St. Andrew’s In Tangier: A Church With Muslim Art

Tangier
Being in Morocco, Tangier is a mostly Muslim city. Being a port, it’s also a mixed city with a long history of Christian and Jewish influence. That interesting blend comes out in the language, music, art and cooking. You can see Tangier’s mix of cultures everywhere.

Even in the churches.

The Church of St. Andrew is an Anglican congregation close to the Place du Grand Socco. The first thing you’ll notice is the church tower shaped like the square, Moorish-style minarets so common in the mosques here. The only difference is the English flag flying from the top and the lack of a loudspeaker to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer.

Entering the churchyard, you’ll find a shady oasis of trees, shrubs and a well-manicured garden. Cats lounge amid the headstones, which include several for the fallen from various Allied armies during World War II. This part of the property looks like a regular English churchyard except for the palm trees and lack of moss on the headstones. Go inside, however, and you’ll see something quite different.

The interior has several Islamic touches. The doors have rounded arches and elaborate carvings. The carved and painted wood ceiling looks like something from a Moorish palace. The arch just before the altar is the most elaborate and looks like it came from a Muslim palace. Arabic calligraphy spells out the words “bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm” (In the name of God, the most Gracious, the most Merciful), which is the first line of each Surah (chapter) of the Koran.

%Gallery-175720%So how did a verse from the Koran end up decorating an Anglican church in a Muslim country? The story starts in 1880, when the Sultan, Hassan I, gave land to the British expat community in Tangier so they could build a church. One was built but soon proved too small for the growing Christian community and so the present church was built in 1894. It was consecrated in 1905.

The design includes Islamic styles as a way of recognizing the friendly relations between the UK and Morocco and to honor the memory of the Sultan’s donation. The work was done by Moroccan craftsmen.

St. Andrew’s is by no means unique. During the height of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages, European art and architecture borrowed frequently from Muslim styles. European artists copied Islamic styles and even included Arabic calligraphy in Christian works of art. Check out the gallery for a couple of surprising examples.

Don’t miss our other posts on Tangier! Coming up next: The Anatomy Of A Perfect Hotel!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Lon-done? Try St. Albans

London is one of the most popular destinations for American travelers. It’s big, exciting, and there’s always something going on. Sadly, many visitors never get beyond the city limits. There are plenty of smaller towns just a short journey away that are worth visiting on a day trip or longer stay. St. Albans in Hertfordshire north of London is my favorite.

Located just a twenty-minute train ride from King’s Cross, St. Albans feels a world away from the big city. There are woods, quiet lanes, and friendly pubs. The air is even breathable!

St. Albans has been a pilgrimage center since Celtic times. When the Romans conquered Britain, they built the city of Verulamium here. Part of the city wall still pokes out of the grass in the town park, and nearby you can see the excavated remains of the old Roman theatre and other buildings. An excellent museum explains the history of the Roman settlement and occasionally hosts reenactments by “Roman” soldiers. Check out the museum website for the next event.

Since medieval times the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban has been a major pilgrimage center. St. Alban was a Christian resident of Roman Verulamium in the 3rd century AD. One day he saw a fellow Christian fleeing from the soldiers and he helped him escape by exchanging clothes with him. St. Alban was caught and marched up the hill overlooking town and beheaded. It’s said that when the sword cleaved through his neck, the executioner’s eyes popped out! There’s a wonderfully graphic painting of this inside the cathedral. A monastery was founded on the site of St. Alban’s martyrdom in the year 793, and the oldest bits of the current cathedral date to the 11th. You’ll notice that many of the bricks in the church are actually reused from crumbling Roman buildings, poetic justice indeed!

%Gallery-83298%The town itself makes for a relaxed and very English experience. There are numerous timber-frame, thatched-roof houses dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, especially along Fishpool St., and a 600 year-old clock tower that you can climb up to get a good view of the town and surrounding countryside.

If you’re feeling thirsty try Ye Olde Fighting Cocks next to the duck pond in the park. It’s one of the many pubs that claims to be “the oldest in Britain”. While it’s impossible to tell which pub is truly the oldest, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks certainly is a strong contender. The central octagonal section dates to about 1400, and there may have been monks brewing here as early as 793. The pub gets its name from the cockfights that used to take place here. One of the stuffed champions is on display.

There’s enough to do and see in St. Albans that you might consider staying overnight. I’d suggest The Lower Red Lion. This 17th century coaching inn is still much as it was. I love these old buildings with their narrow stairs, small-paned windows, undulating floors, and resident ghosts. The pub downstairs is one of the best places I’ve seen to get real ales. The last time I was there they had seven guest ales on tap. The kitchen will cook you up a hearty meal to go with your pint. There are only seven rooms and it’s best to book well in advance.

So if London is beginning to grate on your nerves, get out of town! St. Albans is a good place to start.

A hidden church near Oxford

Yesterday I reviewed Michael McCay’s Hidden Treasures of England, a book filled with wonderful places that most people miss. Here’s one McCay missed.

Not far from the popular destination of Oxford is the little hamlet of Binsey and its historic St. Margaret’s Church.

St. Margaret’s is reputedly founded on the spot where St. Frideswide (pictured here) built an oratory in the seventh century. The holy woman fled Oxford to Binsey to escape a local prince who wanted to marry her. As punishment for his lust, the prince was blinded by lightning, but the forgiving yet still chaste St. Frideswide cured him with water from a holy well that miraculously opened up from the ground after she prayed to St. Margaret of Antioch.

The well is still there today and attracts people who pray for help, especially cures to blindness. This tradition may even be older than St. Frideswide, because many holy wells in England were actually pagan holy spots before being taken over by the new faith. In the nineteenth century Lewis Carroll visited the spot and used it as inspiration for his “treacle well” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He was making a play on words. In his day treacle was a syrup, but in Saxon times it meant “a healing fluid.”

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The Saxon church of St. Frideswide’s day is long gone, replaced with a modest but beautiful 13th century building. There are some well preserved Gothic features such as the arch and the carved doorway, and a rare trussed rafter roof made with no nails.

Although it’s one of the most historic churches in Oxfordshire, St. Margaret’s is desperately in need of money for repairs and upkeep. The Church of England is feeling the pinch and smaller churches like this one are struggling to keep open. They are taking donations at their website and you can always drop some coins in the donation box at the church. A building with this much history deserves to stay open.

The church and its well make for a fine half-day excursion from Oxford. It’s only about three miles from downtown and much of the walk is through serene countryside. A map is available on the website. As you pass through the village of Binsey, you might want to stop by The Perch, a relaxing pub with a big garden. It’s tradition to stop at a pub during an English country walk, and you wouldn’t want to break with tradition, would you?