Allah in the Alps - a visit to Puergg
by Markus Reiterer
This story starts a long time ago. That is: some 1,000 years ago. At a time following the turn of the first millennium. Y1K – so to say. About the time, when New Mexico's Chaco culture experienced its climax and started its inexplicable descent.
Decades before William the Conqueror set out to - well - conquer England; some 100 years before Pope Urban II called for the crusade, some 200 years before spectacles started to help ease the problems of those with limited eyesight, some 300 years before clock towers started to change the human sense of time; some 400 years before the Inkas built Machu Picchu, some 500 years before Columbus claimed to have found a searoute to India; some 600 years before Europe was tied up in a war of thirty years; some 700 years before Mozart learned to play his first violin, some 800 years before Franz Schubert fell in love with Helene Grob, some 900 years before the world tumbled into the first World War and about one-thousand years before all too many people started to believe in a clash of civilizations.
Alas, one-thousand years ago (or so), the inhabitants of a small mountain village in a forgotten corner of the duchy of Styria (Steiermark) decided to build a new chapel for their congregation. Nothing big, nothing fancy; nothing like some of the great monasteries and “church palaces” they had heard of, but a nice, decent chapel to pray, get baptized and confirmed, confess their usual sins (and perhaps some not so usual ones), to marry and finally to mark the departure of a community member to what they believed, prayed and hoped, was a better life.
Needless to say that they tried to do their best. Their very best! Soon thereafter - so one version of the story goes - a devoutly Muslim princess from the orient had in all likelihood crossed the strait of Gibraltar, traveled her way north through what is now Spain and France, crossed over to Switzerland and moved further to the east towards what then was known as a region called Ostarrichi - the Eastern empire – which is now called Österreich or Austria.
We may assume (that is: we simply do not know) that her entourage consisted of several servants, perhaps musicians, some artists (painters to visualize and memorialize their experiences the same way we take photos today), scientists, etc. They ended up in this forgotten mountain village named Pürgg. We do not know how they went there, or why.
But they left some remarkable traces. Still today, Pürgg has retained a fairly distant posture – tucked away from the main lines of transportation, beautifully situated on top of a hill surrounded by wild mountainous scenery, no international airport close by and the nearest train station quite far away. Pürgg still has its old era charms. Yes, there are modern amenities, a parking lot at the entrance of the village, a couple of nice restaurants, a tennis court (one of the most beautiful in Austria - if you want to know my opinion), a school, but that’s about it.
Other than that, you’ll find some old farm and village houses, and a church and a chapel of otherworldly beauty. While the church is truly outstanding, the real gem is the chapel, dedicated to St. John, and called the Johannes-Kapelle. It was built in the 11th century and contains some of the most remarkable Romanic frescoes of the entire Alpine region. These frescoes depict various well-known biblical scenes – scenes you would expect in a Christian chapel.
But then, at the arch delineating the altar room from the rest of the chapel, the frescoes display some alien looking letters, written in an elegantly curved alphabet, so different from the Latin script we use today. In fact, those letters written in Kufic script, an ancient form of Arabic, signify the name of Allah! Just imagine: in the center of a Christian chapel, some 1,000 years of age, exactly at the entry to the most sacred of places inside a chapel - the altar - written in an Arabic alphabet – the language of the Koran – you would see the name of Allah.
Seven times. For me, these letters mean that 1,000 years ago, in an age far from today's communicative capabilities, the Christian inhabitants of a remote Alpine village and some alien travelers from a then obscure part of the world, with a different skin color, a different language, different traditions and a significantly different devotion would come together, and have such close relations which would induce the ones to let strangers help paint their sanctuary and get the others to actually participate in painting the plain walls of a new chapel dedicated to a god which so evidently (or so it seems) is not theirs.
To be true to the facts, we are not sure what really happened 1,000 years ago in Pürgg - and how could we be? To be exact: we don’t even know, whether the artists really traveled in the entourage of an Arabic princess up to see the world, we don’t even know whether the story of the princess, indeed, is true, but what we do know for sure is that a 1,000 year old Christian chapel - one of the oldest of the country - carries the name of Allah seven times.
And we also know that over the course of the years these letters survived and can still be seen. Never in history was a successful attempt carried out to remove these signs from a Christian temple. Not during the times of the crusades, not during the middle ages, when the rule of the pope was particularly strong, not during the two wars against the Ottoman Empire fought on Austria’s soil in the 16th and 17th century, and which, indeed were wars of the “Christian West" against the "Muslim orient”, and not after 9/11.
You may call me a romantic, or naive, but for me the fact that these letters were put there in the first place and remained there for centuries is not only just remarkable, but is an invaluable sign of how different civilizations could find common ground and work towards a better understanding among each other – people, nations and faiths!
The region around Pürgg has much more to offer: wonderful mountain scenery, great skiing, small lakes, thermal spas, etc.. You can also take a trip to the Salzkammergut from there – but that is a different story and will be told separately.
Markus Reiterer presently serves as Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C.