Footwashing

After nearly five hours exploring the immense cathedral in Sevilla, Karen and I emerged into its large cloister, known as the Court of the Orange Trees when a mosque occupied the site over six hundred years ago. A lovely citrus grove still provides pools of deep shade in the bright Andalusian sunlight, and at its very center stands the round fountain where medieval Muslims cleansed hands, face and feet before going inside to pray. Making impromptu homage to this ancient practice, we removed our shoes and sank our feet into the cool water. It wasn’t long before a cathedral guard hurried over to tell us this was forbidden. “Malo!” she said, pointing to the fountain. The water didn’t appear toxic, so we assumed it was not the water that was bad, but the fact of bathing our feet. Stepping out of the water, we picked up our shoes and started walking toward a bench where we could put them on more easily. No, no, no, she said, indicating that we were not allowed even to walk on the courtyard bricks in bare feet. We don’t speak Spanish, but we gathered that it was deemed disrespectful to go barefoot on church property, even outside the walls of the worship space. Though there is ample precedent for bare feet as the preferred option for standing on holy ground, that was clearly an untranslatable argument in this particular instance, so I stooped over to pull on my Keens. At that point another cathedral official, a man who spoke English, came to see what all the fuss was about. He explained that we were in a church, not a park. I replied that we meant no disrespect, and that in fact footwashing, even in such a casual situation, always had a ritual dimension to it. His brow furrowed, and he gave us a scrutinizing look. “Are you Muslim?” he asked.

I can’t say for sure, but his question seemed more than simple curiosity, as if we had, however innocently, transgressed a boundary that has haunted Spanish history ever since the first North African Muslims landed at Gibralter in 711. Over the next seven centuries, Christians and Moors fought fierce battles for control of the Iberian peninsula, but there were also many instances of peaceful coexistence, as well as intermarriage, mingled interests, and mutual influence. While the ideology of the “Reconquista” – the reassertion of Christian primacy – finally won out with the complete expulsion of Islam from Spain in 1492, significant traces of the Moorish soul remained, just as Islamic motifs persisted in Christian architecture and the plaintive prayers of the minaret reemerged as flamenco. You can’t expel what has become part of you. A long and complicated history of conflict and coexistence may have created a confusion of opposed identities, more than it ever achieved a clear separation. As Gees Nooteboom has written in his wonderful ‘Roads to Santiago’, “in that very long period there had been so much intermingling, so much exchange, that each party had in a sense become the other. Each had caused the other to suffer, but alliances had also been formed and links established. Conversions, tolerance, mixed marriages, syncretism, all those factors spread out over such a long period had made Spain different from all the other countries in Europe – as it remains to this day.”

So if I had been a Muslim when I dipped my feet into the water of a former mosque upon whose ruins a great church has been constructed, would I have been makings a symbolic challenge to the Reconquista, a small retaking of place lost so long ago? Or had I, even though a Christian, simply touched a wound still sensitive, still unhealed? I’ll never know for sure. The whole incident may have been nothing more than a matter of manners: they just don’t like bare feet on church grounds! But having seen countless paintings and sculptures of Santiago Matamoros (“St. James the Moor-slayer”) in churches along the Camino de Santiago, I do wonder about the lingering significance of images which define cultural or religious identity at the expense of the “other.” All those depictions of Santiago as warrior were put up long ago, of course. At the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, they have attempted to hide the trampled Muslims behind big flowers, hoping to soften the disturbing iconography. Nevertheless, though I claim no expertise on Spanish history and identity, I did get a sense of something deep and unresolved in that official’s question at the fountain.

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