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la convivencia

The period known as La Convivencia refers to the peaceful coexistence of Muslems, Jews and Christians during the Moorish reign of al-Andalus (Spain), between 711 and 1492. Although during the entire period the Moors were under attack by the Christian Reconquista, they nurtured a culture of prosperity and - for a while - an unprecedented degree of religious tolerance.

While the rest of Europe was still enveloped in the Dark Ages, Muslem Spain enjoyed a Renaissance which lay the seeds for the later European Renaissance. Cities like Toledo, Cordoba and Seville were centers of the arts and sciences, with unsurpassed libraries and universities, as well as that great symbol of civilization: streetlighting (not to be found in Northern Europe for several centuries to come).

During this period, the Moors created a great cultural output, ranging from philosophy and poetry to mathematics, astronomy and medicine, by such illustrious names as Ibn Rushd (better known in the West as Averroes), Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Ibn Arabi (Doctor Maximus) and Abu al-Qasim (Abulcasis). A similar list can be made for the Jews living in al-Andalus - even though the most famous Jewish philosopher of the time, Maimonides, was forced into exile in Fes by a less tolerant caliph.

An interesting BBC documentary on the subject is 'An Islamic History of Europe' (available online in six parts). Among other things, it disproves the common belief that Medieval Arabic science did little more than preserve the Ancient Greek texts that had been lost in Europe. For example, the extensive commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes would prove highly influential by themselves.

All in all, a fascinating and - in the West - little-known historical era that made Washington Irving understandably wistful (see previous post).

tales of the alhambra

The swan song of the Moors in Europe, the 14th century Alhambra palace remains suffused with exotic mystery. Located on a hilltop overlooking Granada, its fortified walls reveal little of the splendor of its inner halls and courtyards.

It is said that when the last Muslim king of Granada, Boabdil, was forced to surrender the Alhambra and fled into the mountains, he looked back from a mountain pass and sighed. That pass is still called El Ultimo Suspiro del Moro, the Last Sigh of the Moor. (His mother, however, was less sentimental and remarked: "You do well to weep like a woman over what you could not defend like a man.")

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To a Western eye, entering the Alhambra means stepping into a completely different architectural paradigm. Instead of the monumental European churches and palaces which were built to inspire awe by their sheer size, the Alhambra is a wonder of human-scale elegance and subtility. The entire palace is built around water, with intricate waterworks serving fountains and pools in every courtyard and garden - a form of luxury which only a desert people could fully appreciate.

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Contrary to the Christian obsession with portraying saints in various degrees of realism, Islamic decorations are exclusively made up of abstract geometric patterns. The magnificent Alhambra arabesques, as the Moorish decorations came to be known, are designed to inspire awe in their own way. Endlessly repeating and interlocking, formal and playful at the same time, seamlessly incorporating Arabic calligraphy and even entire poems, they are patterns to get lost in and contemplate the infinity of the universe - or in religious terms, Allah.

Not surprisingly, one of the artists deeply influenced by Islamic art was M.C. Escher, who visited the Alhambra twice before he began to develop his own unique brand of arabesques and tesselations. (See for instance his 'Alhambra Sketch'.)

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Unfortunately, the overwhelming numbers of tourists take away some of the Alhambra's magic. A good way to preserve the exotic atmosphere (apart from visiting off-season) is to read Washington Irving's 'Tales of the Alhambra'. During his time as an American diplomat in Spain in 1829, Irving lived in the Alhambra and wrote a volume of travel notes and stories about it. Besides giving a fascinating account of Andalucian life in the 19th century, his 'Tales of the Alhambra' collect a number of Moorish fairy-tales that bring to life the charm of the Alhambra.

How many legends and traditions, true and fabulous; how many songs and ballads, Arabian and Spanish, of love and war and chivalry, are associated with this oriental pile! It was the royal abode of the Moorish kings, where, surrounded with the splendors and refinements of Asiatic luxury, they held dominion over what they vaunted as a terrestrial paradise, and made their last stand for empire in Spain.

It is impossible to contemplate this scene so perfectly Oriental without feeling the early associations of Arabian romance, and almost expecting to see the white arm of some mysterious princess beckoning from the gallery, or some dark eye sparkling through the lattice. The abode of beauty is here, as if it had been inhabited but yesterday; but where are the two sisters; where the Zoraydas and Lindaraxas!

(Zorayda and Lindaraxa were both Moorish princesses, whose stories Irving tells as well. In the online text of 'Tales of the Alhambra', here and here.)

But the stories Irving tells are from a distant, legendary past, and tinged by melancholy. Musing on the fate of the Moors, he writes:

Never was the annihilation of a people more complete than that of the Morisco-Spaniards. Where are they? Ask the shores of Barbary and its desert places. The exiled remnant of their once powerful empire disappeared among the barbarians of Africa, and ceased to be a nation. They have not even left a distinct name behind them, though for nearly eight centuries they were a distinct people. The home of their adoption, and of their occupation for ages, refuses to acknowledge them, except as invaders and usurpers. A few broken monuments are all that remain to bear witness to their power and dominion, as solitary rocks, left far in the interior, bear testimony to the extent of some vast inundation. Such is the Alhambra. A Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.

morocco: essaouira

After the sand dunes of the Sahara and the beehive of Marrakesh, the lazy Atlantic coastal town of Essaouira provides yet another of Morocco's many contrasts. Named Mogador by the Portuguese, the town was long a Barbary pirate haven, and its windswept ramparts and traditional fishing port still remind of its notorious past.

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As local legend tells it, the Castle Made of Sand here (the ruins of the Bordj el Berod watchtower) was the inspiration for the Jimi Hendrix song. (Other accounts deny this, but that doesn't discourage the locals.)

Update: For more photos of Essaouira and Morocco, see Jorrit's blog.

morocco: marrakesh

The old medina of Marrakesh stretches the concept of a city to its very limit with a labyrinthine density of alleyways and souks, donkeys and scooters, veiled women and hagglers. Not surprisingly, the French colonizers opted to lay out their own city next to it (the ville nouvelle), providing a strange contrast of boulevards and villas.

In the medina, all roads eventually lead to the Djemaa el Fna, the vast square where snake charmers, musicians and storytellers perform until the sun sets and the whole square turns into an open-air eating place.

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See also these high-res photos of the Djemaa el Fna at night.

morocco: m'hamid

On the edge of the Sahara, at the end of the asphalt road, lies the sleepy town of M'Hamid (with the h pronounced with excessive aspiration), where the camel caravans used to embark on their 52 day journey to Timbuktu, to return laden with exotic riches.

In recent history, the town was attacked by Polisario in their (still unresolved) struggle over Western Sahara. But with the river Draâ increasingly dry, the sand dunes encroaching ever further on the town seem to be a graver danger.

The desert is like an ocean, its tranquil beauty always reminding of its awesome power which reduces all man's efforts to utter futility. No wonder so many religions (Jewish, Christian, Islamic) sprang from the desert - it is the ultimate lesson in humility that nature provides.

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