A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Moors of Spain." by Mrs. Ellen M. Harrell Cantrell.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893.. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 253-259.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 253] 



When Columbus, the man of destiny, standing in the vestibule of the Old World, drew aside the mysterious curtains that veiled its threshold, and set out on his career into unknown space, the peoples around him strained forward their eager vision to follow his dazzling course, while we, who stand here today in the culminated glory of his conception, look backward, with an interest scarcely less vivid, to pierce the obscurity from whence he emerged. There we find storm and lightning, blackness and gloom, marking the extinction of a nation, which, perhaps, more than any other, has held us with its spell of romance; namely, the Moors of Spain.

Beginning with the records of the patriarchs: they have been the theme for mediæval and modern writers; have been sung by troubadours, chronicled by historians, dramatized by poets, and may yet supply a subject, not inappropriate to this occasion, since they form the environment of Columbia's embryo hero, who, like the mythical Arabian bird, developed a new nation, from the ashes of the one just extinguished.

Prophet, poet, and painter have, in turn, brought before us for contemplation a certain group, which, though draped in the mists of antiquity, still appears in vivid outlines, appealing to our deepest emotions by its pathos, and which serves as an exponent of the histories of successive nations, more especially that of Spain.

I refer to the dual group of fugitives, Hagar and Ishmael, the outcast wanderers in the desert of Shur and the wilderness of Beersheba.

The prophet tells us, that of Ishmael it was foretold before his birth, by the angel of the Lord:

"He will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him, and he shall dwell in the presence of his brethren," and later, in response to Abraham's prayer–"O that Ishmael might live before Thee," the Almighty God established with him this covenant–"As for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall be beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time next year."

When Ishmael, the son of Hagar, the bondwoman, was thirteen years of age, a [Page 254]  great feast was made in honor of Isaac, the babe, on the day of his weaning, and Sarah saw Ishmael mocking.

All the tenderness, pride, jealousy and resentment of a woman's heart rose in rebellion against this alien boy, whose ancestral Eber blood was tainted by that of Egypt, and she cried out: "Cast out this bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac."

An English poetess, whose womanly endurance, resignation, and religious trust made her the fitting lyrist for this pathetic incident, and whose lovely countenance adorns these walls, gives this sympathetic lament:

"Nor was thy way forgotten,
  Whose worn and weary feet
Were driven from thy homestead
  Through the red sand's parching heat;
Poor Hagar, scorned and banished,
  That another's son might be
Sole claimant on that father,
  Who felt no more for thee.

"Ah, when thy dark eye wander'd,
  Forlorn, Egyptian slave,
Across that lurid desert
  And saw no fountain wave;
When thy southern heart, despairing,
  In the passion of its grief
Foresaw no ray of comfort,
  No shadow of relief,

"But to cast the young child from thee
  That thou mightst not see him die,
How sank thy broken spirit–
  But the Lord of Hosts was nigh!
He (He too oft forgotten
  In sorrow as in joy)
Had will'd they should not perish–
  The outcast and her boy.

"The cool breeze swept across them,
  From the angel's waving wing,
The fresh tide gushed in brightness
  From the fountain's living spring;
And they stood–these two–forsaken
  By all earthly love or aid,
Upheld by God's firm promise,
  Serene and undismay'd."

The illustrious painters, Correggio, Vanderwerf and Lanfranco, supplemented this word-picture with paintings which, once seen, cannot fail to linger in the memory with a plaint as penetrating as that of the poetess. The boy and his mother were rescued by Divine compassion, and in the course of time, we are told, his mother "took him a wife out of the land of Egypt." Twelve sons were born of this union, who became the twelve princes of Arabia. Their descendants led the life of nomads or wanderers, as predicted, for thousands of years, maintaining their freedom, their faith and their peculiar customs against the assaults of great military empires. Neither the Babylonian and the Assyrian, nor the Egyptian and the Persian kings could reduce these wild sons of the desert to a state of subjugation. The Arab devoted his life to his horse, his weapons, his women and his poets, who sang the feuds of the tribes and [Page 255]  the praises of their heroes and their fair women. Prizes were awarded for these poems, which were written in golden letters and suspended in their chapel of worship, the Caaba at Mecca, which contained the black stone–the object of the religious devotion of the Arabs from a very ancient period. This stone they believed to have been handed down from Heaven to Abraham by the angel Gabriel.

Beneath a canopy of molten brass outstretched in eternal serenity, lay the desert "dreary, vast and silent," which, changed in a moment by wild tornadoes to a scene of fury, was reflected in the aspect of her children. Alternating from mysterious tranquillity to reckless rage, their faces showed a corresponding conflict of calm and tempest. Their fine, Oriental features and melancholy eyes gave silent token of their sense of isolation, and completed the spell of their wild and vigorous minstrelsy.

For thousands of years Arabia was a land of religious freedom. All religious sects, Jews, Fire-worshipers and Christians were tolerated within its borders, Jewish colonies were formed by emigrants, who found entrance after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, and who made many proselytes. About the year 600 A. D. Christianity had penetrated to the heart of Arabia, through Syria on the one hand and Abyssinia on the other. Besides these two, other religious sects, remnants of more ancient ones prevailed. It was left for Mohammed to teach a new faith, which should dispense with idolatry on the one hand, as with Judaism and Christianity on the other. These various sects became a unit by the acceptance of the new faith, and under the banner of the crescent Mohammed led them to the conquest of the ancient world.

The introduction of the doctrine of Mohammed forms the grand epoch in Arabian history, and brings it into close connection with that of Spain. The creed of Mohammed was contained in the well-known symbol of Islam, "There is no god but God, and Mohammed is the prophet of God;" and his express precept was "to propagate by fire and sword, throughout the four quarters of the globe the new Unitarian faith of Arabia."

Like a match dropped on oil, this appeal to mankind for spiritual and temporal authority, fired the fanaticism of the Arabs, and like a mighty conflagration they swept over the northern states of Africa, and formed a new and powerful empire which took the name of Saracen. This name is by mediæval Christian authors supposed to be derived from Sarai, the wife of Abraham, by others from the Arab saraca (to steal), or from the Hebrew sarak (poor), but the opinion which now prevails is that it came from the Greek sareknoi (eastern people), from which the Romans derived their word Saraceni. As they spread over Morocco, then called Mauritania, they took the name of Moors, from mauri, meaning dark. When the Arabs or Saracen conquerors invaded Spain, they were, naturally enough, called Moors, so that in Spanish history the terms Arabs, Saracens and Moors are synonymous. In the short space of eighty years after the death of Mohammed, they had passed like a fiery tornado over Northern Africa, and had extended their domains from Egypt to India and from Lisbon to Samarcand. In the meanwhile, Christianity, falling like drops of fertilizing rain, was making a fruitful harvest in Northern and Southern Europe,

In Spain, the cross confronted the crescent. Visigoths or Western Goths, who were in possession, defied the Moors for its dominion. The treachery of one man betrayed the Gothic cause. Count Julian, a Visigothic noble of Spain, irritated by the treatment he had received from his sovereign, the tyrant Roderic, secretly dispatched a messenger to Musa, the governor of Africa and invited the Moors into Spain, Roderic, more familiarly known as "The last of the Visigoths," whose tragic downfall has supplied the theme for poets, romancers and historians, was hated by his people, and during the battle, which continued seven days on the banks of the Guadalete, a portion of his forces, as had been previously arranged, deserted to the Moors.

The Goths were finally routed with immense slaughter, but the victory of the Moors was purchased at the expense of sixteen thousand lives. The renowned rock [Page 256]  of Gibraltar, England's bulwark of pride since 1779, still preserves the name of the Saracen hero who took it–Gibel al-Taric, the Moorish substitute for the original, classic Calpe. Most of the Spanish towns submitted after this, without opposition, and before the end of a year the whole of Spain passed under the sway of the Moors, except a solitary corner in the northern part, Asturias, now Oviedo, where Christianity preserved a foothold. It required nearly eight hundred years to regain it from the Moslem sway.

Once entered on their career of conquest, the Saracen hosts had almost simultaneously spread over Syria, the valley of the Euphrates, Persia, and Egypt, thus fulfilling their destiny in becoming a "great nation." Nor was their progress brilliant only in the arts of war. The Arab "stood in the presence of his brethren" as a learner, for learning was mostly in the hands of the Jews and Christians. The caravan trade first opened channels of communication and more extended contact with the world which they conquered, and the great cities of the East and West supplied instructors. The ancient seats of civilization throughout the East, Northern Africa, Spain, and the Mediterranean Isles bestowed upon them the rich legacy of letters, which they translated into their native language. Thus the mind of the Moor became loosened from the fetters of the religion which had enthralled it, and became illuminated with the reflected light of the word, just as Europe has been rescued from the dark superstitions of Romanism by the electric spark of the Protestant Bible. In natural science, physics, medicine, in botany, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy and the arts, they equaled and often surpassed the Chinese, Jews, Gentiles and Christians, whose pupils they were. Seats of learning were located, as the demand for them arose, at Samarcand and Bokhara beyond the Oxus, at Ispahan in Persia, at Bagdad on the Tigris, at Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt, at Fez and Morocco in Western Africa, at Cordova, Seville, Toledo, Granada, Salamanca and Alcala in Spain, and even in Sicily. The Moors "studied everything and wrote on everything they studied." The libraries became phenomenal in their growth. The library at Bagdad was enriched by thousands of volumes and precious manuscripts. It rapidly rose to splendor, and was the center of enlightenment until Cordova, in her beauty, rivaled and eclipsed her. Bagdad, on the Tigris, with its gorgeous palaces and splendid mosques, was the literary metropolis of the East, and Cordova, upon the Guadalquiver, of the West, while Cairo, upon the Nile, divided the prestige of each as the metropolis of Egypt.

The library of El Hakem II., of Spain, was stored in his palace at Cordova, and is said to have numbered six hundred thousand volumes. What wonder that the light that shone from the Moorish schools should have attracted the more poorly supplied scholars of Christian Europe, and that the fair surroundings of the Spanish university towns, where schools were attached to every mosque, beguiled them from their coarser northern homes! Cordova was the Delphi of the peninsula, while the sterner Goths retired to the rugged Asturias. The Crusades aided in awakening the mind of Europe by emphasizing this contrast of the culture and refinement of the East with that of the barren North.

The genius of the Moors was poetic, and their songsters outnumber those of all other peoples put together. The "Poema del Cid," the oldest as well as the finest ballad of the Iberian muse, gave birth to the latter songs of Spanish chivalry.

In romance, the store was more meager, but where has any later achievement eclipsed the splendor and charm of the "Arabian Nights' Entertainment?" For a hundred years it has been a European classic, one of the few books that delights all classes and all ages. Haroun-al-Raschid, Caliph of Bagdad. is almost as familiar to children as Santa Claus. Aladdin's lamp will serve to illuminate the day-dreams of the young as long as girls covet dancing slippers and boys long for racing ponies.

In architecture the Moors have given expression to their religion. The shifting tent of the Bedouin gave place to edifices resembling those built by Christian architects from Constantinople, who imitated those of Greece and Rome, and more ancient predecessors, with one noticeable distinction–the fanciful ornamentation known as [Page 257]  the Arabesque, which differed from that of the Egyptians and others in entirely excluding the figures of animals (the representation of which was forbidden by the Mohammedan religion), and confining itself entirely to foliage, flowers, fruits and tendrils of plants and trees, curiously and elaborately intertwined, which Schlegel describes as "the oldest and most original form of fancy."

The mosque at Cordova, with its thousand columns of vari-colored marble, jasper and porphyry, forming a perfect grove, is the finest type of a Moslem temple in Europe. The royal residence at Seville, the Al-Kasa (house of Cæsar), enchants the beholder with its colonnades, courts, halls and porches, whose delicate ornamentation has been said "to have the effect of old point lace, and whose walls, tilings and ceilings show the harmonious mingling of ivory, amber, turquoise-blue or violet-purple, and look like the inside of sea-shells."

The most conspicuous, the most romantic, as well as the most venerated pile of Arabian architecture is the Alhambra of Granada. That name calls up such pictures of beauty and such scenes of historic interest, as only the pen of Washington Irving could depict. To him we are indebted for a faithful representation of this Oriental palace in a Christian land–an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, graceful people, whose Paradise was an earthly one, and that Paradise beautiful Granada, with its mountain crest rising gravely and grandly above the lovely plain below, where gilded palaces, fountains, rivers and gardens, pillared avenues and arcades, galleries and balconies, blossoms and perfume, music, moonlight and charming women, did indeed form an EIysium! But Moslem ambition awoke from this seductive thralldom. At Constantinople, which they had vainly besieged for six years, the Saracens had been sternly repulsed by the terrible liquid fire, called "Greek Fire," used by the inhabitants for defense. Foiled at this point, the Moors boldly scaled the Pyrenees and cast their rapacious eyes on the fair land of France, which now promised the only pathway to the Euxine–the object of their dreams and hopes, as the last step toward universal empire. Can we think of it without a shudder! We, who are here today as grateful disciples of Him who gave His presence and benediction to the marriage feast; who rebuked the peculiar form of idolatry practiced by the Jewish kings, that had provoked God's wrath and precipitated their ruin; who made the religion of Mohammed a mockery and a crime, by His awful condemnation, and who has lifted our sex from the degradation of the harem to the exalted position we occupy here today!

On the plain between Tours and Poitiers the contending armies met, the Moors led by Abd-el-Rahman, the Franks and the German tribes by Charles Martel, the illustrious mayor of the palace of the Frankish king. After six days' skirmishing, the enemies engaged in that fearful battle that was to decide the fate of Christendom. In the light skirmishing, the Moorish archers maintained the advantage, but in the close onset of deadly strife, the German auxiliaries of Charles, grasping their ponderous swords with "stout hearts and iron hands"–for they fought for faith and home–stood the shock like walls of stone, and beat down the light-armed Moors with terrific slaughter.

Was this the battle-ground of the man of flesh and the man of Spirit? Amid the clash of the contending armies do we not hear, resounding through the ages, the echo of Sarah's imperious cry: "Cast out this bondwoman and her son, for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son!" Were the thirteen years of Ishmael's ascendancy in the house of his father Abraham a prototype of the thirteen centuries of Moslem supremacy?

The Arabs "folded their tents and silently stole away" in the night, fugitives before the wrath of Christian knights, leaving their camp rich with the plunder of Southern Europe to reward the victorious Franks, and 375,000 of their slain on the battle-field. The spell of Islam was broken, and "the most brilliant life of the most brilliant of civilizations went down to its setting!" Long mercifully deferred, the doom of Ishmael had sounded! [Page 258] 

Twenty-seven years elapsed before the Moors were wholly dislodged from the Pyrenees, but in 1492 their capital, Granada, was taken by Ferdinand and Isabella, and the great peninsula was again under Christian rule, prepared to enter on the "heritage of the West," and to make gracious response to that eloquent appeal of Columbus:

"I ask but for a million maravédes;
Give me three caravels to find a world,
New shores, new realms, new soldiers for the Cross!"

In a picture gallery in the palace of Generaliffe hangs the portrait of Boabdil, the last of the Moorish kings of Spain; in the tower of Comares, in the Alhambra, are the rooms where he was imprisoned by his father, from the gallery of which his mother lowered him with scarfs, to escape the cruelties of a parent who hated and repudiated him; the gate through which he departed from the Alhambra, when about to surrender his capital to Ferdinand and Isabella, was walled up at his request. A tablet on the walls of a small mosque relates that on this spot Boabdil surrendered the keys to the Castilian sovereigns. From the summit of one of the Alpuxarras Mountains the unfortunate Boabdil took his last look of Granada; there is the rock where he stood and turned his eyes away from taking their farewell gaze, still called "el ultimo suspiro del Moro (the last sigh of the Moor), and there it was that the reproach of his mother embittered his heart. "You do well to weep as a woman over what you could not defend as a man"

"Woe is me!" was the mournful cry of the dethroned monarch, as he led his forlorn troops through the mountain pass, over the beloved Andalusian plains, away to the desert sands of Africa.

"Winding along at break of day,
  And armed with helm and spears,
Along the martyr's rocky way,
  A king comes with his peers;
Unto the eye a splendid sight,
Making the air all richly bright,
  Seen flashing through the trees;
But, to the heart, a scene of blight,
  Sadder than death were these.

"For brightly fall the morning rays
  Upon a conquer'd king;
The breeze that with his banner plays,
  Plays with an abject thing.
Banner and king no more will know
Their rightful place 'mid friend and foe:
  Proud clarion, cease thy blast!
Or, changing to the wail of woe,
  Breathe dirges for the past.

"Along, along, by rock and tower,
  That they have failed to keep,
By wood and vale, their father's dower,
  The exiled warriors sweep.
The chevroned steed, no more elate,
As if he knew his rider's fate,
  Steps languidly and slow,
As if he knew Granada's gate
  Now open to the foe! [Page 259] 

"Along, along, till all is past
  That once they called their own;
Till bows the pride of strength at last,
  And knights, like women, moan.
Pausing upon the green hillside,
That soon their city's tower will hide,
  They lean upon their spears;
And hands that late with blood were dyed
  Are now wash'd white with tears.

"Another look, from brimming eyes,
  Along the glorious plain;
Elsewhere may spread as lovely skies,
  Elsewhere their monarch reign;
But nevermore in that bright land,
With all his chivalry at hand,
  Now dead or far departed!–
And from the hillside moves the band,
  The bravest broken-hearted."

[Page 253] 

Mrs. Ellen Maria Harrell Cantrell is a native of Virginia. She was born in 1833. Her parents were Rev. Samuel Harrell, native of North Carolina, member of the Methodist Conference, and Ellen C. Collins, of Cork, Ireland. She was educated chiefly by her mother, was graduated from the Nashville Female Academy, Tenn., December, 1848, and has traveled only in the Southern States, but is familiar with the known world as geographer and historian. She married William Armour Cantrell, M. D, in 1852, at Little Rock, Ark. She is the mother of eight children, seven of whom have reached majority and of whom one died in infancy. Her principal literary works are stories for magazines and fugitive newspaper articles and editorials as associate editor of the "Arkansas Ladies' Journal," afterward the "Southern Ladies' Journal." In the social world Mrs. Cantrell has always held a prominent place as a finished musician, a polished local writer, and lady of refinement. In religious faith she acknowledges the Holy Trinity and Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Saviour. Mrs. Cantrell is a member of the Episcopal Church. Her postoffice address is No. 619 Scott Street, Little Rock, Ark.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom