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An ancient echo of NYC mosque debate in Córdoba, Spain

Córdoba, Spain, was a center of art and culture under medieval Islamic rule and an inspiration for the original name of the planned New York City mosque.

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The exploitation of symbols, said Mr. Escudero, is what is fueling anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe and now in the United States. "The people behind the mosque near ground zero chose the name Córdoba because it symbolizes a historical period in Spain when Christianity, Judaism, and Islam lived side by side," he said.

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The history

There are different opinions on what the Golden Age of Córdoba symbolizes. Some say Al-Andalus – Muslim-controlled Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries – is a symbol of Islamic domination. Others see it as a period of great religious tolerance. History shows something in between – with different hues at different points during the 500-year Islamic period.

The Muslims conquered Córdoba in 711, the year they began their invasion of Spain. Around 40 years later, Abd al-Rahman I of the Omayyad Dynasty, fleeing a massacre of his family in Damascus, began building Córdoba into one of the Western world's most influential cities that would reach its apex in the 10th century.

Abd al-Rahman III proclaimed the Califate of Córdoba in 929 to rival seats of power in Damascus and Baghdad, starting a massive public works campaign including the construction of a palatial city just outside Córdoba called Madinat al-Zahra, about a third the size of Central Park.

Today it is one of Spain's most important archaeological sites from the Islamic period. The next caliph, Al-Hakam II, brought to the city men of letters and science, art and architecture, turning Córdoba into a leading center of scholarship and culture.

Also during the 10th century, Jews and Christians – while subordinate to Muslims – lived in relative peace. Some held important positions within the caliphate bureaucracy. The head of customs was a Jew who negotiated trade relations with the Christian Byzantine Empire. The Córdoban ambassador to Constantinople was a Christian cleric. Churches, mosques, and synagogues abounded.

Nevertheless, disputes between the religious groups did occur. In the 9th century, the Christians of Córdoba complained that the ban on church bells was not fair when the muezzin could call Muslims to prayer. This and other bickering led to a violent clash which left many dead Christians. In 1011, as Muslim nobles fought one another for control of the caliphate (it would never regain its glory and fell 20 years later), another religious conflict ignited, this time between Muslims and Jews. The latter were killed.

Likewise today, the disputes – albeit less violent – continue. And while the petition for Muslims to be allowed to pray at the Great Mosque does not appear to be going anywhere, on Sept. 11 this month a group of Muslims, Christians, and Jews plan to form a human chain linking the synagogue with the mosque. It will be difficult to misread the symbolism.

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