Last year’s Festival of Three Cultures stimulated an interest in me to know more about the medieval history of this part of Spain. For my birthday and for Christmas I received gifts of three books on the subject, and have now finished reading two of them. The first was a particularly densely written political history of Al-Andalus by Hugh Kennedy, which made for slow reading in small chunks; for instance, the index lists no fewer than twenty five separate people bearing the name, ‘Abd Allah (from ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hajar to ‘Abd Allah b. Yasin). Other name combinations occur with similar frequencies. However, by the time I reached the final page, I had laid down a basic understanding in my mind of the course of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.
And now I have just completed the second; Chis Lowney’s ‘A Vanished World”, subtitled ‘Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain’. This is a much more discursive, narrative work, giving the general reader (me!) a much clearer picture of the general sweep of history during this period, and adding Christian and Jewish perspectives. Both books tell of a world of disputes, rebellions and outright wars between ruling Muslim families and tribes, and also among the royal houses of Christian Spain. For the most part the two sides had little time left to fight each other - and not infrequently entered into alliances and treaties with the other to assist in the fight against their own co-religionists!
But what has most caught my attention is the way in which at street level, so to speak, Jews, Christians and Moors lived largely harmonious lives together; exactly the theme propounded by our annual festival. I shall just quote one or two of Chris Lowney’s examples.
“ Diego Gonzalez, a priest, believed that ‘ the Jew can find salvation in his own faith just as the Christian can in his.’ “
“Another Castilian Christian must have left inquisitors slack-jawed when he mused, ‘ Who knows which is the better religion, ours or those of the Muslim or the Jew.’ “
And two wonderful examples of ecumenism in action from the same source,
“ Miguel Semeno seems to have endorsed that theory; either that or his family were hedging bets on the afterlife when they erected his tombstone. ‘In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ’ it reads, ‘ he died on Sunday 4 November in the Era 1194.’ Yet bordering the edge of the same gravestone is an Arabic inscription. ‘ In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful. Mikayil ibn Semeno was he who went forth to Allah, with His Mercy, from the abode of this life.”
“...the will of fifteenth-century Alfonso Fernández Samuel requested burial with a Christian cross at his feet, the Quran at his breast, and ‘his life and light’, the Torah beside his head.”