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Published: December 29th 2004
Wow, so much to write about. First Asia... what a tragedy. The kind of suffering they´re experiencing there is foreign to us in America, we have nothing with which to compare a disaster like that. I can´t remember anything in my lifetime that has left 60,000 dead and a million people homeless in one short day, it will undoubtedly take several generations for most of those places to recover. Its especially scary for me because my original travel plans for this trip had me placed square on the Indonsian coastline at this time. Only after I started studying French did I decided to change my plan and go to French West Africa.
Anyway, I´m in Grenada, Spain. I spent Christmas in Fez with my Moroccan friends. It was a complete non-event since their were no other students in town for the break. I took the bus to Tangier at midnight and managed to not sleep a wink, nor did I sleep on the ferry to Algecerias or the train from Algecerias to Cordoba. The train trip was one of the most beautiful that I can ever remember taking - Spain is truly one of the most majestic, breathtaking wonderful countries in the world.
Being here is a welcome respite from Morocco - I walk around completely anonymously; people only talk to me if I talk to them first; I´m ignored for being underdressed rather than being hotly-pursued by every tour-guide, carpet-salesman, and restauranteer in town. I love Morocco - the Islamic fervor; the poverty; the corruption; the litter; the hypocrasy concerning the simultaneous denounciation and large-scale practice of sex, alcohol, drugs, prostitution, adultery and homosexuality; - all these give Morocco its color but also make it a fairly stressful place in which to live and its a welcome relief to be away, if only for a short respite.
Among the myriad obvious reasons for coming to Andalucia - the beauty, the people, the food, the beer - is a historic reason that I picked up after reading a wonderful book lent to me in Fez by a man named Graham Leonard, an octogenarian quaker from Tenessee, who, in addition to having been the democractic nominee for congress in his home distract back south this last election, is also an Arabic-speaker, and former professor of education and Islamic history at several of the Middle East´s finest Universities. The book, ´Ornament of the World´ by Maria Menocal, is a short history of Andalucia during its Islamic years and its the chief reason that I choose to come here instead travelling within Morocco. I feel obligated to give you a brief synopsis here if only to explain what I see so clearly now that I didn´t understand on my first trip here, and more importantly because the story has an important moral that certain people on both sides of the Atlantic seem to have forgotten.
After the death of the prophet Mohammed in the middle of the 7th century AD, The Arabs were witness to an incredable flowering of civilization that has not been replicated in scale or speed since then. The Ummayid leaders, who were descendents of the prophets and also warriors, poets and philosophers managed to spread the Islamic faith from their home in Damascus over an incredable empire stretching from Pakistan to Morocco in less than two centuries. Their rule didn´t last however, a rival clan from Baghdad called the Abbasids trapped the Syrian monarches in a small city in my favorite corner of northern Syria and killed them.... except for one prince, Abd Al-Rahman who fled thousands of miles across northern Africa before settling in southern Spain where he started another kingdom in rivalry to that which flowered in Baghdad under his ennemies in the Middle East.
If you´d imgagined the Islamic invasion of Spain as some sort of grandiose ordeal involving large-scale battles of ferocious Msulim agaist brave cross-wielding christian knights, I´m afraid I´ll have to dissapoint you. Spain was a rag-tag backwater of german gothic semi-christians, crude Berber tribesman and pagan indegenes and prince Abd Al-Rahman, the last of the original mulsim dynasty, waltzed in with his entourage with scarcely a fight.
The prince immediately started the cultivation, both physically and intellectualy of Andalucia, in only a couple generations, he and his ancestors built an elaborate kingdom of rich libraries, vast irragated fields, proud university, fair and civil courtrooms an a palace life rich in poetry, music, philosophy, religion, science and medicine far more sophisticated and elaborate than anything in the rest of medevil Europe.
By 939 ad, The Ummayid empire in Spain, with Cordoba at its heart, was home to the world´s most spectacular palace, the world´s richest library, and the world´s most progressive and religiously tolerent culture.
You see Andalucia, while being an entirely arabized culture, was far from being an entirely Islamic culture. It was a place where equal proportions of Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side enriching rather than stiffling each other´s lives. At the soul of the culture was the Arabic language. An incredably rich language, Arabic brought with it a rich poetic tradition and a vast body of both pre- and post-Islamic literature, history, poety and philosphy. Included in this body of knowledge were all the great works of the ancient Greeks and Romans: Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Homer - in a word all the great works of beauty and knowledge that The rest of Europe, during the dark ages had forgotten about. While France and Italy and England were burning every books that was not the Bible, the Arabic-Speaking Jews, Christians and Muslims of Andalucia were creating new ways to navigate the high seas, curing diseases, creating new forms of poetry and song, inventing the zero, and keeping alive a tradtion of logic, reason knowledge and science.
In the late 11th century, the ignorant Pope Urban II of Rome declared a crusade that sent legions of ignorent Italian, French and English peasants trampling across the holyland killing Christians, Jews, and would-be Arab allies equally. The Christians and Jews of Anadalucia were living in paradise compared to the orthodox Christians and Jews of the holyland who were killed with impunity by the catholic invaders.
The educated, arabized Jews of Anadalucia, at the same time that their brethern in the holy-land were being slaughtered, experienced a rebirth of Jewish culture not seen since their original explusion from the Holyland a thousand years before. Hebrew was reborn as a living language of poetry and music, The Kabbalah was written and spread across the Jewish world, and great poets and philosophers such as Maimonides, Averrros and their brethern built mountains of wisdom and culture on a revitilized jewish faith in an explosion of learning not seen for a thousand years before or after.
Christian philosophy also grew and flourished in Muslim Andalucia. Entire cities of Christians were ruled by Islamic overlords who treated their subjects with the same egality and and scruples that they treated their Islamic brethren. Scholars of all three faiths developed scientific reason, romantic poetry and religious thought together.
The Ummayid dynasty, saved from certain death in Syria by Abd Al-Rahman and his flight to Spain died at the hands of Moroccan Berber invaders relatively early in the cycle of Islamic Spain, but even after the kingdom degenerated into warring taifas where leaders of all faiths battled amongst each other and themselves for control of the pieces, the rich culture of knowledge lived on. What makes the history so shocking, in my opinion, is how the knowledge preserved by the Arabs had such a shocking effect on the rest of Europe when it finaly made its way over the Pyrenees. The (Arabic-Speaking)Christian kings, when they begun the reconquest of Spain, did not chase the minority cultures out, rather they began a vast project to collect, archive, and - most importantly - translate into Latin all the works of science and literature in the libraries of Cordoba and Sevilla and Toledo. In the 14th century, the works of Aristotle and Plato, which were highly illegal contraban texts existing only in fragments at the time in the rest of Europe, started to make their way to France and Italy not from Greece and Byzanitium, but from Andalucia through translation from Arabic (the originals had been translated from Greek to Arabic in Damascus and Baghdad several centuries before) and when they arrived they arrived IN WHOLE with a thousand years of arab commentary, analysis and interpretation. Christian Europe for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire learned to think with reason and logic rather than surviving on the kind of religious extremism and intolerance that typfied the crusade period. They learned how to govern with fair and just laws, they learned how to better navigate the seas, they learned how to better irragate land to grow crops, they leared the scientific method. The great renaisance that gave us Galileo, Michangelo, Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas came from Andalucia where for 800 years they´re existed a culture that learned, above all, to let reason and learning exist SIMULTANEOUSLY with faith and religion. It was this - the coexistance of pure knowledge and pure faith, that the rest of Europe had so tragicaly lost and found again thanks to those in Andalucia who perserved, cherished and expanded upon the great works of humanity during the dark ages.
Of course the story has a tragic end. That Andalucia had fallen almost entirely into the hands of the (still Arabic-speaking) christian kings was not entirely a tradgedy (and certainly not the kind of Christian versus Arab barbarian fantasy that seem people seem to picture). Even when lonely granada was the sole remaining Muslim-ruled taifa in Andalucia, the peoples of the three great monotheistic religions lived more or less together in peace as before. Only in the late 15th did things fall apart. The Spanish kings began to suplant Arabic with Castillian (old-Spanish) as the lingua franca of the kingdom, and under pressure from Rome, started to pressure the remaning Islamic leaders to give up in their lands. In 1492, Queen Isabella (the same one who gave Columbus her jewels), under-pressure from Rome gave the order to have all the Jews converted or killed. In the following centuries it was the Muslims´ turn to face conversion death. All this reached a fever pitch in the 16th century as the Spanish Inquesition burned at the stake some millions of jews and muslims. Even those loyal Christians that had been converted from Judiasm and Islam generations before were put to the flames in a kind of feverish hystery caused largely by suspiciions that they were causing the black plauge which so devasted Europe at the time. With the bodies burnt the books and with the refugees from the inquesition went the poets, historians, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, musicians, architechts, generals, mathematicians and scholars. Reems of texts written in an Arabic script were still being sold as dish rags several CENTURIES after Spain was united to a population that had long ago forgotten how to read them. As if that wasn´t enough, the Spanish managed to exterminate the greater part of everything good in Central and South America at the same time, but that´s a different story.
I´ll spare you the paralells to the situations today and say only the buildings left here in Spain - The Cordoba Mosque, The Madinat Al-Zahra, the Alahambra - are the most magnificent works or Architecture ever to grace the Arab world and easily the most beautiful, for me at least, in all of Europe. I´ll be posting pictures soon and explain the rest of my trip in my next email. So long for now!
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