Toledo – former capital of Spain – photos from my visit

I visited Toledo in 2010 and spent a lovely couple of days in this medieval city. Fascinating place because you really sense the Christian, Jewish and Muslim heritage of Al-Andalus in modern Spain. Toledo was once a jewel in the crown of the caliphate that ruled it from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. When it fell to the crusaders, the city’s libraries were found to be stuffed with the knowledge of both Islam at its intellectual height and works from the Greeks, Romans and Persians – a huge boost to thinking in the Middle Ages.

Abu al-Quasim, Father of Modern Surgery


English: Map of the Iberian Peninsula in 1000....

English: Map of the Iberian Peninsula in 1000. Русский: Карта Пиренейского полуострова в 1000 году. Español: Mapa de la peninsula ibérica en el año 1000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Al-Andalus was the Islamic realm that covered the whole of modern Portugal and Spain and even reached in to the south of France at one stage. In the year 711CE, Muslim armies fanned across the Iberian peninsula and as with north Africa and the Levant, Iberia became part of the Islamic world. For three hundred years, most of the peninsula remained under the rule of the caliphate with its capital at Cordoba. It then fractured in to rival ‘taifas’ before falling under the Almohads, who we would probably term ‘fundamentalist’ now.

The tenth century was arguably the high point of Islamic – or Moorish – rule in Al-Andalus and it’s been estimated that about two thirds of the population was Muslim by this time. Jews and Christians had a lesser status and paid the jizya tax but there was an interesting cross-fertilisation between the three religions with cities like Toledo and Seville having churches, synagogues and mosques rubbing up against each other. Al-Andalus produced some fine thinkers including Abu al-Qasim and the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides. When the crusaders did eventually take Al-Andalus, they also imbibed the contents of its libraries and schools – which undoubtedly influenced Christian thinkers in the later Middle Ages and in to the Renaissance. I’ll be blogging more about Al-Andalus in the weeks ahead.

Moorish Society

Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi (936–1013), also known in the West as Abulcasis, was a Moorish physician who lived in Al-Andalus, Spain. He is considered the greatest medieval surgeon to have appeared from the Islamic World, and has been described by some as the father of modern surgery. His greatest contribution to medicine is the Kitab al-Tasrif, a thirty-volume encyclopedia of medical practices. His pioneering contributions to the field of surgical procedures and instruments had an enormous impact in the East and West well into the modern period, where some of his discoveries are still applied in medicine to this day.

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Secret Templar tunnel at Acre in Israel

Acre – now called Akko in Hebrew – is an amazing crusader stronghold (both Templar and Knights Hospitaller) that in spite of wars and ravages by Saracens, Ottomans, Napoleon, etc…has still retained some impressive ruins. But to add to your excitement – this humble blogger went to see the latest excavations underneath the fort where an underground network of huge halls built by the Hospitallers is being cleared of centuries of debris and what has emerged is beyond belief. You’ll only just gotten over the high ceilings of the gothic halls when you enter a door and there is a long Templar tunnel – nobody knows yet what it was for…but it’s there alright.

So here are some photos AND a little (very badly shot by myself) movie of the Templar tunnel. Enjoy!

Dealing with the violent bits in the Bible

I was at a christening two years ago when a priest in an Anglican church read a passage from the Old Testament.  It was the story of how God’s annointed people, the Israelites, totally destroyed a rival tribe taking no prisoners and laying their villages waste.  “It’s an allegorical story of course,” he lisped while I tried to suppress my laughter.

In the crusader era, nobody thought the bloodier passages of the Old Testament were allegorical. On the contrary, they were an object lesson on how to deal with the wicked enemies of Christianity – ie, the Saracens.  For Saracens, read Canaanites and every other tribe that opposed the children of Israel.

However, there have been tender souls throughout the Christian era who have found the violence in the Bible a little hard to handle.  And different solutions to the conundrum have been offered.  In the earliest years of Christianity, there were conflicts between two groups called the Ebionites and the Marcionites.  The former believed Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies and was essentially a Jewish figure.  The followers of the thinker Marcion of Sinope decided that the Old Testament was such a ghastly, blood drenched text that the Christian god could not possibly have inspired it.  The solution: lose the Old Testament entirely.

In the second century AD, this was fiercely opposed by Origen – who is not a saint because he thought Jesus was inferior to God the father (tut tut in later Catholic eyes).  Along with the fifth century theologian Augustine, he argued that these were illustrative stories.  Sure the Israelites went off and smote people in foul ways that would have landed them in a tribunal at the Hague in our own time….but these tales are simply pointing us towards better behaviour.  So – for example – the Israelites finding and killing five kings in a cave – it’s not what it looks like.  No, the five kings (Origen tortuously explains) are the five human senses which dwell in the cave of our mind.

That didn’t wash with the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century – including a couple of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  The writer and fervent supporter of the American revolution, Thomas Paine, even said that the god of the Old Testament was so abhorrent that he had little by way of moral virtue.  He should be completely discarded.

In a book out last year called ‘Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the bible’s violent verses‘ – Philip Jenkins says it’s pointless trying to ignore the insanely vicious nature of some of the bible.  He argues that the bible is actually more violent than the Koran, it’s just that Christians have gradually eased away from the tribal conflicts that obviously fired up some of the book’s many authors.  Parts of the Old Testament are borderline genocidal and Jenkins asks us to try and look at the Israelites through the eyes of the Canaanites – and imagine how scary they would have seemed.

Several blogs give almost amusing examples of the psychotic behaviour of God.  For example – he leads his people out of captivity in Egypt.  A joyous occasion for the world to be sure.  Unless you happen to be King Og of Bashan and his people whom God took a dislike to and ordered the Israelites to slay en masse not leaving a single person standing.  Expanding in to Palestine, God ordered his people at various times to wipe out entire populations including the citizens of Jericho.  The prophet Samuel instructed Saul to kill all the Amelakites….and he meant all of them.  Men, women, children, babies in arms, herds, flocks, camels, asses, etc   Quite how a camel had offended God is anybody’s guess.

Or how about Isaiah on what should happen to the good folk of Babylon: “All who are found will be stabbed, all who are taken will fall by the sword, their infants will be dashed to the ground before their eyes…”


When Christians accused Muslims of Sodomy

In the year 1307 – a whole series of accusations were made against the Knights Templar by agents of the Pope and behind him, the King of France:

1) Desecration of the Cross which might include spitting, defecating and other bodily fluids

2) Denying the validity of the Holy Sacraments

3) Worship of idols

4) The kissing on the mouth, base of the spine and anus in ritual practices

5) Illegally amassing vast wealth in their preceptories

Let’s take a closer look at number 4) in that list!   Why were the Templars accused of this?

The allegations of kissing inappropriate parts is very interesting.  To understand what the Templars’ accusers were trying to suggest, you have to appreciate how Christian Europe regarded the Islamic East.  We think of Europe today as secular and liberal and the Middle East as more prone to theocracy and a religious outlook.  But in the Middle Ages and before, the west saw itself as morally upright and it was the east that was a sink of vice and moral corruption.

You can see this attitude going back to the Roman period and the west before Christian conversion.  Romans – even Greeks – looked at the east as a part of the world where decent, upstanding western males succumbed to evil vices.  Eastern men dressed garishly, painted themselves and indulged their passions to the maximum.  Ironic then that the Islamic east has today reversed this viewpoint round 180 degrees.  It looks at the west as being morally bankrupt in the same way a medieval Christian looked in horror at Egypt or Syria.

So to a medieval westerner, the east was a moral cesspit.  Ergo – the Templars had been seduced by eastern pleasures – indeed, that’s why they had lost Christian possessions in the east – they’d gone soft, become effete, indulged their basest desires, etc.

Sodomy was always being associated with Islam in medieval propaganda.  Muslim sultans and caliphs were often depicted as being sex-crazed and lecherous often regarding young boys with uncontrolled lust.  Even the greatest Caliph of Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman is accused in one Christian tract of having martyred Saint Pelagius in the year 926, not because he was a Christian but because he resisted the Caliph’s advances.

The theme of gay accusations being leveled against Iberian muslims is looked at in another excellent paper called ‘The Sodomitic Moor: Queerness in the Narrative of Reconquista’ by Gregory Hutcheson.

To look at how westerners regarded muslims in more detail, this from an excellent paper by Mark Steckler titled ‘Brotherhood of Vice: Sodomy, Islam and the Knights Templar’.

“Muslims were thought to practice idolatry and it was believed that Islam promised a sensuous, materialistic afterlife. In fact many polemics against Islam focused on the theme of sexuality. The institutions of polygamy and concubinage provoked the recriminations of Christians who believed it corrupted its practitioners and made them enervated and effeminate. For medieval Christians Islam lacked spirituality, and was a religion of licentiousness and depravity. The perceived dissoluteness of Islam was the antithesis of Christian canons which celebrated celibacy and chastity, therefore sodomy was a believable accusation to be levied against Muslims.”


How Portugal nationalised the Knights Templar

As we all know, on the fateful day of Friday the 13th in 1307 – the pope condemned the Knights Templar and orders went out to round up the masters and knights.  King Philip IV of France pressured Pope Clement V in to banning the two hundred year old military order, which was already on the wane after failures in the crusades in the east.  Jerusalem was lost to the Saracens forever along with most of the crusader kingdoms set up in the late eleventh century and twelfth century.

But the ban on the Order was not enthusiastically embraced everywhere outside of France.  England seems to have dragged its feet and the tortures and executions that characterised the French suppression of the Templars were not present in other kingdoms.  Portugal in particular seems to have felt a debt of gratitude to the Templars – had they not been in the vanguard of driving back the Moors, the muslim rulers of southern Portugal and Spain?

Portugal was also a smaller and less wealthy kingdom than France and probably more pragmatic in outlook.  The Templars had been a wealthy Order operating across frontiers – so why not embrace all that talent (and money) in some way?  King Dinis of Portugal set up a new state sponsored organisation called the Order of Christ and duly enrolled the old Templars in to it.  Pope John XXII recognised the new order and it was eventually headquartered in Tomar – where the Templars had been based up to their suppression.

A hundred years later, its Grand Master would be a son of the then Portuguese king.  This man was Henry the Navigator who would instigate two hundred years of Portuguese ‘discoveries’ from Brazil to India and give birth to a vast maritime empire.  The cross of the Order of Christ would be emblazoned on the sails of the caravels that plied the seas from Goa to Salvador.  It’s often been said that Portugal’s mastery of international trade and commerce in this period was in no small way due to the Templar spirit imbued within the Order of Christ.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the revenues of the Order of Christ were huge.  Four hundred and fifty commanderies oversaw annual revenues of a million and a half livres.  The papacy often believed it had the right to appoint new members of the Order, a move resented by the Portuguese kings who insisted that the Order fell entirely under their control.  Bizarrely, this dispute still rumbles on and on the Vatican website, the Holy See today indicates that it is reticent to appoint new members of the Order even though it would like to.

In other kingdoms, the estates of the Templars often transferred to the Hospitallers or in Spain, they went to the Order of Montesa.

Did crusaders eat muslims?

Saracen Army on the March with Musicians and S...

Saracen Army on the March with Musicians and Standard-bearers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, that’s got your attention.  But it was an accusation reported not by one, but by several chroniclers in the late eleventh and twelfth century – and not just by Islamic writers, but Christian writers as well.  So is it true?

The culprits are often identified as people described by the chroniclers as “Tafurs”.  These were the very poor people who had joined the crusade enthusiastically from the start though viewed with suspicion and alarm by the aristocracy.  Desperation may have driven them on crusade and they were often slaughtered pitilessly by the Saracens.  Their arms were substandard and their military training non-existent.  If anybody was going to be hungry in the Holy Land, then it was going to be the Tafurs, who normally came from northern Europe – France, Flanders, etc.

Whereas there was a degree of gentlemanly conduct between aristocratic knights and Saracen lords, the Tafurs showed a brutish and bloodthirsty determination.  When the opportunity presented itself to put muslims to the sword – or dagger if they couldn’t afford a sword – they took it.  Clubbing and knifing whoever got in their way.  They may have put it about that they ate their enemies’ bodies to engender more fear in their enemies or the stories may have been circulated by disdainful aristocrats looking down their noses at the Tafurs.

Fulk of Chartres, who wrote extensively about the crusades, was adamant that cannibalism was real and happened.  At one particular and prolonged siege, the bodies of Saracens were eaten by Tafurs.  He wrote:

“I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth.”

This siege was at Ma’arrat al Nu’man where thousands of inhabitants were massacred.  Expecting to find great wealth within its walls, they found nothing of the sort.  Now empty-bellied, the Tafurs eyed the corpses around them and got the cooking pots out.   Radulph of Caen wrote:

“In Ma`arrat our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots, they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.”