Frigiliana, A Spanish History Lesson

A guest post by the erudite, urbane, debonair, well-travelled, and ever well-refreshed, Gareth ap Siôn

The seemingly eternal history of struggle and conflict in the face of suppression of our Welsh national identity is not unique to the Cymric nation. It has been and is mirrored by the crushing of many an isolated society in this still unjust world.

This was sharply brought to mind after a recent visit to Frigiliana, a town situated in the most oriental region of the province of Málaga, which embraces the warm and Ap Sion 1beautiful Mediterranean coast of southern Spain.

Frigiliana is an intriguing place, with a wonderfully interesting history. It was the last bastion of Arab predominance in the Iberian peninsula, after a full 800 years of occupation; but, by 1485, the Reconquista, carried out by the Reyes Católicos had arrived. All other Moorish towns had, by then, been conquered and had forcibly been evacuated and re-populated with a Christian Spanish population. Since the town was so strongly fortified, a deal was brokered and, after the payment of tributes, the Moors were allowed to remain and practice their religion and way of life. They then became known as Mudejares. Peace and a productive tranquillity reigned between the two Spanish communities but, over the passing of time, the perverse side of human nature reared its ugly head, promises were forgotten and the population subjected to an ever- increasing oppression. The Moors were forced to convert to Christianity. The alternative was expulsion to Africa. Those that converted (often in appearance only!), became known as Moriscos.

The repression intensified during the reign of Phillip II. It became especially violent in 1567 when the Inquisition, through the sadistic insistence of the prime iAp Sion 2nquisitor Pedro de Deza, turned the screw tightly. The Moriscos were prohibited from carrying weapons, to talk or write in their own language, to marry ethnic Spanish, to wear traditional clothing or to practice their historic customs. Predictably, all this inspired rebellion, which was then ruthlessly and bloodily crushed. The Moriscos that did not flee were wiped out.

Despite all this, however, the genetic link was not entirely extinguished; to this day hearts in Frigiliana beat proud at the thought of their cultural heritage. The town is now officially designated ‘The town of the three cultures’ – Christian, Moorish and Jewish, and its logo intertwines the symbols of these cultures. After so much conflict, the three religions now co-exist in peace and harmony.

This first photograph is of a statue of the town logo, which combines the Christian, Moslem and Jewish symbols.

Interestingly, for historians, and for visitors such as myself, the council has erected, in obscure positions around the old part of the town, twelve ceramic wall plaques which tell the full tale of the rebellion and its repression. It is a very rewaAp Sion 3rding challenge for determined souls to track them all down (and attempt translation!) during the course of a day’s visit.

Here is the first plaque, which shows the fruitful state of the region before it was subject to siege and devastation.

Here is the translation:-

“The range of mountains that is Bentomiz is part of the constituency of the city of the Velez in the Málaga region. All this land is fertile, with many trees, and abundant, health-giving waters that bisect peaks that reach up to a sky so clear. The lightweight, sturdy and courageous population, the successors of Moorish royalty were the bravest in the kingdom of Granada. There were twenty-two villages of happy and content people, including Frigiliana.” wrote Mármol Carvajal in his “Rebelión y Castigo” (Libro Sexto Cap.XV Málaga, 1600).

The last plaque (above) shows the total post-conquest devastation. (Here is my approximate translation)

“An agonizing silence took over the hamlet of Frigiliana. There was the abandoned mountain, the dead bodies, the living voice of Martín Alguacil:- “If defending our freedom we die fighting, mother earth will receive us and though the graves be hidden, the sky will ever warm them. God does not want to say that the men of Bentomiz dared not die for their country.”

Between plaques one and twelve, which represent Frigiliana at its productive peak and then of the sorry state after all light was extinguished, are ten others which re-stage its swift downfall. These are shown below, listed A – K; to pause, just hold cursor over image:

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These plaques tell their own story without real need of further translations. (Very difficult, anyway, considering the medieval Spanish used!)

Sadly, and to anyone with but a minimal knowledge of Welsh history, there are glaringly obvious parallels to Wales as it was before and after the essential, proud, but ultimately unsuccessful Llywelyn and Glyndŵr rebellions. This is well-illustrated in the Welsh bardic poetry of the time.

The immortal Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch wrote an elegy to Llywelyn after his death and the conquest of Wales in 1282, which mirrors the sentiments of the Frigiliana plaques, especially the last one.

Here is a portion of it :-

Poni welwch chwi hynt y gwynt a’r glaw?
Poni welwch chwi’r deri’n ymdaraw?
Poni welwch chwi’r môr yn merwinaw’r tir?
Poni welwch chwi’r gwir yn ymgweiriaw?
Poni welwch chwi’r haul yn hwyliaw’r awyr?
Poni welwch chwi’r syr wedi’r syrthiaw?
Poni chredwch chwi i Dduw, ddyniadon ynfyd?
Poni welwch chwi’r byd wedi’r bydiaw?
Och hyd atat ti Dduw na ddaw – môr dros dir!
Na beth y’n geidr i ohiriaw?

Do you not see the path of the wind and the rain?
Do you not see the oak trees in turmoil?
Cold my heart in a fearful breast
Thou great Creator of the world,
Why are not thy red lightnings hurled?
Will not the sea at thy command swallow up this guilty land?
Why are we left to mourn in vain,
The guardian of our country slain?

Following that, there is nothing else that could be said, is there?


Jac writes: I have taken issue with Gareth over what he describes as the “glaringly obvious parallels to Wales”. The Moors that attract his sympathy were themselves conquerors and invaders; the Reconquista was the native Spanish reclaiming their land. (The clue is in Reconquista.) But then, this is the kind of error – ‘The white man is always in the wrong’ – into which socialism, alas, beguiles otherwise sound and sensible Welsh partiots.

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06/11/2015 10:40

So are you saying that even after 800 years of occupation the moors had no right to call it their land? What’s the cut off point? The reconquistas themselves replaced a native population before they had a chance to reconquisto. And is anyone seriously suggesting that the English can’t call England home because they’ve only been here for 800 years? People would describe me as a socialist, and I’m certainly a nationalist, but I don’t default to white man is always wrong, I just don’t default to non white man is always wrong either.

06/11/2015 09:34

Just an observation. The plaques of Frigiliana shows the plight and history of the ordinary people of the area, the diverse culture and also the political setting. It tells the story of the ordinary peoples. On a recent wander around Swansea I found myself in the ‘Maritime Quarter’. It’s bedecked with obscure sculptures evidently erected at great expense. I saw a galvanised boat sail, an old light ship, fisherman statute like the spastics collection box outside the chip shop I went to as a child, a spherical clock, a tart with two hoops, some abstract steel waves, a mermaid and a navigation buoy on a plinth. It says nothing about the rich history and peoples of the area, nothing about the Welsh, nothing about the Vikings, no mention of Swains Island, nothing about the Cape Horners, nothing to resemble the real people of the town and no narrative. Is this because Abertawe has no history or is it the role of the ‘marina’ is just to function as a parking pond for posh yatchs for visitors ? The prom that wouldn’t be out of place in Tilbury or Plymouth. Even the start of the now removed Mumbles railway just resembles a block paved domestic driveway with a standardised bike rack. Don’t the towns of Wales have a rich history of ordinary people like show in Frigiliana? It might even show that Wales has a rich history that does not fit the received history of ‘British’ construct.

05/11/2015 09:48

A note on the ‘proto-communists’ – my admiration for their willingness to fight for freedom – but they would have not described themselves as English – more internationalists – plenty also came from Wales – in fact even small towns like Cardigan had their internationalist volunteers in the Anti-Fascist Spanish War. Also kicking out the Moors was a purely religious action and bugger all to do with nationality. One of the many reasons why religion should be confined to individuals and not state. The Welsh could also complain about losing Strathclyde to the Scottish, Danish or whatever army was around at the time, as with Cumbria and the natives of Patagonia and Northern America by the Welsh.

04/11/2015 11:58

Like all of the imperial colonial empires, (Spain, England, France) they start by homogenising the language, administration and culture of locally conquered lands prior to embarking on overseas colonialism.

It should be noted the expulsion of the Moriscos under the Tribunal de la Inquisición was pre-dated by the expulsion f the Jews in 1492. It should be noted that the traditional trading route to Celtic lands like Wales after Roman occupation was by ship, linking the Mediteraenan via Gallicia, Britanny, Wales and Ireland. The Jews operated from Andalucia as the ‘shipping bankers’of this trade.

How to count candels in ancient Spanish…

It is also the reason why in 1282 with the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd after the conquest of Wales the first act of Edward Ist of England was to expel the Jews from Wales. It was to close down independent commercial activity. The same modus was instituted by Queen Isabella of Castile against the Sephardic culture as depicted on the plaques you describe.

04/11/2015 17:06
Reply to  Brychan

A small footnote to that. Some of the expelled Jews headed east and settled in Constantinople. One of my first jobs involved a truly amazing press archive which was started in 1920. One of the gems in that collection was a newspaper written in Ladino, the language of the Sephardi community in that city, clearly still thriving there 400 years later.

04/11/2015 09:20

So what, the Spanish took Moorish Spain after centuries of occupation. Its occupants pre the Moorish era were probably of a somewhat different ethnicity which merged ( with some force ! )with others to produce an entity called “Spain”, bit like Britain today. Our recent absorption has been expedited by utterly different methods, not much violence for centuries, but that directs us to a different action plan to reclaim that turf we regard as ours.

Acheiving separation requires a willingness to embrace independence with all its trappings and pains. Our present shambles, that corpse which loiters in our favourite armchair, is mentally incapable of striking the right posture as it spends too much time carping on about money from London and offers no vision of how to make our own entity viable. So not much point preaching about reclaiming the turf if you intend just going back to the same old well to draw down a handout.

Caroline Juler
03/11/2015 11:30

Just that as a Saes living in Wales, I’d like to mention the English proto-communists who fought and died for freedom, fairness and justice in the civil war – Caryl Churchill’s brilliant play, Light shining in Buckinghamshire (broadcast on radio 3 last Sunday), brings that aspect of our history well home to roost.