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Menocal has created her own memory palace in this work...
on 2 May 2014
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.