The journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has an interesting theory about Muslims. According to Brown, a proud Muslim herself, we have lost touch with our artistic past. We are no longer creative. We have become grey, soulless, conformative automatons who just blindly follow scripture. In articles written several years ago Brown argues that Muslims had a great artistic legacy that is no longer there: “We were once known for our great art, invention, trade and elegance, which helped in the flowering of Europe just as much as Rome and Greece. The Africans selling handbags on the streets of Venice today are only the most recent inheritors of a long history of international commerce that helped make the phenomenal wealth of that city. London, too. Did you know that 300 years before the recent colonisation by Starbucks, places to meet and drink coffee (then called the Mahometan berry) were set up in London by Turks?”
Brown also quotes the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca, who said that the Moors (the Muslim rulers of Spain) were “An admirable brand of civilization, of poetry, of architecture, and delicacy unique in the world.” She then deplores: “Look at us today. Iran and Iraq were centres of Islamic arts and culture until vandals of the East and West destroyed both. Islamic countries are so cruel and chaotic that past glories can no longer waken the spirit there. They have extraordinary artists, but they are individual seekers of light in societies lost in pessimism and hungry for kitsch. In our own Muslim ghettos, philistinism and ignorance prevail.”
She goes on to say that “The West regards all Muslims either as terrorists or as ignorant devotees, incapable of rational thought or artistic achievement. Neither sides wants to acknowledge the tight knots of culture which bind them. How ironic.”
Brown further investigated this irony more recently in a 2-part BBC Radio 4 program called From Sensuality To Puritanism: How Muslim Cultures Turned Grey. You know the subject matters covered are deep and personal as part 1 is titled ‘The Vibrancy Of Islamic Culture’ and part 2 is called ‘The Rise Of Islamist Puritanism.’ The two programmes takes us from the early history of Islam to events in the 20th century that saw a shift and a concomitant greying in the lives of Muslims, and most particularly in the lives of Muslim women. Brown asks why the Islamic world that historically represented a vibrant, dazzling and even alluring cultural appeal to the more reserved and conservative West, is now reversing that perception. She also talks to scholars, historians, imams, and others, all of whom seem to remember a less restrained Islamic identity which, in their lifetimes, has been under increasing attack.
Whilst the broadcast is explicit in terms of subject matters covered, the point comes across clearly enough. And to me it seems the point being made goes beyond the desire to wear make-up and mini-skirts, to dance to the music of Prince and Madonna, and to watch superhero and Bollywood movies in cinemas. It goes to what Brown believes is the very heart of Islam and thus to the very heart of what makes all of us Muslims Muslim. In the hour long program she starts by declaring her aims thusly: “I’m trying to understand what happened to that incredible inter-cultural vibrancy and openness of Islam I knew in my childhood. Why does that world now seem so heavily fortressed, defensive, and grey? The very word ‘Muslim’ now conjures veils, segregation, cultural anxiety, rigid social conservatism, and all the qualities that English puritans would have lauded centuries ago.”
And that’s just for starters! She then goes on to ask “how and why Muslim lands and communities have turned from sensuality to puritanism” and why there is a “closing of the Muslim mind.” She “mourns the decline of the Islamic culture we once knew.” She challenges the notion that a Puritanical approach to Islam is a sign of strength. She talks about the increasing power of Saudi Arabia and Iran, where fundamentalist events in the late 1970’s shook both nations and lead to an increasingly hard line approach to religious identity throughout the Muslim world. She reluctantly asks if this fundamentalist tide may yet turn for the better. She talks in historic terms about “the richness of Islamic civilisation” compared to the current “intolerant religious and political dogmatists.”
She says that a “lack of good religious learning leaves Muslims vulnerable” to “the clash between the two Islams, the fundamentalist conservative and the more liberal.” She goes on to wail that the “internal savage clash within Islam makes me and countless other believers feel bereft and disconsolate.” She rues that “Muslims were born free and could live free, with Allah’s blessings” but now we face a “new puritanism” where Islam is “contemporary, puritanical, political, homogenised.”
There is even a brief quote from the internet famous scholar Mufti Menk, about the perils of listening to pop music, a quote that is perhaps taken a little out of context. And then, after spending nearly an hour crying about the greyness of modern Islamic culture, Brown tries to end on a positive note, saying perhaps things are not all bad due to their being “streaks of colour beneath the grey.”
Which is just as well because Brown believes this lost connection to our creative past is something we need to re-establish urgently. In a previous article she has said: “When zealots on both shores can only visualise a dehumanised them and enlightened us, Muslims, cowering between the armies of brutal obduracy, do seek solace in beauty.” And in her radio program she says it is these same cowering Muslims who “In the 21st century…should have more real influence in the arts world.” Given everything that is going on in the world, especially the Muslim world, Brown does acknowledge that hers “is perhaps a petty gripe.” Nevertheless, it is a gripe that I think is important, for fellow artist Saul Bellow has said that “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the middle of chaos.” All the chaos that exists in the world, especially the Muslim world, seems to have its own reality, so it feels urgent and necessary to try and find some stillness, even if it comes through the creative arts.
Examples of just how creative and artistic Muslims of yesteryear were can easily be found in current news media. For example, the book Allah’s Automata: Artifacts Of The Arabic-Islamic Renaissance (800-1200) explores the rich and fascinating world of the automata that were developed and built during the golden age of the Arabic-Islamic cultures, the period from the early 9th to the 13th century. The book describes many wondrous machines built to glorify God.
Also, the journalist Stephennie Mulder recently described in detail the interaction between Vikings and Muslims, and the reason for this rich interaction she says is due to a certain level of respect and reverence shown by Vikings for all things Islamic: “Arabic writing was valued by the Vikings as a mark of social status or capital, much in the way we might today buy a perfume with ‘Paris’ written on it. For the Vikings, 10th century Islamic cities like Baghdad, Cordoba or Cairo were the Paris of their day: glittering capitals of art, scientific knowledge, and culture.”
And then you have the example of students from the University of Minnesota who have installed an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, to better showcase the relationship 15th and 16th century England had to the Islamic world. The Tudor Room, installed at the MIA way back in 1923, is an entire period room from the 1600s that was removed from an English Tudor home, including furniture, the ceiling, windows, and wall-panels. The installation, the oldest Elizabethan-period room in America, clearly shows that influences from the Islamic World were evident among many upper-class English households, including colourful textiles and ceramics. Not only that, Queen Elizabeth I of England turned to allies in Istanbul and Morocco after being excommunicated by the pope and establishing England as a Protestant state.
The University students have said that growing Islamophobic rhetoric and actions are just a few reasons why an exhibit that explains how relationships between the Islamic world and Westerners formed is more important than ever. Katie Sisneros, lead curator of the project, said: “We’re trying to illustrate a part of history that most people just don’t know about…By necessity, an exhibit can’t exist in a vacuum. It has to address the world around it. I hope the work we’ve put in has sort of expressed how much that matters to us. The room tells a story that’s as much historical as it is contemporary.”
Furthermore, it seems Brown is not the only one who holds the views she does. Author and intellectual Ziauddin Sardar does not agree with the confines being placed on Islam by some: “My Muslimness is a great source of liberation. It’s also a source of theological liberation.” He also says of his home nation of Pakistan that, because of the hard line shift in faith, “Pakistan is being dehumanised.”
Another academic and author, Dr Usama Hasan, states: “Historically, intellectually, and theologically, Islam has not been anywhere near as narrow, and shallow if you like, as some of the Islamic regimes have expressed it.” And then you have Raficq Abdullah who reminds us that: “We have forgotten the notion of sacredness in the Western world – with consumerism, globalisation and the secular state. Whereas in the Muslim world a sense of sacredness permeates all areas of the arts.”
A time when this sense of sacredness most definitely permeated all areas of not just the arts, but all areas of life, was the golden age of Islam in Spain, back when the Moors ruled the Iberian peninsula. Régis Debray, author of Civilization: How We All Became American, says that: “’Civilization’ is a hard term to define. But while every society has a distinctive culture, authentic civilizations must offer those they subjugate an attractive way of life. Their imprint outlasts their imperium.”
One could argue that the Muslims did not exactly ‘subjugate’ the locals, many of whom willingly converted to Islam over the following few centuries. Whilst it is true that the ‘imperium’ of Islam is most definitely over in Spain, the ‘imprint’ left by the ‘authentic civilization’ of the Muslims is as extensive as it is impressive, even to this day.
This imprint is described in splendid detail by critic and art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon in the BBC TV documentary The Art Of Spain. Part one of this 3-part program is called ‘The Moorish South.’ In it Dixon travels around southern Spain to tell the story of some of Europe’s most exciting and vital art. For 700 years, most of Spain was an Islamic state and the south was its beating heart. Under the Moors Spain became the most advanced, wealthy, and populous country in Europe, and perhaps the entire world. Dixon goes to Cordoba, Seville, and Granada, where he visits beautiful Moorish palaces and mosques to tell us the story of one of the most colourful and sophisticated cultures Europe has ever known.
The documentary is well worth watching in full, with the selected quotes below doing it little visual justice. Having said that, they are well worth a read. Enjoy!
Too often we think of Spain as two weeks on the beach. But there’s another Spain. Spain has produced some of the most startling and original art ever created. Art that has been unfairly overshadowed by the rest of Europe. Art that we know little about. But Spanish art is the art that we need to know about, because it holds the key to understanding all of Europe and its culture. It was in Spain and its empire that so many of Europe’s great battles were played out. Christianity versus Islam. Catholic versus Protestant. Fascist versus socialist.
For many visitors, the south of Spain IS Spain. But away from the beaches there are magnificent sights. Grand palaces, castles, and mosques. Reminders of a different culture from a distant time, a time when Spain was called Al Andalus. What’s often forgotten is that for over 700 years much of Spain was ruled by Muslims and the South was its beating heart. Southern Spain was a unique frontier, where east met west with explosive results. This is the story of how Islamic Spain became one of the most remarkable civilisations ever seen. One that’s shaped Spain and the rest of Europe ever since.
Right at the tip of Southern Spain, a huge rock explodes out of the Mediterranean. But the rock isn’t Spanish. It’s British. And long before Britain owned it, the Rock of Gibraltar belonged to another foreign power, a power that ruled it for nearly 800 years. On the 30th of April in the year 711, an Arab general named Tariq Ibn Ziyad sailed across these waters from North Africa with an army of 5,000 Arab and North African soldiers and invaded Gibraltar. He gave the rock its name, Jabal Al Tariq – Tariq’s Mountain. He used it as the launch pad for the Islamic conquest of Christian Spain. Just 25,000 troops marched across the country, building fortifications as they went. After just three years, the invasion was complete. Only the far-flung provinces of the extreme North resisted, protected by impassable mountains. But the rest of Spain was now part of a vast Islamic empire which reached as far as India. Even its name was changed, from Spain to Al Andalus, and its new rulers were an assortment of Arabs, North Africans, Egyptians and Syrians. The Moors.
Spain was pretty much used to being conquered by foreign invaders over the centuries. The Romans, the Celts and the Visigoths had all had a go at ruling this vast land and, by all accounts, the primitive peoples of Spain had been a bit of a soft touch. But you might have been forgiven for thinking the collision between Muslim invaders and a Christian people would have had some fairly explosive results. And there was an explosion but not of the kind you might expect. It was an explosion of art and culture. The story of this art and culture remains shockingly neglected but I think it’s the key to understanding the whole of Spanish art and its unique intensity.
The first great flowering of Moorish culture took place in the new capital city of Cordoba. By the late eighth century, the Moors had turned Cordoba into the brightest, wealthiest and busiest city in Europe. Its fame reached as far as a quiet cloister in Saxony, where a Christian nun described the city as “the brilliant ornament of the world”. This glittering city was all the work of one young man. His name was Abd Al-Rahman and he was an exile. His family had ruled Damascus in Syria but in the year 750 they were all killed in a brutal civil war. Abd Al-Rahman was the sole survivor of the massacre and he fled all the way from Syria to Cordoba, where he quickly established himself as the Caliph, or ruler, of Al Andalus. His passage through life had hardly been easy but he was to turn out to be one of the most influential figures in world history, someone who kick-started a complete revolution in Western society. He did so by attempting to recreate the splendours of his native Damascus here in Cordoba. He wanted to turn this place into a kind of paradise on earth. Under Abd Al-Rahman, a great civilisation would be born here on Spanish soil.
[Speaking to Hashim Cabrera, artist and historian]
DIXON: I’m here really to try and find out about Cordoba as it was in the Golden Age.
CABRERA: There were many, many philosophers and artists that were coming to Cordoba for learning. Modern science has many of its roots in this time, in Cordoba. In astronomy and philosophy, in physics, in all [branches of] knowledge. It was like a revolution, like a cultural revolution.
DIXON: So if somebody say around 900 came from Paris or London and arrived in Cordoba, what impression do you think it would have made on them?
CABRERA: It’s like when if now people who are living in poor countries go to New York, or Paris, or London, or Madrid. I think this would have the same impression.
At the heart of Abd al-Rahman’s paradise on earth was the Great Mosque of Cordoba. When work began here in the 8th century, Islam was only a century old, which makes this one of the first mosques ever built. The Great Mosque is a forest of stone columns which seem to go on forever – as far as the eye can see. The effect is a bit like being in a hall of mirrors. You actually feel lost in here, truly disorientated, and that’s the point. The worshipper feels in the presence of something mysterious and infinite, perhaps God himself. In Islam, the direct representation of God or any living being is forbidden. The designers couldn’t use pictures or statues to inspire religious awe, just the forms of architecture itself. And the design of the mosque is uniform throughout, so wherever you stand in this amazing never-ending forest of stone, you feel the same connection to God. Early Islam was a religion without hierarchy, without clergy and liturgy. You just entered the space and prayed. So it was vital for the architects to create a building in which everyone felt equal. This is spiritually democratic architecture.
I found the experience of visiting the Great Mosque really powerful. I think it’s all the more moving when you think about the man who created it, Abd Al-Rahman. We don’t know a great deal about him but we do know that he left us one poem. It’s a poem about a palm tree that he found that had seeded itself somewhere out on the plains of Al Andalus. He saw it as a symbol of himself. He wrote an ode to it. The palm, he said, was like me, it’s an exile. It reminded him of his family. It was a very important symbol to any Arab living in Spain. It symbolised water, shelter, nourishment. Of course, that palm-tree has gone forever but I wonder if this mosque with its endlessly repeated columns, isn’t a thousand palm trees planted here, preserved forever in stone.
But slap bang in the middle of the prayer hall is something profoundly un-Islamic. A Catholic cathedral. In the 16th century, long after the fall of the Moors, Cordoba’s Christian rulers demolished the central columns of the mosque and erected this vast temple to Christianity. A cathedral planted in the centre of a mosque. It’s like a great parasite in its belly. Even the great Catholic Emperor Charles V, who authorised the construction of the cathedral, realised he’d made a terrible mistake. When it was complete he rounded on the architects, saying “You’ve taken something unique and turned it into something mundane.” I think you can still appreciate the beauty of the mosque, but as an act of cultural vandalism, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like a sort of dagger plunged into the heart of the mosque. It represents a really heavy-handed imposition of one set of religious values on another and there’s something quite ugly about that.
So much of the later story of Spain would be dominated by religious conflict. But during the Golden Age of Al Andalus, back in its 9th and 10th century heyday, the religious realities were quite different. The extraordinary fact is that here in Al Andalus, uniquely the three religions lived together in relative harmony. Islam regarded Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” whose holy writings were to be respected as forerunners of the Prophet Muhammed’s final revelation. So the conquering Moors made no effort to convince the Christians and the Jews to convert and they even, as the Koran commanded, gave them freedom of worship.
For over 200 years the three religions rubbed along surprisingly well. Friendships and marriages flourished across the faiths. Many Christians and Jews held prominent positions in the Islamic state.
[Speaking to Antonio Manuel Rodriguez, historian]
DIXON: How fully integrated really were these three different religious groups in Cordoba – the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims?
RODRIGUEZ: There’s a lot of talk about three culture living together in Al Andalus. But strictly speaking, there was only one culture, The Andalusi culture. Al Andalus could have a Jewish emphasis, or a Christian emphasis, or an Islamic emphasis. But really, Al Andalus was just one thing.
DIXON: So was this society a kind of paradise on earth?
RODRIGUEZ: It’s true that the civilisation of Al Andalus was the most universally tolerant, inter-cultural and understanding in the history of humanity. I believe it was a golden age of humanity, and that it was the first Renaissance in continental Europe.
The Jewish population of Al Andalus fared particularly well under Arab rule. Under the Christians in the sixth and seventh centuries they’d been persecuted. Under Islam they prospered, becoming successful merchants, reaching the highest positions in government. Nowadays we tend to think of these two great religions, Judaism and Islam, as naturally opposed to one another, but this space is a reminder that it wasn’t always so, that here in Cordoba, once upon a time, Jews and Muslims lived not as enemies but as brothers.
The Christians of Al Andalus were just as keen to embrace Arab culture. Many even converted to Islam. After 300 years of Islamic occupation, 75% of the population had become Muslim. But even those who didn’t convert were profoundly affected by the Arab way of life. They were known Mozarabs, meaning “Arabised”, and they adopted the dress, language and customs of their rulers. It’s hardly surprising that the peoples of medieval Spain should have been so seduced by Arab civilisation. After all, this was a cultural desert. They were leading dour, simple lives and suddenly along comes this vibrant, colourful, sophisticated, but, above all, sensual culture. For me, almost its greatest symbol is the beautiful Arab bath house, a kind of temple of sensual delight.
As well as luxuriating in the bath house, the Moors introduced new fashions, hairstyles and perfumes. They also brought toothpaste and underarm deodorant to the West for the first time. The Moors treated every aspect of life as if it were a work of art – whether it was clothes, or cosmetics, or food. The Moors also introduced to Spain a whole new world of culinary delights. They brought in the idea of eating in courses and they brought with them a whole new range of ingredients that transformed Western European cookery – rice, coffee, sugar, citrus fruits, coriander, basil. And they turned cooking into an art form.
For the Moors, food wasn’t the only part of the dining experience, surprisingly they also enjoyed a drink. The Koran forbids the consumption of alcohol, but we know that it was produced in large quantities throughout Islamic Spain. Alcohol itself is an Arabic word. They used it in cosmetics and in medicine, but they also drank it, and they even introduced a distillation process that would result in that most Spanish of drinks – sherry.
But as well as indulging the senses, the Moors were also intent on developing the mind. Reading was so valued that they turned script itself into a coiling, ornate form of art. The Koran encouraged learning, saying that it brought you closer to God. And the Moors took this decree to heart. Cordoba was full of libraries, one of which was reputed to contain over 400,000 books – ten times more than the contents of the libraries of the rest of Europe put together. The Moors made great advances in philosophy, literature, science and mathematics.
The Arab contribution to Western thought was truly enormous. Among other things it was through Al Andalus that the West re-discovered virtually all of ancient Greek philosophy, through Al Andalus that we got the Hindu-Arabic number system, our number system. The development of logical thought, how we count and calculate – it’s fair to say that the foundations for all of these things were laid in the great centres of Spanish-Islamic learning, like Cordoba.
As you drive round the landscape of Southern Spain, it’s full of a sense of the Moorish past. There are these little castles everywhere, surrounded by tiny, little white villages. But I think it was the landscape that they altered most of all, because whereas for the Romans, Spain had just been the arse-end of Empire, a dry and barren place, to these people from the desert, this was a land full of agricultural possibility, and they brought with them a whole range of techniques for farming dry land – systems of irrigation, canals. They planted out olives and vineyards. And, as a result, there was a huge population explosion. Suddenly people had more than enough to eat, they had more than enough water to drink. Spain really had never had it so good.
And in the countryside outside Cordoba, the greatest symbol of Islamic power and influence in Spain rose out of the ground. These ruins are all that’s left of the most splendid palace ever built by the Moors – Madinat Al Zahra. It was built in the 10th century to celebrate the might of Abd Al-Rahman III, descendant of the great exile who’d founded the Golden Age. In the year 929, Al-Rahman proclaimed himself not only Caliph of Al Andalus, but ruler of the entire Islamic empire. And to celebrate this audacious act of self-promotion, he built this vast palace complex, the size of a city. It was to become the Versailles of Spain, the epitome of the Islamic palace.
Wow. It is fantastically impressive but just think how much more impressive it must have been when this place was in its heyday, and gold and silver and magnificent textiles decorated every surface. Apparently one room even contained a vast, suspended vat full of mercury, and at the caliph’s command a servant would bang it and the mercury would ripple, and light would dance and sparkle on every surface. It must have been a bit like some medieval, Islamic glitter ball. And the guests would reel backwards in awe and terror.
But this city was also meant to touch the soul. In the Koran, the words of Muhammed dictated in the desert, paradise is described as “a garden flowing with streams” and Madinat Al Zahra was built around gardens and water. This was an attempt to create a paradise on earth, a tantalising glimpse of the eternal garden that awaits the righteous. These arches are the same as in Cordoba’s Mosque. Even the colours are the same, red and white – the colours of the Al-Rahman dynasty. But here, power politics are blended with spirituality. And running through it all is the idea of Paradise.
This is the most impressive of all of the rooms in Madinat Al Zahra. It’s the nerve centre of the entire complex, the throne room of Caliph Abd Al-Rahman III, and here it’s as if the idea of Paradise has been set in stone. It’s been allowed to take over the architecture. Look at that great wall of ornamental carving. It’s as if stone itself has been made to go against its own nature and been turned into a kind of plant life. These tendrils and shoots that grow up the wall. You really do feel that you are in a kind of paradise. Plant motifs aren’t the only decoration in this room. The walls are also covered in patterns made from geometry and Arab writing, both loaded with religious significance. In a world in which the depiction of real figures, real life, was forbidden, the Muslim artist had to turn to pattern and elevate it to an art form. And these stunningly intricate forests of decoration are the pinnacle of early Islamic art. Nothing like them survives anywhere else in the world. They’re the Islamic equivalent of the greatest Christian frescoes, but without a human figure in sight. What you really notice about this space is the way in which every square inch has been decorated. Now that’s unique and it would become one of the hallmarks of Spanish Islamic art. It’s almost as if they developed a terror of empty space.
But the glory of Madinat Al Zahra was to be short-lived. Less than 100 years after work on the palace began, it lay in ruins. In the 11th century, civil war engulfed Al Andalus. The dynasty of Abd Al-Rahman, rulers for nearly 300 years, was overthrown. Madinat Al Zahra was sacked and looted. The Golden Age was over. So why did this golden moment come to an end? Well, some blame fierce political rivalry between the various Islamic tribes that made up Muslim Spain from the start. Others say it was due to corruption within the Caliphate itself. But my own favourite explanation was given by the greatest Spanish Arab historian of the time. It’s wonderful, it’s the Orange Grove Theory of History. He said that any society is doomed once it’s becomes wealthy enough, and therefore sedentary enough, to plant orange trees. Maybe in the end they were just undone by their own success.
In 1031, Al Andalus split into dozens of self-governing city states, fighting amongst each other for territory and power. But things were to get far worse. I’ve come to the city of Seville, two hours’ drive to the west of Cordoba. In the 11th century, this became the most important city in Spain, home to a new set of Arab rulers. For the best part of 200 years, Al Andalus was to be ruled by a much more hard line, fundamentalist Islamic regime. Two successive generations of Muslims from North Africa who invaded and took control. Not only were they much more oppressive to Christians and Jews here in Al Andalus, but they also embarked on regular jihads into the Christian north.
The aggressive behaviour of the new regime would soon provoke a mighty confrontation which would explode onto the streets of Seville and engulf the whole of Al Andalus. The stones of this great building have their own vivid story to tell about the epic struggle that took place in Seville. This was originally a minaret, part of the great mosque that stood in the heart of the city. From its summit, the Muslim faithful were called to prayer. Now it’s topped by a renaissance bell-tower, pealing out the message that it’s time for mass. The tower’s a great symbol of the battle that was to convulse Spain for hundreds of years, reaching Seville in the mid-13th century. It was from here in 1248 that the Moors watched as a new enemy laid siege to Seville, an enemy that threatened the Spanish Muslims’ power and their religion. One so feared that the Moors wanted to destroy this beautiful minaret rather than let it fall into their enemy’s hands.
The enemy at the city gates was the Christians, and they were on the warpath. For 300 years, the independent Christian kingdoms of the North had existed in an uneasy truce with the Moors of Al Andalus. But the Christians were getting hungry for power and territory, and provoked by the rise of Islamic militancy, they decided to crusade against the infidel. And so, the reconquest began – a crusade that was to last more than 400 years – a monumentally long and bloody campaign. This conflict would establish a peculiarly fervent form of Catholicism as the Spanish national religion. It was also the conflict from which modern Spain would emerge.
During the 12th century, the Christians painfully edged into Al Andalus and, one by one, the Islamic cities fell. Then, Seville itself was captured in 1248 after two years’ siege. The Christian conquerors of medieval Seville proclaimed “Let us create such a building that future generations will take us for lunatics.” Some statement of intent. So they demolished the great mosque and they put up in its place what the Guinness Book of Records tells me is still the single largest Christian cathedral in the world. A great, crushing symbol of the triumph of militant Christianity. The cathedral’s built in a North European style. Gothic in design, complete with high, vaulting ceiling, flying buttresses and Christian symbols everywhere. This might be the last place you’d expect to find traces of Islamic design. But if you look closely enough, it becomes clear that old habits die hard.
What’s extraordinary about the Gothic style as done by the Spanish, especially the Spanish in the South, is this incredible sense of over-decoration. Look at this altarpiece. It’s almost as if every inch of space has to be decorated. It makes me think of the Moorish terror of empty space. That absolute covering of every inch. Look at this through half-closed eyes and you might almost be in some Moorish palace. I wonder whether the experience of Spanish Christians, especially in the South, wasn’t so permeated by a sense of Moorish pattern and design that this, so to speak, worked itself into the very soul of Spanish art. So that, although this great altarpiece represents the grand triumph of Christianity over the forces of Islam, at the same time it completely expresses a kind of Moorish aesthetic. It’s deeply Spanish, deeply Moorish and Christian all at the same time. There’s really nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
The cathedral isn’t the only building in Seville to bear the imprint of the Moors. This is the Alcazar, a palace fit for a Moorish king. But this building wasn’t meant for Muslims. Instead, it was built for one of Seville’s new Christian kings in 1364. So, what kind of self-respecting Christian monarch would build himself a palace that looks like this? His name was Pedro the Cruel and, boy, did you have to be cruel in the bloody world of medieval Spain to earn yourself a stand-alone nickname like that. Among other things, Pedro was a rapist and a mass murderer. He murdered his own brother in this room and he also murdered a visiting Arab dignitary who was foolish enough to come here with the largest ruby in the known world. Having nicked it from the corpse, Pedro then gave it to Edward the Black Prince, and it’s now part of the British crown jewels. I like the thought that every time there’s a coronation in Britain, the ritual is stained by a drop of blood shed in this room.
Although he was keen on murdering Moorish kings, Pedro was a massive fan of Moorish architecture and decoration. When he decided to build his own Moorish palace, no expense was spared. The best Moorish craftsmen were employed to create an architectural jewel complete with intricate marble and wood carving, cool, shaded courtyards and tile work in almost hallucinogenic patterns. But why would a Christian conqueror dress up his palace in the style of the Islamic foe? You have to put yourself in Pedro the Cruel’s shoes and think back to 14th century Europe. What else is going on in architectural terms? There’s the Gothic, but that’s for churches. When it comes to palace architecture, there’s really nothing to compare with this for colour, richness, pattern, sensuality. The whole place feels as if it’s made of icing sugar. I almost feel as if I want to eat it. It’s the ultimate Arabian Knights fantasy architecture. If I had my own little Aladdin genie in a bottle and I could wish for anything in the world, I might just choose this palace.
Because the Alcazar was a palace, not a mosque, it didn’t arouse the usual suspicions of Muslim worship. And the Christian kings of Spain clearly felt free to love this place, too. Later monarchs preserved it and made any additions with surprising sensitivity. Sometimes, the greatest compliments are those paid to you by your enemy. It’s a pretty astonishing tribute to the power and grandeur of Islamic art and architecture that generation after generation of Spanish Catholic monarchs should have allowed this place to remain, to stand as a great, shimmering ghost of a culture they were determined to eradicate but could never quite bring themselves to stop loving.
Moorish styles remained fashionable in Christian Spain. So much so that if you were a craftsman, you were given special treatment. But life for other Moors was getting a lot harder. Most fled to the extreme south of Spain, where the last bastion of Moorish might clung on to power. Those who remained were forced to convert or go underground, where they mixed with other outcast cultures, like the Jews and the gypsies. These different groups of outsiders – Moors, Jews, gypsies – came together in down-at-heel parts of town like Triana in Seville. Here, their different musical traditions fused together to create a style that would eventually resurface, so it’s said, as flamenco.
Nobody knows for sure which parts of flamenco come from the Moors, though there are many theories. They brought the guitar to Spain, destined to become the nation’s favourite musical instrument. And the distinctive dance style of flamenco, in which dramatic arm and hand movements are favoured over the legs, is similar to Moorish dancing, which forbade women from drawing attention to their legs. And the singing style is similar to the wailing Arabic style. Even the word flamenco itself comes from an Arab word – felagmengu, meaning fugitive peasant. And flamenco is, above all, the music of the dispossessed.
I’m on the last leg of my journey and I’ve come south of Seville, up into the hills. By the end of the 13th century, the once-mighty empire of Al Andalus had shrunk to this small, mountainous region. This was to be the last battlefield of the centuries-long conflict between the forces of Islam and the forces of Christianity. The city of Granada was the last Moorish capital of Al Andalus – the last city to hold out against the reconquest. The Nasrid dynasty ruled from here, managing to resist Christian invasion for nearly 200 years. Though today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Moors still run Granada.
If you’re in the mood, you can an Arabic bath in one of the city’s many Moorish bath houses. After taking the waters, you can visit a Moorish tea house and take some tea. And then if you’re feeling peckish, a trip to a Moorish restaurant is in order. It’s all very atmospheric, even if it is completely fake, a confection to put the tourists in an appropriately Moorish mood. But the one really authentic Moorish experience is to be had in the ultimate Moorish palace – the Alhambra.
Even here, you can’t get away from the tourists. Over 6,000 people visit this extraordinary series of royal palaces every day, to hear tales of the Nasrid kings who used to live here. And what bloodthirsty tales they are! According to legend, the Alhambra was built by Christian slaves imprisoned in dark dungeons. And at least nine of the Nasrid kings were murdered by methods as dastardly as drowning, stabbing, and eating poisoned batter.
The Alhambra is above all a palace of myths and legends. It’s a place where people feel a profound need to tell stories, partly to explain to themselves the nature of this place. For example, it’s said that the Sultan used to sit here on his throne. It is said that this door here is a false entrance designed to put off would-be assassins, although everything we know about the bloody history of the Nasrid dynasty suggests that assassins were not to be easily fooled. They usually got their man. The truth is that we know almost nothing about the precise functions of each of these spaces. The only thing that we can be certain of is that the art and the architecture here is absolutely breathtaking.
The Moors might have been coming to the end of their power and influence in Spain, but they were determined to go out in style. The Alhambra is like a greatest hits of Moorish design, with the volume turned up to ten. It’s the absolute summation of everything that made the art of Islamic Spain so extraordinary. A place where the expression of power and deep spirituality, that eternal search for paradise, are absolutely intertwined.
There’s such a scrum of tourists in the Alhambra today that it makes it pretty difficult to appreciate this place as it was originally meant to be appreciated, which is as a space of contemplation and reflection. Each of the spaces in this palace were meant to bring you closer to God, and that’s the fundamental purpose of this wonderful room called the Hall of the Ambassadors, which is all about pattern and geometry. The numbers seven and four are repeated everywhere in this space. Seven signifying the stages by which the soul ascends to God, and four representing the number of areas into which the vault of heaven could be divided, and we see that reflected in this magnificent ceiling. But the seven and the four lead us ineluctably to the one, and that’s the message that’s reinforced in all of these inscriptions. “There is no God but Allah”, “There is no conqueror but Allah.” This is a space that’s designed hypnotically through the repetition of pattern and design and inscription to focus our minds solely and exclusively on the higher reality of God.
But it’s not just the decoration of the Alhambra that invokes God, the very design of the architecture is permeated by the spirit of Islam. It’s a fundamental tenet of Islam that there is no God but God, there is no reality other than His higher reality, everything we experience in this life is impermanent, insubstantial. But how do you introduce the idea of impermanence into architecture – the most stable of forms? Well, here at the Alhambra, they’ve done it by introducing water everywhere. Seen in reflection, even the most solid of things seems ephemeral, shifting. In fact, the whole design of the Alhambra is aimed at making the palace appear to be not quite of this world. The columns are so slender that the arches they support seem to float in the air. And the intricate wood and stone carving makes solid materials seem to dissolve into fragile lace.
I think there’s a wonderful paradox about the architecture of the Alhambra, which is that you get all this effort to create a sense of effortlessness, this tremendous intricacy of structure to create the feeling of a structure that’s on the point of its own disappearance. Look at that wonderful, honeycomb vaulting in the ceiling of this space. Standing in here, it’s almost as if you’re standing at the bottom of a glass of fizzy water, looking up and watching the bubbles sparkle off towards infinity. I think there’s something very moving about the fact that the Moors created a building that seems to be on the brink of disappearing, just as their own civilisation was about to vanish from Spain. The Alhambra today really is the ghost of the ghost of what it was once was. But visiting it is still an extremely powerful and poignant experience. This was the last hurrah of Islamic civilisation in Spain. The very last expression of that beautiful ideal of paradise.
In 1469, Christian Spain was finally united, when the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, married. Hungry to rule over a completely Christian nation, they launched a final assault against the Moorish south. And on the 2nd of January 1492, after ten years of fighting, the last Nasrid king, Muhammed XII, surrendered the province of Granada and the Alhambra. Legend has it that as the defeated Muhammed gazed back at the city he’d surrendered, he burst into tears. His mother, unimpressed, snapped at him “You do well to weep like a woman over what you failed to defend like a man.” The Moor famously sighed his last sigh, and turned his back on Granada forever. The Christian Reconquest was complete. The victors were merciless towards the vanquished. Ferdinand and Isabella made it law that pork should be eaten throughout the region. Then, in 1492, they expelled all Jews from Spain and revoked the rights of Muslims. In 1526, Arabic was banned. And then, in 1610, all Moors were expelled from Spain, whether they had converted to Catholicism or not.
As so often, the victors in this epic struggle re-wrote history to suit their own militant ideology. For centuries afterwards, the whole rich history of Arab Spain was destined to be remembered as no more than the nation’s long journey through a dark tunnel, at the end of which shone the light of the Christian Reconquista. And the Arabs themselves were remembered as no more than pantomime villains in a great story of Christian triumph.
Today, in festivals all over Spain, the Moors are still portrayed as pantomime villains. I’ve come to the small town of Quentar, just outside Granada, to watch the local “Moors and Christians” festival. Every year, the people of the town dress up and re-enact the historic battle between Christianity and Islam. The whole thing goes on for three days until the Moors are finally defeated, forced to convert, and baptised. To the outsider, it does all look just a bit puzzling.
Of course, it is all just a bit of fun, but it does seem a bit depressing that these re-enactments completely ignore the cultural achievements of the Moors. But I think things have begun to change in modern Spain, and it is a culture more accepting of Islam. After all, there are now over one million Muslims living in Spain. And there are 500 mosques. The newest one is here in Granada, directly opposite the Alhambra. On this spot, modern Spain quite literally faces its Islamic past, the distant world of Al Andalus.
Al Andalus is part of the lifeblood of modern Spain, it’s part of what makes the Spanish Spanish. But the fact is that Arab culture has played a vital part in shaping what we often think of as Western civilisation. Its music, its art and architecture, its philosophy. Yet Spain is almost the only place in modern Europe where you can still touch that history, where you can still almost physically grasp the fact that the culture of the Islamic world is part of all of our DNA.