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The Ornament of the World    by Marķa Rosa Menocal order for
Ornament of the World
by Marķa Rosa Menocal
Order:  USA  Can
Back Bay, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Ornament of the World, Marķa Rosa Menocal gives us a history of medieval Islamic Spain, in the context of its roots in the broader Arab-Islamic civilization that filled in the vacuum left by the Roman Empire. She also shows us, in a 'series of miniature portraits' focused on cultural events, the illumination that this golden age shed on the cultural development of much of Europe.

I was aware of some of this before, not from history taught in school, but from historical novels by authors like Rafael Sabatini and Dorothy Dunnett. But I was especially fascinated to read about the beginnings of this great Andalusian civilization. After the Abbasids massacred the Umayyad royal family in 750 Damascus, its last surviving young prince, Abd Al-Rahman, fled to the Western frontier of their empire, where he built a complex, rich, tolerant and unique kingdom in al-Andalus that was stable for three centuries - it makes a thrilling tale.

After an overview of the history of the region from Abd Al-Rahman's 750 arrival to the conquest of the last remnant of Muslim rule in 1492 Granada by Isabella and Ferdinand, the author zooms in on specific figures and cultural events during that timeline. There was a contentious period of taifa city states, rather like those in Italy during the Renaissance period, and intrusions from both northern Europe and by fundamentalist nomads from N. Africa, all of which eroded the special relationships that had developed between the Andalusian Muslims and the dhimmi, the People of the Book (Jews and Christians).

In the vignettes that follow this overview, the author shows us the development of language and literature, philosophy and science (the true legacy of the period) in the context of political events. Individuals portrayed include the great Abd Al-Rahman (who wrote an ode to a palm tree); Jewish prince Hasdai who was also vizier and foreign secretary to the caliph in 949 Cordoba; Samuel the Nagid, a Jew, a poet and vizier of the taifa of Granada; and Christian convert Petrus whose Arab education made him a 'celebrity sage' in England. Also discussed are Ibn Hazm, Judah Halevi, El Cid, the Abbot of Cluny, Michael Scot, and many other famed individuals.

It is fascinating to know that at a time (the early 10th century) when the biggest library in Christian Europe held a few hundred manuscripts, the caliphal library of Cordoba had about four hundred thousand, and that this wealth of intellect and accomplishment continued to influence other cultures long after the Umayyad golden age had passed. The author ends by asking how and why 'a culture of tolerance falls apart'. She answers by talking about the importing of intolerant beliefs from north and south, and the despair caused by the devastating Black Death (resulting in the 'scapegoating of tolerance itself'), but also explains it as a matter of choices made by those in power.

The Ornament of the World is not a fast read, covering a wealth of historical and literary material, much of it fairly dry, but it raises important questions about the value and vitality of contradictions in societies. The book ends with a brief postscript on 9/11, and the foreword mentions that there 'are no Muslim Andalusians visible anywhere in the world today.' Which makes it even more important to remember this 'one brief shining moment' when a culture of tolerance reigned, to recall that this once was Islam, and to hope that it can be again.

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