Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ornament of the World

The clash of cultures can be violent, but the turbulent relations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in medieval Spain resulted in an unprecedented flowering of arts and scholarship that influences us to this day.

Menocal's book is a breezy read through 8 centuries of conflict and trouble in a region that at times allowed all three faiths to intermingle peaceably and flourish with astounding results. Al-Andalus produced some of the most remarkable art, architecture, and philosophy of its period, and arguably the Islamic preservation of Greek thought (and their adoptation and spread of the Hindu numerical system) helped spark the later Renaissance in Europe. Further, the caliphate's tolerance of all "peoples of the Book" helped the Renaissance of Hebrew as a living language and the preservation of Judaic thought and tradition as well.

The cast of characters is enormous, from Roland and El Cid through Frederick II and Averroes and Avicenna and Maimonides to Cervantes and Columbus--so don't expect a lot of depth. But ignore the obviously politically motivated postings by agenda-driven ideologues on Amazon's review page; this isn't a bad book, and it's not intended for academics. Menocal is trying to draw attention to an ignored age, often called "dark," that was anything but. And her case for positive and tolerant respect of different cultures is timely, too--she completed the book just before 9/11. There were many 9/11s throughout the 8th-15th centuries and yet somehow "Western Civ" still happened. I doubt we'll see much flourishing of anything during our current crisis, but history will judge.

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