilliant. This city remained for 300 years the pulsating heart of Al-Andalus. From it emerged all the victories and all the armies which resisted the Franks. From it emerged the greatest thinkers, the finest poets and the most learned theologians. Behind its walls the Murabitun and Muwahhidun assembled, and from above its walls Abbas Ibn Firnas tried to take off into the sky. The judge Ibn Rushd (Averroes) raised questions of theology, philosophy and medicine, and Ibn Tufayl wrote Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. All this was derived from the spirit of Cordoba, which was lost. So it was not strange that Al-Andalus after that remained a body without a heart.

When my colleague the photographer and I entered Cordoba in the middle of a hot day, none of the features of the past was apparent in this peaceful city. It was a modern European city in with its broad streets and glass buildings, completely devoid of lanes and winding alleys paved with stones which characterize other Andalusian cities, Toledo, Granada and Seville. But when we continued on the road and crossed the old stone bridge over the river of the valley, we stopped breathless before one of the greatest Islamic antiquities that one can see in any time and place.

Dr. Jose Pindal, Cordoba Municipality s Arab Archaeology expert who accompanied us on our tour to the Mezquita, the Grand Mosque, This mosque was merely a dream in the mind of a fugitive who only hoped for a safe place where he could find refuge. When Abdulrahman Al-Nasir was fleeing from the Abbasid armies which were pursuing him, he made a vow that if God saved him he would build Him the greatest mosque on the whole Earth. When he became Amir of Al-Andalus and was nicknamed the Falcon of Quraysh , he fulfilled this promise. He employed the best architects and the most skilled builders for the construction, and brought magnificent columns and marble of different colors from Arbona, Seville and Constantine. But the mosque was so large that he died before he completed it. We stepped through the Gate of Forgiveness, one of fifty gates which the mosque had, into the open interior courtyard. Rows of palm trees still remained, whose seedlings may have been planted by Abdulrahman Al-Dakhil himself. We walked around in the exterior courtyard, contemplating the vestiges of the inscriptions and the Quranic verses which had been forcibly erased, and the tall tower, with bells which had replaced the ancient minaret of the mosque. All that before we held our breath when we entered the hall of the mosque, amidst a forest of pillars, halls and columns, a total of about 1,400 marble columns. A quick glance made us realize what had happened to the history of Al-Andalus, and how this mosque, which was a unique pearl of antiquity, had been turned into a church, indeed into a number of chapels which clung to their existence in each corner. Let us see how really difficult this Islamic building was to change. It was there in its massive presence, and even now the Gothic inscriptions have not succeeded in effacing the old inscriptions of Quranic verses, and the scattered verses of poetry. Neither the icons and metal statues, which artists have competed in making since the end of the fifteenth century, nor those many altars which have been crammed together and defaced the walls, nor the pictures of angels with their heavy wings, have been able to silence the remaining echoes of Quranic verses being recited by the ghosts of small boys who used to receive learning under the shadows of these columns. Nor can they silence the voice of the Chief Justice as he declared the oath of allegiance to each new Caliph, nor the verdicts of the judiciary which were read out in the hall of the mosque, nor the voice of the town crier as he informed people of the most important issues and the facts about events from his platform, nor the returning echo of the fervent prayers for victory from God or martyrdom for His sake, before the city fell.

The operations to deface the mosque of Cordoba continued for many years, but they reached their climax in the age of the Emperor Charles I. In 1521 the Bishop of Cordoba asked permission of this Emperor to set up a main temple inside the mosque, and the Emperor gave him permission without realizing being aware of what exactly would happen. The result was that the ancient Andalusian ceiling was removed, the huge dome was destroyed and all the inscriptions and Quranic verses were effaced, and the symmetry of the galleries and columns was disfigured. The disfigurement was so great that the Emperor himself was horrified when he came to visit the place. So he told the bishop, You have built here what you could build anywhere else, but with that you have destroyed a unique place of antiquity, the only one of its kind in the world.

Al-Ghassani stopped for a long time feeling the same sadness as we feel now. The wound in those days was still fresh, so he mentions not only the history of the mosque, but also everything that had been said about it in poems. He asserted that it was no less important than Al-Aqsa Mosque, which had also been lost. Al-Ghassani concluded with the words, Opposite this mosque in the Great Casbah, which used to be the residence of the King of Cordoba, the seat of the Sultanate of Al-Adwa. We ask Almighty God to restore it to the abode of Islam, for the honor of His Prophet, on whom be peace.

Mail, Bullfighting and Other Things

Al-Ghassani was not an ordinary traveler, as I have said. His memory stored up and was aware of everything he saw, because he knew that his book was in fact a lengthy report for Sultan Maulay Ismail. He did not confine himself only to praising him on the occasions when he had the opportunity to do so. He also took pains to acquire a broad picture of all the social and political circumstances of the Spanish state, with which his Sultan was constantly at war, and indeed of other European countries also, with all the conflicts that were going on between them. He tells first of all about the system of monasticism in Christianity, and describes the convents which contain old and young women, provided that they be virgins. He writes about inns for travelers which have been prepared at intervals along the road, which provide not only lodging and food for travelers, but also for their riding animals. He also notes the condition of economic activity which the Spanish cities were experiencing in those days. Gold was pouring in to them from the New World which had been discovered. This enabled the Spanish people to live in a state of opulence, so that they neglected to carry on trade. They began to disdain doing any menial work, which they left to foreign workers, foremost of whom were the French who were the poorest at that time. Al-Ghassani also observed one of the most fanatical phenomena experienced by Spain, namely the Inquisition, the courts set up by fanatical Catholic monks to hunt down Muslims and Jews and try them for heresy . They aroused an atmosphere of intimidation and terror among everyone. A small whisper in which a person accused his neighbor of being a heretic or an apostate was enough for him to be arrested and subjected to torture and then burnt without hesitation. Al-Ghassani commented about the monks of these courts, who were the judges and executioners at the same time, in these words: Nobody can extricate anyone from their hands, even the King himself.

But the most important thing Al-Ghassani mentions accurately about these phenomena is the rise of the modern European state and the beginning of the development of the institutions of civic society in it. He is interested in describing the hospitals which shelter the sick and elderly and appoint people to serve them. In Madrid alone he counted fourteen extremely large and clean hospitals. Al-Ghassani s attention is also attracted by the postal system, which carries letters from far countries and delivers them to people in return for a fixed fee. The regular arrival of the mail helped people to learn quickly about the most important European and international news. Even more important than that is his description of the genesis of the press in the modern sense: There are those who gather news and set it on a mould which are printed in thousands of papers and sold for the smallest price. So you find a man with some of these in his hand, advertising them by calling out, 'Who will buy the news of such-and-such a country, or of some other country?' Whoever wants to find out, can buy one of these papers."

Al-Ghassani did not omit to describe the types of sports that the Spanish people liked. Football had not become widespread during that period, but he describes skating on ice, which the Spanish had begun to practice in imitation of people of the North. He contemplated the sport of bullfighting, which was regarded as a real that everyone strives for, from ordinary citizens to the King of Spain, or the tyrant as Al-Ghassani called him. He himself saw King Carlos II, accompanied by his wife and courtiers, attending a bullfight. The bullfighting arena which Al-Ghassani saw was set up in a famous open space in Madrid, Plaza Mayor or the Grand Market. Al-Ghassani mentioned how they brought strong bulls to it, and then brought in people who claimed to be courageous, riding on theirhorses and carrying their spears. Some of these would die, and some would kill the bull.

Plaza Mayor is now no longer a place for bullfighting. Also it is no longer a market in the traditional sense, but it still preserves its old character as Al-Ghassani describes it. Today it is a broad, round open space, surrounded by houses on all sides, and beside them are scattered cafés, in which it is pleasant to spend a late night. In the midst of it are scattered lovers, guitar players, artists and amateurs also, but my colleague the photographer and I saw a bullfight in another place. In fact, no Spanish town, however small its size, is lacking in an arena for this strange and bloody sport. It is also the part that makes the celebration of any festival complete. The arena in which we sat was filled with crowds of various classes. Although bullfighting is only widespread in Spain, Portugal, some towns of southern France and Latin America, it is a massive industry in which about 150,000 people are employed in Spain alone. The most highly paid of these of course are the bullfighters or matadors, who enjoy fame like film and pop music stars. There are rituals and rules for the sport: the bull must be of pure African stock and be brought up in a certain way that preserves his basic instincts so that he does not give up his wild nature. The fight in the bullring is subject to the instructions of the director of the arena who sits at the top and gives his agreement for each phase of the fight. The bull cannot be killed except with permission from him. l have watched four bulls being tormented first of all, and bled before being killed, and I have watched the pageantry with which the bullfighter enters, dressed in a bright costume embroidered with gold and silver thread, with his elegant movements as he stands at the shortest possible distance from the bull, nevertheless skillfully avoiding his two sharp horns. I have lived in the middle of the crazed clamor of the crowd, but despite all that I have felt myself sympathetic to the poor bull, who does not know what is wanted of him, as he receives stabs from the bullfighter and from those who are helping him, before the sword is plunged into his neck without mercy. I do not know how this sport originated, nor the secret of the Spanish passion for it. I think and this is my personal independent opinion that it originated when the northern kingdoms were preparing for the war to regain Andalusia from the hands of the Arabs. Perhaps it encouraged everything that would result in increasing the militarist spirit and strengthening the harsh Spartan character of the society. Thus there came to be a kind of collective frenzy from the sight of blood being spilled.

At the end of the fight, as we were preparing to go out, I found myself in front of the director of the arena. He was an old bullfighter, and his face still bore traces of the gracefulness of stars, even though his body had filled out and doubled in size. It is an extremely savage sport, I said to him in English, and there are many opponents of it in Spain and the world. Why do you love it so much? he looked at me for a long time before answering, I agree with you that it is savage, but we get the worst violence and harshness out of ourselves in it. But isn t that better than you Arabs who keep on killing each other and exploding bombs in your streets? You need to fight bulls, not to fight yourselves.

The Black Paintings

With Al-Ghassani we were to pass through the cities of El Carpio, Mancha and Mora until we arrived finally in Madrid. Al-Ghassani had an appointment to meet King Carlos II, or the tyrant as he called him. He could not hide his admiration for this broad city which in fact was a low valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. All its streets were paved with stones, and full of cathedrals and crowded markets. Al-Ghassani went to meet the Spanish King in his Prado Palace in the midst of a huge crowd of courtiers, men and women, to deliver him a letter from the Sultan of Morocco. He described King Carlos II as young, and his origins were from the country of the Flemish, and he was not one of the descendants of the tyrants of Spain who fought the Muslims and conquered Andalusia, may God destroy their troops and empty them from the Earth. Then Al-Ghassani departed, giving the King the opportunity to have the letter translated and its contents discussed.

The Prado Palace is still there to this day, but it has been turned into one of the largest museums in Europe, which contains a large collection of the masterpieces of Spanish art. The most famous of these are the paintings of the artist Goya, who disliked the royal family and rebelled against it. When we were touring Madrid, there was a recent and controversial case about the paintings of this artist Goya, or rather what are known as the black paintings.

These are in fact 16 massive paintings which Goya painted in his years of isolation. He passed through difficult financial circumstances because the royal family was angry with him. He did not have the price of canvases to paint on, and so he painted all these paintings on the walls of his house, using black a great deal, and expressing all the nightmares that were disturbing his spirit. After Goya s death, and with the progress of technology, it became possible to transfer these paintings from the wallpaper of his house and place them on canvas designed for painting. These paintings acquired an important status in the Prado Museum, when suddenly a case exploded denying their attribution to Goya, when one of the professors of art who specializes in this period claimed that they were painted by one of his talented pupils. Thus there was a division of opinion, and research began anew in everything related to Goya and his artistic method.

The Ordeal of the Arabic Manuscripts

Al-Ghassani draws a surprising and different picture of King Carlos II. He uses his intelligence here to place before the eyes of the Sultan and other eastern Sultans who regard themselves as demi-gods a profound lesson in humility. At Easter each year the King would invite thirteen poor men to the Prado Palace. This number is a symbolic reference to Jesus the Messiah (peace be upon him) and his disciples on the eve of Easter. The King did not limit himself to giving food to these poor men, but he also served them himself. Then a bowl of water was brought and the King would wash and dry their feet. Not only that, he would then kiss the foot of each one of these poor men before giving them clothes and money. He did not do that alone, but also his wife took part in this. It is a lesson in humility and a tradition in imitation of what the Messiah did at the Last Supper when he kissed the feet of his disciples before telling them: One of you will betray me.

But were the negotiations that Al-Ghassani conducted successful or not?

We know about what happened in an obscure way. Through brief words we know that King Carlos II hastened to have the Sultan s letter translated. Its firm and strong words had caused him to become agitated according to Al-Ghassani and he and his courtiers had no other course but to agree to a prisoner exchange operation. We do not know if that actually took place or not, as he does not mention this matter after that. But it is certain that the second part of his mission failed, and that he was not able to recover the rare Arabic manuscripts, which were locked up inside the Escorial.

The road to the Escorial looks like a visit to the dead people in Spanish history, the Kings and those who are not mentioned. There is an imprint of death everywhere, at the beginning of the road, in the midst of a forest with dense foliage there is the Valley of the Fallen where General Franco built a famous cathedral inside the mountain to commemorate his victory in the civil which raged through Spain in the 1930s. Like any victor, he had a right to show tolerance. In the cathedral he buried the bodies of all the soldiers who had fought with him and those who had stood against him in a single medley. Maybe this is the wisdom of the angel of death when he mows down everyone without discrimination. The Cathedral of the Valley of the Fallen is strange and awe-inspiring, its walls formed from the interior of the mountain are very high and full of veins from the rocks. Its interior is dark and cold, like a huge cave decorated with icons, but it is depressing. It has many of the characteristics of the dictator who built it. It inspires awe in the soul without piety, and fear instead of love.

We continued our way to the Escorial, which is considered one of the greatest buildings in Europe. It contains a small palace to which Spanish kings resort to escape from the summer heat or when they want to cut themselves off from the world, a small church which sponsors one of the largest theological universities, a monastery for Augustinian monks, and a cemetery that contains all the remains of the kings of Spain who have passed away. When we came to visit it, the coffins of all the kings were crammed together beside each other, so that there was no longer any empty space. Franco had preferred to keep away from all those kings and be buried on his own in the cathedral which he had built in the Valley of the Fallen. So where will the new kings go?

Perhaps the most important part of the Escorial building is the famous library which was the goal of our journey and which contains the manuscripts that remain from the intellectual heritage of Al-Andalus. For this library Al-Ghassani had come, and maybe he had stood in the same place where we were standing now, around him the monks who supervised the library, trying to convince him that nothing was left of Maulay Zaydan s library.

The history of this important and extremely unfortunate library dates back to the age of the seizure of Granada at the end of the fifteenth century. It was natural that it should contain thousands of Andalusian manuscripts that had been collected from Granada and from the other conquered cities. But there was a big increase in the number of these manuscripts in the reign of Philip III, when Spanish pirate ships seized the library of the Sultan of Morocco Maulay Zaydan. This Moroccan sovereign had been afraid of the disturbances which raged around him, and had wanted to move his library to a safe place, but the Spanish ships entered Moroccan waters between Asefi and Agadir in 1612, and seized the library and whatever loot was in it. The most important thing was the manuscripts. There were 3,000 manuscripts on the various sciences and arts. With this the acquisitions of the Escorial increased at one go to 10,000 Arabic manuscripts. These manuscripts continued to rest in peace until a fire broke out which burnt up most of this unique treasure, as if the curses that pursued Al-Andalus did not want to stop. Only about 2,000 of these manuscripts which were inside one of the cellars were saved, and they survive to this day. But when Al-Ghassani arrived, it was natural that the monks should weep in front of him over this lost treasure, and tell him that nothing was left of them. We have seen the place of the fire in these cupboards (the book cupboards), and it had a great effect on them and on the church. The tyrant is still concerned to this day with what the fire spoilt, and had this church not had a stone roof without any wood which fire is quick to burn, it would also have been destroyed. The Syrian Maronite priest Mikhail Al-Ghariri afterwards carried out a magnificent work. He knew Spanish and Arabic fluently, and so he was able to discover the existence of these manuscripts, and to catalogue them in a scholarly manner. He thereby cast light on an important part of the heritage of Al-Andalus

Our journey in the footsteps of Al-Ghassani ended. He had succeeded in rescuing the prisoners, but he did not succeed in rescuing the captive books. He left us at every one of his steps a trace from the lost Andalus, whose nightmare we are still living to this day. His words at time were filled with distress and sadness, but he clung more than we did to the fringes of hope that this land would once again return to being an Islamic land. What does he say now that our Arab existence has become threatened in the heart of Arab territory? And what does he say of a people who reject all laws of progress and wait for the warnings of the end? In this we are like our former people in Al-Andalus.


Muhammad Al-Munsi Qandil


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