Author’s note: Just a reminder that as I stated in Part 1, my investigation into the Islamic heritage of the area where I live in southeast Spain is a personal journey by a non-expert. I was bemused by one Twitter commenter who paraded his expertise in order to say, “The history is more complex than presented here.” Yes, indeed the broad sweep of Muslim history in the Iberian Peninsula is vastly more complex than what was presented in the article. These articles were never intended to cover that wider picture. I continue the second part with a reminder of the purpose and scope of this simple and personal inquiry.

In the light of my reflections, while sitting in the pew of my local parish church in Orxeta, confronted by an equestrian statue of Saint James the Apostle trampling and slaughtering the Muslim enemy, I began to feel personally challenged as a Catholic to dialogue with the historical Islamic presence in my local area. Could I look beyond the supremacist crusader image of “Saint James the Moorslayer” – the focal center of our Catholic parish church of San Jaime – and try to understand something more of the former Muslim culture of this place?

Orxeta is a village that existed on the front line of the centuries-old war between faiths. These quiet valleys and majestic mountains of Alicante were once the medieval frontier lands where Saracen warriors and the Crusader armies of two Christian kingdoms – Aragon and Castile – battled for religious and cultural domination. Today in this quiet Spanish village, two buildings stand as reminders of those battles: the castillo del moro, a small Islamic castle facing the village from a nearby hillside, and the casa del comendador, the old command post of the crusader Knights of Santiago, which stands across the small Plaza Mayor from Orxeta’s modern town hall, its present-day administrative inheritor, where the Mayor is the alcalde. As explained in Part 1, the Spanish word is formed from the Arabic el-cadi, the Islamic community’s leader and judge. (A 19th-century Spanish constitutional change removed the legal powers from the mayor, so he became simply an administrator, no longer the judge.) This history shows us how Islamic administration was adopted by the incoming Christian conquerors and provided their ruling structure. When we ask, “What have the Saracens ever done for us?” we could start with this as an example where established forms of Islamic governance carried into the Christian administration.

In present-day culture, the history of the confrontation between Christians and Muslims is most represented by the annual pageants depicting the crusades and the victory over the Islamic forces. These pageants also commemorate the continuing battles on these coasts from raiding parties of Barbary pirates from North Africa. In the nearby Mediterranean fishing port of Vilajoiosa every July, the annual “Moors and Christians” festival plays out the clash between two faiths in a week-long series of colorful re-enacted battles and parades. The Vilajoiosa fiestas can be traced back to the 18th century, but there are similar events in many Valencian towns which have more modern origins. The festivals were encouraged during the dictatorship of Franco who presented himself as a 20th century ‘crusader’, and in more recent times these spectacles were also generated by the tourist economy. In the case of Benidorm the parades are a more recent holiday attraction, with local brotherhoods marching through the streets dressed as Muslim or Christian soldiers, waving swords and firing muskets.

This is the popular version of crusader history that villagers attending Mass in the village church of San Jaime in Orxeta are reminded of when they see the statue of Santiago Matamoros, “Saint James the Moorslayer”. That is entirely understandable on the level of popular historical mythology, but I felt called to go beyond a rallying image of the Apostle from the time of 13th-century crusades, and begin to understand it in the context of a symbol of the subjugation of the local Muslim population.

The crusader conquest of this area was a moment that all Catholic Europe celebrated and, as expressed by Pope Innocent IV “exulted with a deep joy, when the kingdom of Valencia was torn from the grasp of the Saracens.” The subjugation of the powerful Islamic rulers of south-east Spain was the key turning point for domination of the region. It was a brilliant victory by King James I of Aragon and the news rang through Christendom, while Islam wept.[1] The American Jesuit scholar of this history, Fr Robert I. Burns, describes with great color the triumphant Catholic victory procession through the gate into the city of Valencia with monks and knights singing the Te Deum, and he sets the scene which will become the norm for the following centuries of Catholic domination:

“The conquered Moslem, without voice or presence… becomes irrelevant, the servile tiller in the countryside.” And yet the Islamic culture was deeply ingrained: “Christian towns displayed Moorish street plans and taste in building. The general language in the realm remained Arabic. The most common political and social forms were Moslem. In terms of sheer numbers, the dominant religion was overwhelmingly Islam.” So, after the Islamic surrender in the 13th century, but in fact the people of this defeated kingdom of Sharq al-Andalus continued their way of life much as before, under Christian rule, “keeping intact their society, political structure, and way of life,” as Father Burns says, until they were eventually expelled in 1609.[2]

The Islamic community remained the majority for several centuries, outnumbering Christians by four or five to one, and remained largely compliant in obedience to Christian authority apart from occasional local rebellions and only one serious revolt.[3] [3] When we picture this frontier territory, it was one in which the Christians dominated the Muslim majority by sheer military and political skill.

So, to give a further context to the image of the Santiago Matamoros statue in our parish church, it was the knights of Santiago who gained our village of Orxeta in military action. It was described as a ‘town’ in those days and had some strategic importance. King James I of Aragon gifted the settlement to these Santiaguistas. The small castle across the river from the village was handed over by the defeated Islamic commander to the victorious Order of Santiago and King James stayed overnight in Orxeta, protected by the knight-monks who had conquered it, and the place remained under their protection right into the modern period, centered on the Casa del Comendador,[4] and the early local historians of the 18th and 19th centuries refer to Orxeta as an ecclesiastical anomaly, in that it is run by this religious-military order rather than having a place within the diocesan structure.

Having discovered the key historical points explaining the parish church iconography and the place of the village in the frontier battles between faiths in previous centuries, I now needed to develop my own perspective concerning the interfaith dialogue. Sadly – as explained in Part 1 – my Christian faith had not explained anything to me about the Muslim religion. In all my time as a Catholic (and as an Anglican before I converted), there had been no instruction about how to approach the Muslim faith and understand it from our faith’s perspective. That in itself now seemed to me a very troubling deficiency. So it was now simply down to me, as an individual Catholic, to interpret the Muslim religion and discover a point of interfaith intersection that was appropriate.

First, I needed to know something about the prophet Muhammad and how the whole thing began. I found a book in Orxeta village library by Antonio López Campillo, called Islam para adultos[5] which told the story of the Muslim religion from a Spanish perspective, which is exactly what I needed, rather than some general textbook about Islam. In undertaking this kind of study, it is really necessary to seek out a book on Islam from within the enquirer’s specific cultural setting, as the emphasis will vary: Islam in Spain and France will be seen and understood differently, within contemporary culture; and Islam in the USA will likewise provide a whole range of different sensitivities. I borrowed the book from the library and carried it home with some trepidation. What Catholic does not find it a key moment when walking home from the library carrying a book explaining the Muslim faith?

I will not expound here on what I have learned about Islam from this book, as my impressions, judgments, and errors in understanding would not be helpful. I am a mere beginner in such interfaith exploration. Suffice to say that I have discovered that the history of Islam confirms my Christian perspective. Islam provides a moral and spiritual compass that is admirable and incontrovertibly founded in the Abrahamic tradition, but without the essential salvific content of Christianity and the direct intervention by God – through Jesus Christ – in man’s redemption. There is no way I could regard the prophet Muhammad as providing any kind of serious competing faith. That is good. In any dialogue, we need to start with a clear idea of our differences.

However, having said that, I nevertheless genuinely want to understand how this local crusader history, the “Moors and Christians” theme of domination and expulsion, is understood by the resident Muslim population, and know more about their faith. So, at this point in this personal journey, I have come to the simple and obvious conclusion: the next stage of my inquiry must involve a discussion with the local Muslim imam. That meeting will be the subject of the third and final part of this series.


[1] This was 1238, more than a hundred years after the exploits of El Cid (d.1099) who is the figure most people associate with the Christian reconquest of the peninsula from Muslim rule, largely thanks to the Hollywood epic El Cid. These crusades continued in various phases throughout the medieval period.

[2] A visitor from a nearby town described our village of Orxeta in 1633, twenty-four years after the Muslim expulsion. He painted a sad picture of a deserted place with only a dozen poor inhabitants in three occupied houses and the rest in ruins. The fields and orchards were overgrown with weeds and unworked.

[3] Robert I. Burns S.J., “Crusade against al-Azraq: a 13th-century Mudejar Revolt in International Perspective,” in American Historical Review, February 1988.

[4] The term comendador (unlike a Knights Templar commanderie) is a complex term, more to do with holding gifted lands in trust (encomienda) than a purely military authority.

[5] Antonio López Campillo’s Islam para adultos (Adhara, 2005.) “Islam for Adults” does not romanticize the religion but attempts to explain it sympathetically, from the beginnings in Arabia to its inescapable presence in 21st-century current affairs.

Images: Header photo of Saint James the Moor-slayer: street decoration in Relleu, Alicante; Vilajoiosa Moors and Christians festival photograph from 1883 (photo loaned by Belén Soriano in current exhibition in Museu de Vilajoiosa); accounts page from Vilajoiosa town hall, detailing costs of explosives for the Moors and Christians festival; 1950s (Franco period) poster for Moors and Christians festival.

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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

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