Or at least that’s what the history books would have you believe.
History focuses on change, and change usually means conflict, but there have been many times in the past when different religions and ethnic groups have lived in harmony. Here are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites you can visit that are testimony to the idea that people can achieve great things by working together.
For most of the Middle Ages Spain was not a country; it was a patchwork of different states fighting amongst themselves and staving off invasions by the Muslim Moors from North Africa. There was a centuries-long war between Islam and Christianity, with the Jews being stuck in the middle as second-class citizens in both societies. But under the Caliphate of Córdoba, which ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the three cultures lived and learned together. Córdoba and Toledo were the two main cultural centers. Many books from ancient Greece and Rome, lost in Europe during the Dark Ages but preserved in Arabic translations in the Middle East, were translated into Latin and Hebrew and helped start a rediscovery of Europe’s Classical heritage.
The Christian kingdoms were slowly pushing out the Muslims, however, and in 1085 King Alfonso VI captured Toledo. He realized the relationship among the three cultures, called La Convivencia (“The Coexistence”) was a good thing and kept it going. He even established a translation center to copy books from each culture into Latin, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew, so everyone could benefit from each other’s learning. Philosophy, astronomy, architecture, mathematics, and a dozen other arts and sciences flourished.
%Gallery-80891%It didn’t last. In 1492, when the last Moors were kicked out of Spain, the Jews were kicked out too, and any non-Christian who wanted to stay had to at least pretend to convert. But La Convivencia left an enduring intellectual an artistic legacy for all three cultures and some impressive monuments that can still be seen today.
On a different continent in different century, people came to the same conclusions that the people of Toledo did. In the northwest of what is now Ethiopia is the city of Gonder. It was founded by the Emperor Fasilides around the year 1635. Ethiopian emperors traditionally moved from place to place to watch over their people, but Fasilides saw an advantage to having a capital city for his empire. Soon a large urban center had sprung up, with palaces and castles and places of worship.
Gonder became the center of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but it was also home to Muslims and the Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jews. Artisans and thinkers from all three religions flocked to Gonder to work in the market or palace. The Beta Israel were often craftsmen. Because only a Christian could sit on the throne, the Jews often served as trusted advisers and bodyguards to the emperor. The Muslims, with their connections to the Red Sea and other parts of Africa, set themselves up as merchants.
All three cultures worked together to make Gonder a center of art and learning, just like in Toledo. The ruins of some of the castles and palaces are still visible today and many people call Gonder “Africa’s Camelot”. The most famous monument is Fasilides’ castle, shown here. Check out the gallery for more attractions in Toledo and Gonder.
Let’s not romanticize these civilizations. Neither of them were progressive democracies. They were authoritarian kingdoms where the common people had almost no rights, and both ended up being replaced by less tolerant cultures. Yet they managed to figure out something–it’s not your background that’s important, it’s what you can contribute to society. The people of Toledo and Gonder discovered they could do more together than they could separately. It’s something many societies have realized. In fact, despite all the bad news on TV, religious and ethnic violence is the exception rather than the rule. Most streets aren’t erupting in gunfire. Most people live in towns made up of a number of religious and ethnic groups. They may not be best friends, but they’re not killing each other either.
Maybe Toledo and Gonder have given us more than pair of interesting tourist attractions.