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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Conversion of houses of worship: Change of religious affiliation (Part I)

Throughout history, once a territory fell into the hands of an invading enemy, the places of worship of the conquered territory were usually converted to the religion of the new masters. Those territories that strongly resisted invasions instead of peacefully submitting themselves to the enemies were the ones that suffered the most.

Global distribution of Christianity and Islam
Global distribution of Christianity (red) and Islam (green)

Christianity and Islam are the world's two largest and most widespread religions, each claiming 2.1 billion and 1.5 billion followers respectively. The combined population of Christians and Muslims account for more than half of the world's 6.7 billion people, and their communities can be found in nearly every country in the world. Historically, religious zeal and the devotion to spread the one true religion to the infidels or non-believers were the strongest propellers behind the countless inter-religious wars and conflicts that plagued both religions. Even till this day, regions that lie on the fault line where Christianity and Islam collides are usually the victims of these sporadic events, like what happened in Indonesia and Nigeria.

Here are some of the most prominent houses of worship which have been converted to the religion of the new masters upon conquest:

La Mezquita de Córdoba, Spain
La Mezquita de Córdoba, Spain

The Great Mosque of Córdoba (
La Mezquita de Córdoba) in the Andalusian city of Córdoba, Spain. Before Spain fell into the hands of the Muslim Arab-Berbers (the Moors) of North Africa, this building was a Christian Visigothic church. After the Umayyad Caliphate (بنو أمية Banu Umayyah) was overthrown by the Abbasid Caliphate (العبّاسيّونal-‘Abbāsīyūn), the Umayyad capital in Damascus, Syria was relocated to Córdoba and thus marked a significant transition point in the history of Europe.

At a time when much of Europe plunged into the Dark Ages where economic and intellectual activities came to a halt, Córdoba flourished to become Western Europe's largest city and emerged as an important centre of culture, education, and politics. The Mezquita was subsequently enlarged and was once the 2nd largest of its kind in the Islamic world.

La Mezquita de Córdoba, Spain
Church within a mosque: European additions with Islamic columns and arches

After the Christian Spaniards recaptured Córdoba from the Muslims in the year 1236, the mosque was consecrated as a Christian church along with the 1000-plus mosques in the city. While most of the mosque exterior is retained to this day, European features and chapels were added to the interiors to celebrate its new role as a church and a prized Christian possession.

The successful Christian Reconquista gave rise to the nationwide Spanish Inquisition, a notorious ecclesiastical tribunal which actively sought to Christianize the non-Christians of Spain. During this period, Muslims and Jews were either expelled from Spain or forcibly converted to Christianity. As a result, Islam remained virtually non-existent in Spain until the arrival of Muslim immigrants from North Africa in the latter half of the 20th century.

Today, the Mezquita continues to serve as the principal Roman Catholic cathedral of the Diocese of Córdoba, and is the city's most popular tourist attraction.

La Giralda, Sevilla, Spain; Hassan Tower, Rabat, Morocco
La Giralda, Sevilla, Spain (left) & Hassan Tower, its sister tower in Rabat, Morocco (right)

The Giralda (La Giralda) in Seville/Sevilla, the capital of Andalucía in southern Spain. Originally built as the minaret of a large mosque, the Giralda was converted into the bell tower of the adjacent Cathedral of Seville (the world's largest Gothic cathedral) which was built on the grounds of the previous mosque upon the Reconquista. The top of the tower is the result of European additions, featuring a cross and a bell. Once the world's tallest tower, the Giralda shares near-similar designs with its sister towers in neighbouring Morocco.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo, Sicilia, Italy
San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo, Sicilia, Italy

St. John of the Hermits (San Giovanni degli Eremiti) in Palermo on the southern Italian island of Sicily/Sicilia. Built in the 6th century, this church was converted into a mosque when the island fell into the hands of the Arabs 2 centuries later. The Norman conquest of Sicily in the 11th century helped to re-establish Christianity on the island, with the mosque being reconstructed as a church, a role it remains so till this day. Unlike the Spaniards, the Christian Normans were tolerant of the Arab Muslim culture until the outbreak of a series of Muslim rebellions which led to the eventual demise of Islam on the island in the mid-13th century.

to be continued...

Image credits:
Dbachmann | UK Flower Girl | GrahamColm | Fabos | lucioforterepubblica


mistipurple said...

wow very cheem but interesting.

kyh said...

Haha! You're the only one reading this, I guess. :P

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