In an oft-quoted scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian—a film parody of Hollywood biblical epics—some Judaean dissidents, during the interval in a Roman circus in first-century Jerusalem, discuss their imperial occupiers. They pose the political question, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” As they develop their answers, they ironically catalog the list of benefits brought by Roman civilization: aqueducts, paved roads, irrigation, public baths, sanitation, medicine…

Recently, I began to investigate the Islamic heritage of the area where I live in southeast Spain, the kingdom of Sharq al-Andalus, defeated in the 13th century, and I began to see a similar list emerging, which I have to admit challenged my religious and historical ignorance. I had gone about my life as a Christian in Europe for nearly forty years since my conversion without bothering to understand anything of the third major Abrahamic faith, Islam. I can only think of three previous moments when I gave Islam a passing thought. The first was when I was based in a friary in London and we invited the imam from the local mosque to tea. We discussed matters of mutual social concern, local poverty, drug addiction, and vandalism, but not religion. Later, undertaking Franciscan postgraduate studies, I was aware of the debt owed by scholastic theologians to Muslim translators, Avicenna and Averroes in Spain; for it was from them that Bonaventure and Duns Scotus acquired the Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, lost for centuries to the Latin world. And then – like everyone else – I became aware of ‘Islamism’ in September 2001, when Al-Qaida terrorism erupted and we all stood horrified around the television set in the chemistry lab in the church school in Canterbury where I taught, at the end of the day after the children had gone home. Teachers were in tears as we watched the twin towers collapsing in New York, but nobody knew anything about Al-Qaida or Islam. We were mystified as to why this was happening. The only thing that was clear was a new war had begun in the 21st century.

Even after that, another twenty years went by, and I was still not sufficiently motivated to read about Islam or its founding prophet. As a Catholic, I simply saw it as a medieval Arabian distortion of Judaeo-Christian biblical tradition, invented by a goat-herder from a desert country full of squabbling nomadic tribes. It did not present any remote interest to me as a subject for further reading.

So, why start now? The reason was quite simple: it was a trade-off. I recently changed Catholic parishes, to the church in the nearby village of Orxeta, a few minutes from home. I have been on the electoral roll there for some years and there were good reasons to finally make it my home for Sunday Mass. There was an obstacle, however. In the church of Santiago, looming down unavoidably from above the altar, is a statue of Santiago Matamoros, “Saint James the Moor-slayer”. This marks the parish as a very rare place in this borderland territory of the medieval kingdom of Aragon: the village was an encomienda (“held in trust”) of the military-religious Order of Santiago. The knights’ commanderie still stands, overlooking the village square. When the guys from the town hall open the door to the store-room to bring out the seats for an open-air summer concert of medieval music in front of the Bar La Plaza, you can see the brick barrel-vaulting of the commanderie dungeon ceiling above the stacked plastic chairs. Seven hundred years ago, this was a frontier outpost in the medieval fight between kingdoms of Christians and Muslims and the villagers paid a generous tithe and a portion of their first fruits to the knights of Santiago.

Santiago Matamoros trampling a Saracen: 1950s equine statue ensemble above the altar in the parish church of Orxeta, Alicante, Spain.

The Matamoros statue in the church is modern, installed in the 1950s to replace the statuary that the communists and anarchists burnt during the 1930s when they enthusiastically sacked the church even before the Civil War had started, so keen was their anti-clericalism. The ‘Moor-slayer’ statue is of the same period as another ensemble near the sacristy door, in a high glass-fronted niche, containing a hideous scene more like the waxworks designed to entertain visitors in a museum of horrors. San Nazario – the first-century Roman missionary Nazarius, martyred in Milan – is seated and bound, with bloody stripes of flayed flesh on his arms. An executioner with the stereotype barbarian appearance, according to the canon of Spanish Catholic iconography, stares menacingly out from the glass case – staring brazenly at the viewer – as he stands behind the saint, slitting his throat with a Saracen sword, a weapon you would not find in 1st century Milan, but in 13th century Spain would be wielded by a ‘Moor’. Blood drips down the blade and the semiology is clear enough: the infidels in Milan were no better than ‘Moors’ and when we turn our gaze back to the Apostle on his white charger above the altar, we see San Nazario avenged as the Saracen is struck down.

San Nazario — the martyr Nazarius, 1AD — has his throat cut: 1950s statue ensemble by the sacristy door in the parish church of Orxeta, Alicante, Spain.

The Apostle on his horse slaying the ‘Moor’ and Saint Nazario’s bloody execution by another swarthy heathen certainly enthral the young children of the parish. Why else do we take children to a waxwork museum of horrors, but for the thrills? On the other hand, you may well ask: would we take them to a waxwork museum of horrors to learn the Catechism? I am in a minority regarding the impropriety of this statuary in a place of Catholic worship. My fellow parishioner Manolo probably expresses the majority view when, unimpressed by my snobbery about ‘third-rate art’, he simply says, “You must respect the history.”

And so I must. The equestrian depiction of Saint James is a familiar one in Spanish Catholic imagery of their patron saint: a white Caucasian with sword raised to slay a dark-skinned Saracen being trampled under the hooves of the Apostle’s rearing white horse. This statuary appears mainly above the altar or in the external tympanum above the door of a church historically connected with the religious-military Order of Santiago. When I wrote a critical article for WPI about this imagery in my Postcards from the Camino series,[1] my comments about the racism inherent in it sparked a surprising controversy on Twitter, with furious reactions from a few Spanish nationalists. (Mike Lewis was not entirely overjoyed to find himself under attack from yet another bunch of extremists masquerading as conservative Catholics!)

I don’t intend in this article to add any new criticism of the Matamoros imagery [Good thinking – Ed.] but simply explain that I needed to find a way to deal with my own scruples about the statue, since I now have to face it every Sunday at Mass. When the parish priest, Father Juan raises the host above his head at the consecration, pronouncing the solemn words of Jesus at the Last Supper, I now see the Body of Christ against a background of an equestrian figure of His apostle Saint James, slaughtering a Muslim in battle. You may understand why I would need to seek a way to accommodate such a contradiction. Clearly, Father Juan would not climb up on a stepladder before the canon of the Mass and cover the statue with a dust-sheet, just for my benefit, not even if I asked him nicely; because that is simply not in the rubrics. So I had to find my own peace with Mr. Apostle the Moor-slayer.

My solution was to recall the founding inspiration of Brother Roger Shütz of the Taizé Community, which may be paraphrased, “Before we can enter ecumenical dialogue, we first must reconcile religious differences within ourselves.” Hence my pact: if I have to receive holy communion in the presence of Santiago Matamoros killing a ‘Moor’ in battle, I shall make an effort to learn about Muslim culture, for Islam was once the life of Orxeta village until a Christian population supplanted it. Catholic triumphalism must have a sell-by date, and we are surely well beyond it, since the Muslims were expelled from Orxeta four hundred years ago.

The period when the Muslims lived under Christian rule between the 13th and 17th centuries sparked my interest. How did that actually work? What were the Islamic influences upon the growing Christian population? And what remains today, in the local landscape where I live, and in this Valencian society, and in the Castilian Spanish language? I was already aware of many everyday words with an Arabic origin. The town’s mayor in Spanish is called the alcalde, from el-cadi, the Islamic community’s leader and judge Likewise in agriculture, there are words for water channels, boundaries of farming land, and basic working implements that derive from Arabic. Even the word for the game of chess is Arabic.

Two knights of the Order of Santiago playing “ajedrez” as it is still called today: the game of chess in Spain was learned from the Arabs.

Now all this may add interest and local color for one who is resident here, but would not be of any wider consequence unless we take the trouble to notice the intersection between history and the modern world. For centuries Christians subjugated the Islamic people here and their religion and culture, and the expression of that can be seen in our statue of Santiago Matamoros in Orxeta. Although artistically flawed and culturally anachronistic, it does actually have an authentic connection with crusader history, even if we might wince at the sight of a white Apostle slaying a prone black Saracen with his sword, for Orxeta was an Islamic settlement where Muslims paid their tithes to the Christian knights of the Order of Santiago who governed as an occupying minority. While the Muslims worked Orxeta’s fields and orchards and paid their tithes to the Christian knights of Santiago, those warrior-monks sat in the commanderie playing ajedrez, the game of chess that they had learned from their Arab enemy.

The contrasting situation in the 21st century in the Middle East and Afghanistan is quite stark. Even with modern military technology, computers, satellites, drones, and McDonald’s, the west’s frontier skirmishes with Islam – during ‘the war against terror’ – were precarious and unsustainable. How remarkable that crusader rule remained permanent here in the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula, after the fall of the Islamic kingdom of Sharq al-Andalus. Over hundreds of years, these frontier lands were gradually repopulated by Christian settlers until the moment it was economically expedient for the complete expulsion of the Muslim population in the 17th century.

What have the Saracens ever done for us? I had embarked on an interfaith journey, with no particular agenda except to learn more, thanks to ‘Saint James the Moor-slayer.’ It was time to explore the Islamic period and its exchange and legacy in Catholic culture locally. The story turns out to be far from simple, but fortunately for the English-speaking reader, I was delighted to discover that we have the lucid writings of an American priest and historian as a reliable and highly readable authority on these events. When I first began to explore the local history, the village librarian Sergio drew my attention to a bibliography of the Islamic period and the crusaders of this Valencian frontier landscape, in which the extensive writings of Robert Ignatius Burns, SJ, are the most frequently cited.[2] In the next article in this series, Father Burns will be our tour guide, and later we shall consider Islam and its Prophet, continuing to ask, what have they ever done for us? Maybe we can find some surprisingly positive answers.

 (To be continued in Part 2.)


[1] Postcards from the Camino #12: Saint James the “Moor-slayer”: Time to topple his statue? https://wherepeteris.com/postcard-12-st-james-the-moor-slayer-time-to-topple-his-statue/

[2] Robert I. Burns S.J., The Crusader Kingdom of Valencia: Reconstruction of a 13th c. Frontier, Harvard University Press, 1967. I shall have more to say about Father Burns’ writings in Part 2.

[3] Diana Darke, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe (Hurst, 2020). The title is deliciously ironic, as ‘Saracen’ is Arabic for thief but Christian Europe drew heavily on Islamic architecture, but Darke argues that Europeans have airbrushed from history their cultural debt to the Muslim world.

Images: Featured image: Interior of Charlemagne’s palatine chapel at Aachen. By Velvet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31743161. Header photo is an example of Islam-inspired architecture in Europe, as described in Diana Darke’s book Stealing from the Saracens;[3] the two photographs of the parish church in Orxeta are by the author, taken after Mass on Advent Sunday, 2021; and the picture of the two knights of Santiago playing chess is from a 13th-century manuscript, “Libro de los juegos de Alfonso X”, in the library of San Lorenzo monastery, El Escorial.

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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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