Whenever the neighbors have their friends move nearby, you know the neighborhood is changing.
In most urban (and suburban) areas, this has been a pattern for the last half century: people move in, other people move out, for various reasons. Then another group displaces the last group.
Religion has also played such a real estate game over the past few millennia.
The recent controversy over the proposed mosque near the Ground Zero site had us at the Neighborhood thinking about how religion played a role in the use of real estate. I, for one, am not convinced that the proposed mosque in that location is a good idea. There are better, less confrontational areas to erect a mosque and promote understanding (isn’t the whole project about avoiding confrontation, anyway?).
Yet this is not the first time buildings and religion has collided in controversy.
Here is a sampling of other sites around the world that have changed religious hands, sometimes multiple times. Some resorted to violence, while others simply entered a space vacated by someone else. There were many others to choose from, but these are my favorites:
The Parthenon, Athens, Greece (447-431 BCE)
Like a Times Square callgirl, this old broad has had a rough life. The Parthenon was designed as a temple to the goddess Athena, the protector of the city of Athens. It replaced an earlier Parthenon that was destroyed by the Persians, and also served as the city treasury. Later, under the Byzantines, the Parthenon became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while the Ottoman Turks converted it into a mosque in the early 1460s. After a Venetian bomb exploded the powder stores inside it in 1687, and Lord Elgin made off with the choice goods in 1806, the Parthenon was better used as a backdrop for every Greek diner from Astoria to Chicago.
The Temple Mount [Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Western Wall], Jerusalem, Israel (957 BCE-692 CE)
Sure, people fought over the Parthenon, but never was the fight as fierce as for the Temple Mount. According to Biblical scholarship (since archaeological digs are forbidden on the mount), the first Temple of Solomon rose at that sight around the mid 900s BCE. It was subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians, and then rebuilt by the Persians in the early 500s BCE. Herod the Great expanded the Temple Mount in 19 BCE, only to have it destroyed by the Romans after the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE. A temple to Jupiter arose from the site in the 130s BCE, starting another Jewish revolt and banning Jews from the city (are you getting all this?). In 325 CE a Catholic church arose on the mount, followed by more churches, and culminating in the building of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque by the Umayyad caliphs in the late 600s-early 700s. Three religions considered the place sacred, and the true ownership and usage rights are still in dispute.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey (532-537 CE)
You got to give Kemal Ataturk credit here. The first president of the secular Republic of Turkey needed to do something with a building that charged emotions among Christians and Muslims. The building was created by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I and served as the eastern headquarters of Christendom, later the headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Following the Ottoman conquest of 1453, Mehmed II had Hagia Sophia converted to a mosque, adding minarets, a mihrab, a minbar and also covering up or removing the more Christian aspects of the place. In 1935, Ataturk decided everybody can use it—and nobody can use it, either. He had the place restored and converted to a museum, and no religious group can use it as a place of worship. Since Ataturk controlled the voting bloc that had machine guns, his edict settled the matter.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba [Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption] Cordoba, Spain (784-987)
I had the pleasure of visiting the Great Mosque, or Mezquita as its known in Spanish, and it is truly a wonder—even if the Spanish managed to shoe-horn a Renaissance chapel smack-dab in the middle of the thing. Originally a Visigothic church stood on the site where Emir Abd al-Rahman I decided to build a grand mosque. Using the original church as a template, the mosque was enlarged and decorated over the centuries. It became the cultural, political, social and economic center of Muslim Spain, known as Al-Andalus (today’s Andalusia). When the Christian kings of Castile took it back in the mid 1200’s, the Mosque became a church again. It’s amazing how much of the original Islamic structure was relatively untouched; that is, until you find the gleaming golden Catholic interior chapel. Even I find it a little garish.
Synagogues of Spain: El Transito, Toledo and Old Main Synagogue, Segovia (1300s-1492)
The Catholic Reconquest of Spain (1200s-1492) ended the thriving Muslim culture in Al-Andalus. It also shattered the other thriving minority culture in Spain: Jews. There had been Jews in Spain since the Roman period, and they had risen to high places in politics and business. Yet with the Reconquista, and the subsequent Spanish Inquisition meant to homogenize Spanish society under one church, the Jews were now a pariah and a threat. Both the Synagogue of El Transito and the Old Maine Synagogue in Segovia defied Christian laws meant to keep Jewish houses of worship small and unadorned. In fact, both were grand and highly ornate: in the style of the people that tolerated them the most, the Muslim Moors. After the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, both became churches or parts of Catholic institutions, although now El Transito is a museum documenting the history of Toledo’s Jewish community.
Babri Mosque, Ayodhya, India (1527-1992)
In 1992, a mob of 150,000 rioters, mostly Hindus, settled a centuries-old debate by destroying a mosque that was built over 400 years earlier. In 1527, Babur I, first Mughal emperor of India, built this mosque on the site of an earlier Hindu temple. According to Hindu mythology, the area around the Babri Mosque was the birthplace of the god Rama—even Babur acknowledged this in naming the mosque Masjid-i Janmasthan, or Mosque of the Birthplace. By the 1980s, a new militant Hindu nationalist movement had agitated to purge the area of Muslim influences, culminating in the 1992 riot. A commission released a report in 2009 that blames Hindu nationalists and members of the Indian government for the demolition of the mosque. It didn’t settle matters: the debate over the mosque’s history and significance, known as the Ayodhya debate, rages today.
Brick Lane Mosque, London, England, UK (1743)
All those other stories were so morbid, so let’s end on a good note. In London, particularly in the working-class East End, communities have come and gone over centuries, and 59 Brick Lane in the Spitalfields neighborhood of east London has seen them all. It began as a Protestant chapel for French Huguenots, and it serviced this French exile community for over 60 years. In 1809, it became a Wesleyan chapel for a group ministering to London’s Jewish community. This didn’t last long, as it became a regular Methodist church in 1819. Russian and Eastern European Jews, funny enough, did take over the building in the late 19th century, becoming the “”Machzike Adass” or “Spitalfields Great Synagogue.” As these Jews migrated to north London, the building was eventually abandoned in the mid 20th century. In the 1970s, an influx of immigrants from Bangladesh settled in Spitalfields to find work in factories or textile mills. The now-empty 59 Brick Lane then became the Brick Lane Mosque in 1976, which stills serves the Bangladeshi community of east London today.
This Day in History 3/31: Ferdinand and Isabella issue the Edict of Expulsion
The 1492 Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion. Image via Wikipedia
The last thing I would want is to live in a place where everyone was exactly like me.
So it seems both funny and tragic that two industrious European monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, had no problem with this.
The push for homogeneity, for sameness, does often lead to traquility and a life of familiarity. However, the overzealous iron fist of sameness can cause irreparable damage, both for the majority and for the minority that is now outcast.
This was the case on March 31, 1492, when the Catholic monarchs of Spain issued a decree that would reverberate over three continents. Less than three months after vanquishing the last vestiges of Islamic Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella issued what was called the Alhambra Decree, later called the Edict of Expulsion. It declared that the Jews of Spain, a community that thrived on the Iberian peninsula since Roman times, had four months to liquidate their belongings and leave the country. Those who did not would face death.
For centuries, Jews had lived in communities in present-day Spain, first under the Romans after the Third Jewish Revolt of the 2nd century, and subsequently under the Visigoths and Islamic Moors. Jewish Spain flourished most under Muslim rule: the caliphs of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) saw the Jews as fellow “People of the Book.” They were given special status, allowed to operate businesses and own land, and especially to worship with little interference from Muslim authorities. Since the Jews were an ethnic as well as religious group, there was little fear of the conversions and evangelization with Christian communities.
Even as the Christian kingdoms of the peninsula gained prominence, Jews continued to live their life and worship, providing massive contributions to Iberian culture. Often, Jewish communities were the most literate, and local princes and sultans employed Jewish scribes that produced reams of edicts, writs and decrees–often in Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. Jewish bankers and merchants helped keep the warring kingdoms solvent with trade and loans (often to the irritation of local religious zealots who saw Jews as mere usurers). Spanish Jews excelled in diplomacy, art, literature, science and philosophy through luminaries such as Maimonides, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Yehuda Halevi.
However, little by little, attitudes towards Jews in Spain began to change.
Once in a while, even during the Muslim period, occasional massacres and banishments of Jews occurred, as rulers (who often could not–or would not–repay their loans to their Jewish creditors) placed Jews under more intense scrutiny. Land would eventually be taken away. Jews would be restricted to certain neighborhoods in certain cities. Jewish businesses were ransacked, synagogues were defiled, and pressure to convert or emigrate became ever greater.
Then came Ferdinand and Isabella.
The dynamic duo of medieval Iberia came with an agenda: unite the peninsula under one crown, one language, and especially one “true” Catholic faith. As the military might of Castile and Aragon brought the neighboring states to heel (a movement known as the Reconquista), the Catholic Monarchs had to contend with large populations of minorities, especially Jews. There is no exact number of Jews that came under Spanish rule: estimates range from 250,000 to almost 900,000. The Christian Spaniards viewed these people with suspicion and contempt, especially since they were portrayed as collaborators to the Muslim caliphs–a gross misinterpretation since the caliphs also engaged in occasional anti-Semitic abuse.
Thousands of Jews sought to escape persecution through conversion to Christianity. These conversos often resumed their original status with the veneer of Catholic baptism, which infuriated local Christians. Also, many conversos were suspected of not being genuinely loyal to the church, but rather of keeping their Judaic religious practices in secret. These crypto-Jews, known as marranos, were seen as an even bigger threat, a Fifth Column that undermined the unity of the new Catholic Spain.
Starting in 1480, the Spanish Inquisition was instituted to solve the problem of the conversos. Headed by Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisition’s mission was to root out heresy, including any suspected secret Jewish activity on the part of the newly converted. Reams have been written about the horrors and abuses of the Inquisition, yet it needs to be said that not a single out-and-out practicing Jew was targeted. The Inquisition was not concerned with Jews who stayed true to Judaism, but rather those who wanted to be Catholic out of “convenience.”
Ferdinand and Isabella would take care of the observant Jews personally. For lack of a better pun, the Edict of Expulsion was their “final solution” to their Jewish problem.
The edict gave Jews about four months to sell all their belongings and leave Spain. Any non-Jew who aided in hiding a Jewish person was punished by confiscation of property and rescinding of privileges. Jews who did not leave were put to death. During the four-month preparation period, Jews were under royal protection and could take their belongings except “”gold or silver or minted money.”
Expulsion of Jews in Europe 1100-1600. Image via Wikipedia
Of the 200,000 to 800,000 Jews who left in 1492, many settled in North Africa. Some went to neighboring Portugal, only to be expelled five years later. The Spanish Jews would then find refuge in Italy, in the Balkans, in Greece, and eventually in England, the Netherlands and the New World of the Americas. In the case of the Americas, the Inquisition often followed the Jews into Latin America, thus further forcing other migrations into North America and Canada.
So what did Ferdinand and Isabella gain in this act? Though Spain would remain a predominantly Catholic country for the rest of its history, it is a homogeneity fed by theft, torture and murder–and the loss of two rich, sophisticated cultures in the process.
There were still conversos to consider, and their allegiance would remain suspect for centuries. The missionary zeal of Torquemada would stretch into Spain’s new colonies in America; leaving men such as Bartholome de las Casas to document the tragic results. The property, businesses and riches of the expelled Jews mingled with new gold and silver from Mexico and Peru in the royal coffers. Synagogues were transformed into churches. Hebrew texts were destroyed. In the early 1600s, it was the Muslims’ turn, as thousands of moriscos, or Islamic converts to Christianity, would go down the same dark path as the Jews.
So what happened to the expelled Jews?
Like their kindred spread across numerous continents, the Jews of Spain provided far more than they received from the countries that hosted them. In England, Jews welcomed under Oliver Cromwell would help cement England’s maritime power. In the Netherlands, Spanish Jews would rise in the tolerant society of the Dutch Republic, and help spread trade and ideas to Asia and the New World. In the Americas, Jews would gain a foothold and create among the most free societies on the planet.
Baruch Spinoza, Benjamin Cardozo, Benjamin Disraeli, and many others made great advances in philosophy, in law, in politics and government.
Yet the great lesson of the Expulsion is not what was lost or gained, but what survived. In the end, Ferdinand and Isabella failed in their xenophobic quest to rid Christendom of “heretical” influences. They failed because the heresies–namely Judaism and Islam–are still alive and well.
The Jews were not crushed, they were not annihilated–and not for lack of trying. They survived, and their culture survived to enrich and progress humankind even today. None other than the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote the following:
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