Columbus did not see a mosque in the Americas

 

This claim of Mo Ansar’s is easy to rebut. We can go to the source.

Christopher Columbus (d. 1506) kept a journal of his first journey to the Americas. The journal itself is lost, but Bartolomé de las Casas (d. 1566) edited an abstract based on it, which we cannot assume to have faithfully relayed his text (see Zamora’s chapter, below). That aside, it’s clear that Columbus (or his editor) did not say that there was a mosque in the Americas, but rather, a hill that looked like a mosque:

“Señala la disposición del río y del puerto…, que tiene sus montañas hermosas y altas…, y una de ellas tiene encima otro montecillo a manera de una hermosa mezquita.”

[unnamed editor] Relaciones y Cartas de Cristóbal Colón (1892), p. 49 [link, link]

“Remarking on the position of the river and port…, he [Columbus] describes its mountains as lofty and beautiful…, and one of them has another little hill on its summit, like a graceful mosque.”

Clements R. Markham (tr.), The Journal of Christopher Columbus (1893), pp. 62-3 [link]

 

I’m not sure where Ansar is getting his information from, but a certain Youssef Mroueh made the same claim in 1996. (Ansar seems to repeat Mroueh’s mistaken date for Columbus’ journal entry: it was not the 21st, but the 29th.) Mroueh is entitled “Dr.”, but I’ve found no evidence for a Youssef Mroueh who holds a doctorate in a relevant field. Says the mysterious Dr. Mroueh:

“Columbus admitted in his papers that on Monday, October 21,1492 [sic] CE while his ship was sailing near Gibara on the north-east coast of Cuba, he saw a mosque on top of a beautiful mountain.”

It’s rather devious to say that he “admitted” seeing a mosque; as though Columbus’ (or his editor’s) charming simile were somehow reluctant. But then Mroueh does not cite Columbus directly; rather, he cites – without specifying where – Nigel Davies’ Voyagers to the New World (1979). Davies was a genuine scholar of the Americas before Columbus, so, although I don’t have access to his book right now, I’m fairly confident that he didn’t misread Columbus so stupidly. If someone does have Voyagers to the New World, I’d appreciate a scan of the relevant pages.

 

I hope we can lay this baseless claim to rest now.

 

Further reading 

Richard V. Frankaviglia, “‘Far Beyond the Western Sea of the Arabs…’: Reinterpreting Claims about Pre-Columbian Muslims in the Americas”, Terrae Incognitae 46/2 (2014), 103-38. [link]

Margarita Zamora, “All these are the Admiral’s exact words”, in id., Reading Columbus (1993), pp. 39-62.

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

11 Comments

  1. Ian. The statement that titles this blog post isn’t evidenced by it. Surely your quote from de las Casas only suggests Colombus didn’t write he saw a Mosque in the vicinity he describes. This far from proving Colombus didn’t see any Masajid in the entire Americas, or even in Cuba, in fact it doens’t even prove didn’t see a Masjid in Gibrara because even you claim there are question marks on the veracity of de las Casas’ textual reproduction. Absence of evidence is absolutely not the evidence of absence.

  2. Just because I had access to it, I examined Nigel Davies’ Voyagers to the New World (1979) and did not see anything relevant. However, Columbus’ biographer was noted (Samuel Eliot Morison) and v. 1 of his edited work “Journals and other documents on the life and voyages of Christopher Columbus” (Easton Press, 1963, 1990) has a similar note recorded for the October 29, 1492 entry, p. 84: “Describing the disposition of the river and the harbor, which he mentioned above and named San Salvador, [he says] that it has beautiful and lofty mountains like the Pena de los Enamorados [A Lover’s Leap near Granada]; and one of them has on its summit another little peak like a pretty little mosque. This other river and harbor, in which he now was, has to the SE two somewhat rounded mountains, and to the WNW a fine low cape which sticks out.” The relevant notes to this passage: “una hermosa mezquita. This mountain, now called Law Teta de Bariay, is unmistakeable, and it can be seen from only two other harbors (R. Jururu and B. Vita), which do not fit Columbus’s description of B. Bariay.” and “The Silla de Gibara, behind Puerto Gibara, is a prominent landmark, and other rounded mountains are visible from the harbor….”
    I think the phrase “like a” can be important here. I don’t think Columbus saw an actual mosque; just a part of the mountain that looked like a mosque at its peak. Just a thought.

    • Thank you! Yes, it’s clear that someone misread that sentence and spun a very silly myth out of it. I’d be surprised, but now and then I can see the same process in my medieval sources.

  3. An interesting discussion and blogpost, Ian.

    You’ll have to forgive me but I don’t know you or your work. I am flattered you would take the time out from your busy life to dedicate a whole post to attempting to discredit the idea that Muslims were not only established, but were peacefully integrating and flourishing in the Americas for perhaps five centuries before the Western front of the European Reconquista. It’s not the first time I have on my travels come across historians who wish to undermine the Muslim narrative, by hook or by crook; not that I’m suggesting this is the case without knowing your work. But, just a caveat.

    To my question. Are you really suggesting that with 500 years (let alone 100) of Muslim civilisation, existence, trade and intermarry in the Americas, they wouldn’t

    (a) have built mosques, and
    (b) Columbus, fully cognisant of the pre-eminence of Muslim civilisation in Europe and across the globe, and now in the Americas, wouldn’t have seen any?

    • Thanks for coming by!

      This blog post took a couple of hours on a lazy afternoon. I’ve spent considerably more time blogging about matters as diverse as medieval ambassadorial customs, early evidence for the takbir, the first mosque on the Temple Mount, and why I think Robert Spencer is a hack. I’ve also tweeted articles about early Islamic political history, Arabian prophecy, and more. I love early Islamic history, and I take it seriously enough to look for evidence for what strike me as improbable claims: if I’m wrong I’ll learn something, and if I’m right I can help to counter misinformation.

      To your question. As far as I know, the premise is faulty: there is no evidence for Muslim inhabitation of the Americas before European exploration. At best there may have been moments of contact, although there has never been a secure identification between the anecdotes in our sources and the Americas specifically. But even that has no bearing on this discussion, because Columbus simply didn’t say he saw a mosque there. You can see the journal’s text above, and you can even follow the links for yourself. Whatever the merits of the argument that he may have seen a mosque, the claim that he did is unevidenced.

    • Mr Ansar

      You might be interested to know that smallpox, which was brought to the Americas by colonizing Europeans, first established itself in Europe as a consequence of the crusades; the disease being already endemic in the Middle East and North Africa.

      As you probably know, the absence of smallpox in the Americas meant Native American populations had no resistance to the disease, and died in large numbers.

      If as you claim, Muslims had been interacting with Native Americans for some 500 years prior to the arrival of Europeans, I would be fascinated to know how you think they avoided introducing smallpox, or for that matter any number of other deadly Eurasian diseases (typhus, bubonic plague, influenza to name a few) that were absent from the continent before 1492, but well established in the Islamic world in the time frame you refer to.

      Cheers.

    • What evidence do you have of your claimed years of peaceful co’existence?
      The Conquistas del mundo nuevo were one of the most documented events in modern (all?) history. They make the British in India appear illiterate. There is a palacio in Spain full with civil service, church, legal documents and accounts of sponsored journeys into new areas. So many some have not been opened since they were placed there 100s of years ago. There are amazing historians from around the world working through them as they have been for a couple of hundred years. But no mention of any Muslim occupation, and certainly not the scale you claim.
      If not in that treasure trove of actual information – where does your assertion come from?

      • If I may wander into this discussion, it should also bear noting that one of the tasks Columbus was charged with was identifying friendly nations in Asia open to trade with the Spanish crown, and identifying nations in Asia with whom the Ottomans or other Islamic powers had pre-existing relations. It is not only noteworthy that, as previously mentioned, Columbus did not say he saw a mosque, only that he saw a structure (possibly a natural formation?) “in the style of” a mosque, but that if he believed it actually *was* a mosque—with the requisite Muslims to have built it—he would almost certainly have made mention of it in his report. He didn’t, and neither did any of the other explorers whose records we have.

        While it’s difficult to prove a negative, there would have to have been some massive conspiracy by the Spanish (and Portuguese) crown(s) to suppress such reports, and in the political atmosphere post-1492 not only did they have no incentive to do so, but they had plenty of incentive to do the exact opposite.

  4. Mr Ansar,

    This ‘western front of the Reconquista’ – mightily successful, eh? It somehow managed to remove all evidence of a burgeoning civilisation from the historical record without anyone finding any evidence for it whatsoever or even commenting on it. So much more successful than the eastern front, yet on a hostile and strange new continent with all sorts of extra logistical challenges. It almost beggars belief!

    Joking aside, there are enough outrages in our shared history. Let’s not go around inventing totally new ones – leave that to Game Of Thrones etc please.

    ta ra

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