Muslim and Christian: The Legend of the “Torre de la Minyona”

This week, I attempted to take a break from writing my book on interfaith identity, in order to celebrate my daugher’s graduation from high school on a family trip to Spain. But I cannot help myself now from seeing the world through my interfaith lens. Everywhere I go, I see the evidence that around the globe, and throughout history, people fall in love across the lines of race and religion and tribe. As long as we treat these love stories as transgressive and problematic, they will remain transgressive and problematic. When we accept them as natural, as sources of creativity and inspiration, as good for humanity, we will come closer to achieving that reality.

Less than two hours north of Barcelona,we stayed in a lovely hotel constructed from a medieval castle on a hilltop overlooking the town of  Cardona. Thousands of castles dot the Spanish landscape, in part because of the long history of conquest and reconquest on the shifting frontline between the Christian and Muslim world. I knew of the long history of Judaism prior to the Inquisition in Spain, and of the co-existence of the three Abrahamic religions in al-Andalus in the south of the country. The religious harmony in ancient Andalusia is often romanticized, held up as a model for interfaith trialogue and peace-building of the sort that has three separate and distinct religions interact while retaining clear boundaries. But in recounting this history, very rarely does anyone mention what happened when Christians and Muslims and Jews actually fell in love with each other in medieval Spain. And yet, when people live and work side by side, love stories are inevitable.

The Cardona castle overlooks a Roman-era salt mine which provided the wealth to build the garrison and ramparts and towers over many centuries. Wilfred the Hairy began the castle construction in 886 CE. (Orson Welles chose this castle as the main setting for his Shakespearean film “The Chimes of Midnight.”) The most celebrated and iconic section of the castle is the cylindrical 11th century “Torre de la Minyona” or Maiden’s Tower. I climbed the  tower, looking mainly for a view through a bright cloudless sky over the Catalonion countryside. But after stopping to read the historical plaque about the tower, the rolling landscape took on a strange and gloomy cast.

“…in the very early days of the castle, Adelaida, the lovely daughter of the count, fell in love with a Muslim jailor from a neighboring town. Despite the fact that the young man planned to convert to Christianity, the maiden’s parents sentenced her to be locked up in the tower, where she was attended only by a mute maid. Tradition tells that the suitor even built a cross using stones from the river to demonstrate how fervently he embraced his new faith. However, the lords would not give in and the young girl’s health deteriorated from her suffering. She died in captivity.”

The curators of the castle point out that this tale is legend, not history, and that the origins of the story are “lost in the mists of time.” Over the centuries, many versions of the tale have circulated in Catalonia. Some say the lover was a prince named Abdullah, and that the forbidden love affair caused a protracted war between the Christians and Moors. In this version, Adelaida draws a cross with the blood of her own fingers before dying to prove that she has never renounced her Christianity. Others say Adelaida’s brothers imprisoned her, in part because she converted to Islam. It is said that her father relented on his deathbed and called for her release, but that Adelaida died just before he arrived, or at the moment she was freed. Many believe that her ghost now haunts the castle, as does a ghost of Abdullah, who rides up to the castle every evening at the hour when the lovers first met.

Haunted parapets, star-crossed lovers, religious passion. I am sure these ingredients help to engage the tourists who come to stay at the castle, and I plead guilty to being one of them. But for me, the Legend of the Tower of the Maiden of Cardona serves as a  poignant reminder of the stubborn, ongoing resistance to interfaith love. In the 21st century, interfaith couples still face family members who attempt to sabotage their relationships, religious communities that expect outrageous proof of fidelity from those who dare to intermarry, and states ready to do battle over religious difference.

I cannot help musing about how the history of Cardona might have been different if Adelaida and Abdullah had been united. In one version of the tale, the storyteller has Abdullah describe this vision to Adelaida: “I say we hope for the future together, a sunny future that will allow children with brown skin and blue eyes to run through this castle, enjoying the scenery of this homeland, as seen from this tower. I pray that you have faith, please.”

I would like to think we are closer to the time when Abdullah’s vision can become a reality. I have faith that creating interfaith families will help to build peace and understanding on the most intimate level, with global repurcussions. Inspired by Abdullah and Adelaida, let us break free from our towers of isolation, make love not war, and help to make the 21st century a time of unprecedented harmony.

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