A Modern Reconquista?

The Mezquita of Cordoba

Back in the winter of 2009 I had the privilege of traveling to Spain as a part of Kivunim: New Directions. Coming by ferry from Morocco, we spent several days in the heartland of Sephardic Jewish history: Andalucia. Though few Jews remain today, the legacy of Spain’s Golden Age is visibly Semitic.

I was particularly fond of Cordoba, birthplace of the timeless Jewish scholar and philosopher Maimonides. There, in the narrow passages and alleyways, one can truly appreciate how medieval city life must have felt, and how an environment of religious coexistence could have been fostered by peoples with competing narratives.

Cordoba’s crown jewel is the Mezquita, a mosque-turned-church that was constructed between the 8th and 10th centuries by an Umayyad prince. Meant to resemble the Great Mosque of Damascus, the building is one of the most stunning architectural achievements I have ever been lucky enough to stand in.

Of course, by the 13th century Cordoba fell under Catholic rule, in what is known as the Reconquista, the reclamation of the Iberian peninsula by Christendom. The mosque was converted into a church, though Charles V was famously disappointed by the job. (Perhaps this is what prompted Mehmed II, the Ottoman sultan who captured Constantinople in 1453, to refrain from the wholesale redesign of Hagia Sophia (although this could also be attributed to the spartan nature of mosques).)

The Mezquita’s fate has been weighing on me more heavily in recent weeks, as some Israeli Jews and Turkish Muslims are advocating the reclamation of their own holy sites.

First in Israel, where lawmakers are trying to pass a law which would allow Jews to pray at the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount is the single most sacred location in Judaism, yet despite Israel’s military achievement in 1967 the site has remained under the religious control of the Muslim waqf. Israeli security may restrict some Palestinians from entering the grounds during times of political unrest, but 365 days of the year Jews are prohibited from praying on the Temple Mount.

Religious timesharing does exist elsewhere (see the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron). However, the Temple Mount is a horse of a different color. It’s the 3rd holiest site in Islam (and the original direction of prayer in Muslim tradition), and the beating heart of the Palestinian national movement. Yet the movement within Israel for equal religious rights on the Temple Mount has gathered momentum in recent years, with politicians like Moshe Feiglin leading the way.

A similar scenario is playing out before the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul and Turkey’s greatest historical and religious monument. The 1500-year-old structure was a Greek Orthodox church, only to be converted to a mosque when the Ottomans rode in. Since 1935 it has functioned as a museum, a maneuver by Ataturk which symbolizes the secular values that the modern republic was founded upon.

Today Hagia Sophia’s future is unclear. Many are calling for it to be reconstituted as a mosque. At the end of May thousands gathered to pray outside its walls. It may be the wish of Erdoğan himself – his deputy Bülent Arınç has even advocated his support for it.

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist, believes that Hagia Sophia could be shared by Muslims and Christian pilgrims alike. I admire his optimism, but fear the nationalist and religious symbolism of such a decision would cast a dark shadow over any coexistence narrative.

The same challenge exists in Jerusalem. While I believe that all citizens (and visitors!) should be granted the freedom to pray where they want when they want, it is unrealistic to believe that a decision to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount wouldn’t trigger widespread protest and violence.

Like it or not, this is the reality of Israel and Turkey – countries founded by secular movements who never quite abandoned their religious roots. Now those roots have borne a new generation that sees religious expression as an inseparable part of their national identity. Returning Jewish prayers to the Temple Mount, or Muslim prayers to Hagia Sophia, would be political acts that consecrate one particular religious narrative over that of the other. And if Cordoba’s Mezquita has anything to tells us, these causes are unlikely to be abandoned anytime soon.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey