'History is all about making links: local is always also global'

31st May 2014 at 07:00

Dr Heather Martin, head of languages and enrichment at St Faith’s Independent Prep School in Cambridge, writes:

I was standing in the Patio de los Naranjos, the courtyard of the great cathedral in Sevilla. I looked to my left and saw 15th century Gothic splendour. I looked to my right and saw the horseshoe arch of the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Forgiveness), a legacy of the 12th century mosque built by the Almohad dynasty. I looked down at the foundations, made from the recycled granite blocks of Roman temples. 

Behind me was the Giralda, originally the minaret from whence the faithful were called to prayer. I’ve climbed this tower many times, with generations of schoolchildren. The weathervane from which the tower takes its name was installed in the 16th century as the triumphant marker of Christian dominance. Roman ashlars, Islamic bricks, Christian belfry: a tripartite structure perfectly summarising the history, culture and spirit of the city both sequentially and simultaneously. 

I found myself thinking about Michael Gove and the more far-reaching, less Anglocentric requirements of the new history curriculum as recently reported in the national press. Had Mr Gove recently visited Andalusia, I wondered, and been inspired by a visit to its capital? Or had he – by some happy accident – merely been following developments at St Faith’s School in Cambridge?

In September 2013 we introduced Asia and Africa into the primary curriculum as part of a new initiative to teach the humanities to Year 6, partly through the medium of Spanish. It wasn’t enough just to switch languages; we needed to shift the angle of focus as well. How might history look from a Hispanic point of view? One of the major new topics was Islamic Spain (711-1492) - hence my research in the field.

In Sevilla, mosque and cathedral alike were conceived as statements of power. A Muslim historian describes the minaret as “greater than all others in the whole of al-Andalus, in elevation and the extraordinary art of its construction. Observed from a distance it would appear that all the constellations had gathered together over Sevilla.” 

And according to Catholic oral tradition roughly three centuries later: “Let us build a church so beautiful and grand that those who set eyes upon it will think we were mad” . Each towered in turn over the surrounding area. The two buildings represent the titanic clash of civilizations, the former all but crushed by the latter. Yet notwithstanding the intentions of their original creators, the two are also one, literally cemented together at the seams. And in the graceful form of La Giralda, Islamic Spain lives radiantly on.

The same division and the same fusion are equally apparent in Córdoba, former capital of the Caliphate that at one time encompassed most of the Iberian peninsula. ‘Vamos a la Mezquita a oir misa’, the locals are apt to say: ‘Let’s go the Mosque to hear mass.’ The mosque was founded on the site of a Christian church erected on the site of a Roman temple; in the 13th century the mosque was Christianized and in the 16th a full-scale Gothic cathedral was parachuted as if by aliens into its innermost core.

Unusually among conquerors, I suspect, Abd al-Rahman I paid his newly defeated subjects for the land (and allowed them to rebuild elsewhere the church it replaced). In the early, more tolerant centuries of Moorish Spain, all faiths were permitted to worship together. By contrast, lobbying by Muslims in the 21st century to be allowed to pray in the Mezquita-Catedral has thus far proved unsuccessful.

In 1085, Toledo was the first major city to be recaptured by Cristianos from the Moros. Formerly the capital of Visigothic Hispania, Toledo is often cited as the “City of Three Cultures”, after the period of (relative) ‘convivencia’ in which Jews, Arabs and Christians lived and worked together. Once again, traces of this cross-fertilization are evident in the names: the Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca, the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz. And it was Arab scholars, with their Greek translations and astrolabes, who sowed the intellectual seeds of the European Renaissance.

Toledo, like Cordoba and Seville, makes sense of the new curriculum. And even if you are studying “the Henrys”, it is still illuminating to consider them through the filter of another language.

Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Isabel I de Castilla and Fernando II de Aragón, the briefly all-powerful Catholic monarchs who completed the Reconquista, united Spain as a nation state, expelled both Jews and Muslims, and funded Columbus on his voyages of “discovery”. But Catherine died at Kimbolton Castle, just down the road from Cambridge. Suddenly those events, seemingly so distant in time and place, are connected to local history.

“East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet”, wrote Rudyard Kipling. And yet they do meet, all the time. Indeed, the idea of keeping them apart is manifestly absurd, and as history has shown leads inexorably to sectarianism or fascism. Sometimes they clash and collide, sometimes they collaborate and coexist, but either way the reality of the world in which our children live and grow is complex and layered, intrinsically and inescapably multicultural. History is all about making links: local is always also global.


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