THE ORNAMENT OF THE WORLD – Book Sample
A Brief History of a First-Rate Place
THE MOMENTOUS EVENTS OF EIGHTH-CENTURY EUROPE WERE first set in train by the death of Muhammad, the Prophet who bore the Revelation of submission to God that is Islam. The story of Muhammad’s transformation, from ordinary citizen of Mecca to charismatic military leader and radical founder of a religious and civil order, played itself out in a corner of our ancestral world about which we know precious little. The Arabs of the steppes and deserts of the Arabian Peninsula were more or less settled in the oases that provided what scant water there was to be had. Some few were traders, serving as connections between one settlement and another. The most powerful were the nomads, the Bedouin. The desert culture of these peoples—who also had historic connections with the adjacent cultures of the Fertile Crescent—was itself strongly marked by two features that gave distinctive shape to the religion that Muhammad’s revelations brought into existence. On the one hand, the pagan and idol-worshiping religions of the desert were the target for this new and utterly uncompromising monotheism, which begins with the starkest possible
declaration on the matter: “There is no god but God.” * On the other hand,
not only conserved but fully appropriated from the culture whose ritual center was Mecca was the loving cultivation—some would say adoration—of language, and of poetry as the best that men did with the gift of language. Muhammad’s revelation, preserved in the Quran, embraced the poetry- besotted universe of his ancestors and contemporaries, and thus ensured the survival of the pre-Islamic poetic universe, with its many blatant contradictions of what would become normative Islamic belief.
The vexed question at the heart of the story we are following, the one that will take us to Europe’s remarkable transformations in the medieval period, lies not in Muhammad’s life but in his death. (The Islamic calendar hinges neither on Muhammad’s birth nor on his death, but on the turning point in the story, in 622, when Muhammad and his followers moved from Mecca to Medina, a journey known as the hijra, or hegira.) Muhammad had died in Medina in 632 without an obvious successor. He had left behind, first and foremost, a powerful revelation, a combination of tradition and revolution. Islam was nothing less than the return to the pristine monotheism of Abraham—abandoned or misunderstood by Jews and Christians alike, the revelations asserted, and unknown altogether to the benighted pagans of the desert. All this came forth not in Muhammad’s own words but through his transmission of the direct language of God, his
“Recitation”—the word Quran means “recitation”—of what God was revealing and dictating to him.
Alongside that relatively straightforward revelation, however, and inextricably intertwined with the essentially spiritual reorientation he urged, Muhammad had also created a community with distinctive social-civil-moral values, one that was already a military and political empire in the making. But there were no clear guidelines for how that empire should be organized or ruled, and Muhammad’s death left an inevitable vacuum. No question in Islam is more fundamental and shaping than this one, a source of political instability and violent dispute from the beginning, as it remains to this day. Who could, after all, succeed a prophet who was also a dominant statesman? In that highly contested succession lie the origins of many of the major shapes and terms of Islam that are mostly unknown or puzzling to non-Muslims: Shiites and Sunnis, caliphs and emirs, Umayyads and Abbasids, all of these crucial internal divisions. One of the earliest chapters of this struggle within Islam for legitimate authority was the one that transpired in 750, the bloody massacre of the Umayyad royal family that led to the foundation of a rival Islamic polity in southern Europe, and the origins of that story lie in the moment directly following the Prophet’s death, over a century before.
The simplified version of the succession to the Prophet is that the initial four caliphs—from the Arabic khalifa, or “successor”—were chosen from among Muhammad’s contemporaries, from the community of his companions and close relatives. The last of this foursome (called the Rightly Guided by many Muslims) was Ali, a cousin of Muhammad who was married to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. But Ali ruled for a mere five years before his caliphate came to a bloody end with his assassination in 661. This was barely thirty years after the Prophet’s death, yet this fateful event began a new act in the drama of the ever-expanding Islamic empire. The Umayyads, the new dynasty that came to power, were both Arabs and Muslims, and they symbolized the original fusion of a culture—and especially a language—with a revelation, a fusion that was the very soul of a new religion and civilization. But they moved their capital from the provincial and dangerously factional Medina to the more open and friendly spaces of Damascus, and in coming out of the isolation of the Arabian desert and making Syria over into the new homeland, and in the conversions of people far removed from Mecca and Medina, the Umayyads’ Islam forged a new culture that added generously to the Arab foundation. Transplanting the heart of the empire out of the Arabian peninsula and into Syria, which had its own mixed cultural legacy, was the first significant step in creating the ill-understood, crucial distinction between things Arab and things Islamic, a distinction that is particularly relevant to our story.
The Umayyads presided over this expansive period from their central and accessible caliphal seat in Damascus, a cosmopolitan and venerable city, in its previous lives Aramaean, Greek, Roman, and, most recently, Christian. There and elsewhere they began building new defining monuments in places where the remains of other cultures were still visible. The Great Mosque of Damascus was not built out of blank clay but with the bits and pieces of a Roman temple and a Christian church. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built on the ruins of the Temple Mount and around the natural rock where Abraham’s sacrifice of his son was mercifully rejected by Abraham’s God. The building was thus erected by the Umayyads as a monumental version of the Quranic understanding that this is the One God, and that the Muslims are also, and now preeminently, among the Children of Abraham.
The borders of the Islamic empire continued to spread, and by 711, armies of recently converted Berbers, led by Umayyads from Syria, moved into Europe. Within and around the Mediterranean basin, from the Taurus Mountains in the north-east (the border with Anatolia) to the Pyrenees in the northwest (the border with Gaul), the new empire filled almost exactly the bed left by the old Roman empire: a map of the Mediterranean territories of the nascent Islamic empire—the Umayyad caliphate—in the seventh and eighth centuries corresponds remarkably to the Mediterranean center of a map of the Roman world in the second century. In our casual acceptance of the notion that there is some critical or intrinsic division between Africa and Europe, we are likely to neglect just how central this southern shore of the Roman world was. But if we reexamine the stretch of North African coastline as it was plotted out geopolitically in the second- or third-century Roman world, and then in the eighth, we can see the relative inconsequence of small stretches of water such as the Strait of Gibraltar and the baylike line of blue between Carthage and Sicily, as well as the obvious underlying unities and orders.
The Islamic transformation began to remake the entire ancient Near East, including Persia and reaching as far, already at the time of the Umayyads, as northwestern India. The virtue of this Arab-Islamic civilization (in this as in other things not so unlike the Roman) lay precisely in its being able to assimilate and even revive the rich gifts of earlier and indigenous cultures, some crumbling, others crumbled, even as it was itself being crafted. The range of cultural yearning and osmosis of the Islamic empire in this expansive moment was as great as its territorial ambitions: from the Roman spolia that would appear as the distinctive capitals on the columns of countless mosques to the Persian stories that would be known as The Thousand and One (or Arabian) Nights, from the corpus of translated Greek philosophical texts to the spices and silks of the farthest East. Out of their acquisitive confrontation with a universe of languages, cultures, and people, the Umayyads, who had come pristine out of the Arabian desert, defined their version of Islam as one that loved its dialogues with other traditions. This was a remarkable achievement, so remarkable in fact that some later Muslim historians accused the Umayyads of being lesser Muslims for it…
The Palaces of Memory – THE ORNAMENT OF THE WORLD
The Mosque and the Palm Tree
ABD AL-RAHMAN WAS AN OLD MAN OF FIFTY. A LIFETIME had passed since he had first arrived in the once remote hinterland of Cordoba, an ambitious young man, the sole surviving heir to a caliphate brutally stolen away in Syria. The universe had changed in those years, partly of its own accord, partly under his direction. From the outset, he had resigned himself to the permanence of exile in al-Andalus, despite the sadness that came from knowing he would never see his beloved homeland again. With that acceptance had come determination, energy, and purpose as he learned to harness what might have been crippling bitterness against the Abbasid pretenders who had destroyed his family. The Abbasids had abandoned Damascus soon after Abd al-Rahman had: by 754 their second caliph, named al-Mansur, had moved to the East, where he had a spanking-new city built to escape the very memory of the Umayyads. Baghdad was indeed a marvelous and magical place from the moment it arose, a circular city, perfectly concentric and perfectly secure on the banks of the Tigris. But Abd al-Rahman, whose enemies begrudgingly called him “the Falcon of the Quraysh” (the Quraysh was the tribe of the Prophet himself), had survived to make sure that, despite the Abbasid turn in history, the memory of the Umayyads and of Damascus would not be lost. For thirty years he had been laying the foundations for a defiantly new Umayyad polity.
In Iberia the Visigothic settlements that the Muslims had moved into were far from well tended. But part of the Umayyad tradition, developed in Syria when they had first arrived there, was to know how to take advantage of what they found lying about, especially when it came to the abundant remains of the Roman past. What could be salvaged was salvaged and reused; what had to be newly invented was. Bridges and roads were built or repaired; and water was brought to the land so new kinds of plants could be cultivated. In many cases these were themselves the fruits, both literal and metaphoric, of the eastward Islamic expansions, to places such as Persia and India, whose many riches became Umayyad staples. Many later historians, Abbasids as well as others seeking to justify the end of that glorious moment in Islamic history, would point disapprovingly to the way the Umayyads had absorbed and adapted the spolia and trappings of the civilizations they found as they spread throughout the world. To such purists, the open-hearted and eclectic syncretism of the Umayyads seemed a defect.
Like other exiles and immigrants in every generation and from every culture, Abd al-Rahman yearned for the small tokens of the old country, a favorite fruit, the look of a childhood home. But in this case, the man who craved the tastes, sights, and sounds of a native land to which he could not return was a caliph in all but name, with the wherewithal to have plants brought across the breadth of North Africa, and to have buildings built to remind him of Syria. Because he was not only a powerful ruler but the founding father of the Umayyads of al-Andalus, his memories and nearly everything he did to satisfy his cravings ultimately bore more significance than the personal nostalgia of one man forever exiled from a beloved maternal home. And these were the essential building blocks, shining with the patina of tradition and legitimacy, of this new common wealth.
The first Muslim armies had ventured to the far northern reaches of Iberia, beyond the deep and snowy mountains they called al-Baranis, the Pyrenees, and into a place called Gaul. The farthest drives north had taken place years before Abd al-Rahman had even dreamt of al-Andalus, while the Umayyads
were still running things from Damascus. Armies had moved far up the Rhone valley, and well into Burgundy, and for a number of years it looked as though the extended Muslim territories in Europe would include considerable lands north of those rugged mountains. But a different and far worthier adversary lay in wait. When, in 732, the far-ranging Muslim armies ventured as far as a settlement called Tur—barely 150 miles from Paris—the ruler of the Franks was provoked to defend his territories. On the outskirts of the modern city of Tours, on the plains south that lead to Poitiers, Charles Martel stood up against the Muslim forces, and the battle that ensued became legendary on both sides. The Franks routed the Muslims, killing the general at the head of their army and so many men that Muslim historians ended up calling the killing fields “the Plain of the Martyrs.” For historians of Europe, the Battle of Tours, sometimes called the Battle of Poitiers, would always represent the iconic end point of Muslim advances into northern Europe. This crucial turn in European history elicited Edward Gibbon’s striking remark in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that, had the battle gone differently, “perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and the truth of the revelation of Mohammed.”
The brutal loss forced the would-be settlers to retreat to the area that would later be called Provence, where they stayed on for about another quarter-century. But the Franks were not the Visigoths, and their determination to claim these lands for their own continued. Pepin, son of Charles Martel and father of the far more famous Charlemagne, launched a long and ultimately successful campaign to take the land north of the Pyrenees, and by 758, just a few years after Abd al-Rahman had established himself in Cordoba, the northernmost Muslim armies and settlers had been pushed back south of the Pyrenees. This did not occur readily, however, and the many battles and long sieges—of the city of Narbonne most famous of all—ended up providing much of the material, part historical and part legendary, for the vast epic tradition that would become the bread and butter of medieval French literature.
The Battle of Tours and its aftermath determined the linguistic and religious makeup of northern Europe, in effect limiting the expansion of Islam to the Iberian Peninsula instead of allowing it to reach nearby Paris and the Rhine. Yet a different and far less historically decisive battle only a generation later takes pride of place in the literary and mythological tradition of modern Europe. No epic is more central to that tradition than the Song of Roland, and the raw material for this chanson de geste (“song of deeds,” as the Old French oral epics were called) comes from the years during which center stage was occupied by two great and ambitious rulers, each determined to create a vast and unified polity. The Umayyad almost-caliph Abd al-Rahman and the king of the Franks (and eventual Holy Roman Emperor) Charlemagne were neighbors whose territories rubbed against each other, at times seductively, at times abrasively, all along the Pyrenees. The Battle of Roncesvalles, which was later immortalized in the epic tradition, was triggered in part by the Franks’ land lust. Their success, under Pepin, against the advancing Umayyads had whet their own expansive appetites and they had begun to dream of the lands south of the Pyrenees, much as the southerners had dreamed about settling to the north.
The opening to the lands of the south came, as these things so often did, because of civil strife and treacheries. From the beginning of his reign, in 756, Abd al-Rahman appeared determined to avoid the errors of earlier governors, and especially to eliminate the chaos that had characterized much of al-Andalus’s short history. Abd al-Rahman realized that Berber and Syrian rivalries would be the enemy of a large and prosperous state, and he vigorously and uncompromisingly administered al-Andalus while refusing to play the games of tribal loyalties In the long run his strategy succeeded brilliantly, and the result was (among other things) a thriving, powerful, and well-organized state, which he passed on to his heirs, and they to theirs, for a quarter of a millennium. But in the early years, predictably, tribal and factional leaders felt they and their age-old traditions of political patronage had been betrayed.
In 777, the twenty-second year of Abd al-Rahman’s rule, a number of aggrieved local Muslim nabobs approached the king of the Franks for help. Though Charlemagne was himself heavily involved in his own ongoing struggles against the Saxons, he spent the next year campaigning with his Muslim allies throughout the lands south of the Pyrenees, struggling over cities from Barcelona, on the Mediterranean coast, to places like Pamplona, closer to the Atlantic shore. This was an unhappy venture, as it turned out. Military successes were few and far between, and by the summer of 778 the….
Mother Tongues – THE ORNAMENT OF THE WORLD
The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention. They have forgotten their own language. For every one who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in this language than the Arabs themselves.
THIS IS THE VOICE OF PAUL ALVARUS, OUTSPOKEN AND WIDELY respected Christian luminary of Cordoba, in the mid-ninth century. It was almost exactly a hundred years since Abd al-Rahman had arrived in that old Visigothic city, now so transformed visually and socially. Cordoba was all bustle, a prosperous boomtown, new construction of every sort every where, its peoples, cultures, and languages reshuffling themselves along with the changing landscape. Perhaps the best contemporary witness to these changes is the decidedly partisan Alvarus, whose famous polemical book, The Unmistakable Sign, quoted above, gives us a snapshot of the culture wars of his time. Though he himself was a layman, Alvarus shared his horror at the spectacle of a world transformed with a small but highly visible group of conservative Christians.
The transfigurations that Alvarus’s generation observed with increasing pessimism were not a simple matter. First, there was the staggering expansion of the Muslim community. Some of this increase came from new immigrants; a great deal of it came from among the numbers of the once dominant Christians, who were converting by the hundreds. Every day, the tide of converts moved from the Church toward this new religion of those who were fully and powerfully in control. Among the losses of the Christian community were the children of the countless mixed marriages. Even when the Christian brides remained Christian, or at least did not appear to have converted, and even when they brought up their children speaking their maternal tongue—the old local language of the Christians that was no longer Latin but still had no name of its own—the children were almost invariably, inevitably in the eyes of Islamic law, raised as Muslims. The example, if one was needed, was set by the caliph himself. From the time they had arrived in old Hispania, the Umayyads had mixed their bloodline with women from the old Christian families of Iberia, or from beyond the frontiers to the north. The most powerful and respected of the Muslims, the Umayyad princes descended from the caliphs of Arabia and Syria, were also visibly their mothers’ sons, the often fair-haired heirs of their indigenous Iberian forebears.
There were also now many more mosques than churches, and the cathedral mosque, overflowing beyond capacity on Fridays, was being expanded once again. But Alvarus, whose allies in the resistance to the new religion were mostly the representatives of the embattled Church, knew that religion was only half the problem. The other half, directly laid out in those lines from The Unmistakable Sign, was that vast realm of culture intimately tied to faith and yet separate from it. The Muslims had brought to Hispania something that the half-crumbled Visigothic province could scarcely remember it had once had: a language that spoke with power and elegance about all the powerful human needs that lie outside a faith. Alvarus’s own words make the case unflinchingly: the Latin the young people were abandoning in droves was the tradition of commentaries on the Scriptures. But the Arabic they were embracing was not only that of prayer, but no less the one that had allowed Abd al-Rahman to write an ode to a palm tree to
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