The Moors and Christian Fiestas of Spain evolved during the 18th century from the traditions of the country people who acted out stories in history through music and dance. Today’s pageants recreate the battles of the reconquest of Spain from the Moors. The largest and most illustrious of these festivals takes place in Alcoy in Alicante Province on 23rd April, St George’s Day.
St. George has been Patron Saint of England since the 14th Century when King Edward III made him the Patron of the newly founded Order of the Garter and he has been revered since Richard the Lion Heart’s crusade at Jerusalem. Catalonia, during its long struggle against the Moors, also adopted St George as their Patron Saint, and he is represented as overcoming the infidel not the dragon. During the Alcoy Moors and Christians Festival the St George flag with the red cross on white background hangs from every balcony in the town. The pageant begins with the entrance of the Christians, a parade taking four hours to pass, followed in the afternoon with the entrance of the Moors a further four hours of procession. We see beautiful Andalusian horses in dressage, camels lumbering along, exotic birds squawking in their cages, dancing girls undulating in their colourful garments. Cannon and musket fire fills the air with the smell of gunpowder and sabres flash from the lines men and women in fabulous costumes swaying in time to the music of bands from all over the province.
The climax of the festival is the battle that takes place in the town hall square around a mock castle. This commemorates the defeat in 1278 of the ferocious Moor Al Azrac (nicknamed Blue Eyes) who was born in the nearby village of Alcala de la Jovada in the Vall de Gallinera.
To see how this spectacle was born we must turn the centuries back to the year 711 and the legend of the last Visigoth King Roderick who had been driven to madness over the beauty of the daughter of the Byzantine governor in North Africa and stole her away. The governor wanted revenge and sent Tariq ibn Ziyad to mount a reconnaissance mission to Spain. He landed at ancient Calpe, the rock they called jabal-tariq now known as Gibraltar. King Roderick’s armies were swiftly overcome and Tariq ordered his first Visigoth prisoners to be cut to pieces and boiled in a cauldron. Tariq spent the winter of 711 in Toledo at the old Visigoth court and the Moors soon had the Peninsula firmly in their grip. Cordoba became the Moorish capital of Spain and its Mosque second in importance to Mecca.
The Arab tradition of bathing before prayer is well known. Christians whispered of immorality obscured by steam and began to associate not bathing with purity. Spanish monk’s body smells became known as ‘the odour of sanctity’. The Moors muttered that Christians were sprinkled with water at birth and thus relieved from washing for the rest of their lives.
Despite differences, the multi culture of Moor, Jew and Christian made Spain prosper under Arab rule encouraging tradesmen, craftsmen, farmers, physicians, pharmacists, interpreters and money changers. The Moors produced the first paper and the first gunpowder a substance much in evidence during the Moors and Christians festivals of today. New crops were introduced under the caliphate, oranges, lemons, peaches, apricots, figs and pomegranates, as well as sugar cane, cotton, silk and rice. The Arabs also brought their beautiful horses which have evolved into the famed Andalusian breed.
Those who remained Christian but embraced Arab ways became known as Mozarabs (almost Arabs). They developed a distinctive culture and style of architecture especially of their churches. The Mozarabic Rite for the Mass, later replaced by the Latin of the Roman church, is still said in a tiny chapel in Toledo cathedral.
There followed many Arab kings and rulers the splendour of their courts and harems well known. They prized blond women from northern Spain who brought their Romance language which became widely spoken at court. Interbreeding with blond Christian women brought a race of leaders in which Arab blood became diluted.
The reconquest began in 1085 when Toledo was taken. El Cid Campeador, Rodrigo Diaz De Vivar, carved out a private state for himself around Valencia with land and castles taken from the Moors. Unfortunately for him, there was yet a further invasion from Arabs of another kind. They were the Almoravids led by Yusuf ibn Tashufin who founded Marrakesh. Yusuf’s army landed at Algeciras in 1099 and swept north to challenge the Cid. El Cid sustained a mortal wound during the clash with Yusuf and later died. The Moors reformed preparing for another attack. According to legend El Cid was placed upon his faithful horse ‘Babieca’ with a wooden plank holding his body upright. When the horse heard the battle drums it charged into enemy lines throwing the moors into panic and confusion and they fled thinking El Cid was immortal. El Cid’s people held on to Valencia for another three years until it was seized by the Moors once more.
The Almoravids were fundamentalists and persecution of Jews and Christians followed. The Kingdom of Valencia became predominantly Arab. Zaragoza was taken by the cross in 1118 and more Christians gathered in Portugal and they moved in to found Castile the kingdom of the castles. It was here the Castilian language evolved from its beginnings in Romance.
There followed yet another Arab landing with the arrival of the Almohades in 1126. These Arabs were the natural enemies of the Almoravids. Despite their fanaticism, which drove more Christians and Jews northwards, the Almohades made great cultural achievements and a revival began in poetry and song. This was probably the time of the birth of cantejondo or flamenco. At the end of each stanza the Moors would shout ‘O Allah’ just as ‘Ole’ is shouted today. The Spanish guitar is also thought to have evolved from this time.
Deep in reconquest mythology is the legend of St. James of Santiago ‘el Matamoras’ Moor Slayer. Pilgrims still flock to his shrine at Santiago de Compostela, a route lined with Benedictine Monasteries. Christian faith was fought for by the Knights. The famous orders of Calatrava, Alcantara, Santiago Knights of St. James and the Knights Templar who all wore the white mantle emblazoned with a red cross. They became rich with Moorish treasures taken in ‘Carta Puebla’ (rights of conquest). In France however, the Knights Templar were persecuted by King Philip the Fair who wanted them burned as heretics. The King of Aragon was grateful to the Templars for their military help so in answer to the Pope’s edict for the end to their military order the king renamed them the Knights of Montesa and merged them with the Hospitalers.
In 1212 soldiers from Spain and Europe gathered at Toledo and moved on to defeat the Moors at Tolosa. James 1 Conqueror, knight and king took Valencia and the Balearics in 1238.
As most of the Christians had fled northwards, Aragon, Valencia and Andalusia were left with Muslim majorities. These people became known as Mudejar (those permitted to remain) and their architectural style remained until the Renaissance. But the Moorish legacy of alchemy, botany, medicine, astronomy, numerology and geometry was lost to the layman with the influence of the Inquisition. The Mystical Cabala was also lost to Spain with the expulsion of the Jews and there began an economic decline. The Moorish people were expected to convert to Christianity or leave. Many were forcibly baptized but most kept to their own religion and their own ways and hid themselves away.
Christian Noblemen from Catalonia laid claim to the land in the kingdom of Valencia and brought with them their own language which has evolved into Valenciano. These Noblemen were not farmers so the Arabs continued to work the land. As more Christian settlers arrived over the years they became jealous of their Nobility’s preference for employing Arab labour. The Moors worked hard for little money and paid their taxes hoping to be left alone. Resentment bubbled among the new Christian underclass resulting in the peasant’s revolts of the 1500s which precipitated the expulsion of the Moorish people in 1609.
It is estimated that 160,000 people of Moorish descent were living in the kingdom of Valencia. 20,000 were deported to Africa from Denia harbour on 22nd September 1609. Men, women and children fled to the mountains, some took themselves into the fastness of Gaudalest Castle, where they remained until they were starved out of the citadel.
A man named Melini, a miller from Gaudalest, became leader of another group of 30,000. His people went into hiding in the Val de Laguart near a place called Petracos. Unfortunately for them Christians from the nearby village of Murla reported them hiding in the castle on the ridge of CaballoVerde that divides Jalon and Laguart. Troops were sent from Naples to rout them out. The bombardment was such that nothing remains of the castle and only 8,000 Moors survived to be transported to Morocco. Many were driven to their deaths over the Val de Inferno, hell’s ravine, their bodies smashed onto the rocks that still echo with their screams when the wind blows down the valley.
This lament was heard in Morocco in the 1980s, it tells of Caballo Verde, the Moor’s Mystic Mountain and a knight on a Green Horse who would have saved them. It is a song of the dispossessed for their beloved valley, views of sea and misty peaks, almond blossoms, cherries and grape vines.
I was born in a far valley beyond the waves,
Beautiful between mountains of wild solitude
Under brilliant sun, surrounded by cherries.
O Allah, protect forever the valley of Laguart
The bones of my people within that white earth
Are left in confusion for all eternity.
O valley of Petracos,
Your oleanders still preserve reflections
Of the blood they saw drain away
The fresh red sap you store in your inmost heart
Maintains the seed that will never die,
Laguart, your sweet name is engraved on our lips
An ardent flame from across the sea
Retaining the memory of those who died
For a green horse which never arrived.
Text and Photographs copyright Tigerbrite