Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Alhambra And The Oasis Of Luxury That Was Moorish Spain

Interior of the Alhambra, Patio of the Lions
GRANADA, April 6, 2013 - What did the height of luxury in Europe look like in the year Colombus sailed to America?

It looked like the Alhambra, the last palace of a Moorish ruler in Spain.

Even today, the Alhambra takes visitors' breath away. It is an oasis of light and shadow, of white arches and honeycomb ceilings, of cool marble columns multiplied in reflection pools, and flowers and trees overflowing garden walls.

Imagine its sitting rooms strewn with rich carpets and pillows and it becomes everything its most famous admirer, Washington Irving, wrote in his 1829 book Tales of the Alhambra:

"The abode of beauty is here as if it had been inhabited but yesterday."

If the Alhambra is an abode of beauty, it is not by accident. The palace was the product of a culture of luxury in Andalusia that lasted from the Arab-led Moorish conquest of the Spanish peninsula in 710 to the final surrender of the Alhambra to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492.

Right from the beginning, the court culture of Moorish Spain sought to imitate and even surpass those of Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. The reason was in the origins of Moorish Spain itself.

Unlike many territories the Arabs conquered when the swept out of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, Spain at the time offered no opulent prize cities. Its previous prosperity as part of the Roman Empire had been destroyed in the barbarian invasions that brought down Rome itself and its comforts had sunk to the level of those elsewhere in medieval Europe.

Muslims in Iberia, from Tale of Bayad and Riyad 
So, when Arab generals led a horde of Berber tribesmen from North Africa across the straits of Gibraltar in 710, the challenge was to build a new civilization rather than merely adapt a pre-existing one to their tastes.

Their building efforts got a further impetus in 750 when the Umayyad caliphate that ruled the Islamic world from Damascus was overthrown by rivals who would found the Abbasid dynasty. As the usurpers established their new capital in Baghdad, a survivor of the Umayyad family fled to Moorish Spain to establish his own caliphate and vowed to outshine them.

By the tenth century, Moorish Spain had become one of the brightest stars of the Islamic world. Its capital, Cordoba, had over 300 mosques and innumerable palaces and public buildings, rivaling the splendors of Constantinople, Damascus, and Baghdad.

It also had one of the largest libraries in the world, with at least 400,000 volumes, and was a center for translating ancient Greek texts into Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew. Those same translations would later help spark Europe's renaissance by re-connecting it to its lost classical heritage.

At the same time, the great cities of Moorish Spain were comfortable. Cordoba was the first city in Europe to use kerosene lanterns to light its main streets at night. Many streets were paved. And rulers were not only patrons of the arts but led a courtly life with distinctly hedonistic tones.

One 11th century poet in Seville, Ibn Hamidis, writes of a drinking party where goblets of wine were floated along a stream to the guests who lounged along the bank:

"It is as it we were cities along the riverbank while the wine-laden ships sailed the water between us,
For life is excusable only when we walk along the shores of pleasure and abandon all restraint."

Almoravid Empire, 11th Century
Moorish Spain was wealthy because it was the European extension of a trade route that stretched from southern Morocco to the Niger valley near Timbuktu. Along it flowed camel trains bringing gold and free labor in the form of slaves -- enough of both to build magnificent cities.

The Moors introduced new crops into the Spanish peninsula, including rice, sugar-cane, cotton, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, pomegranates, spinach, artichokes, and figs.

These exotic foodstuffs became part of Moorish Spain's profitable export trade, which also included luxury goods like ceramics, glass, and beautifully wrought leather and wood boxes.

In his 1992 book Moorish Spain, historian Richard Fletcher observes that the prosperity of Moorish Spain at its height can be gauged by the existence of a famed workshop for ivory carving in Cuenca during the middle years of the 11th century. He notes the ivory could only have come from as far away as East Africa or India, evidence of how far-reaching were the trade networks of the time.

But despite all these signs of prosperity, Moorish Spain was a fragile and tumultuous place.

That is partly because its was caught between two great forces. To the north were Christian states which grew more powerful with time. To the south were the Berber tribes from which Moors sprang and which eyed the riches of Andalusia enviously.

Yet the main reason the Moorish states were so weak was not just the strength of their neighbors but also their own constant infighting and calling in of outside forces to help fight their rivals.

Christian and Moor, Book of Games of Alfonso X, 1285
By 11th century, Moorish rulers were so regularly calling upon the Christian states of northern Spain to intervene that the most powerful Christian kingdoms like Castille and Aragon were in a position to demand tribute in exchange for protection.

Abd Allah, the ruler of Granada, has left this description of his negotiations of protection payments with King Alfonso VI of Leon-Castlle in 1075:

"Alfonso accepted my plea after much effort on my part and I finally agreed to pay him 25,000 (gold) pieces, half the amount he had demanded. Then, as presents for him, I got together a large number of carpets, garments, and vessels and placed all these things in a large tent. I then invited him to the tent. But when he saw the presents he said they were not enough. So it was agreed that I should increase the amount by 5,000 (gold) pieces, bringing it to a total of 30,000."

At the same time, Spanish and French kings were engaging in Christendom's first crusades to constantly push the borders of Moorish Spain southwards. Their crusades -- like the better known later crusades to Jerusalem -- were motivated both by religion and the chance to plunder or conquer the richer Islamic lands.

The danger from the south was no less. To relieve the pressure of the Christian states, Moorish Spain's beleaguered rulers called for help from fellow Moors in North Africa. But they often found themselves overthrown by their own Muslim allies.

This happened most famously at the end of the 11th century when the Almoravid empire, founded by a school of fundamentalist ascetics in North Africa, came to Moorish Spain to help, were appalled by its liberalism, and stayed to rule. They in turn were displaced by an even more fundamentalist group of aesthetics recruiting followers among the wild Berber tribes of southern Morocco, the founders of the Almohad empire.

Moors playing chess, Book of Games of Alfonso X, 1285
Writing in 1377, the Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun sought to explain the rapid rising and falling of Islamic empires in Moorish Spain in terms of a larger political theory.

In his book the Muqaddimah, he observed that Islam's great empires were always carved out by barbarian tribes of conquerors tightly knit by religious conviction. Yet after their conquests created a great civilization, their sense of purpose was sapped by luxuries and rivalries, and they in turn became prey to a new tightly knit horde of barbaric invaders.

The influx of new Muslim conquerors from North Africa pushed back the Christian states for a while. But when these new empires, too, decayed, it proved to be only a temporary reprieve. By the 1400's, steady pressure from the north had pushed Muslim rule out of all but a slice of coastal southern Spain.

The most famous of the remaining principalities was the emirate of Grenada, the home of the Alhambra, which would become the last Muslim state to fall in 1492.

How did Granada hold out so long?

Much of the reason can still be seen today. The emirate was mountainous and extraordinarily well fortified, with a chain of castles built on the average just five or six miles apart along the northern and western frontiers. It also had enormous numbers of watchtowers all over its territory to serve as redoubts -- as many as 14,000 according to one contemporary historian, Ibn Khatib.

The Alhambra was a vast fortress itself, but with an inner world of refined luxury. When tourists visit it today, they go directly to those parts of the castle no visitor in the 1400s would see, the dwelling place of the royal family. But the complex also contained a military garrison, stables and workshops. 

The Alhambra fortress and palace complex
It was only after an eight month siege that the troops of the combined kingdoms of Aragon and Castille finally took Granada on January 1, 1492.

On the following morning King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received the keys to Granada from the new puppet ruler they had just installed.

As Fletcher notes, it was a dramatic moment:

"Curiously enough, (Ferdinand and Isabella) had chosen to dress themselves in Moorish costume for the ceremony. Among those who witnessed it was Christopher Colombus, who was in attendance upon the court in his quest for royal sponsorship of his projected voyage of discovery into the Atlantic."

That day marked the end of Muslim rule in Spain. A new era was beginning in which Europe would become rich through its mastery of the sea and Moorish Spain would be but a memory.

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