Moors and Christians Festival Javea
In the history of Spain and Spanish civilization there were enough violent actions with dramatic conquests and defeats to make a fantastic computer game, or better still, a fabulous Festival. Spaniards in general tend to be enthusiastic, adventurous and volatile; perhaps it has something to do with the climate. Far more than weather, however, the historical heritage of today’s Spanish people is a huge factor, which also accounts for one of the most beloved and elaborate of Spain’s many festivals.
Indeed, leave it to the Spanish to turn centuries of warfare and clashing cultures into a joyful and raucous yet grand and (occasionally) solemn week-long festival they call Moros y Christianos, or Moors and Christians. This event happens once a year but in Javea, as in many a Spanish town, preparations for the next year’s festival begin immediately after the conclusion of the current year’s blowout, and it’s very much a community effort.
Tourists love to catch a festival like the Moors and Christians, but the majority of visitors (and probably quite a few of the participants) know very little about the origins of this battle-cum-celebration. The fact is that knowing some background helps a great deal especially if you’re a ‘foreigner’ watching the goings on; if nothing else you’ll get some understanding of the costumes, the action, the rhetoric . . . and the ear-splitting noise. So let’s take a little jaunt into Spain’s long ago, whence came the Moors and Christians Festival of today.
So, What’s the story?
This will necessarily be a greatly condensed and general account, but the story basically goes like this:
at the beginning of the 8th century AD Spain (actually most of the Iberian Peninsula) was at least nominally under Visigoth control, and Catholicism was the reigning religion. However the Visigoth kingdom was already in severe decline.
When in 711 an army of about 10,000 Arabs and Berbers from North Africa, under the leadership of Tariq ibn Ziyad, landed near what is now Gibraltar, they defeated the armies of Visigoth King Roderic and basically opened the door for a continuing influx of what came to be called Moors. These people were followers of Islam, and brought their religion with them as well as significant aspects of their cultures in areas such as medicine, art, agriculture and architecture.
According to records, within less than a decade from the first invasion in the south of Spain, the Muslim Moors were basically in control of almost the entire Peninsula, which is now referred to as ‘Islamic Spain’ and then as Al-Andalus – which has since morphed into Andalusia. In general, the Spaniards got along fairly well with what came to be a ruling class of Middle Easterners (mostly Arabs). Many aristocratic Spaniards were able to retain their land and properties, though the general population paid taxes to the rulers of Al-Andalus.
There were plenty of disputes over religious preference, with the Spanish becoming indignant about Islam taking precedence over Christianity. However as time went on and people realised that Christian taxes were higher than Islamic taxes, many of them went ahead and converted just to save money and hassles. Those who didn’t convert were free to follow their own religion – they just paid higher taxes, but otherwise were treated about the same as converted Muslims.
Spanish kings in the north of the country were more agitated about the invasion and throughout the next couple of centuries (the 9th and 10th) there were a lot of raids and battles and bloody clashes as the monarchs from the north sent their various armies to try and roust the invaders. A sort of stand-off resulted, with the Moors unable to gain more territory in the north but holding on to what they already had – and over the years even the Northern kings had to acknowledge that many improvements were being made.
Olive skin and free healthcare
Cohabitation, in fact, became a fact of life; when the Moors first came to this land, the majority of Spanish natives had blonde hair and blue eyes, but due to considerable intermingling the dark hair, eyes and complexions of the Moors became dominant traits in much of the new Spanish aristocracy. Cordoba was a centre of culture, and it has been documented that in many cases formally hostile northern monarchs sent their children to the courts of Cordoba to learn how to behave in proper society, and then married them off to Muslims.
The Moors gradually became integrated into Spanish culture, adding the arts and sciences they brought with them, including a much improved system of irrigation, based on the ancient Egyptians’ channeling of the Nile. In fact they provided a huge boost to Spanish agriculture, bringing in such new edibles as figs, dates, apricots, olives and citrus fruits. Rice, several varieties of wheat, sugar cane and many other dietary staples were also introduced, and farming became a lucrative and well-supported industry.
Again, the very short version is that during the relatively short term (less than five centuries or eight of them, depending on how you calculate) of ‘Islamic Spain’ life was better than it ever had been for the ordinary Spaniard. Health care was much improved, even the poorest had access to it, and – it’s true, believe it or not – often Moorish physicians did not charge a fee unless their patient was wealthy.
The glory of Granada
Architecture is another legacy from the Moors; they built numerous castles and monuments; many of Spain’s most famous tourist attractions came from the Moors, and in just about every town and village in southern and eastern Spain you’ll still find a monument or two along with other remnants of architecture from that era. If you want to see a classic example of Arab architecture in Spain, go visit the Alhambra Palace in Granada (arguably one of the wonders of the modern world) or the Mezquita in Cordoba, two of Spain’s national treasures.
Alfonso XIII of Castile is credited by most as beginning, in 1212, what came to be known as the Reconquista – the taking back of cities and lands controlled by Al-Andalus. King Alfonso brought in other Christian leaders and Pope Innocent III championed a crusade to drive the Moors right out of the country and off the European mainland.
Alfonso’s successor, Fernando III, carried on with the project in a determined and bloodthirsty series of battles and conquests. This went on for years, but Christian forces took back the major cities and territories and by the mid-13th century the rule of Islam was pretty much broken and any Moors who remained were forced to convert to Christianity. Except, that is, for the kingdom of Granada.
Now we’re getting back to the point, which is (more or less) the basis of the Moors and Christians Festival.
Around 1236 the Muslim ruler of Granada, Mohammed ibn-Alhamar, approached Fernando with a deal: in exchange for the Moor’s aid in taking back Seville, Alhamar could keep Granada (which at that time included modern-day Malaga and Almeria) as an independent subject of Castille. That deal is reportedly the reason Alhamar went back to Granada and told his disappointed subjects that “there is no victor but Allah” and had that sentiment carved in stone all over the Alhambra Palace.
Moorish civil war
So in fact the Moors remained in that kingdom for another couple hundred years. If it hadn’t been for the Muslim habit of harems, it’s possible they’d still be there, and Spain might still be a Muslim country. As it was, the ostensible rulers tended more and more to stay in the Alhambra Palace and party, whilst major conflicts arose because sons born to harem members could be equal in their right to the throne. When the Sultan chose the son of a Christian prisoner in his harem over the son of his wife, civil war broke out and the realm of Granada ended up crumbling from the inside out.
Therefore, about 200 years after the ‘Granada deal’ when the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were joined by the marriage of (yet another) Fernando and Isabella, both confirmed Christians, they met with a lot less resistance than they might have otherwise. Both Malaga and Almeria were taken back by the Christians, and Granada itself was under a blockade set up by Fernando’s armies.
The stalemate ended with Moorish king Boabdil handing over Granada in return for concessions that included amnesty for his subjects. In 1492 the Christians under Fernando and Isabella took control of the Moors’ last stronghold, the Emirate of Granada, and Islamic Spain became, quite literally, history.
Pirates and Miradors
However, along the Mediterranean coast, where Moors and Christians had gotten along fairly well over the years, Berber pirates continued frequent raids on towns and villages including, of course the Costa Blanca. Those continuing raids were the reason all those watchtowers were built around Javea and all along the southern coast. From the 14th through the 17th centuries pirates were a scourge in many areas, taking Christian prisoners as slaves.
It was not until the 18th century that these attacks finally ceased or at least diminished to a major degree, but finally they did and the watchtowers, or Miradors faded into history also. Now they are a big part of the attractions for tourists, who find the stunning views well worth a hike and climb. You’re not likely to spot any pirates unless they’re in costume and part of a parade.
Conquered but respected
The Moors and Christians Festival celebrates the history of Islamic Spain (with emphasis on warfare of course) but also with undisguised admiration for the contributions and legacy of the vanquished Moors. This elaborate and complicated Festival is part of Spanish tradition all over the country, but though the basics are similar, some places really go all out. This festival was first introduced way back in the 16th century, and has only gotten more extravagant over the years.
Different cities and towns dedicate the Festival to their own patron saints; usually an historic figure who overcame great odds to whop the stuffing out of the other side – and of course it’s always the Christians beating the Moors in the final accounting, but not until a lot of heads had rolled, both Moor and Christian.
In all cases, as far as we know, the first big pageant of the Festival involves a shipful of Moors – or helicopter-ful in at least one case – arriving with their invasion forces at the most convenient spot for re-grouping and preparing to march on the local residents. From that point the festivities depend partly on the size of the city or town and how the local geography conforms to the boat situation.
Javea Moors and Christians Festival
In Javea, where Muslim Barbary pirates (Berbers) were still raiding the coast well into the 19th century, you’ll see references to that activity also, but the main thrust of the action revolves around the arrival of the first influx of Muslim settlers/invaders and the eventual ‘reconquista’ of lands they had taken over and occupied.
The festivities begin at the Port, where representatives of all the many companies that will participate in the presentation are gathered, each in full and flamboyant costume according to their designated origin – Christian or Moor. They all proceed through the streets to the centre of the Port where a stage has been erected. Then follows a couple hours of speeches, awards, brief entertainments like dance numbers, and the presentation of each company’s representative, with its individual standards and banners. Following all this, a band concert goes on until the wee hours, with a dinner around midnight for festival participants.
Day two will be another parade, with full musical accompaniment, and another concert with music from both Moors and Christians performed with great panache by Javea’s Centre Artistic Musicale orchestra. On day three there is yet another parade, this time along the Promenade in the Playa del Arenal, and organizers provide drinks and snacks for participants and spectators.
Day four: all the company representatives form a somewhat more subdued parade through the streets of the old town to make an offering of flowers to San Jaime (aka “The Moor Slayer”) at his niche in the Calle San Jaime. After that more food and drink is offered, and the music of party bands will play long into the night.
The Big Bang
The really big show (and noise) begins next day when the firing commences. This one is just an exercise in explosions as some of the companies’ representatives spend about half an hour firing blunderbusses in the street and deafening a lot of unprepared spectators; if you plan to see this bit from up close you should probably invest in some earplugs.
There will be another floral offering to San Jaime, this time involving a massive procession around the Port with all the companies plus members of festival commissions – and bands, of course. This parade winds up at the church of Nuestra Senora de Loreto, an iconic landmark where San Jaime’s image is placed in the church and the entire company is blessed by a priest. Late that evening there’s another dinner for everyone involved, and again, music until 3:00 am.
The fireworks really begin next day when the Moors invade and attack the castle. This takes place at Playa de la Grava, where a mock castle has been erected which the Christians are trying to defend. More horrendous noise from blunderbusses (with considerable shouting, screaming and appropriate war cries) makes quite a spectacular show, as the invaders debark from traditional Moorish boats and clash with the defenders. (This is of course symbolic of the Moors’ arrival near Gibraltar in 711.)
After much clashing and bashing and firing of guns the Christians are driven back to the castle where they stand on the battlements, and then comes an extended period of negotiations, well-choreographed battles and finally the surrender of the Christians, whose Captain exchanges the key to the castle for the lives of his troops. The Muslim troops enter the castle and occupy the battlements to loud cheers from the ranks and raise the half-moon flag. Then with stirring music they all march away, Moors gliding proudly in victory and Christians plotting their next move.
That move comes pretty quickly, as Christians are already regrouping on the beach, urged on by their supporters, and with more thundering gunfire and slashing swords the battles resume until the Moors (who left the castle) are slowly beaten back to its walls and battlements. Then more negotiations, more sword and gun-play and shouted invective (all performed with amazing precision and gusto), until the Christians finally prevail, the castle’s key is returned and the Christian flag is raised again.
The war is over but the party goes on
This is the ‘reconquista’ and it signals the end of hostilities but not the end of the festivities, not by a long shot. Two more days of splendidly costumed companies parading with triumphal music of both Christian and Islamic culture sweeps the spectators up in an enthusiastic communal party that goes on for hours. On the final night, as the last of the parade reaches its destination, get ready for a thrilling display of fireworks to top off the evening and the Festival.
The Moors and Christians Festival is great fun for everyone involved and it’s a beautiful expression of community spirit not just in Javea but every town where the tradition is carried on. It’s worth noting that only one day of a week-long party is dedicated to actual conflict; the rest of the time is dedicated to parades and music and festive events that include young and old, visitors and locals. Any mere description is bound to be inadequate; you really need to be there.
*In 2016 the Festival took place in July, from Saturday the 16th through the final fireworks on Sunday the 24th. The schedule for this year is not available as of this writing, but the festival will run from 15th to 23rd July 2017.
All Photo’s are from Ian Theobald’s selection of great images