Monday, October 04, 2010

Victory Mosque

Things about this that are teh stupid.

1. The pictures.
Flames and death, swarthy moors and their African soldiers trampling the innocent citizens of Jerusalem? They must have gone back to at least the 19th century to find such fine Orientalist balls. They're all wearing Ottoman-style turbans ferchrissakes! One of them even appears to be wearing a leopardskin tunic, Tazan style.

2. The Dome of the Rock.
Ok. This one is going to take a while. Firstly. the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat as-Sakrah) was built in 691, more than 50 years after the conquest of the Holy Land. Second, the site it was built on is probably the single most contested place in the world. It's best known as the holiest site in Judaism, the location of the Temple of Solomon. However, the last Jewish Temple on the site was demolished by the Romans in AD 70. The city changed hands numerous times between then and the time of the Arab conquest (typically in the bloodiest way possible. Massacres have always been in fashion in Jerusalem) and when the Arabs arrived the Temple Mount was occupied by a small Byzantine Christian Church. A Church that was built, incidentally, after the Byzantines recaptured the city from the Persian Sassanids and banished all the Jews. Thirdly, the Arabs did not trample and stab their way into Jerusalem, as implied in the advert. There was a short siege that ended when the Christian leaders of the city surrendered without a fight. The Arabs did something extremely innovative here, and didn't massacre everyone in the town—they went a step further, in fact, and didn't banish them either. They even, and this is the real shocker, allowed the Jews to return to the city and gave them freedom to practice their religion there for the first time in centuries.

3. Córdoba.
The great mosque of Córdoba was gradually adapted from a Christian Church starting in 784, more than 70 years after the conquest of Spain. It was a Christian Church before, admittedly, but not one of any huge significance. More importantly, the Muslims didn't destroy the old church in a murderous rage. They bought it from the Christian community. Over the next few hundred years they built a beautiful mosque on the site, all the while maintaining pretty good relations with the local Jewish and Christian communities (Jewish historians refer to this period as a Golden Age)*.

One more thing. You know what the Great Mosque of Cordoba is called these days? The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (The Cathedral of our lady of the Ascension). After the Reconquista the Jews and the Muslims in the city were driven into exile. The Christians then built a Church in the Mosque's courtyard that sits there to this day, like a medieval-gothic spaceship that has just come down for an awkward crash landing in the middle of the city.

4. The Hagia Sophia
Unlike the rest of them, this one was made into a mosque almost immediately after the conquest. And yes, that conquest was pretty brutal (for both sides, Constantinople's defenses were immense, and still are). Although the Cathedral suffered in the ensuing looting, it was nothing like as bad as the thorough trashing and pillaging it suffered in the wake of the oh-so-classy fourth crusade. Furthermore, while this church was made into a Mosque, most of the city's churches stayed as they were. Under the Ottomans the building was well maintained and cared for, they didn't do anything tacky like plonking a cathedral in the middle of it. Many of the mosaics and frescos were plastered over, rather than destroyed. When the building started showing signs of fatigue and structural weakness, they got one of the finest engineer/architects in history, Mimar Sinan, to do the repairs. (He also designed its four minarets). Since 1935, the building has been a museum, rather than a mosque. It is now a showcase for the brilliance of the original builders and artists who adorned it that anyone can go and see.

5. "The Muslims"? That's the real kicker. It suggests that all this was the work of some sort of homogenous group. Jerusalem was conquered by an Arab army. Córdoba by a North African Berber army (Berbers look like this, or this, or this). Constantinople by the Ottomans, who were a Turkic people (descended from the Mongols who came from, you guessed it, Mongolia). They were not part of some kind of unified movement, and don't really have anything in common other than their religion. It's like saying "The Christians" and holding up pictures of Richard the Lionheart, Peter the Great, and George W. Bush.

I'm no more of a fan of Islam than I am of any other religion, and you don't have to look that hard to find plenty of atrocities, but there's no pattern here. The idea of a victory Mosque seems to exist largely in their own heads. The closest equivalent I can think of to a victory mosque is something like the Süleymaniye Camii in Istanbul, which was built with the spoils of war in Eastern Europe.

*Admittedly, the standards for a golden age are pretty low in Jewish history—any period where the world at large wasn't actively trying to murder them all is generally seen as a great time.