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Reviving Spain’s Moorish Heritage at Petrer

posted on: Jul 3, 2019

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

The January wind was biting cold as I trudged through a blinding Toronto snow storm on my way to a travel agency.  My fingers and toes were beginning to become numb, yet, I hardly felt the cold for my mind was on a journey I had been planning for many years – an odyssey to Andalusia to explore its Moorish remains.  The high point of our journey, I was positive, would be the Moros y Cristianos Festival in Petrer (also spelled Petrel) – a re-living of Spain’s Moorish history.

Why was this interest of mine in that Spain of long ago? It was, perhaps, my origin or, more probably, my book-derived enchantment with the Golden Age of Muslim Spain.  However, perchance, the two combined to produce in me an intense longing to visit the land which was once the home of the noble Moors.

Reviving Spain’s Moorish Heritage at Petrer

Without question, my background had influenced my thoughts and feelings.  In the early part of this century, my parents had emigrated from Syria to homestead in southern Saskatchewan. From their way of life, I learned the virtues of the Arabs.  Hospitality, generosity, pride and the civil ways of treating friends and guests were inherited from their interaction with our neighbors.  Added to this, as I grew older and read the history of our people, I became proud of their civilization and its contribution to mankind. Hence, Arab Spain where much of this civilization had been transmitted to the West was my pivotal point of interest.

When, in the ensuing years, my twin daughters Muna and Leila attended university, their interests, in no small degree, inherited from myself, were for that former land of the Moors. After they both obtained their Master’s degrees from the University of Toronto, my wife, my daughters and I decided to explore, as thoroughly as possible, the Moorish relics still to be found in the Iberian Peninsula.  On that cold January day, our plans had crystallized and I was on my way to buy the passage for the family to southern Spain.

High on our agenda was the Moros y Cristianos Festival in Petrer, a small town near Alicante in eastern Spain.  Here, we were told, a true enactment of the Muslim period would be relived. More than the Moorish remains themselves, we wanted to live for a few days in the fantasy of a once fabulous European Arab world.

We began our Andalusian odyssey in Seville, a city which still carries the aura of the Muslim era.  Surveying the Giralda, once the minaret of Seville’s Great Mosque and walking through the richly tiled Alcazar with its flowering gardens a home built for Arab Emirs we felt that these former desert men were still with us.

In the old Arab-Jewish section of Santa Cruz with its shining white houses and gardens, we spent our last evening enthralled with the original flamenco a dance which owes much to the Moors.  The tone and voice of the male singer were no different than that of a Muslim muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.  The beat of the clapping hands was the clap of the Arabian Peninsula and the rhythm of the stamping feet, that of the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains.

From Seville, we took the train through a fertile countryside to Cordova, once the capital of Moorish Spain.  Our point of interest was the Great Mosque, now a cathedral. In its endless marble and stone columns, graceful Moorish arches and the breathtaking mihrab (niche) of the former mosque, we beheld the true architectural genius of the Moors.  Even today, in size, beauty, and overwhelming atmosphere, it is one of the most magnificent religious edifices in the world.

Perhaps, yet, more interesting to my daughters and myself were the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra’, a splendid royal city built in the 10th century by the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III for the woman he loved.  In its days of glory, poets rhapsodized about its charm; strangers were dazzled by its splendor, and travelers went ecstatic when describing its beauty. Now, all that remains is a pile of partially restored ruins.

Reviving Spain’s Moorish Heritage at Petrer
Spain-Petrer-Moros y Cristianos Festival

In Cordova, we rented an auto then drove to Jaen where we explored its picturesque Arab fortress.  From that impressive town surrounded by a countryside filled with olive orchards, we drove through Baeza and Ubeda, important towns in Moorish times, then drove on to Valencia.

We did not tarry in the town of El-Cid but hurried on through rice fields and orchards, first planted by the Arabs, to reach Alicante.  A few miles away was Peter and its festival the mecca of our odyssey.

We were in high spirits as we drove in the cool early morning hours the few miles to that town.  Rewardingly, our first sight was the Arab fortress-castle overlooking the village. Was the festival to be held in and around this fortress?  We did not know. However, we planned to find out.

Through the village streets and up the road I pushed our small Renault.  There was not a soul around the well-preserved Arab built castle, and no flags flew from its high battlements.

Reviving Spain’s Moorish Heritage at Petrer
Spain-Petrer-Moros y Cristianos Festival-Children Taking Part # 2

“Where are the actors who will relive the history of yesteryears?”  I asked aloud.

“Look down to the village.  I see people in Arab dress.”  Muna was pointing to the streets below.  In a few moments, we had the car parked in one of the town’s squares.

“Donde Esta la fiesta de Los Moros y Cristianos (Where is the Moors and Christian Festival?”  I asked a passerby. “En el Centro de la Ciudad (In the center of town)”, the man smiled.  “Bienvenidos a Petrer (Welcome to Petrer)!”

The streets of the town were filled with milling crowds of men, women, and children dressed in the costumes of the past eras in Spanish history.  The sound of gunfire echoing through the streets led us to one of the main thoroughfares. Here, an episode of the Moorish-Christian wars was being re-enacted.  Up the street moved the Moorish army firing muskets and cannons with real gunpowder while in the distance the Spanish were retreating.

Reviving Spain’s Moorish Heritage at Petrer

It might seem strange that in this re-enactment the actors were employing gunpowder and guns in portraying an age when wars were commonly fought with swords and spears.  However, gunpowder is not, as many believe, an invention of the West. It was well-known in Moorish Spain for a few decades before the Arabs were expelled from that land.  At the end of the 13th century, an Arab author, Hassan al-Rummah, wrote a book relating to firearms and gunpowder in which he mentioned the invention of bombs and torpedoes.

In addition, Ibn Khaldun, a renowned Arab historian, wrote that cannons were employed in North Africa in the 13th century.  He related how in 1273 the Sultan Abu Yusuf utilized this weapon to conquer Sijilmassa, a once famous city, situated in present-day Morocco.  The Arabs in Spain, a number of years before their downfall are also believed to have developed an arms industry which ultimately was taken over by the conquering Spaniards.  Some historians have observed that this invention handed the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula the power to conquer the New World.

We were all amazed by the colorful scene. “Look! Arabs from history!  How magnificent! The Emir! He must be an Arab” Leila exclaimed as the Moorish legions marched before us, each group led by a richly dressed emir.

“The Moors in this town must have appeared like this when Spain was their land,” I reflected myself for I too was enticed by this re-enactment of the past.

Reviving Spain’s Moorish Heritage at Petrer
Spain-Petrer-Moros y Cristianos Festival-Christians

Magnifico!  Magnifico!” Leila pointed to the emirs while she talked to a Spaniard standing by her side.  “Come tomorrow morning, and you’ll see the grandeur of Spain’s Moorish civilization,” the man advised in passable English.  I thought to myself, “How could there be any scene more eye-filling or grander than this? He must be exaggerating.”

Son Uds. ingleses? (Are you English)?”  A young man was talking to one of my daughters.  Muna answered: “Somos canadiens Pero Nuestra origin es árabe (we are Canadians but our origin is Arab).”  “Arabe!  Arabe! Bienvenidos! Bienvenidos!”  The young man was excited. “You must be the first Arabs to have returned to this town in 500 years.  Come with me!”

The young man twined his hand through mine and steered us toward the older part of town.  I felt strange. Why was this stranger taking us to his home? I had momentarily forgotten that the southern Spaniards had inherited the trait of Arab hospitality, and as I had observed when traveling through the vast Arab world, people do invite utter strangers into their homes.  In Petrer, the Arab-inherited trait of hospitality would be demonstrated many times in the next two days. During the time we spent in that town, we were invited to home after home and never ate one meal in the restaurants of that village.

For the Festival, the town had been divided into two sections: Moors; and Christians.  The players of each group kept to their section of town. Of course, the ‘Moors’ took us to their part to feast and be merry.  In us, they had found the real Arabs and they wanted to parade us around. In the two evenings we spent in Petrer we must have attended a dozen parties, always being introduced as the ‘Moros’ from Canada.  We must have caused more excitement than the festival at which we were celebrating.

The next, we were far from comfortable in that early brisk cold May air as we waited for the parade to begin. In the distance, we could hear the sound of drums. We knew we had only a few moments to wait before history would unfold before our eyes.

“Christian” soldiers from Castile followed by those of Aragon, Leon, Navarre, and Asturia marched in colorful costumes of past eras – a vivid reliving of Spain’s historic Christian history.  Following each provincial group, women and children dressed in the fashion of the past ages gave color to a world relived.

“Listen, it’s Arabic music!”  Muna’s voice seemed to shout. Sure enough, the strains of perfect sounding Arabic melodies could be heard in the distance.  “Look! Look! What a marvelous sight!” Muna and Leila sounded as if they were speaking together.

The actors who portrayed the Spanish Christians had no sooner passed then a replica of the first Arab conquerors came to view.  Soldiers of the Umayyads led by magnificently dressed

emirs and emiras (noble men and women) marched together.  No truer replica of this great Arab conquering dynasty could be imagined.

Dark-bearded, strong, fine-looking men with ornamental headdresses and tunics of eye-boggling colors were a wonderful sight.  Their curved swords simulating the swords of Damascus which were made from the finest steel in that era shone in the sunlight. How splendid they looked as they twirled these swords above their heads!

Not to be outdone, the dark, proud emiras, reliving the past, were dressed in the finest silk robes.  They could easily have matched the most beautiful women of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  What a vivid re-enactment of the proud Umayyad epoch.  No artist in the East or West could have painted a better picture.

When the Umayyad actors had passed I thought we had seen the ultimate in the portrayal of the Moorish age, but it proved to be only the beginning.  The century of the tawa’ifs or petty kingdoms next rolled into view.  Kings, emirs, emiras, army generals and soldiers of these kingdoms all had their place.

The petty kings had taken over Muslim Spain after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty.  With the disintegration of the central power, many ambitious men set themselves up as kings or sovereigns over whatever territory they could grasp.  Some founded states like Toledo, Saragossa, Seville, Valencia and Granada which became powerful mini-states. The rule of others extended no more than outside their own city walls.

These kingdoms fought each other while the Spaniards occupied them one by one.  A redeeming fact during their internecine wars was that their rulers were enlightened and patronized the arts.  Yet, if one is to place them in a historical perspective, one would have to admit that these warring rulers were a leading cause in the downfall of Moorish Spain.

Another band playing haunting Arab melodies followed the petty kings – representatives of a sad epoch in Arab history.  We hardly heard the notes, however, for close behind came the legions of the al-Murabitun (Almoravids), led by emirs dressed in dazzling clothing and riding decorated, prancing steeds.  These actors, representing a dynasty which had its roots in Africa, depicted even to the colour of their skin and African dress a true picture of that dynasty.

The armies of the al-Murabitun who stopped the Christian advance at the battle of Zallaqah in l086 A.D. consisted mostly of African soldiers.  They were fanatics but were it not for their courage, Arab Spain would have been lost to Islam 200 years before Granada reached its zenith.

Impressively capping the parade were the legions of the al-Muwahhidun (Almohads) who were the last-ditch reinforcement from North Africa for beleaguered Muslim Spain. They came, fought and defeated the Spaniards in 1195 at the battle of Alarcos, built mosques and fortresses, ruled for a period, declined and were defeated. After them, this part of Spain was Arab no more – a fitting end to a great parade.  In all, the Spaniards of Petrer must have done much research to produce such an authentic spectacle.  In my mind, this re-enactment of history was a magnificent exhibition – a pageant with no equal.

A replica of Petrer’s Arab castle had been erected in the town’s central square, and, when darkness began slowly to engulf the village, a scene was enacted around this make-believe castle.

The Spaniards were guarding the castle walls when a Moorish delegation, led by the leading emir, came to parley. That evening, as the opposing leaders conversed I wished I had a better knowledge of Spanish. What I understood from the long speech made by the Arab emir impressed me.

Indeed, he was acting his role well.  His ringing words echoed in my ears:

“Listen to me!  Oh Spanish king and take my words to heart!  Your people were no better than barbarians when our ancestors came to this land.  We brought the arts, the plants, the buildings, the gardens, the rich fabrics of the East, the many spices, but above all we brought you the knowledge of the ancient civilizations.  We have made you civilized; now you call us heathens. By the name of the Prophet and the Ka’bah (Muslim Holy Shrine in Mecca) we will be victorious for God is with us.”  

They could have spoken these very words, the Arabs of yesteryear, for they were a proud and believing race.

Late in the evening, with the inspiring words of the emir ringing in our ears, we left this fantasy world.  On the morrow in the festival’s historic play, the Spaniards were to overwhelm the Moors and trample their pride.  However, before that happened we would be far away. One’s fancy, we all agreed, should be pleasing to the dreams. In our make-believe world, we were not prepared to have the Moors defeated.

Leaving Petrer and its colorful pageant behind, we searched for Moorish remains throughout countless towns and cities in southern Spain.  Here and there we found impressive relics from that age. Without a doubt, the most splendid and majestic monument was the Alhambra in Granada.  In its numberless fairy-tale rooms and picturesque gardens, we found the perfect setting for dreaming of the days of glory in Moorish Spain. The atmosphere within its walls brings to mind its builders of long ago.

From the Arabian desert, they came and made Spain their home. Being hardened men they lived a frugal life, as had their fathers in their harsh land of origin.  Based on the bravery, honor, and hospitality of desert life, they erected a civilization which was unequaled in its time and for centuries later. However, when they became affluent and cared only for the pleasures of life they lost everything and were evicted from Andalusia forever.

Yet, their traces remain.  There are at least 2,300 Arab place- names dotting the whole landscape.  The Spanish language has 8,000 basic words of Arabic origin, and Andalusian music, song, and dance are thoroughly impregnated with Arab influences.  The Arab greeting of Esta casa es su casa (this house is your house) and the parting word of ojalá from the Arabic in sha’Allah (if God wills) is today as Spanish as paella.  It is not strange then that in their many festivals, like that in Petrer, the Spaniards celebrate their Arab heritage.