Scattered Thoughts and Readings: Moorish Spain

We recently did a quick jaunt through southern Spain, piggybacked on a business trip my wife had to do in Madrid. The places we visited, Granada, Sevilla (Seville), Gibraltar, and Toledo, were sites had long wanted to visit, and I was not disappointed. (I also wanted to get to Cordoba -- a city whose name has much been in the news of late, because of the Park51 Mosque/Community center controversy -- though on this trip we ended up not having time.)

At the Al-Hambra, I was surprised to find that the English-language self-guided audio tour consists almost entirely of quotes from a book the American writer Washington Irving published in 1832: Tales of the AlHambra (Wikipedia; Full text). The historian Richard Fletcher, in his book Moorish Spain, laments how Irving and a British contemporary, Richard Ford (author of Handbook for Travellers in Spain, 1845), helped through his account to shape a 'romanticized' vision of Moorish Spain in the English-speaking world -- an account that uses a kind of positive or approving Orientalism to invoke a palace life full of intrigues, impossible grandiosity, and mystery. Here's an excerpt from Irving's book, which is also included in the section of the self-guided Audio Tour of the Al-Hambra I listened to:

Muley Abul Hassan, in his youthful days, had married his cousin, the princess Ayxa la Horra, daughter of his uncle, the ill-starred sultan, Muhamed the Left-handed; by her he had two sons, the eldest of whom was Boabdil, heir presumptive to the throne. Unfortunately at an advanced age he took another wife, Isabella de Solis, a young and beautiful Christian captive; better known by her Moorish appellation of Zoraya; by her he had also two sons. Two factions were produced in the palace by the rivalry of the sultanas, who were each anxious to secure for their children the succession to the throne. Zoraya was supported by the vizier Abul Cacim Venegas, his brother Reduan Venegas, and their numerous connections, partly through sympathy with her as being, like themselves, of Christian lineage, and partly because they saw she was the favorite of the doting monarch.

The Abencerrages, on the contrary, rallied round the sultana Ayxa; partly through hereditary opposition to the family of Venegas, but chiefly, no doubt, through a strong feeling of loyalty to her as daughter of Muhamed Alhayzari, the ancient benefactor of their line.

The dissensions of the palace went on increasing. Intrigues of all kinds took place, as is usual in royal palaces. Suspicions were artfully instilled in the mind of Muley Abul Hassan that Ayxa was engaged in a plot to depose him and put her son Boabdil on the throne. In his first transports of rage he confined them both in the Tower of Comares, threatening the life of Boabdil. At dead of night the anxious mother lowered her son from a window of the tower by the scarfs of herself and her female attendants; and some of her adherents, who were in waiting with swift horses, bore him away to the Alpuxarras. It is this imprisonment of the sultana Ayxa which possibly gave rise to the fable of the queen of Boabdil being confined by him in a tower to be tried for her life. No other shadow of a ground exists for it, and here we find the tyrant jailer was his father, and the captive sultana, his mother.

The massacre of the Abencerrages in the halls of the Alhambra, is placed by some about this time, and attributed also to Muley Abul Hassan, on suspicion of their being concerned in the conspiracy.

For better or for worse, the government of Spain continues to encourage Irving's image of Granada and the Al-Hambra for Anglophone tourists to this day. (I am curious to know whether the Spanish-language personal audio tours also use Washington Irving's book as a primary source. While I was there it didn't occur to me to ask.)

* * *

After coming back, I revisited a book I had first read several years ago, which helped to inspire my curiosity about this region, Maria Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. It's an attempt to synthesize diverse strands of this era Spanish history in an accessible and brief way, and as such I wish I had had it with me while we were actually traveling.

However, though Menocal's book is undoubtedly valuable as a starting point for reading about the complex history of cross-cultural and cross-religious interaction in Medieval Spain, it's also at times confusingly written if the reader is looking for a linear historical account (she has a long summary chapter at the beginning, followed by episodic accounts through the rest of the book, each associated with a different city in Moorish Spain).

At the library this week, I came across a much more straightforward account, Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher. Fletcher shares Menocal's interest in showing that the Arab kingdom of Al-Andalus was an exceptionally vibrant and tolerant regime -- generally more interested in encouraging trade, the arts, and architecture than in waging war or imposing religion (there were of course some exceptions, such as the raids and forced conversions during the period of Al-Mansur). With Fletcher's straight history, one loses some of Menocal's choice anecdotes and her quasi-biographical personification of key figures, like Boabdil or Alfonso VI (Boabdil's mother is said to have chastised her son when he agreed to give over Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492: "You should not cry like a woman for a place you did not defend like a man"). But it was only after reading Fletcher that my understanding of things like the transition from the Cordoban Caliphate to the "Taifa" period became clear.

Incidentally, Wikipedia is also not bad on these topics, for those who might be curious, but not have access to the books named above.

Cordoba Caliphate:



Boabdil (Muhammed XII of Granada):

Whatever the limitations of tolerance in Moorish Spain, it's clear from both Menocal and Fletcher's books that the Arab kings produced some great things -- the architecture and magnificent carvings at the Al-Hambra being only the most prominent example. (The era of Moorish Spain also produced a number of standout Jewish intellectuals and philosophers, including Maimonides, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, Isaac Abravanel, and Samuel the Nagid). Admittedly, the massive Cathedrals and Palaces one now sees in Andalusia from the Christian Reconquista, sometimes built on the site of former Mosques, are no less magnificent. (We were especially wowed by the Cathedral at Toledo.)


Hasdai ibn Shaprut:

Isaac Abravanel:

Samuel the Nagid:

* * *

I've also looked at selections of "Moorish Poetry" in the classic Anthology of Islamic Literature: from the Rise of Islam to Modern Times (1964). Some of the poems seem worth reproducing here for readers, though I don't have access to the original Arabic.

Here is a poem by an Arab/Andalusian poet named Al-Husri;

Mourning in Andalusia

In Andalusia clothes are white
That mourning wear;
The custom's right. . . . I bear its truth
In every greying hair
That grieves for my lost youth.

(Translated by A.J. Arberry.)

I also liked this poem Al-Tutili;


I was bored with old Seville
And Seville was bored with me;
Had the city shared my skill
To invent abusive rhyme,
Rivals in invective, we
Would have had a lovely time.

So at last my weary heart
Could endure no more, and cried
it was time that we should part:
Water is much more purified
Than the dribble of a pool.

Here is another, by Ibn Sara:

Pool with Turtles

Deep is the pool whose overflow
In the cool bright showers
Is like an eye weeping below
Lashes of quivering flowers.

Look--the merry turtles sport
Like Christians to the field
That sidle, frolic, and cavort
Bearing a casual shield.

(The above poem seems like a taunt -- for defeated Christian armies?)

And finally, here are a few lines by Ibn Quzman

The Radish

The radish is a good
And doubtless wholesome food,
But proves, to vex the eater,
A powerful repeater.

This only fault I find:
What should be left behind
Comes issuing instead
Right from the eater's head!

* * *

I do not have the same relationship to modern writers from Spain as I do with writers from the British Isles -- so in a sense this type of trip is less of a pilgrimage than last year's long-overdue visit to Ireland. I did, like many other poetry besotted teenagers, read the poems of Gabriel Garcia Lorca in my youth -- though I have not revisited his work in quite awhile.

I also have an interest in the history of the Spanish Civil War, in part because several important British and American writers were mixed up in it in one way or another (George Orwell, W.H. Auden, and Ernest Hemingway all wrote about it). That did not play much into this trip, though we did see invocations of the Franco era and the Civil War at the Alqazar in Toledo. We were also able to see some famous works inspired by the Spanish Civil War in the Reina Sofia Museum at Madrid, including Picasso's "Guernica."

See Eric Hobsbawm's excellent (first-hand!) account of the impact of the Spanish Civil War on writers from the 1930s here: