Archaeologists in Mertola want to tell the stories of ordinary people and co-existence in their everyday lives that recorded history has silenced and erased. Their focus is not on the battles and interests of ruling elites, but on how common people from different religions lived together, were buried in the same areas, and shared similar traditions and ways of living.

Continuity across the Mediterranean

For Claudio Torres, the best example of coexistence is Mertola’s church, which is also Portugal’s best preserved medieval mosque – a place where Christians still pray facing the direction of Mecca. "What we found in this town so full of traces of the Islamic past was a sense of continuity," says Torres. His research focusses on the close relations between people across the Mediterranean.

Torres believes that Islam was not imposed by force after battles, but spread gradually through trade in Mediterranean ports. Mertolaʹs archaeological site suggests there were mass conversions to Islam.  

Based on the belief of a common past between Portugal and North Africa, Torresʹ work tries to debunk conceptions of Muslims as invaders and Islam as foreign to Europe.

Susana Martínez, professor of Medieval History and Archaeology at the University of Evora (photo: Marta Vidal)
A story at odds with the national identity narrative: what archaeologists found in Mertola shows there was co-existence and continuity between the north and the south of the Mediterranean. "The idea of confrontation and struggle between Christians and Muslims was fostered by the elites," says Martínez

In his youth, Torres was a dissident who opposed the conservative Catholic dictatorship that ruled Portugal until 1974. He was arrested and tortured for his militancy. With no money to pay smugglers to reach safety in France, Torres fled Portugal on a small motorboat to Morocco.

He fled the dictatorship in 1961 with his pregnant wife and other dissidents. They almost drowned in the Mediterranean, in a trip not unlike the sea crossings undertaken today by so many refugees.

Torres came back from exile when the dictatorship ended. Focusing on Portugalʹs Islamic past was his way of working on what was the exact opposite of the far-right Catholic regime.  "Our archaeological activity was part of a project for political change," says Torres.

With Islamophobia and intolerance on the rise in Europe, his project could well be more relevant than ever.

Marta Vidal

© 2019

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Comments for this article: Where Christians pray facing Mecca

Quote: "In the 8th century, Muslim armies sailed from North Africa and took control of much of what is now Portugal and Spain". Very euphemistic. I presume that was a bloody, murderous, unprovoked war of conquest, after which Sharia law imposed, with Christians relegated to second class dhimmi status.
Quote: "National identity was constructed in opposition to the Muslim". Why not? Muslim identity was constructed in opposition to the Christian dhimmi.
Torresʹ work tries to debunk conceptions of Muslims as invaders. That must be very hard to do, seeing that they were invaders, and invaders with a supremacist ideology at that.

Mikel Kritzinger31.05.2019 | 21:13 Uhr

It would also be interesting to excavate the Christian (Nestorian) basilicas in contemporary Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Where was the Maryam chapel in the Ka'aba, etc.

Gied ten Berge,...19.06.2019 | 07:34 Uhr

For many centuries, the Arab countries have been home to Christians, Muslims, and Jews living side by side.

bassam12.07.2019 | 19:40 Uhr