Madrid, Spain – Although less well-known abroad than other folk festivals in Spain, like the bull-running in Pamplona, far more people flock to see dozens of picturesque towns and villages re-enact the eight-centuries-long struggle for control of the country, between followers of Christianity and Islam.
To the revellers thronging swaths of Spain every summer, the Moors and Christians events are simply an annual highlight, a way to have fun while taking pride in the country’s rich history. The Muslim community is resigned to what they see as an uncomfortable reminder of how non-Christians were once persecuted.
In Petrer, 40km inland from the Mediterranean port of Alicante, elaborate period costumes costing thousands of euros are already on display in shop windows, ready for the 400th anniversary edition of the festivities which will take place between May 15 and 19.
A tenth of Petrer’s population of 35,000 belong to 10 groups known as comparsas, half of whom dress up as Moors, the other half as Christians, for two parades which last four hours each and for which the rest of the town turns out in force. In the first parade, the Moors symbolically come out on top, in the second, the Christians win.
The festivities go on all night, during which traditional and modern music are played and each comparsa plies visitors with food and drink at their specially built mini-headquarters.
Key to the re-enactment is Petrer’s hill-top castle, which was originally built during the Islamic period in the 12th century CE, when the town was known by the Arabic name of Bitrir. Christian King James I of Aragon took the castle in 1265, although as local historical novelist Veronica Martinez explains, he did so without bloodshed.
“There was no battle at all. While there had been a revolt by the town’s Muslims because their customs weren’t respected in accordance with an earlier treaty, the two sides parleyed and reached a deal,” she said. “Both groups have equal standing in the festivals. There is respect all round.”
‘Little cause for joy’
The town’s Muslim and Christian communities then lived side by side without incident until 1492, when all non-Catholics in the then newly united Spain were ordered to convert or leave the country, and forfeit their property. Converts stayed on until 1609, when they too were banished.
Spain’s modern Muslim community maintains that the very term “Moor” perpetuates a historical inaccuracy, by treating their forerunners as if they were somehow alien because they practised another religion.
Ahmed Bermejo, the imam of the mosque in Granada, says that hatred towards Muslims in Spain is now long gone, and that the Moors and Christians festivals are instead motivated by yearning for bygone glories of the Spanish Empire.
We don't support celebrating the festivals and believe there should be no room for them in modern Spain, but we all know that the Catholic Church still holds sway in our country and it is very difficult to change tradition.
“We Spaniards have little cause for joy nowadays, other than that garnered by the national football team and (tennis player) Rafael Nadal, among others,” he said, recalling that Spain has suffered from an economic crisis and chronic unemployment since 2008.
“Of course, we don’t support celebrating the festivals and believe there should be no room for them in modern Spain, but we all know that the Catholic Church still holds sway in our country and it is very difficult to change tradition.”
Spaniards are indeed keen on re-enacting the history in which their country is steeped, due to its having been a crossroads for every major European and North African civilisation or power for the last 3,000 years.
As an example, every year nearby Cartagena relives the days back in 285 BCE when it was the second city in the Carthaginian Empire, and Hannibal stopped off there before leading troops mounted on elephants in their famous bid to conquer Rome.
“The Moors and Christians festivals are staged as a historical representation of what happened in Spain – and in particular, in our town, eight centuries ago, without trying to take it out of context. It’s our history, although a party is still a party,” Antonio Torres, a spokesman for the Petrer festival’s organising committee, said.
The festivals are also an important draw for tourists, whose spending makes up a vital part of the economy in the Alicante region and of a whole industry which, on the national level, is the main driver in Spain’s fledgling recovery from a persistent recession.
After five days of partying, bleary-eyed comparsas will fold up trestle tables and chairs, carefully put away their costumes and drift back to work. Many will already begin saving up and eagerly preparing for next year, although they can ease the wait by looking forward to a toned-down “mid-year” festival in November.