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I've long wanted to visit the Alhambra, one of the greatest remaining traces of the Islamic culture that once flourished in Spain. After reading this book, I want to visit all the more.

al-Andalus as it was named by Abd al-Rahman, last remaining heir of the Islamic Umayyad dynasty of Damascus, was a perhaps unique moment in time and space, a brief few centuries when Islam, Christianity and Judaism co-existed in relative peace. The Caliphate of Cordoba created a vivid, vibrant culture that lingered long after al-Andalus had fragmented into city-states, weakened by internal division between the more tolerant Islam of the Umayyads and the new fanaticism of Berbers from North Africa, and subsequently conquered bit by bit by the Catholic monarchs of Spain.

This is not history as I've ever read it before - if I had to pick any one word to describe this book, it would be an elegy, of sorts. What Menocal has written here is a love song, her own 'memory palace' devoted to memorialising a time and a place long since destroyed. It's an incredibly romantic, bittersweet read, and you can understand why the memories of al-Andalus have lingered for so long, why Arabs and Sephardic Jews still lament the loss of cities like Granada and Cordoba, why palaces like the Alhambra were built to serve as remembrances. al-Andalus itself was for Abd al-Rahman an evocation of his lost life in Damascus; the Alhambra was built to evoke Cordoba, and so on.

That said, I'm sure serious students of the era could pick apart a lot of this book, and a large amount of less romantic material must have been omitted or glossed over - no era in history could ever as been as idyllic as this! Whilst tolerance flourished to a degree, Jews and Christians in al-Andalus under the Caliphate of Cordoba were still very much second-class citizens; the word of a Muslim outweighed that of a Christian or Jew, and justice was very uneven. al-Andalus may have been an incredibly tolerant and culturally diverse society for its time, but it was no earthly paradise, I'm sure.
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on 31 March 2012
If you have any interest at all in the many interactions between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, you owe it to yourself to read this book. I approached it as a relatively uninformed layman with an interest in Islamic art, music of the middle ages and the romance languages, who had found himself more moved than he had expected by visits to Andalusia. I came away from it with a much greater understanding of the history of Al Andalus and the extraordinary ways in which the faiths had interacted during this crucial stage in the development of our world. I won't attempt to summarise it - simply to say that it is beautifully written, by a writer with the deepest insights into her subject, and that is has changed quite significantly how I view a whole range of issues of faith, culture, art, music and language. The only possible criticism, in my view, is a degree of repetition as she views the subject through the prism of different individuals: it's still worth sticking with it to the very last page.
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on 16 January 2015
Thank you for the excellent service. All the particulars of agreement have been honoured.
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on 3 January 2011
"Ornament of the World," asserts that the history of modern life passed through medieval Andalusia and does a good job of making the case.

The subtitle to Maria Rosa Menocal's engaging volume is "How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain," but that doesn't say the half of it.

Which is fine, because the subtitle that can do justice to this alternately sweeping and efficient book probably doesn't exist.

In fact, the featured period of tri-partite harmony is but a brief one in the book, shattered by the kinds of antagonisms that sustain our state of violent tension today.

In those days of European ignorance and atavism, Menocal writes that, "Arabic beckoned with its vigorous love of all the things men need to say and write and read that not only lie outside faith but may even contradict it -- from philosophy to erotic love poetry and a hundred other things in between."

Menocal explains how the prophet Muhammad would not perform miracles, given that the Quran, the book off God's revelations, was the true miracle.

Latent in the Arab's linguistic passion was a respect for the Christian and Hebrew reliance on scriptures.

Pagans subjected to the Arabic invasions covered in this book were required to convert, while the two "Peoples of the Book," were granted religious freedom under a covenant known as the "dhimma".

Under the prescriptions of the visionary Abd al-Rahman, founder of Al-Andalus (Arab moniker for the region of southern Spain),"the Muslims did not remain a ruling people apart. Rather, their cultural openness and ethnic egalitarianism were vital parts of a general social and political ethos within which the dhimmi could and did thrive."

If it doesn't sound much like the Afghani Taliban you know only too well, that's because there are Muslims, and then there are Muslims.

The good ones were the Umayyad.

How they became the faction they did (descendants of Muhammad's brother-in-law's sister's mother or something) is not so important as the fact another faction, the Almoravids, did them in on behalf of an Islamic intepretation more in-line with that which mystifies today.

The authoress maps out the rising tide and recession of ambulant Islam, the countercharge of Christian warriors, the religiously confused alliances of enemies when battles of family succession and greed intervened to rent the otherwise clear lines of battle asunder.

And the point of these events, for Menocal, is how the cultures involved were affected and transformed.

"Ornament of the World" is mostly about an assortment of intellectuals, dreamers, poets, and philosophers who informed these transformations, mostly forgotten, but sometimes lionized down the years.

"Ornament" details the Jewish intellectual Hasdai's rise to the exalted position of foreign secretary in the Cordoban caliphate because he, "spoke and wrote with elegance and subtlety, and because the 'vizier' possessed a profound knowledge of everything in Islamic Andalusia culture and politics that a caliph needed in his public transactions."

Much the same happened to a wealthy merchant of Malaga now known to history as Samuel in the taifa of Granada. Another star of Arabic letters, his appointment as The Nagid established him as leader to the city's Jews.

South and West of Granada, in the hamlet of Niebla, lived Ibn Hazm, a contemporary of the Nagid, and an exile from the Almoravid sacking of Cordoba's imperial city, Madinat al-Zahra.

Ibn Hazm remained dedicated his countless writings to the tolerant glories of Umayyad Cordoba, where he had thrived in younger days.

Considered alternately by scholars as embittered or sad, "He was, in any case, an astounding intellectual, his life a fitting tribute to and a noble and melancholy end point for the caliphate he never ceased to long for and lament, as if it had been a lost lover."

That caliphate fell to a malevolent force that, Menocal writes, "was often rooted in what they considered the Andalusians inappropriate relations with the Jews and Christians."

Which is not to single out Arabs as the sole possessors of intolerant habits.

Upon the Christian conquest of Granada, the famed Ferdinand and Isabella granted dhimma-like rights to their Muslim subjects. But they turned out to be paper promises.

Unfortunately for us, hundreds of years on, the results are still being reaped.

Menocal demonstrates the cultural contortions involved in this subjugation by dissecting Miguel de Cervantes' strange set-up to "Don Quixote" as the work of an Arab historian, found in the Jewish quarter of Toledo, and translated for him by a Christian Arab.

She turns something most of us shrug and pass over into a stark political statement on Cervantes' part, and necessarily alters one's consideration of "El Quixote." It is worth the price of the book.

Cervantes' literary arrangement demonstrates how, in the end, the Catholic monarchs, "chose to go down the modern path, the one intolerant of contradiction. The watershed at hand was certainly the rise of a single-language and single-religion, a transformation that conventionally stand at the beginning of the modern period and leads quite directly to our own."
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on 23 August 2014
I got this first on kindle and then could not put the 'book' down, and now have a pb. On one side it is full of history - presented not as a conventional history, but a series of snippets which form a picture of nearly 500 years of the history of Analucia. The Muslim influence in Spain is as profound as the Roman occupation on English. Apart from the example which gives the book its title, for living and working in harmony, it also acknowledges the debt Europe has to pre-12thc. Spain, and Andalucia in particular.What comes through is the 'feel' of a place, once ruled by an intelligent and open hearted Muslim dynasty - too open for some as later events showed. People do not learn from history: to invite a more aggressively militant group in to support the fight against an aggressive neighbour always carries the potential risk that the 'aid' may take over. The book ends with the reminder that conflicts involving those who lived once together, has not ended. A lovely serious in intent, but very accessible look at something that was much more than just a historical event.
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on 12 March 2004
I'm not a scholar of this period of history, i just love Andalusia - so for me this book was a really informative introduction to the history of this region, written in a way that is easy enjoy as a non-academic.
I loved the characters - she really brings them to life, and the history of some of the great buildings (like the mosque of Cordoba & the Alhambra) was fascinating. Also the way in which this area of Spain was so influential in the re-discovery of ancient philosophy, maths, astronomy & more was a revelation to me.
I read this book whilst in Granada and it really brought the history of the place to life.
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HALL OF FAMEon 18 July 2005
Writing history raises an inevitable challenge: relate events as they were or portray selected elements to emphasize a theme. The former method is often ponderous, the latter often misleading. Menocal has opted for the second option. In her survey of Medieval Spain, she gives us an entertaining and informative look at expressions of the intellectual elite over seven centuries of Muslim rule.
Menocal's approach aims to restore Spanish Islam's blemished reputation. Muslim Spain has endured a scathing censure imposed by "victorious" Christian Europe. In the Christian view, the Reconquista of Spain freed a population from a Muslim yoke. The European invasion of the Western Hemisphere carried that myth across the Atlantic while strengthening the crusading attitude of the conquistadores. Menocal uses romantic poetry, the advancement of selected scholars to high posts under the caliphate, and the literacy of the Muslim and Jewish communities as evidence of high, positive interaction. Even the Christians, normally disdainful of literacy, science and philosophy, joined the chorus of common interests.
Weaving her tale around the Cordovan Umayyad caliphs founded by exiled prince Abn al-Rahmad, she traces the building programs, internal disputes among the Islamic schisms arising along the Mediterranean, and the challenges posed by intruders from the north. For Menocal, the binding force across Islamic Spain was language. Arabic became a lingua franca with the power to transcend religious dogma and jurisdictional disputes. Jews and Christians alike became fluent in this imposed language due to its expressive power. Arabic was also used in the Eastern Mediterranean to recover and spread lost texts of the Greek scholars. Thus, often unattributed, the Muslims kept medicine, astronomy, philosophy and other disciplines alive. Christians would later adapt them joyfully, but the Dark Ages aren't misnamed for the rest of Western Europe.
Menocal might have produced a book of sweeping vision, restoring the image of Muslim Spain as one of civilisation's most noteworthy achievements. Instead, she sinks into a swamp of romantic fervour, highlighting erotic poetry and grandiose architecture. The farmers and small traders who were taxed to support these elitist endeavours likely had a different view. That is, when they weren't in hiding from the nearly continuous wars waged among the Muslims or between the Islamic invaders from the south or the Christian ones from across the Pyrenees.
As she skips over the centuries, Menocal introduces the rising tide of Christian aggressive attitudes culminating in the Jewish/Muslim expulsion. The French monastics at Cluny had adopted the liberal view of philosophy espoused by their Iberian neighbours. Deeper in Europe, however, the Cistercians, ardent crusaders, urged expunging Christianity of any Arabic taint. Viewpoints hardened, as Menocal recounts, through exchanges of essays and books. Menocal doesn't investigate whether these expressions reached the general populace, but the Church hierarchy system ensured local parish priests acted as mouthpieces of the regional bishops. The events of 1492 verified who had the louder voice.
Although tentatively concluding with the background of Columbus' departure, Menocal cannot resist extending her recital to the early 17th Century. How can one write on Spain without folding the La Manchan epic into the story? Finding Arabic roots in Cervantes is neither new nor difficult, but Menocal provides a new twist. Menocal suggests Don Quixote's worldview is that of any thinker of the Muslim period. Identity of any aspect of the world is muddled by a spread of conflicting, if not hostile, attitudes. La Mancha thus becomes the last gasp of an integrated Spanish society that is considered insane by the rigid-minded world that succeeded it.
Given the span of time and involvement of numerous articulate historical figures, one turns to the "Other Readings" at the back with high expectation. Turn the pages carefully, otherwise you'll miss it. Instead of a bibliography rich in selection, there are a few translations by Menocal's lady friends and a few, little known scholars of the subject. If Menocal lacked the ambition, time or knowledge to produce a proper reading list, she might have cited one or two good ones. Instead, there's a paucity of further reading. Except for the few maps, which mostly duplicate each other, the illustrations follow the pattern. A pity. Such an immense topic standing on so feeble a base makes this book good reading, but uninformative. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 25 February 2017
There's a really great story here, but it's not quite the history I was looking for. The focus is absolutely on language and written culture (especially translation), and the freedoms and tolerances that allowed them to flourish. This is not a history which includes how people lived together.

Each chapter focuses on the writers who left a record of their culture and their language. By presenting the story in this way, the lives of ordinary people are mostly absent. Did neighbours of different faiths maintain friendships, quarrel, intermarry, share resources, work together? You won't find out here. Because of the focus on a canon of literature there is almost nothing on the lives of women - these writers are all men. Also missing here is the science and medicine in which Arabic scholars led the world during some of this period. Poetry, philosophy and theology are the focus.

I would also say that, although I applaud any work which examines the history of Muslims in Europe, there are assumptions here about what constitutes a free society and what are the virtues of culture.

There is, however, a lot to recommend about the book. In particular, the story of the changing pragmatics of tolerance in Spain presents a fascinating study of how linguistic traditions can unite and divide.
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on 14 February 2017
I came into this book hoping it wouldn't be a dreamy eyed polemic about how everyone got along nicely. It wasn't. As a Muslim, I got the sense that while there was much to admire in Muslim Spain, there was also much to dislike from a modern perspective. But more than that, I got the sense that Andalusian Spain was not one thing- rather it was a complex tapestry of faiths and interpretations of those faiths, of extremism and benign multiculturalism.

The author's central thesis is that there is much to be celebrated in Andalusian Spain, and that the relatively peaceful coexistence of the three abrahamic faiths is something we should bear in mind in the modern context. This coexistence was sometimes punctuated by intolerance, but lasted well for a good few hundred years, before both Muslim and Christian extremism got the worst of everybody.

Regardless, it shows that an Andalusian identity was formed that transcended faith, and which took great effort over many many decades of the Reconquista to stamp out, with forced conversions and forced exiles abound. In a sense, Abd El Rahman founded an Andalusian Spain that it had its own distinct culture and national identity. It is a shame the darker sides of human nature destroyed it and built the homogenous Catholic Spain that succeeded it.
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on 28 May 2013
A library of 500,00 books. The Mezquita which is an amazing work of art. The background and structure for building Gothic Cathedrals. What the Moors knew in the 9th though the 15h century was way ahead of Christians. The sewage system and clean streets what more could a person want in the 10th & 11th centuries? Pretty hard to beat this glorious history!
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