The Ornament of the World
Maria Rosa Menocal
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Buy *The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain* online

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
Maria Rosa Menocal
Back Bay Books
352 pages
April 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Andalusia today is as boldly industrialized, as polluted in parts and as burdened with the complexities of modernization, as any other part of Spain. Until recently it had been considered by some still to be an outpost of anarchists and a home to hillbillies with a distinctly non-Castillian manner of speaking the Spanish language, a rude place which, absent the few tourist watering holes, had to be dragged into the late twentieth century kicking and screaming.

Some of the Andalusian cities thought by outsiders to typify Spanish architecture and culture -- Seville, Cordoba, Granada -- actually reveal the heritage of the Moorish occupation, the open toleration of Sephardic Jews, and the Catholic readiness, even after reconquest, to preserve Muslim tradition. For a period of time in the Middle Ages, such toleration and mixing of religions was remarkably and uniquely possible. Maria Rosa Menocal makes us aware, in her book The Ornament of the World, that "these three religions have a shared history that is itself part of European history and culture. And that this was not merely a grudgingly shared moment but instead a very long and illustrious chapter in the history of the West."

The towns and tiny villages of Andalusia, dotted in high Sierra Nevada and along the sparkling Mediterranean, recall this chapter and speak volumes about it. The canto hondo, that rich singing style that cries of love -- "Consented to be a sacrifice, killed for her love, eager, like a drunk gulping wine mixed with poison" and shouts "Shut up and kiss me!" is heard today even in the sound of men berating their mules as they plow the fields of wheat, "Corre Mu-lo!" No-one who has ever experienced the musical cadences of Al-Andalus can doubt that they have stepped back into a time when the Islamic call to prayers informed the ears of Catholic peasant singers. White houses with red tile roofs may seem to be generically Mediterranean, but cafe walls lined with azulejos clearly imitate the Muslim decoration of the Alhambra and other great Islamic forts and shrines.

When Queen Isabella entered Granada in 1492 at the time of the Reconquista, she easily inhabited the Alhambra, one of the great architectural wonders of the world. "They not only moved into the Nasrid palaces, but the pious Isabella had the mosque consecrated and began to worship there. These were acts of open-armed embrace of their patrimony, unthinking acceptance of the familiarity, not the foreignness, of places where Arabic was written on every wall..." In other words, the Catholic monarchy, which went on to viciously suppress the Moors, was at home in their world because it was a world they had grown up in.

Also known as ha-Sefarad, Andalusia became a place of refuge for Jewish scholars and poets whose adopted Arabic allowed them to express more fluidly that which in Hebrew felt restricted. Sephardic Jews became a people in their own right, disconnected from the mainstream of European Judaism because they had enjoyed greater toleration and less oppression. Judh Halevi, "the revered pillar of the Andalusian Jewish community and the most celebrated poet of his age," was free enough to openly spurn his Andalusian roots and make for Jerusalem, and as the author puts it, "Halevi was rejecting -- and this was precisely what his own community found so inexplicable -- the very premise of the commensurability of the two, philosophy and religion." Andalusian Judaism, for many, stood for the nondestructive nature of Greco-Islamic philosophic style and Arabized Hebrew poetry. Halevi had the luxury of saying no to both and taking up a quest for a purer essence. As he lamented, "How can I fulfill my vows, or do the things I've sworn to do, while Zion is in Christian hands and I am trapped in Arab lands?"

As Menocal is careful to detail, the bonds that connected these three cultures -- Christian, Jewish and Islamic -- was not strong enough to survive the intolerance of many individuals who took power from time to time. But "the fact that it no way negates the many rewards, social as well as cultural, of that age."

Modern visitors to the southeastern portion of Spain take in with their very breath the attar of that rich enduring mix. We hear in the "a" and "al" words of modern Spanish their Arabic birthright -- the charmingly domestic alfombra, rug, almohada, pillow, and the all important asequia -- the water channels with which the industrious Moors turned the desert of southern Spain into a garden of earthly delight, the eponymous ornament of the known world. For us now it is merely glorious to look upon -- but once it was a paradise of tolerance and the peace that tolerance brings. With this book, that older world is now a part of our newer understanding.

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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