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The Legacy Of Islamic Spain

I had a little nut tree,

nothing would it bear

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But a silver nutmeg and

a golden pear;

The King of Spain's daughter

came to visit me,

And all for the sake of my

little nut tree.

HIS romantic little nursery rhyme hints at what Spain once suggested to the popular mind - so wonderful was the little nut tree that even a Spanish princess would come to see it, drawn to it not only because of the phenomenon itself, but because the fruit represented treasure - silver and gold.

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This magic aura continued to haunt Spain even when the country had to endure centuries of poverty and isolation, of warfare and misery. The old legends were not forgotten. The enchantment derives much of its strength from the nearly 800 years when it was, partly or almost wholly, under Muhammedan rule and subject to Islamic influence.

H. A. L. Fisher in his great "History of Europe" sums up the Spanish scene during the Middle Ages as "[a history] in which two sharply contrasted civilizations, one Christian in religion and Celtiberian, Roman, or Visigothic in race, the other Muslim, Arab and Berber, are confronted with one another, and condemned despite much mutual attraction to a long struggle for ascendancy. From this contest, which was closed only when in 1492, the year of the discovery of America, Ferdinand and Isabella conquered t he little state of Granada, the Christians emerged victorious. The Jews and the Moriscoes were driven from Spain."

The Islamic and Arabian influence was not confined to the Iberian Peninsula but extended widely over southern Europe, especially France. The Moors were turned back in AD 732 by Charles Martel near Tours in a final battle, but their learning and culture stayed on, penetrating the achievements of towns like Avignon, a deeply admired artistic and intellectual source of ideas.

It was in AD 711 that the Muslims began their conquest of Spain, an operation which was to continue for almost eight centuries with many vicissitudes, many different protagonists on each side. In 756, the first Muslim dynasty was established with the arrival of Abd-al-Rahman, the survivor of the line of Umayyad caliphs (successors to the Prophet Muhammed) who had ruled the Islamic world from Syria. This dynasty, based in Cordoba, endured until 1031, creating a prosperous era when the different races mana ged to live peaceably together and to cultivate the land. Agriculture flourished, as did the arts. Learning was honored, religious tolerance the rule.

The newcomers called the country Al-Andalus.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba comes from this time, a building rightly famous then and now for its wealth of double arches, the rounded "horseshoe" arches the Moorish builders created, with their pattern of striped stones. The Muhammedans would have no iconology, no portrayal of human figures or images, so their art brought them to a concept of abstract forms and geometric fantasies, ideas congenial to a people who were so mathematically advanced.

They also turned their attention to the deployment of water as a beautiful and longed-for element in an arid land, creating pools, fountains, and canals. Finally, their ornamental creativity expressed itself in calligraphy, the beautiful, flowing Arabic script.

The word of God, which they studied in the Koran, was to be seen on the walls and the objects of their buildings and, of course, in the exquisite volumes of the holy text itself. The other residents of the Iberian Peninsula, the Christians and the Jews, had the same reverence for their own holy books - the Bible and the Torah. In this matter they all understood its importance.

After 1031, the empire of the Umayyads decayed, giving place to some 20 small independent kingdoms, the Taifas, whose great cities included Valencia, Seville, and Granada, and many others that are still thriving. The Taifas were artistic and vital, but weak militarily. At the end of the 11th century, and again in the mid-12th, the Berbers of North Africa swept up across the Strait of Gibraltar.

These people were fundamentalists, austere, fierce Muhammedans who thought Spain lax and careless of Islamic principles. However, they could not defend the peace, and being divided gave an opportunity to the Christian kingdoms in the north to arise - states like Leon, Castile, and Aragon.

By 1225, nothing was left to the Moors but the little kingdom of Granada in the south, with its fortress and the palaces of the Alhambra. When this fell in 1492, the Islamic chapter was closed from the angle of military intervention, and in other ways also. When the Spanish rulers threw the Muslims and Jews out of the country in the same year, they were paralyzing their nation, depriving it of its great source of knowledge, intellectual activity, artistic inspiration and execution. These people had in th emselves the very talents Spain needed - their going constituted an irreparable loss.

`Alhambra" means the Red Fort, a common-enough name for such a place; one remembers the Red Fort at Agra, India, another Muslim citadel. The Red Fort the Moguls built is a marvelous building, but it does not have the vast reaches of the Alhambra, which in its heyday comprised not only a great citadel but also six palaces, all running along the crest of a height.

The citadel remains, and two of the palaces, with a part of a third. In one of them, Washington Irving once had lodgings. His book, now outdated, captures the romantic flavor, the happiness he found there.

No place can really rival the Alhambra; its gardens, silences, courtyards, and fountains have a peculiar spell of their own. Once again the Arabic love of water is expressed here, in the creation of pools that reflect the beautiful carved stonework, the arabesques, the tiles, where the water was led through elaborate fountains.

Cordoba fell to the Christians in 1236, Seville in 1248, but Granada held out for over 200 years after that - a tiny principality strategically located high in the mountains.

The last powerful Islamic Dynasty, the Nasrids (1238-1492) patronized learning and the arts, and the various ethnic groups worked harmoniously together on these levels. Like their predecessors they were wonderfully productive in many fields: textiles (which included carpets woven with the "Spanish knot"), curtains, robes; leather work, marquetry, sculpture, ceramics, ivory carving, the making of splendid swords. Many of these things were embellished by calligraphy.

This beautiful Koran binding shown here was made during the Almohad period (1178) and was crafted of lavishly gilded leather, with touches of pale green and pink. The design centered on an eight-pointed star. The binding has a flap (a strip of leather that protects the exposed edges of the pages), one of the important Muslim contributions to bookbinding, and may well have been bound in Morocco.

It is now one of the treasures of the Bibliotheque Royale in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, a very suitable home for it. The script of the precious book it contains was written in a style then prevalent in Valencia, and it is thought the Koran, once copied out, was sent across the Strait of Gibraltar to be bound. It is indeed an object to delight the bibliophile and collector.

The astrolabe, an instrument for taking altitudes of stars and other objects, also testifies to the wonderful artistry of Islamic Spain. Made in the Taifa period (1079), it was one of enormous numbers of these useful tools for the mariner that were made during this period.

The Greeks had had astrolabes, but the Muslims with their mathematical and astronomical flair, developed them. They were useful not only in charting the heavens but as timepieces, and ones like this could be held easily in the hand. This example was made in Saragossa and is of gold and copper, a wonderful tour de force.

The splendid chased swords, the ivory caskets, the rugs and the statues, the lovely ambiance of the palace courtyards, have continued to nourish our romantic, sentimental images of the country, so that the term "castles in Spain" evokes at once a feeling of wonder and of longing.

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