Walk the streets of Zaragoza and Moorish architecture catches your eye. But learning about the history of the Moors in Spain takes more effort.

Palacio de Aljafería

The Palacio de Aljafería in Zaragoza, Spain. (Credit: Joshua Glazer)

 This article by high school student Joshua Glazer was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Joshua is a student at School Year Abroad, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

Walking down Avenida de Madrid in Zaragoza, the Palacio de Aljafería stands out amongst the sea of uniform apartment complexes.

The palace is a relic of the past, built in the 11th century to house the Hudid rulers of Saraquasta (Zaragoza) during the political and cultural peak of the Taifa kingdom. Inside, you’ll find some of the most common elements of a Moorish residence: horseshoe arches, human-less art and most importantly, the patio garden.

To understand the roots of Aljafería, we must journey back to 711 A.D when North African Muslims descended upon the Iberian Peninsula, marking the beginning of more than seven centuries of Moorish reign in present-day Spain and Portugal. Al-Andaluz blossomed into a cultural haven, where arts, sciences and technology flourished in a melting pot of diversity.

As for Zaragoza — the fourth largest city in Spain nestled between Madrid and Barcelona — it has a rich history of both Christian, Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.

After the reconquering of the city in 1118 by the Christian monarchs, the new rulers ironically placed their residence directly on top of the Moorish palace, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the loss of Moorish history and tradition.

Pasts can get buried.

José Luis Corral, a novelist and medieval history professor at the University of Zaragoza, said that the history of Al-Andaluz was originally written in Arabic, which at the time was rarely spoken by Christians.

When the Christian rulers reconquered Spain, Corral said, they likely burned most documents and religious texts, therefore destroying any possibility of recovering these texts. That leaves historians with physical remains, like the palace, and subjective recountings through texts written by the Christian conquerors.

The second very important factor, Corral added, is that in Spain, Muslims are considered foreigners.

The disappearance of Al-Andaluz

The misunderstanding of the history of Al-Andaluz can be connected to a global issue of ignoring and rewriting history largely due to one party being categorized as a foreigner or the minority.

This concept, known as revisionist history, sets a very dangerous precedent, Corral later added. History is never completely objective: it was written by those who could write and had money, and who typically were the ruling power.

Revisionist historians are trying to correct historical narratives, which we in society have accepted as truth.

The story of Thanksgiving and the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America is a story I was told as a kid, a meal that harbored peace between the colonizers and the Native Americans. However, that narrative is being exposed: Native Americans suffered large losses due to disease brought by the colonizers, and this so-called “Thanksgiving” dinner was an exception to violence sparked by colonizers and the seizing of native land.

The story of Indigenous peoples is often reduced to a few chapters in textbooks, ignoring their contributions, struggles and the devastating impact of colonization on their tradition and culture.

Preserving history through narratives

Education, and largely history, is the determining factor of shaping our future. The opinions formed by children typically come from their parents, friends, the internet and school.

It is imperative that we teach the most accurate and objective historical information possible in schools to ensure that our future generation is educated correctly, and not by false narratives fabricated online.

While it can be challenging when we can’t trust what has been handed down to us, it is also difficult to accept the narrative from those who were directly affected by the incident, as they will have a very subjective opinion of the events.

As a student from New York living in Spain, it’s quite eye-opening how different our perspectives are on the purpose of education. After speaking with several Spanish students and teachers, it is clear that Spain relies on memorization rather than applying real-world skills to their classrooms.

In Spain, students are forced to memorize and synthesize all the information presented to them in class, and are graded based on how well they can retain that information. It is therefore clear that for Corral, ensuring that these students learn the most objective historical narrative is of top priority.

For me, a student at an independent private school in New York, the environment inside the classroom is different from that of my friends here in Spain. Here, my Spanish friends cannot challenge the teacher nor their material, and rely entirely on intense studying of their notes and textbooks to pass. This environment makes it easy for teachers to impose their subjective telling of history upon stress-stricken students.

Questions to consider:

  1. What can you learn about the history of Zaragoza from the Palacio de Aljafería ?
  2. In your country, can you think of examples of history that should be taught more in schools?
  3. Why does the author say history is never completely objective?
Joshua Glazer

Joshua Glazer is in his second to last year of high school at Avenues: The World School in New York, and studied abroad at School Year Abroad Spain in the fall semester. He is a News Decoder Student Ambassador.

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HistoryWhen you build on history, what gets buried?