Like all research, my recent field trip through Spain to gather material for my next historical novel yielded both dead ends and surprising finds. There was, as one might expect, comparatively little extant after more than five centuries, even less that could be termed ‘fact’ – all to the good as it allows more scope to create the story.
All through Spain, the trains were on time and brilliant, the weather was lovely and the people helpful; my earnest attempts at their language caused so much hilarity that despite the confusion I had the feeling that another type of communication – that of goodwill – had been laughingly established.
One of the highlights was Cordoba with the Moorish mosque turned Catholic cathedral. The tower from which the muezzin used to call the faithful to prayer is now a bell tower and from outside the walls this was the only clue that it was no longer a functioning mosque. Even in the entry queue I wasn’t quite certain whether I was in the right place. Finally, feeling rather stupid, I asked a man behind me: ‘Is this the mosque or is it, as it says on the sign outside, a cathedral?’ ‘It is both,’ he replied. ‘It is both the mosque as it was and the cathedral as it is. It is the most magnificent place. I have been here six times. . .’
It is indeed magnificent. I stood transfixed by the light coming from the sky (see the pic above). The crowds fell away leaving me to the purity of that moment, and to the crisp sound of a horse trotting by on the cobbled street outside. A moment that took me beyond time itself, beyond all the battles and belief systems back to my childhood and to what I once imagined God to be.
Another outstanding monument for me was the Torre de la Calahorra on the other side of the river – once a fortified tower designed to protect the Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir River, now an Islamic museum displaying a beautifully presented mix of essence and artifact for anyone interested in the spirit of early Islam. I loved the life-size, talking display of the philosophers from the twelfth century: the Islamic Averroes, the Jewish Maimonides and the Castilian king Alfonso X in discussion and debate with the great spiritual teacher Ibn Arabi. Would that a similar degree of tolerance, understanding and promotion of the best of all our separate cultures and faiths was part of our world today. This was once a city where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived, taught and learned together. . .
A find of a different kind!
And while I was away, along with the many emails that pinged onto my tablet, to my great surprise, a cryptic note:
My name is Louise. I have had a very interesting time recently searching online, and spending time at the Mitchell Library.
Abbey bookshop here in Sydney is getting your book about the early Kozminskys in for me which I will pick up next week.
My mother Sandra Henderson is going on a holiday on Sunday . . .but when she comes back she wants to write you a letter. She is 77 due to turn 78 soon, and doesn’t use computers. She has some lovely news for you which I will leave to her to tell you!
Louise would say no more, but the revelation in last week’s long letter from her mother Sandra Henderson was indeed extraordinary. It turns out we have the same great grandfathers on the Irish side of my family – which by my calculation makes us second cousins. So as a result of the publication of my first novel, I have discovered two extremely precious paths back to my family of origin: my grandfather’s ancestors who have become valued friends (Mena Kozminsky is about to celebrate her 90th birthday and I’d love to be in Melbourne to join in the festivities) and now my grandmother’s line. Suddenly a wealth of cousins and wider family!
I wish my father were alive. I have a strong feeling that the missing London link will also surface before too long and meanwhile look forward to meeting Louise and Sandra on our next trip east.