Cycling in Spain: Ronda and the Spanish Inquisition

Roz in Ronda

Sadly there for not much longer than it took to digest our lunch, Roz and I met up for a short time, on the outskirts of Ronda. Suspended on a precipitous limestone plateau, the city has endured a colourful, yet sometimes brutal history since the Celts made it their home (named ‘Arunda’) way back in the 6th century BC.  Later conquered by the Romans, the Suebi and the Visigoths, and eventually the Arabs in the early 8th century, it wasn’t until the siege of 1485 that it became one of the last Moorish cities to fall into Christian hands. In the centuries that followed, Ronda, along with many other mountainous parts of Southern Spain, became a sanctuary for Muslims and Jews fleeing the methodical supression caused by the Spanish Inquisition.

Established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Spanish Inquisition had two distinct purposes. Replacing the former Medieval Inqusition which was under Papal control, it was designed to not only maintain Catholic orthodoxy but conformity to Spanish monarchial edicts. In practice, this amounted to non-Christian inhabitants having to leave the Iberian Peninsula without any of their belongings unless they convert to Christianity and all the constraints that went with it.

Remains of Roman aqueduct outside Ronda.

Disobeying a fundamental diktat of the Inquisition, many of those who chose to stay and become ‘Conversos’ (forced converts from Judaism), or ‘Moriscos’ (converts of Islam), secretly still practised their own religion behind closed doors. Exposed to the ever-present threat of persecution, particularly Conversos who were suspected of being crypto-Jews, tens of thousands faced unjust trials, years of imprisonment, torture and ultimately, painful execution.

In 1492, the same year as Christopher Columbus set sail for the ‘New World’, some 200,000 Jews were expelled from Spain. The majority who fled to neighbouring Portugal seeking permanent asylum, suffered similar oppression, as did their descendants who themselves were forced to escape to safer parts of Europe and the New worlds, when the rising tide of Inquisitions reached their doorstep in 1536.

On the road again: typical Andalusian landscape.

Initially spared the same harshness as Jews, alleged witches, blasphemers, bigamists and the like, the Moors faced irrevocable expulsion by the beginning of the 17th century. A decree, made by King Philip III of Spain, in April 1609, ordered that even descendants of the Spanish Muslim population who’d converted to Christianity faced the prospect of immediate eviction, taking nothing with them except what they could carry.  While some baptized descendants of Muslim parents migrated to Christian lands, such as France and Italy, the vast majority made Muslim-held territory, such as the Ottoman Empire and Northern Africa, their new homeland.

It wasn’t until the period of ‘Enlightenment’ reached the Iberian Peninsula during the late 18th century that the supreme authority of the Inquisition began its decline. A time of reason and free thinking, powerful institutions like the Catholic Church were being questioned, while the state began to consider how it could better serve its people rather than control them. Ironically, it was the new liberal regime, set up by Napoleon after his invasion of Spain in 1808 that led to the abolishment of the Inquisition for the first time. Reconstituted once the French were driven out, it continued its routine of oppression and periodic executions until its final disbandment, first in Portugal in 1821 and then in Spain, in 1834.


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