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A Question of Coexistence

Biblioteca de la Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid
A Christian consulting an Arabic text during a chess game with a Muslim, in an illumination from the Libro de ajedrez, dados y tables (Book of Chess, Dice, and Tables) of Alfonso X the Learned, 1283; from The Arts of Intimacy

Step into the Great Mosque of Córdoba—the Mezquita—and you find yourself transported to a world in which time appears to stand still and space to be dissolved (see illustration on page 42). Everywhere you look, you are faced by long, receding vistas of columns, some 850 in all, from which rise double tiers of intersecting horseshoe arches of alternating white stone and red brick. The overwhelming impression is one of regularity and uniformity and, above all, timeless serenity.

Yet look a little closer and what at first seemed uniform displays traces of diversity. The marble columns, for instance, are far from being identical. When Abd al-Rahman I, the emir of the Islamic outpost of al-Andalus, embarked on the construction of the Great Mosque in the year 780 of the Christian era, he made use of columns and capitals pillaged from Visigothic and Roman buildings over a vast swath of territory running from North Africa to Narbonne.

If the mosque evoked the great monuments of Umayyad Syria from which Abd al-Rahman had fled when his dynasty was overthrown, it also drew inspiration from the Roman buildings and the local vernacular forms of Visigothic Spain. Indeed, according to tradition it was partly built on the ruins of the demolished Visigothic church of San Vicente, a place of worship that Muslims had shared with Christians until the new construction began. San Vicente itself had been built on the ruins of a Roman temple. Medieval Córdoba, with the Great Mosque at its center, was a place where cultures and civilizations met and intertwined.

Yet however eclectic its architectural forms, the Great Mosque was also a triumphant assertion of the dominance of Islam—a dominance that in the time of Abd al-Rahman I and his Umayyad successors extended to all but the northern fringes of the Iberian peninsula, where the Christians still held out. That dominance had begun when a Berber army crossed the straits of Gibraltar in 711 and overthrew the Visigothic state, the heir to Roman Spain. The conquest was swift, and what became the Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba reached the zenith of its power in the tenth century. Christian visitors were dazzled by the riches and splendor of the caliphate, but these concealed an internal fragility that would lead to power struggles, which in turn were followed by descent into civil war. In 1031 the caliphate fragmented into more than twenty petty states, known as the Taifa kingdoms. With the downfall of the Umayyads the great days of Córdoba were at an end, but its place as a center of Islamic civilization was taken by Toledo, located on what was then the caliphate’s northern frontier with the Christian kingdoms.

In earlier times the capital of Visigothic Spain, Toledo now became the capital of one of the Taifa kingdoms, dazzling Christian visitors with the splendors of its luxurious lifestyle, just as their forebears had been dazzled by the splendors of Córdoba. But the internal feuds of a fragmented Islamic Spain gave the Christians their chance. In 1085 the ruler of the united kingdoms of Castile and León, Alfonso VI, who had himself tasted the delights of Toledo while in temporary exile from his own fractious realm, entered the city in triumph with his army. Henceforth Toledo would remain in Christian hands. But if this marked the end of one story it also marked the beginning of another. This story, extending from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, is vividly told by a trio of authors in The Arts of Intimacy.

All three are specialists in the cultural history of medieval Spain, and María Rosa Menocal in particular is well known for her evocative survey of medieval Hispanic civilization, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.1 The purpose of that book was to give Western readers some idea of the achievements and influence of Islamic Andalusia, and The Arts of Intimacy follows in its footsteps. This is a book for the general reader, but one that takes into account the results of recent publications on the history of medieval Spain, to which it devotes an extensive bibliographical essay. There are no notes to the text, but the book contains numerous inserts, printed on an orange ground, providing additional information on people and places, along with selections of contemporary texts, both in the original and in translation. The result is an attractive volume, lavishly illustrated and handsomely produced, although its weight does not make it easy to handle, and my copy was no sooner opened than it broke away from its binding.

The history of the medieval Iberian peninsula, made up as it was of a complex of competing kingdoms, Moorish and Christian, fragmenting, merging, and reconstituting themselves in a bewildering variety of permutations and combinations, offers daunting challenges to the historian. Faced with the task of making the story comprehensible to the general reader, the authors of The Arts of Intimacy have kept the history of events to the minimum necessary for an understanding of the political and military background, and have concentrated their attention on the cultural history that is their special interest. Given the richness of that cultural history, this is a wise decision. The art, the architecture, and the poetry produced in the medieval Iberian peninsula are of such astonishing quality that a survey, especially when it is as intelligent and well presented as this one, can hardly fail both to illuminate and instruct.

What was there about medieval Iberian civilization that made it so richly creative? Central to Iberian history between the eighth and fifteenth centuries is the moving frontier. The Arab-Berber conquest of the peninsula in the course of the eighth century was put into reverse by a gradual southward movement of Christians from northern Spain into territory wrested back from the Moors. This movement, extending over many centuries and somewhat misleadingly known as the reconquista—the reconquest—has been retrospectively depicted as a holy war against Islam. In reality, although Christians spoke of a crusade and Muslims of a jihad, warfare between Christians and Moors was punctuated by long periods of peace, and Christian and Islamic kingdoms would make and break alliances among themselves as necessity dictated. The process of reconquest itself would end only in 1492 when the last Islamic redoubt, a greatly reduced kingdom of Granada, surrendered to the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of the united Spain created by their marriage.

In his Moorish Spain, still perhaps the most accessible general history of al-Andalus for the lay reader, the late Richard Fletcher wrote: “The plain fact is that between 712 and 1492 Muslim and Christian communities lived side by side in the Iberian peninsula, clutched in a long, intimate embrace” —an image that may have given the authors of The Arts of Intimacy their title.2 Between Christian and Islamic Spain lay a porous frontier zone, expanding and contracting with the tides of war and settlement. The Moorish conquest had engulfed large communities of indigenous Christians, who came to be known as Mozarabs, Arabized Christians living under Islamic rule. Both the Mozarabs and the Jews, as “Peoples of the Book”—revealed texts recognized by Muslims—lived as protected religious minorities in return for their acknowledgement of Islamic authority and the payment of a special tax.

When Alfonso VI and his Castilians captured Toledo in 1085, he effectively took over and perpetuated the Islamic system of governance, promising the Muslim inhabitants in their turn physical protection, freedom of worship, and the use of their Friday mosque. As the Christian armies advanced southward, more and more Muslims fell under Christian rule, becoming a kind of mirror image of the Mozarabs and known as Mudejares, those “left behind.”

What we find therefore, first in Islamic Spain and then in those parts restored to Christian rule, is the coexistence, especially in the cities, of an ethnically and religiously diverse population, with a degree of legal protection extended to minority groups. The situation, however, was always liable to sudden change. In the middle of the twelfth century, for instance, the Almohads, a conservative Islamic sect from Morocco whose armies had crossed over into Andalusia, embarked on a policy of persecution that drove many non-Muslims into Christian territory. Two centuries later, in 1391, the Jews were the victims of terrible pogroms at the hands of the Christians. But coexistence, dictated largely by convenience or demographics, or a combination of the two, was for long periods the order of the day.

The word convivencia—living together—has been used by Spanish historians since the early twentieth century to describe intercommunal relations between the peoples of the three different faiths. But in the new age of multiculturalism of the later twentieth century, not only did the word convivencia acquire a sudden fashionability, but it ceased to be a neutral term and came instead to suggest a state of harmonious coexistence, brought to an end only by the conquest of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.3 Over much of its existence medieval Spain thus came to be depicted as a uniquely tolerant society, a beacon of hope to a world being dramatically transformed by the mingling of peoples and the clash of civilizations.

The theme of María Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World was the creation of what she called “a culture of tolerance,” born of the coexistence and interaction of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in such cities as Córdoba and Toledo. In The Arts of Intimacy, by contrast, I have failed to find any use of the expression “a culture of tolerance,” and the theme of the book is the emergence of a distinctive Castilian cultural identity through the sharing of a “common space” with Islam and Judaism. In other words, this is a study of “cultural interaction” rather than of “a culture of tolerance.” The retreat to more neutral ground seems to me to be salutary. There has been an excessive sentimentalization of the notion of a medieval Spanish convivencia, and “tolerance” itself is a slippery concept, especially set in the context of the Middle Ages, which would have found quite alien the idea of individual human rights.

In practice, convivencia was both fraught and fragile. Notably lacking was any sense of religious equality. Muslims and Christians alike regarded themselves as possessing the superior faith, and where they enjoyed hegemony, they accepted the other faith only on sufferance, although this was a sufferance that did not preclude Muslim kingdoms allying with Christian kingdoms against fellow Muslims, and Christians allying with Muslims against their coreligionists. But whoever was dominant, Christians, Jews, and Muslims were all the time being thrown together in the cities and towns, intermingling as they went about their daily business, although in some cities living in segregated quarters. Inevitably, rubbing shoulders in this way, they picked up some of their neighbors’ habits, tastes, and customs. It was not unknown for Muslims to drop into Christian monasteries for a forbidden glass of wine.4

  1. 1

    Little, Brown, 2002.

  2. 2

    1992; Phoenix Books, 2001, p. 8.

  3. 3

    See David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 9.

  4. 4

    Fletcher, Moorish Spain, p. 94.

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