Islamic Spain (potted)

Rough, on the fly notes from Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC series. — Andrew Graham Dixon on the Art of Spain 31 Jan 2008

Starts with Al-Andalus — often forgotten (not by me) that Moors ruled Spain for 700 years. Shot of Jebel Tarik, approached from Morocco. 25,000 troops marching. After 3 yrs invasion complete, safe for far north. Al Andalus now linked to empire reaching to India. Spain used to being conquered. But this invasion produced explosion of art and culture. Neglected but explains a lot about Spanish art.

Cordoba important. Key European city. “Brilliant ornament of the world”. Abdel Rahman, whose family had ruled Damascus until all murdered. AR escaped to Cordoba. Kick-started a revolution. [Hashim Cabrera, Islamic scholar]. Many scholars came here from all over the Islamic and Christian world. Cordoba like NYC or London or Paris of its day. Paradise on Earth. Great Mosque, one of the first ever built. Sense of the infinite in its endless columns—conscious evocation of God. Design is uniform throughout so feel same connection to God where you stand. Early Islam had no liturgy, so you entered into communion with God wherever you go. Poem of Abdel Rahman, re palm tree. Symbol of himself, in exile, stuck in desert. Columns in mosque are like that palm tree.

But then bloody great Cathedral right in middle of the prayer hall of the Mosque. C16 intrusion, stamping through the middle of it. Cultural vandalism. Tolerance of Islam in those days—all ‘People of the Book’—freedom of worship for Jews and Christians in Islamic state. “The most tolerant and humane in the history of humanity”.

In the heart of the old town of Cordoba stands the synagogue. Looks Islamic at first glance, but writing is in Hebrew—it’s a synagogue. Jews did well under Islam, much better than under earlier Christians. Christians also keen to embrace Islamic culture; many converted and all were profoundly affected. Mazarabs—adopted manners, clothes and culture of Moors. Spain dull and provincial until then. Now had toothpaste and deodorant. Great. Colour, fashion, food — introduced idea of eating in courses. Rice, fruit, coriander, coffee, basil etc. Don Pepe’s restaurant in Cordoba specialises in Moorish dishes. Saffron, red pepper, colours on a plate. Best thing Ziryab: cook, tailor; introduced cutlery and crockery, and glassware to Europe. Alcohol popular in Islamic Spain. Cordoba full of libraries, inc one with 400,000 books. Philosophy, maths, astronomy etc. Via Al Andalus we have our number system, maths, Greek thought, medicine. Landcape, too, was changed. Irrigation, olives, vineyards etc all lead to population explosion. Spain had never had it so good.

Madinat al Zahra. C10 built for Abdel Rahman III. Splendid palace. Ummayyad palace at its best, the size of a town. Swinging vat of mercury cast light on ceiling when swung. Paradise, a garden flowing with streams. Every square inch is decorated.

But glory short-lived—100 years later civil war devastated Al Andalus. Mad Al Z was sacked and looted. Why? Tribal warfare? Corruption? The orange tree theory? Once any culture becomes rich and sedentary enough to plant orange trees it’s doomed to fail. Sevilla. C12 became most important city in Spain. Abbasids: more hard-line, fundamentalist than Ummayads. More oppressive to Jews and Christians and started expeditions to north. Giralda, a symbol of the struggle between Moors and Christians. Uneasy alliance while the easy-going Ummayyads were in power, but with rise of Islamic militancy, so did Christians. Seville captured in 1248 after 2 years siege. Cathedral a crushing symbol of militant Christianity. But even here, there are elements of Islamic design—massive over-decoration brings to mind Moorish calligraphic designs. [Goes a bit too far here?] The Alcazar was built for the new Christian king, but looks like a Moorish palace. Pedro the Cruel was very cruel, a rapist and a mass-murderer; murdered his brother and a Moorish noble who had the biggest ruby in the world, took it and gave it to the Black Prince, whence it made its way into the Crown Jewels.

Life for Moors now very difficult. Forced conversions, or went underground with Jews and Gypsies. Triana, in Seville, lead to home of flamenco, cante jondo. Shrinking of Al Andalus to Sierra Nevada and Granada. Last Moorish capital, resisted for 200 years. The Al Hambra (of course). Legends of cruelty. “A palace of myths and legends”. But in truth we know very little about functions of the individual spaces of the palace. The Hall of the Ambassadors, all about pattern and geometry: 7 and 4 are repeated throughout: 7 stages to God and 4 the spaces into which the vault of Heaven could be divided. But all lead only to the One, Allah. How do you introduce the idea of impermanence into architecture? Water. Everywhere in the Al Hambra. Slender columns, dissolving of stone by sculpture and carving. Handrails of water. Building on brink of disappearing, just as Islamic culture was disappearing from Spain.

El suspiro del moro. 1492 expulsion of the Jews. 1610 ALL Moors expelled from Spain, whether conversos or not. Re-writing of Spanish history by ‘victors’, marginalising Islamic influence. Moros y Cristianos. 1m Muslims in Spain, and 500 mosques. Vital contribution of Arab culture to Western tradition. Spain is about the only place where you can actually touch that.

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