The “Golden Age of al Andalus” is the ultimate Arab fantasy. Its a Fata Morgana that equals flying carpets, Â 72 virgins, Â 28 pearly boyz and Â 60.000 servants in Mohammed’s bordello in the sky. Â But nothing constructive or ‘golden’ can come from a bunch of fanatical zealots who base their whole worldview on plundering, Â enslaving and murdering all those who do not adhere Â or submit to their belief system.
We have traditionally been told that the first two centuries of the Spanish Emirate, supposedly founded in 756 by Abd’ er Rahman I, constituted a veritable Golden Age of Spanish history. And indeed the opulence and prosperity of Spain during these years is contrasted very favorably with the poverty and ignorance of Christian Europe in the same period. The following description of eighth-tenth century Cordoba, written by English historian H. St. L. B. Moss in 1935, may be regarded as fairly typical of the genre:
“In Spain … the foundation of Umayyad power [in 756] ushers in an era of unequalled splendour, which reaches its height in the early part of the tenth century. The great university of Cordova is thronged with students … while the city itself excites the wonder of visitors from Germany and France. The banks of the Guadalquivir are covered with luxurious villas, and born of the ruler’s caprice rises the famous Palace of the Flower, a fantastic city of delights.”
The picture Moss paints was derived from medieval Arab annalists, who spoke of a city of half a million inhabitants, of three thousand mosques, of one hundred and thirteen thousand houses, and of three hundred public baths – this not even counting the twenty-eight suburbs said to have surrounded the metropolis.
Over the past sixty years intensive efforts have been made to discover this astonishing civilization – to no avail.
Try as they might, archaeologists have found hardly anything, hardly a brick or inscription, for the first two centuries of Arab rule in Spain. Between 711 and 911 there is almost nothing, with substantial remains only beginning to appear around 825 or 830. According to the prestigiousOxford Archaeological Guide, the first two centuries of Arab control at Cordoba has revealed, after exhaustive excavations: (a) The south-western portion of the city wall, which is presumed to date from the ninth century; (b) A small bath-complex, of the 9th/10th century; and (c) A part of the Umayyad (8th/9th century) mosque. This is all that can be discovered from two centuries of the history of a city of supposedly half a million people. By way of contrast, consider the fact that Roman London, a city not one-tenth the size that eighth and ninth century Cordoba is said to have been, has yielded dozens of first-class archaeological sites. And even the three locations mentioned in theÂ GuideÂ are open to question. The city wall portion is only “presumably” of the ninth century, whilst the part of the mosque attributed to the eighth century is said to have been modeled by Abd’ er Rahman I. However, the latter character sounds suspiciously like his namesake and supposed descendant Abd’ er Rahman III, of the mid-tenth century, who indisputably made alterations to the mosque (which was originally the Cathedral of Saint Vincent).
Even when real archaeology does appear at Cordoba, from the second quarter of the tenth century onwards, the settlement is absolutely nothing like the conurbation described by the Arab writers. Indeed, at its most opulent, from the late tenth to the late eleventh centuries, the ‘metropolis’ had, it would seem, no more than about forty thousand inhabitants; and this settlement was built directly upon the Roman and Visigothic city, which had a comparable population. We know that Roman and Visigothic villas, palaces and baths were simply reoccupied by the Muslims, often with very little alteration to the original plan. And when they did build new edifices, the cut-stones, columns and decorative features were more often than not simply plundered from earlier Roman/Visigoth remains. A text of the medieval writer Aben Pascual tells us that there were, in his time, to be seen in Cordoba surviving buildings, “Greek and Roman. … Statues of silver and gilded bronze within them poured water into receptacles, whence it flowed into ponds and into marble basins excellently carved.”
So much for the “vast metropolis” of eighth to tenth century Cordoba. The rest of Spain, which has been investigated with equal vigor, can deliver little else. A couple of settlements here and a few fragments of pottery there, usually of doubtful date and often described as “presumably” ninth century or such like. Altogether, theÂ Oxford GuideÂ lists a total of no more than eleven sites and individual buildings in the whole country (three of which are those from Cordoba mentioned above) which are supposed to date from before the first quarter of the tenth century. These are, in addition to the above three:
- Balaguer: A fortress whose northern wall, with its square tower, “is almost entirely attributable” to the late-9th century. (p. 73)
- Fontanarejo: An early Berber settlement, whose ceramic finds date it to “no later than the 9th century.” (p. 129)
- Guardamar: A ribat or fortress mosque, which was completed, according to an inscription, in 944. However, “Elements in its construction have led to its being dated to the 9th cent.” (pp. 143-4)
- Huesca: An Arab fortress which “has been dated to the period around 875.” (p. 145)
- Madrid: Fortress foundations dating to around 870. (p. 172)
- Merida: A fortress attributed to Abd’ er-Rahman II (822-852). (p. 194)
- Monte Marinet: A Berber settlement with ceramics within “a possible chronological range” from the 7th to the early 9th century. (p. 202)
- Olmos: An Arab fortress with ceramics “dated to the 9th cent.” (pp. 216-7)
The above meager list contrasts sharply with the hundreds of sites and structures from the Visigothic epoch – a comparable time-span – mentioned in the same place. (It is impossible to be precise about the Visigothic period, since many sites, such as Reccopolis, contain literally hundreds of individual structures. If we were to enumerate the Visigoth structures by the same criteria as we did the Islamic remains above, then the Visigoth period would reveal not hundreds, but thousands of finds). And it needs to be stressed that most of the above Islamic finds suffer from a problem highlighted by Richard Hodges and William Whitehouse in regard to finds from other parts of Europe during the Dark Ages: an almost unconscious attempt to backdate material of the tenth century into the ninth and eighth in order to haveÂ somethingÂ to assign to the latter epoch. Look for example at the fortress of Guardamar. Although an inscription dates the completion of the edifice to 944, we are told that “elements” in its construction have led to it being dated to the ninth century. What these elements are is not clear; yet we should note that such defended mosques, being essentially fortresses, must have been raised very quickly – certainly in no more than a decade. Why then are we told that this one took fifty or perhaps seventy-five years to complete? Bearing this in mind, we can say that there is scarcely a single undisputed archaeological site attributable to the first two centuries of Islamic rule; whilst there are, to date, hundreds of rich and undisputed sites linked to the Visigothic epoch! The first real Islamic archaeology in Spain occurs during the time of Abd’ er Rahman III, in the third or fourth decade of the tenth century (when the Guardamar fortress was completed).
The same poverty of material remains and signs of occupation is found throughout Islamic North Africa between the mid-seventh and mid-tenth centuries, and Richard Hodges and William Whitehouse speak of an Arab-created “dark Age” in the region during those years.
What could all this mean? Whatever interpretation we might put on it – and there are several possibilities – one thing is very clear: The opulent and refined Islamic civilization which up till now has been placed alongside and contemporary with a dark, ignorant and impoverished Christian Europe of the seventh to tenth centuries, is a myth. When Islamic cities do appear, in the middle of the tenth century, they are very comparable, in terms of size and level of culture, to the contemporary cities of Christian Europe. Our entire understanding of European and Middle Eastern history during the seventh to tenth centuries needs a radical rethink.
Emmet Scott’s book,Â Mohammed and CharlemagneÂ Revisited, is Published by New English Review Press
The existence of a Muslim kingdom in Medieval Spain where different races and religions lived harmoniously in multicultural tolerance is one of today’s most widespread myths. University professors teach it. Journalists repeat it. Tourists visiting the Alhambra accept it. It has reached the editorial pages of theÂ Wall Street Journal, which sings the virtues of the “pan-confessional humanism” of Andalusian Spain.
Coin of the realm, no doubt, but in fact moreÂ hype than reality. Take the case of the rule of Abd al-Rahman III (912-961), “The Servant of the Merciful,” the Caliph of Cordoba, which is supposedlyÂ the apogeeÂ of the Golden Age:
He took the city to heights of splendor not seen since the days of Harunal- Rashid’s Baghdad, financed largely through the taxation of Catholics and Jews and the booty and tribute obtained in military incursions against Catholic lands. He also punished Muslim rebellions mercilessly, thereby keeping the lid on the boiling cauldron that was multicultural al- Andalus. His rule presumably marks the zenith of Islamic tolerance. Al-Mansur (d. 1002), “The One Made Victorious by Allah,” implemented in al-Andalus in 978 a ferocious military dictatorship backed by a huge army. In addition to building more palaces and subsidizing the arts and sciences in Cordoba, he burned heretical books and terrorized Catholics, sacking Zaragoza, Osma, Zamora, Leon, Astorga, Coimbra, and Santiago de Compostela. In 985 he burned down Barcelona, enslaving all those he did not kill.
But be that as it may, let us presume that the President has grounds for his admiration. What is the suppressed conclusion? Therefore we have nothing to fear in Muslim rule? The advance of Islam is to be welcomed and we will once again all live in Andalusia? Suddenly Muslim rulers like Khomeini and Khamenei will become benign Caliphates of culture and ecumenicism? ISIS’s commander, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has a Ph.D in Islamic Studies, will establish great multicultural universities? In this context, the Argument from History proves nothing. It is if one were to argue that if we just embrace the Greek gods we will relive the glory that was Greece.