Why a hilltop French cathedral from the 11th century gives me hope for the year 2021

Jonathan Curiel
7 min readDec 31, 2020
Le Puy-en-Velay’s cathedral is on the right. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)

What’s a word that crystalizes the political enmities that were unleashed even more in the year 2020 — not just in the United States but in France, Brazil, and other countries? “Demonization” is one word, which in French would be diabolisation and in Portuguese demonização. Demonizing others is especially pernicious when a government resorts to it — and blankets an entire group of people to suit the dubious whims of that government’s leaders. A millennium ago, French leaders used diabolisation to initiate the First Crusades, orchestrating the deadly action from, among other places, centers of cathedral life such as Le Puy-en-Velay. Visitors to the small hilltop city still encounter Le Puy’s enormous 11th-century cathedral, but they also encounter something else when they walk up the building’s main western steps: Old Arabic writing that rims the cathedral’s ancient wooden doorway. Why did church leaders in Le Puy welcome Arabic writing onto the very material of their holiest building when, at the same time, they were planning to expel and kill Arabs in Jerusalem?

As with much of history (and current events), the answer comes down to: “It’s complicated.” But I researched and wrote about those complications during a journalism fellowship I had more than a decade ago, and I thought of Le Puy and its Arabic writing this year when I read about French President Emmanuel Macron’s political maneuvers to crack down on France’s Muslims in the wake of extremist violence — events that have stigmatized France’s Muslims and prompted some French people to say Islam doesn’t belong in France. But even during the First Crusades, which happened between 1095 and 1291,

The western steps of Le Puy’s cathedral. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Patrick GIRAUD.)

Islam and its culture integrated into France from trade and cultural exchanges with neighboring Spain, where Muslims controlled large parts of Spain’s southern territory.

One of the Le Puy cathedral’s obvious links to Muslim culture is the building’s cloister, which features rows of arches with alternating brown and white stones — archways that are virtual facsimiles of archways from the interior of Spain’s then-most…

Jonathan Curiel

I'm a writer and journalist in San Francisco. Much more about me at https://jonathancuriel.com/.