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Last May, Hum Sit professors Richard Armstrong, John Harvey, and Hayan Charara led a tour group to explore Spain's rich heritage as a center for Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures. Called "The Convivencia Tour," it was an effort to give students an alternative to the standard view of Europe as entirely Christian and "Western" in its orientation. "Spain has a unique geographical position in Europe," says Prof. Armstrong. "Through the Straight of Gibraltar, it is Europe's gateway to Africa, which is only about nine miles across the water from there. But the Iberian Peninsula is also two-faced: one side faces the Mediterranean and has been a part of that civilization since ancient times, and the other faces the Atlantic, which became hugely important to world history after 1492. We really wanted this tour to help students understand there are many ways to look at European history beyond the standard focus on Northern Europe."
One thing that sets Spain apart is its long history of Muslim civilization, which lasted from 711 to 1492. Spain thrived once incorporated into the Islamic world, and cities like Seville and Córdoba were among the most civilized in Europe. Traces of Islamic art and architecture can be seen all along the tour's itinerary, which went from Toledo to Córdoba, Seville, Málaga, Granada, Jaen, and ended in Madrid. Sites like the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba are very unusual. Once one of the largest mosques in the world, it was converted to use as a cathedral after the Christian conquest of Córdoba in 1236, though initially the new Christian rulers did not significantly alter its structure. In the sixteenth century, a Renaissance nave was built in the middle of the cathedral-mosque, giving the building the curious hybrid appearance it has to this day. "It has a kind of schizophrenic feel to it that is exhilarating," says Armstrong. "You can't help but ask yourself, 'How is this possible?'"
Beyond its Islamic past, the tour explored the vibrant culture and history of Spain's Andalusian region, which has a picturesque and powerful presence in literature, music, and art. "It's a rare pleasure to be able to walk into the landscape featured in the prose of Cervantes, the poems of Lorca, and talk about all you see and hear with colleagues and students," says Prof. John Harvey. One particularly memorable experience was a flamenco show at Tablao Los Gallos in Seville, where students were treated to all the color, rhythm, and passion of Andalusia's most famous musical art form.
While studded with important historical and cultural sites, the tour itinerary also had time for wandering around in the plazas and side streets. "If you don't spend time wandering around on your own, you're really going to miss one of the nicer things about a country like Spain," says Armstrong. Midway the group had a free day at the seaside resort town of Nerja, and at the end everyone enjoyed exploring Madrid on their own after touring the city with a guide the previous day. "I still miss the sound of our tour guide's voice waking everyone up on the bus who only got two hours of sleep the night before because the Spanish nightlife was too amazing to pass up," says sophomore Melissa Mynatt.
Sixteen students and Prof. Armstrong's wife Dawn joined the three professors to form a merry company of 20 travelers. The tour got a late start on account of the Icelandic volcano and its ash cloud, which delayed departure by a day. A strike on British Air also required rerouting though Frankfurt on the return trip, but otherwise the tour went smoothly. Prof. Charara confesses, "We were a pretty loud bunch, making sure the people of Spain knew we were American tourists, but every day we'd walk into a palace or cathedral or mosque that was once home to kings, queens, and caliphs and took hundreds of years to make. And in an instant, the place silenced us with its beauty and its history."