“It is no exaggeration to say that what we presumptuously call ‘Western’
culture is owed in large measure to the Andalusian enlightenment.”
-Christopher Hitchens, The Nation
When my friends Tom and Barbara first shared with me the riveting tale of medieval Spain’s 800-year flowering of art, architecture, culture, and commerce, “Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment,” I knew I’d have to dig deeper. First, I read Maria Rosa Menocal’s fascinating account The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Then I traveled to Andalusia to explore for myself this important, but not widely known, period of history. The next three blogs shed light on some of Andalusia’s fascinating history. This and two succeeding blogs will shed light on some of Andalusia’s important gifts to Western civilization.
In A.D. 750 a desperate young prince fled his home in Damascus, Syria, then the heart of Islam, in search of a safe haven. His entire family, the ruling Umayyads of the House of Islam, had just been annihilated. Some years before, the Umayyads had successfully led the Muslims from the barren deserts of Arabia to the developed cultures of the Fertile Crescent.
Barely twenty and a political refugee, young prince Abd al-Rahman journeyed for almost five years, with only his wit and grit as his weapons. He traveled across North Africa to a region the Muslims called the Maghrib, the farthest western outpost of the ever-expanding Islamic empire. Today this place is known as Morocco.
After pausing briefly in Maghrib, Abd al-Rahman pushed on across the Straits of Gibraltar to a town in southern Spain called Qurtuba (Córdoba) on the River Guadalquivir. Here, in the westernmost province of the Islamic world, he found a thriving Islamic colony that came to be called “al-Andalus.” He made Córdoba his home, eventually founding and later ruling the Umayyad Emirate (governorship) of Córdoba from 756 to 788. With this bold move, he rebuilt his ancestral dynasty—the Umayyads, who would survive in “al-Andalus” for nine generations to come.
Under his steady hand, the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba transformed itself from a debilitated place into one of the world’s great cultural, economic and political centers. Andalusia became an open-minded and innovative society where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in harmony and prosperity, pooling resources of language, art, science, scholarship, and commerce. (It was lovely to be reminded that peaceful coexistence and cooperation among people are possible!)
Córdoba fattened into a city of five hundred thousand inhabitants, with public works that included paved and lighted roads, bridges, running water, and irrigation facilities. Libraries sprouted, one with 600,000 manuscripts.
Abd al-Rahman was farsighted enough to maintain regular contact with the advanced cultures of the Fertile Crescent. There, Damascus and Baghdad excelled as great learning centers that placed a high priority on the translation and preservation of Greco/Roman writings. These writings eventually flooded into the Córdoban libraries, filling them with artistic and scientific manuscripts otherwise unavailable. In time, Córdoba burgeoned, becoming by the 10th Century the intellectual center of Europe, and one of the greatest cities in the Western world.
Hungry to connect with long-forgotten works from the classical world (about 600 B.C. to A.D. 600), northern European scholars flooded into Córdoba studying its libraries. These scholars then took their discoveries back to their own learning centers. A cultural flowering ensued throughout Europe, fueling the Renaissance and the eventual Age of Enlightenment.
One of my favorite parts of Córdoba is the Old Town’s Jewish quarter, a fascinating network of lanes too narrow for cars.
At Tiberiadus Square in Old Town is the statue of a robed and turbaned man, seated, looking pensive, holding a book in his right hand. The statue represents the Córdoban-born Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the great Jewish philosopher, scientist, and physician of Andalusia, Morocco, and Egypt.
Maimonides is remembered for many things, among them for being a brilliant religious philosopher. In particular, he was able to reconcile his Jewish faith with a belief in the power of reason, especially Greek philosophy; consequently, he was an important influence on Aquinas and Islamic theologians.
Some other thoughts attributed to Maimonides:
• Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.
• No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.
• Anticipate charity by preventing poverty.