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City on A Hill
A stunning exhibition unveils the splendor of an Islamic empire in Spain
By ROD USHER Cordoba
When a syrian named abd al-Rahman arrived in Spain in 755, a booming Islamic empire stretched from Asia Minor to the Pyrenees. But this member of a leading Damascus family, the Umayyads, was not after a holiday in the sun; he was aiming to keep his head on his shoulders. The Umayyads had been big shots in Syria since their founder became governor there in 641, but power was slippery during the torrid times that followed the founding of Islam by Muhammad and the rapid coalescence of tribal desert peoples into an all-conquering Arab empire.
The Umayyads' slide began when the Abbasid clan-named for Abba, an uncle of Muhammad-began conspiring against them. In June 750, things came to a head, literally. The Abbasids invited all the Umayyads to a banquet, but this was no conciliatory dinner party: 80 guests were decapitated. Abd al-Rahman, the only survivor, quickly packed his bags for the long trek to Spain. There he founded an emirate in Córdoba, in what was then al-Andalus and is now Andalucía. His line kept on building, and in 929 Abd al-Rahman III declared himself Caliph, the Muslim equivalent of Pope.
In May two modern rulers, King Juan Carlos of Spain and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, visited Córdoba to open an exhibition that marks the dazzling epoch there of the Umayyads, the remains of whose buildings and works of art are on show to Sept. 30 as "The Splendor of the Córdoban Umayyads." That it was Assad's first visit to Europe since taking over from his late father underlines the importance of the exhibition at Madinat al-Zahra, a once palatial city on a hillside outside Córdoba.
As the first millennium headed into the second, Córdoba was a major world center; it has even been described as the New York of the 10th century. Archaeologist Antonio Vallejo, co-organizer of the exhibition, says that's an exaggeration. "But between Córdoba, Madinat al-Zahra and neighboring Madinat al-Zahira there may have been 200,000 people. This at a time when the population of Paris was about 10,000."
To demonstrate their resurgence, the Córdoban Umayyads dug deep into their booty chests. They brought in Arab architects and craftsmen and blended local skills learned under the Romans and the Visigoths. An indication of their shopping list is that Abd al-Rahman III had 4,000
marble columns brought from around the Mediterranean to use at Madinat, which some 10,000 workers began slaving to build in 936. Today, about 10 hectares of the city have been excavated; aerial infrared photos indicate that there are another 100 under surrounding farms.
Early in the eighth century, armies from North Africa began probing the Visigothic defenses of Spain and ultimately they initiated the Moorish epoch that would last for centuries. The people who became known to West Europeans as Moors were the Arabs, who had swept across North Africa from their Middle Eastern homeland, and the Berbers, inhabitants of Morocco who had been conquered by the Arabs and converted to Islam.
In 711 Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Berber governor of Tangier, crossed into Spain with an army of 12,000 (landing at a promontory that was later named, in his honor, Jabal Tariq, or Mount Tariq, from which the name, Gibraltar, is derived). They came at the invitation of a Visigothic clan to assist it in rising against King Roderic. Roderic died in battle, and Spain was left without a leader. Tariq returned to Morocco, but the next year (712) Musa ibn Nusair, the Muslim governor in North Africa, led the best of his Arab troops to Spain with the intention of staying. In three years he had subdued all but the mountainous region in the extreme north and had initiated forays into France, which were stemmed at Poitiers in 732.
Al Andalus, as Islamic Spain was called, was organized under the civil and religious leadership of the caliph of Damascus. Governors in Spain were generally Syrians, whose political frame of reference was deeply influenced by Byzantine practices.
Nevertheless, the largest contingent of Moors in Spain consisted of the North African Berbers, recent converts to Islam, who were hostile to the sophisticated Arab governors and bureaucrats and were given to a religious enthusiasm and fundamentalism that were to set the standard for the Islamic community in Spain. Berber settlers fanned out through the country and made up as much as 20 percent of the population of the occupied territory. The Arabs constituted an aristocracy in the revived cities and on the latifundios that they had inherited from the Romans and the Visigoths.
Most members of the Visigothic nobility converted to Islam, and they retained their privileged position in the new society. The countryside, only nominally Christian, was also successfully Islamized. Nevertheless, an Hispano-Roman Christian community survived in the cities. Moreover, Jews, who constituted more than 5 percent of the population, continued to play an important role in commerce, scholarship, and the professions.
The Arab-dominated Umayyad dynasty at Damascus was overthrown in 756 by the Abbasids, who moved the caliphate to Baghdad. One Umayyad prince fled to Spain and, under the name of Abd al Rahman (r. 756-88), founded a politically independent amirate (the Caliphate of Cordoba), which was then the farthest extremity of the Islamic world. His dynasty flourished for 250 years. Nothing in Europe compared with the wealth, the power, and the sheer brilliance of Al ...
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