Scholar debunks faulty analogy between the Hagia Sophia and Cathedral of Cordoba

Darío Fernández-Morera, author of the The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, debunks Turkey’s attempted justifications for changing the status of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in the Spanish region of Andalusia. (Image: Ajay Suresh/Wikipedia)

The Turkish government’s decision two weeks ago to have the Hagia Sophia used as a mosque once again was met with outrage and concern throughout the world.

The first day of prayer since the Hagia Sophia’s change in status was last Friday. Thousands gathered under dark drapes covering the once glittering mosaics depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary. The top imam of the country, Ali Erbas, carried a sword while delivering his sermon from the tall minbar. When questioned about this he said: “This is a tradition in mosques that are the symbol of conquest.” Outside thousands more gathered chanting anti-Greek slogans. Commemorative coins were made in celebration of the event.

Among the many world leaders who voiced protest over this provocative act was Pope Francis. His statement was brief and reserved compared to many others. At his Sunday Angelus address he said: “I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.” The Turkish historian, Mehmet Özdemir, retorted in an interview that Pope Francis “should also feel sad for the mosques converted to churches during Al Andalus.” Another Turkish historian, Lütfi Seyban, reiterated the same point, stating an injustice is being perpetrated against the world’s Muslims for not being allowed to pray in what was once the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, which is now serving as the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption.

It seems drawing a parallel between the Hagia Sophia and the so-called Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is becoming an increasingly popular strategy for those supporting the Hagia Sophia’s change in status. Such a comparison has already gone unchallenged by many media outlets. Anthropologist Khalid Yacinen, in an interview with the Turkish news channel TRT World, stated: “

When Spain expelled Muslims in the inquisition, it changed the Grand Mosque of Cordoba into a cathedral, where Muslims are forbidden to pray to this day … Many mosques were outright destroyed or converted into churches … Turkey has ruled to allow people to carry out prayers in Hagia Sophia. That hardly compares to getting arrested in the Grand Mosque of Cordoba for saying something in Arabic or converting it into a cathedral.

To help set the historical record straight, CWR asked Darío Fernández-Morera, an associate professor at Northwestern University, to answer a few questions on this topic. Professor Fernández-Morera is the author an excellent book titled The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2016), which sheds light on the true nature of the Muslim rule over Medieval Spain, correcting the widespread belief that Islamic Spain was a light of tolerance and culture in the midst of the darkness of the Middle Ages.

Father Seán Connolly for CWR: The opening discussion of your book details the state of Islamic historiography in Western academia. You expose so well the misrepresentation and ignorance of the historical record—due to ideology and the academic desire for further funding from Arab countries—which perpetuates the myth of a Andalusian golden age of Islam, a sort of paradise for not only Muslims but also Christians and Jews, who lived famously together largely at peace under tolerant Muslim rule and learned so much from each other. What was life like for the Christians of Spain under Muslim rule?

Darío Fernández-Morera: In the Islamic empire, Christians and Jews, the so-called “People of the Book [the Bible],” were given three options if they submitted without resisting: submit to the superiority of Islam and become dhimmis, which entailed accepting a subaltern condition with respect to Muslims, paying a tax, having their religious rights limited, and so forth; convert to Islam; or die. Others were given only two choices: convert or die. If Christians or Jews resisted, then upon their defeat the surviving men would be either killed or enslaved, and their women and children would be enslaved. Young women and even girls would be taken as sexual slaves of the victorious Muslim warriors. According to Muslim authorities like Bukhari and others, Muhammad had given the example of sexual relations with girls by consummating his marriage to Aisha, the youngest of his wives, when she was nine, after marrying her when she was six. For the gathered evidence see Felipe Maillo Salgado’s Las mujeres del Profeta (2017).

Professor Felipe Maillo Salgado of the University of Salamanca, an Arabist, historian and expert in Islamic law (sharia), gives many examples of the subaltern legal condition of the dhimmi in Islamic Spain (Acerca de la Conquista Árabe de Hispania: imprecisiones, equívocos y patrañas, 2016). For instance, if a dhimmi killed a Muslim, even in self-defense, the dhimmi must suffer the death penalty. But if a Muslim killed a dhimmi, even if intentionally, he must not suffer the death penalty. In legal cases, the testimony of a dhimmi was worth only half that of a Muslim man. It was equal to that of a Muslim woman, which was only half of that of a Muslim man. And in cases involving Muslims, the testimony of a dhimmi was simply not acceptable.

It is noteworthy that, whenever Muslim chronicles mention Christian churches in Spain, it is only to gloat over their destruction or their conversion to mosques. But turning Christian churches into mosques has been standard practice during the Muslim conquests. For example, the famous Umayyad mosque of Damascus was built with materials from the great Greek basilica of Saint John the Baptist, which stood on the site and which was demolished by the Arab conquerors.

In fact, any construction prior to Islam that was taller or more beautiful than Islamic ones was not allowed to stand. Thus the celebrated Caliph al-Mamun (d. 833; he also created in Baghdad the first Inquisition, the mihna, to impose, of all things, an Enlightened approach to the Islamic religious texts) attempted to destroy the great pyramid of Giza, though he failed. Harun al-Rashid (the admired Caliph of the Thousand and One Nights, the famous collection of mostly Persian and Indian tales written in Arabic) destroyed the extraordinary palace of the Persian king Chosroes (Khosrau or Kasra, d. 579) at the once-vast Persian city of Ctesiphon (near where al-Madain, Iraq, stands today).

No crosses could be displayed on the outside of churches. No bells could be rung. No new churches were allowed. Existing ones could be repaired only with the permission of the Islamic authorities, which usually denied it. No churches were allowed in the main parts of a city, but only on the outskirts, the arrabales. No Christian processions were allowed. According to the contemporary testimony of Saint Eulogius of Cordoba (the best known of the Martyrs of Cordoba, who was beheaded by the Umayyad ruler Abd-al-Rahman II in 859), in the streets of Umayyad Cordoba Catholic priests would be pelted with rotten fruit or mud or even stones. Travelers to North Africa in the 19th century report similar actions against Christian priests.

No Muslim would eat with a Christian because Christians were unclean drinkers of wine and eaters of pigs, garlic, and the meat of animals not killed according to Islamic sharia rules (the animal had to receive a cut in the yugular vein that did not kill the animal but made the animal bleed to death so that no blood remained in the meat before being cooked for consumption). No Christians were allowed to walk on Muslim cemeteries as their presence would defile the dead. Dhimmis had to pay a tax, the jizya, to be allowed to exist as dhimmis. They could not carry weapons. Christians could not hold a public position that gave them authority over Muslims.

CWR: Please provide a brief survey of the history of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Córdoba.

Fernández-Morera: Professor of the University of Cordoba Pedro Marfil, who has directed the largest number of archaeological excavations on the site of the Cathedral of Cordoba, has shown both documentary and archaeological evidence to support the long-held view that on the site of the Cathedral there was, long before the Islamic conquest, an ancient Hispano-Roman basilica dedicated to the martyr Saint Vincent (who was killed during the persecutions of Christians ordered by Roman Emperor Diocletian). Marfil observes that the site eventually became the center of Christian worship in Cordoba, and that on it grew an entire episcopal complex of buildings (see, among others, his paper “La sede episcopal de San Vicente en la S.I. Catedral de Córdoba” published in Al-Mulk in 2006 and available online at academia.edu). This basilical complex was erected in the sixth century (the Visigoths first entered already Christianized Spain as allies of Rome in 415 but did not establish their reign in Hispania until the first half of the sixth century). Marfil has even found mosaics with Christian motifs, among them pigeons representing the Holy Spirit and crowns of thorns alluding to the Passion of Christ. Not surprisingly, the archaeological and documentary evidence is rejected by archaeologists commissioned by the left-wing municipal government of Cordoba, by an archaeologist from the Spanish Centro Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, and by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), who do not want to admit anything that might undermine the Muslim claim to the Cathedral of Cordoba. They are on the same ideological side of those academics who deny the existence of a Reconquest. Nothing can be allowed to undermine Islam.

This Christian basilica of Saint Vincent of Cordoba was demolished by celebrated Umayyad ruler Abd-al-Rahman I (731-788), whose statues adorn several places in today’s Spain. With its materials he had the Mosque of Cordoba built on the site. The Christians were allowed to build a replacement church, but only on the outskirts of Cordoba, because Islam did not allow Christian churches in important or central parts of Muslim cities.

The mosque was extended by other Muslim rulers, most notably by Al-Mansur (“The victorious”), called by the Spaniards Almanzor (939-1002). Almanzor terrified the Christians. He was invincible and regularly burned Christian cities, finding justification in Sharia treatises current in Islamic Spain, such as the al-Tafri and the Mudawwana, which authorized the burning of infidel towns during jihad. Sharia also authorized flooding them and “cutting their trees and their fruits, killing their animals, and destroying their buildings and all that can be broken down.”

It is noteworthy that whenever the Islamic treatises explained jihad, it was always as armed Holy War on behalf of Dar al Islam, the world of Islam, against the Dar al Harb, the world of war, where the infidels are—not as a “spiritual” struggle for self-.improvement, which is how many academics and Muslims these days explain jihad’s principal meaning.

Almanzor famously burned down Barcelona in 985 and enslaved anyone he did not kill. He sacked the great Christian church of Santiago de Compostela in 997, and had its bells brought to Cordoba on the backs of Christians he enslaved at Compostela. Then he melted the bells and turned them into lamps to adorn the mosque of Cordoba, which he aggrandized using Christian slave labor. He razed the city of Leon, with the exception of a tower, which he left standing so that people could see the sort of powerful Christian fortress-town he had destroyed. The Victorious was so pious that just in a single year (981) he carried out five jihads against the Christians. He asked to be buried with the dust his clothes had gathered in his jihads against the Christians.

In 1236 the Christians reconquered Cordoba, but did not destroy the mosque. Instead, King Ferdinand III turned over the building to the Catholic bishops, who consecrated it as a Catholic church on June 29, 1236, making some changes to the inside of the building, positioning crosses outside and inside, and so forth.

In conclusion, not only was the mosque built on a Christian site, but it was also built using materials from the sixth century Christian building destroyed by Muslims in the ninth century.

CWR: Is the analogy Turkish government officials are making between this Cathedral and the Hagia Sophia accurate?

Fernández-Morera: One can make comparisons between them, but not of the kind the Muslim authorities are making. Let us see. The site where the Cathedral of Cordoba stands is a Christian site dating back to the sixth century, and with a Christian building or buildings on it to boot. So there was justification for turning the site and its new building, a mosque, back into a Christian site with a Christian building.

But the site of the Basilica of Hagia Sofia was never a Muslim site, nor did it ever have a Muslim building when Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque by the celebrated conqueror Muhammad (Mehemet in Turkish) II.

Hagia Sofia was built by Christian Roman Emperor Justinian in 537 A.D. on a Christian site where several previous churches had been built and had been destroyed by earthquakes or fire. So there was no justification for the Muslims’ turning the basilica into a mosque after their conquest, rape, and looting of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks….

Oh, and the city of Cordoba, where the present-day Cathedral stands, and where the Basilica of Saint Vincent stood, was a Christian city long before the Muslims conquered the city. But Constantinople (“the city of [Emperor] Constantine”), where Hagia Sofia stands, was not a Muslim city before the Muslims conquered it on May 29, 1453. Oh, and the Christians did not change the name of the city of Cordoba; they kept the name that dated back to Roman times (Corduba, the city in Hispania where the great Roman philosopher Seneca was born) long before the Muslim conquest. But Muslims changed the name of Constantinople to “Istanbul,” to try to erase its Greek and Christian origin. But ironically, even the Turkish name given to the city of Constantinople, “Istanbul,” may be a garbling of the Greek phrase στην Πόλη [stimˈboli], meaning “in the city” or “to the city.”

The lack of justification for turning the Basilica of Hagia Sofia again into a mosque in July of 2020 increases if one considers that the Turkish dictator Kemal Ataturk (who was, by the way, one of the architects of the Armenian and Assyrian genocides; he is nevertheless one of the heroes of Turkish history) turned the building from mosque to museum.

A true analogy with the history of the Cathedral of Cordoba would be to turn the site of Hagia Sofia and the building back into what it was before the Muslim conquest, namely a Christian site with one of the greatest churches ever built—the Basilica of Hagia Sofia, Holy Wisdom.

Hagia Sophia in a 2013 photo. (Image: Arild Vågen/Wikipedia)

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About Father Seán Connolly 38 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He attended Saint Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, where he received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology as well as a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts. He currently serves as parochial vicar at the Parish of St. Joseph in Middletown, New York.

11 Comments

  1. On the business of Islamic syncretic rebranding from earlier religions (not only expropriation of an earlier Christian church site at Cordoba), Muhammad himself absorbed earlier pagan practices when he expropriated and rebranded the pagan Ka’ba structure in Mecca as a feature of his new monotheism. (This after stripping the Ka’ba of its 360 idols.) Likewise, of the five Pillars of Islam, three are modified from earlier Judaism (and Christianity): fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. (To these three are accreted the pilgrimage [hajj] to the retooled Ka’ba during one’s lifetime, and the uniquely Islamic profession of Allah [an earlier Meccan deity now fully extracted from his wife and multiple offspring—-yielding monotheism] and acceptance Muhammad as his messenger: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet”).

    Other evidence that Islam is not a total break with pagan trappings include transformation of the divisive warrior code into a unified movement (jihad), the continued role of a cult hero (now as “Prophet”), and polygamy (as a compromise, reduced to four wives by Muhammad, except for himself).

    But, as a parallel and Christian example of simply expropriated physical sites or structures (not to be conflated with religious syncretism)—-and from the same calendar period—-in 601 A.D. Pope Gregory instructed that pagan temples in Britain could be cleansed of their pagan idols and dedicated and used for Christian worship (Bede the Venerable, History of the English Church and People, Leo Sherley-Price and R.E. Latham (trans.), Penguin, 1986; I, 30, 92).

  2. I can’t really get too worked up about a place of worship 80 plus years ago being restored to a place of worship today.
    Christian churches are currently being sold and converted into restaurants and bars. That’s something we should get worked up about.

    • You are right to get worked up about that and it is something I also get worked up about. This has nothing to do with what the article is about and it is a different subject. The first one is something of our own making. the second one is something which has been going on for 1400 years as proof of hate against Christianity. Today there are over 700 churches a year which are desecrated and attacked in Europe. It does not reach the newspapers though.

  3. Thank you, Fr. Connolly, for a great article on just one more attack on the Church we are seeing in the world today, attacks lauded and applauded by world leaders, politicians, the media, and even some within the Church. Even more striking is that no rebuke of this outrageous act has come from those of highest authority within the Church. A clear testimony, in my opinion, to the dangers of modernist and progressive ideologies present within the Church today, evident in the likes of The Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

    Truly the spirit of antichrist is hard at work in the world today to banish the light of Christ in and through His Church. The gates of Hell shall NOT prevail.

  4. Many, many Muslims have become Christians, often Catholics, when Jesus appeared to them in a dream. Let us pray He continues and increases His outreach to Islamic people so there will be a widespread realization of the Truth. Imagine a billion converts and pray for it. On the Day of Pentecost, Arabs were among the 15 nationalities named as present for the first mass conversion. B’ismallah – in the name of God, may it be so.

  5. Thanks for a very interesting and informative article. In Ireland recently the Catholic bishop of Dublin invited Muslims to celebrate eid at Croke Park, Ireland’s premier sports stadium. This is the same bishop who rebuked a priest for keeping his church open for mass. Why is it not surprising that many Catholics will not be returning to the church once this current crisis is over ? Our leaders seem to believe there are various paths to heaven each as worthy as the other.

    • Leaving aside theology and looking at it only from the perspective of history, Dutch professor Reinhart Dozy described Muslim rule in Spain as follows in his ‘Histoire des Musalman d’ Espangne, livre II, chap. II’ (as reproduced in ‘The Moors in Spain’ by the renowned Oxford historian Sir Stanley Lane-poole, pp. 30-34):
      ‘It must not be supposed that the Moors, like barbarian hordes who preceded them, brought devastation and tyranny in their wake. On the contrary, never was Andalusia so mildly, justly and wisely governed as by her Arab conquerors. Where they got their talent for administration is hard to say, for they came directly from their Arabian deserts, and the rapid tide of victories had left them little leisure to acquire the art of managing foreign nations. Some of their counselors were Greeks and Spaniards, but this does not explain the problem; for these same counselors were unable to produce similar results elsewhere and all the administrative talent of Spain had not sufficed to make the Gothic domination tolerable to its subjects ———–

      ‘The result was that the Christians were satisfied with the new regime and openly admitted that they preferred the rule of the Moors to that of the Franks or the Goths. Even their priests, who had lost most of all, were at first but little incensed with the change, as the old chronicle ascribed to Isidore of Beja, written in 754, shows. The good monk is not even scandalized at so unholy an alliance as the marriage between Rodrigo’s widow and the son of Moosa (a Muslim general). But the best proof of the satisfaction of the Christians with their new rulers is the fact that there was not a single religious revolt during the eighth century.

      ‘Above all, the slaves, who had been cruelly ill-used by the Goths and Romans, had cause to congratulate themselves upon the change. Slavery is a very mild and humane institution in the hands of a good Mohammadan (as indeed we witnessed in the case of Caliph Omer when he arrived in Jerusalem). ———- ‘As far as the vanquished were concerned, we have seen that the conquest of Andalusia by the Arabs was on the whole a benefit. It did away with the overgrown estates of the great nobles and churchmen, and converted them into small proprietorships; it removed the heavy burdens of the middle classes, and restricted the taxation to the test-tax per poll levied on the unbelievers, and the land-tax levied equally on Moslem and Christian; and included a widespread emancipation of the slaves, and a radical improvement in the condition of the emancipated, who now became almost independent farmers in the service of their non-agricultural Mohammadan masters’.

      Paul Alvaro, an eighth century Spanish layman, writing in ‘Indiculus Luminosus’ (as quoted by R.W Southern in ‘Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages’, London 1962, p. 21) describes the state of affairs at the time as ‘The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas! all talented young Christians read with enthusiasm the Arab books’

  6. If you ask me why this happened, I would say it’s because the Christians have lost their first love! Christians stopped going to church, and spend more time in bars, strip joints, etc and churches all over Europe have to close down while Muslims are sprouting out everywhere and praying 5 times a day. Can you then wonder why Churches are turning into mosques??? Wake up Christians! Return to your first love, before Christ take away your lampstand and you are no longer the light of the world! You cannot fight this battle with flesh and words. Return to Christ and Christ will fight this battle for you against the true infidels!

6 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise | New Amsterdam Paleoconservative
  2. Hagia Sophia and Cathedral of Cordoba: The Jihad Factor | Conservative Journal
  3. Hagia Sophia and Cathedral of Cordoba: The Jihad Factor | Political Patrol
  4. Hagia Sophia and Cathedral of Córdoba: The Jihad Factor - Israel News
  5. Die Hagia Sophia und die Kathedrale von Córdoba: der Jihad-Faktor | abseits vom mainstream - heplev
  6. IBRAHIM: Aja Sofija i katedrala u Córdobi - Konzerva.hr

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