The vanished gardens of Cordoba Aug 09 2010
Cordoba is a city in southern Spain that was capital of the Umayyad caliphate of the same name during the Middle Ages. In the tenth century, it passed Baghdad the largest city in Islam and may have been the largest in the world.
Cordoba House is the name of a proposed complex on Park Place in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from the World Trade Center site, sometimes called the "ground-zero mosque."
Newt Gingrich thinks the name is "a deliberately insulting term" that tests "the historic ignorance of American elites." In particular, he cites transformation of a church in Cordoba into a mosque as "a symbol of Islamic conquest" over Christian Spain.
Carl Pyrdum, a graduate student who blogs at Got Medieval, wrote a long, well-footnoted post detailing the problems with Newt's history.
Notice how carefully he's phrased his claim to give the impression that during the medieval conquest of Spain the Muslims charged into Cordoba and declared it the capital of a new Muslim empire, and in order to add insult to injury seized control of a Christian church and built the biggest mosque they could, right there in front of the Christians they'd just conquered, a big Muslim middle finger in the heart of medieval Christendom. Essentially, they've done it before, they'll do it again, right there at Ground Zero, if all good Christians don't band together to stop them.
The problem is, in order to give that impression of immediacy, Newt elides three hundred years of Christian and Muslim history. Three hundred years. The Muslims conquered Cordoba in 712. The Christian church that was later transformed into the Great Mosque of Cordoba apparently continued hosting Christian worship for at least a generation after that. Work on the Mosque didn't actually begin until seventy-odd years later in 784, and the mosque only became "the world's third-largest" late in the tenth century, after a series of expansions by much later rulers, probably around 987 or so.
The Great Mosque was actually built to commemorate the defeat of the Abbasids, the Umayyad's rivals for control of Andalusia. Joint worship emphasized the legitimacy of the Cordoban caliphate and its superiority to the rowdy Abbasids. "Far from 'symboliz[ing] their victory'," Pyrdum writes, "the Mosque was held up by Muslim historians a symbol of peaceful coexistence with the Christians--however messier the actual relations of Christians and Muslims were at the time." Before the Christians, the site hosted ruins of a Roman pagan temple.
Pyrdum's post was picked up by Crooked Timber, the Huffington Post, Andrew Sullivan, and other popular sites and worked its way up from there. On Twitter, David Weinberger wrote: "It's why we have blogs, people."
Imagine a newspaper or television station reporting on this story twenty years ago; if they had thought to fact-check Newt's talking point, they would have either sent a researcher to the library or phoned an historical or Islamic studies expert for comment. Then it may have been cut for space or time. That's not how things work any more. Knowledge floats.
Update:Michael Berube notes that the name "Cordoba" in Cordoba House is a known reference to the deliberately insulting interior of a 1975 Chrysler.