Monday, 30 July 2012
Morisco Games
This is another of those stories that seem almost surreal. In a time of straitened economic circumstances, when local Spanish governments are begging for help from Madrid, and the spectre of sovereign default hovers over Madrid itself, Spanish taxpayers are funding a celebration of Muslim treason.

To fill in some of the historical details, we need to go back to the 16th century. In 1502 the Muslims were told to leave Castile or convert to Christianity. Some left; some pretended to convert. The ones who pretended to convert were called Moriscos. They continued with their old customs, speaking Arabic, dressing in the same way, even practising polygamy. There were strong suspicions about their loyalty to Spain - and with good reason.

Later in the century, when Spain was involved in an epic struggle with the Ottoman empire (which, incidentally, may have been decisive in keeping Europe largely free of Mohammedanism), the Moriscos, in collaboration with the Turks, rose in revolt.

Here is an account (overly sympathetic to the Muslims in my view) of the episode and its background from Roger Crowley's book Empires of the Sea. (Incidentally, if you're interested in learning more about the history of the struggle between Europe and Mohammedanism, I can highly recommend Crowley's books as extremely readable, almost novelistic examples of historical writing.)
The Catholic Church felt it­self un­der at­tack on all sides, nowhere more so than in the land of the Catholic King him­self. The in­fi­del was nev­er far away; he was just across the straits of Gibral­tar, a short sail away; he sur­round­ed Spain; clos­er even, he was with­in its very heart­lands. The Moriscos, the rem­nant Mus­lim pop­ula­tion of south­ern Spain, forcibly con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­ity by im­pe­ri­al de­cree, re­mained un­fin­ished busi­ness; they were some­how inas­sim­il­able. As the shad­ow of the Turk length­ened over the whole sea, fear grew that the Moriscos were still cryp­to-​Mus­lims, a fifth col­umn of Ot­toman holy war in the home­lands. Chris­tian Spain be­came in­creas­ing­ly wary of its home pop­ula­tion. Year af­ter year, tight­en­ing de­crees at­tempt­ed to de­ter­mine the zeal of the sus­pect new Chris­tians. On Jan­uary 1, 1567, Philip is­sued an edict to erase the last cul­tur­al traces of Is­lam in Spain: Ara­bic could no longer be spo­ken, the veil was pro­hib­it­ed, and so were pub­lic baths. It was the last straw for a goad­ed peo­ple, backed in­to a cor­ner by in­tol­er­ance and re­li­gious dog­ma. On Christ­mas night 1567, Morisco moun­taineers from the Alpu­jar­ras scaled the walls of the Al­ham­bra Palace in Grana­da and called for up­ris­ing in the name of Al­lah.

The south­ern moun­tains of Spain crack­led with re­volt. Catholic Spain found it­self sud­den­ly em­broiled in in­ter­nal holy war with Is­lam, and its best troops were hun­dreds of miles away in the Nether­lands. The up­ris­ing pro­ject­ed all the fears about the Turks on­to a huge screen. The Moriscos had been ap­peal­ing for aid from Is­tan­bul for sev­en­ty years. In the late 1560s they sent out cries for help, dis­patch­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the sul­tan. Se­lim or­dered men and arms from Al­giers in ear­ly 1570; ar­que­bus­es were shipped across the straits; there were soon four thou­sand Turk­ish and Bar­bary troops in the moun­tains of south­ern Spain. There was live fear that the Turks were plan­ning a long-​dis­tance in­va­sion of Spain; it was claimed they would sail in 1570 “to give heart and help to the Moors of Grana­da.” Sokol­lu Mehmet open­ly asked the French king for use of Toulon as a base. And in the con­fu­sion the cor­sair Uluch Ali de­throned a Span­ish pup­pet regime and re­cap­tured Tu­nis. At a stroke, Charles’s proud­est achieve­ment had been un­done. Sud­den­ly dis­tance was tele­scoped: Is­tan­bul was no longer a thou­sand miles to the east. The spec­tre of the Turk was very close in­deed.

The Morisco re­volt served to con­cen­trate Philip’s mind firm­ly on the Mediter­ranean; troops were re­called from Italy; more were levied in Cal­abria. Don Juan of Aus­tria was giv­en the task of crush­ing the rebels. It was a dirty fight, driv­en by the long-​re­pressed re­sent­ment of the Moriscos and the match­ing fear of the Chris­tians. Fought with vis­cer­al ha­tred across the fault lines of cul­ture and faith, it pre­fig­ured the hor­ror of Goya’s fir­ing squads, the piti­less mu­ti­la­tions of the Span­ish civ­il war. The Moriscos were buoyed up by the en­cour­age­ment of Turk­ish in­ter­ven­tion; they fought des­per­ate­ly and hor­ri­bly in the snow-​blocked pass­es of the Alpu­jar­ras. But the Span­ish op­er­at­ed with slam­ming bru­tal­ity. On Oc­to­ber 19, 1569, Philip gave the army the right to take booty from the Moriscos. The war of fire and blood dragged on through 1570. On Novem­ber 1 of that year Philip made the dras­tic de­ci­sion to or­der the ex­pul­sion of the whole civil­ian Morisco pop­ula­tion from the low­lands for tac­it­ly abet­ting the re­volt. Don Juan ap­proved its log­ic but found it heartrend­ing. “It was the sad­dest sight in the world,” he wrote on Novem­ber 5, “for at the mo­ment of de­par­ture there was so much rain, wind and snow that the poor peo­ple clung to­geth­er lament­ing. One can­not de­ny that the spec­ta­cle of the de­pop­ula­tion of a king­dom is the most piti­ful any­one can imag­ine.” The re­bel­lion col­lapsed. The promised Turk­ish ar­ma­da nev­er came; it was prob­ably nev­er in­tend­ed to come: it seems like­ly that Sokol­lu used the Moriscos to dis­tract at­ten­tion from deep­er in­ten­tions. The cor­ner­stone of Sokol­lu’s think­ing was to en­sure the de­vel­op­ment of Ot­toman plans with­out pro­vok­ing uni­fied Chris­tian ac­tion.
Source: Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley

Aben Humeya, a town councillor who claimed (probably falsely) to be a nobleman, was elected as leader of the revolt. During their rampage the Muslims butchered Christian families and priests and destroyed churches and Christian relics. When they captured a town called Purchena, Humeya decided to host a games event there, so that the Muslims could supposedly recover their traditional customs, which had been forbidden to them by the Spanish state. These were called the Juegos Moriscos (Morisco Games although often rendered into English as Moorish Games).

Now, hundreds of years later, and ignoring the atrocities against Christians committed during the Morisco revolt and the background of treason that lay behind it, the town bizarrely funds a celebration of these games and presents them as an example of multicultural harmony between "three civilisations". Someone in the International Olympic Committee preposterously claimed that these games were "the link that preceded the current Olympic Games".

The headline in El Almería reads, "Aben Humeya Reconquers Purchena". At the event children are invited to attend classes to learn Arab dancing. Delegations from Morocco will be present. I hope someone is doing a careful head count on the Moroccans to make sure that the number who leave is the same as the number who arrived.

Sources: Minuto DigitalEl Almería, Juegos Moriscos

Children's Arab Dancing Workshop


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