The Arabic Speaking Christians of Spain

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The world “Mozarab” comes from the Arabic “must’arab” meaning “arabized”. This came to generally describe the Christians living under Muslim rule in Spain. Originally they were the descendents of the Hispano-Gothic Christians living in Spain at the time that the Muslims took Iberia from the Visigoths in 711. Over time the community grew to included converts from Arabs and Berbers and some Sephardic Jews. They even had their own language, Latina (literally Latin) which was a mixture of Latin, Arabic and Gothic although they spoke Arabic in everyday life giving them the reputation as Arabic-speaking Christians.

The Visigoths were descendants of the Goths who originally came from Scandinavia. The Goths split into two groups: The Ostrogoths, those who migrated east (their name meaning Eastern Goths); and the Visigoths who went west (their name meaning the Western Goths). Towards the end of the Western Roman Empire the Visigoths had moved into Roman lands seeking a place to settle. The Roman’s had initially refused to settle these “barbarian” peoples and so, in vengeance, the Visigoths sacked Rome. The Romans then pledged to settle the Goths in Spain if they would help push out the Vandals who had seized much of the Iberian peninsula. The Visigoths succeeded in doing so and, gradually, as the Roman Empire fell apart they created their own kingdom. The Visigoths followed Arian Christianity which rejected the equality of the Trinity claiming that since God existed before time Jesus, as his son, must be of lesser importance. The majority of Spain were Orthodox Catholic and so a clash developed between the two views with the Visigoths eventually accepting Catholic teaching.

In the 6th century the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian, embarked on an endeavor to reconquer the old Roman lands. He was reasonably successful but the task was too great. However, Justinian did manage to retake a large chunk of Southern Spain. The only remnant of this reconquest can be seen in the Mozarabic liturgy which has borrowed heavily from the Greek Orthodox liturgy keeping it significantly distinct from the normal, Catholic, liturgy.

However, in the eighth century the Muslims invaded at the behest of the Visigoth Count Julian who had a grievance against the king, Roderic, for raping his daughter. The Muslims quickly conquered and consolidated their rule (much of this process has since become mixed with legends surrounding the Visigothic king and the conquest of Spain. One of the characters of the Arabian Night “the City of Brass” is Musa ibn Nasyr, the man who conquered Spain) and thus began more than 700 years of Muslim rule in Spain.

Under Muslim rule ‘people of the book’ or Dhimmi were largely tolerated so long as they paid the Jizya or tax that essentially bought you the right to worship. However, permission to build churches or synagogues was strictly curtailed which resulted in the Mozarabs using the already existing Visigothic churches. There were occasions when the Mozarabs built their own churches although this occurred mostly in the Christian northern territories. The Mozarabs therefore found it difficult to maintain their own separate identity. Many converted to Islam in order to be assured less taxation and better standards of living. This does not mean that the Mozarabs always accepted Muslim rule. According to the Arab geographer Ibn Hawaqah (10th century) there were frequent uprisings from the Mozarab peasants. In 936 there was an incident when some Mozarab rebels found themselves holed up in Calatayud, in Aragon, and were subsequently massacred by Caliphate forces.

In 1126 the new Almoravid dynasty was in power in Al-Andalus. This new regime was not as tolerant and the previous Umayyid Caliphs. Many of the Mozarabs were forcibly removed from Muslim lands and either went north to the Christian kingdoms or they went south to North Africa (where the community disappeared through conversion to Islam and integration with the indigenous populations). In the Christian kingdoms the Mozarabs were largely welcomed as they were better educated and they proved excellent administrators due to the superior education system on offer in the Muslim south and their ability to generally speak Latin, Arabic and Spanish.

Over the centuries the Mozarab population had become to settled into more defined enclaves in Toledo, Cordoba, Zaragoza and Seville. During the time of Muslim occupation and the Mozarabs came to live in general harmony with their conquerors. Indeed they often sided with the Muslims against the encroaching Catholic kingdoms which they saw as upsetting the status quo and encouraging their persecution in the Muslim territories. Their opposition to the main body of the church reached a point where, in the 1070s, Pope Gregory VII ordered the Kings of Spain to force the Mozarabs, in Christian lands, to accept the Latin rite and bring them into step with the rest of Western Christendom. The Spanish kings refused to implement this order and the Mozarabs continued to use their own rite.

As the Christian kingdoms expanded the Mozarabs became more and more integrated with the Latin rite Catholics who now ruled them. This trend continued to the extent that the Mozarabs more or less disappeared by the end of the 15th Century. Different theories exist as to the gradual disappearance of the Mozarabs. Reyna Pastor envisages a community that gradually became isolated, exploited and finally absorbed into the ordinary Catholic society. Julio Gonzalez argues differently, that the Mozarab population was already small due to centuries of Muslim occupation and persecution and that they were peacefully assimilated into the wider population essentially being “de-arabized”. Richard Hitchcock has a similar view where he compares the Mozarabs to the Cornish in England.

In the 16th century the Mozarabs became romanticised as the people who weathered the Muslim occupation refusing to give up their faith in the face of persecution. Figures like Cardinal Cisneros tried to revive the tiny community in Toledo (the only place they still existed) by extending the use of the Mozarabic rite to the cathedral and renovating the crumbling Mozarab churches with a view to preserving the literary heritage of Castile through the maintenance of the Mozarabic rite. This however did not end the declining Mozarab population. It is now kept alive through a shared sense of history. You can only join the community if you can prove that you are descended from the Mozarab community of old and there are only roughly 1,300 left. There are two churches which regularly hold the mass using the Mozarabic rite (held daily in the Mozarabic chapel in Toledo cathedral and once a week in the monastery of la inmaculada y San Pascual in Madrid).

Some of the old Visigothic/Mozarabic churches still exist, many in a bad state of repair, all over Spain. Many of these churches are small, unassuming buildings with beautiful interiors displaying influences of Arabic and Jewish art. The church of San Baudelio in Berlanga del Duero is a particular example of this. In the 1920s many of the paintings in this church were stripped off by an antiquarian from Barcelona called Levi (paid for by a French collector, Demotte, who had a history of vandalism when it came to ancient art). Many of these paintings can now be seen in the Prado in Madrid or the Met in New York. However, they remain of marginal interest to historians due to the rather background nature of the Mozarab role in Spanish history.

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