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Islam in Spain

by Charlie Leocha

[image]In 711 the Muslim forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered the Iberian Peninsula. The original Berbers followed later by Arabs remained there until 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella drove the last caliph out of the Alhambra in Granada.

Amazingly, there seem to be fewer remaining Moorish ruins in Spain than Roman ones. It is almost as though the Moorish cities were folded up and carted away much the way a Bedouin camp might disappear as a caravan moves on. However, the influence of the Islamic wave that swept across the peninsula is woven through Spanish culture and spilled into Western culture far more than many of us realize.

The rhythmic rapping of flamenco, the click of the castanet, the strumming of a guitar, the sweep of fine fabrics, the style of a formal garden, the structure of our proper meal, toothpaste and the toothbrush, crystal glasses, ceramic tiles and even bangs all flowed from the cultivated culture of Cordoba.

During the Islamic period in Spain Cordoba grew into one of the major cultural capitals of the western world. Together with Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, Cordoba led the civilized Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world in philosophy, agriculture, medicine, literature and the arts. It was the Islamic world that preserved many of the manuscripts that became the foundation of The Bible. These same scribes etched out the thoughts of the famous Greek philosophers saving them for posterity.

Al-Andalus, the Moorish name for their Spanish caliphate, experienced a golden age of civilization from the 800s into the early 1000s that set the stage for the European Renaissance that followed. Muslims, Christians and Jews interacted together is an Islamic-ruled region with tolerance and cooperation unparalleled in its time. Influences from Arab Spain spread over the Pyrenees to France and throughout Europe, and naturally to the Americas.

While northern Europe was still emerging from barbaric hoards dressed in animal skins, the Islamic world surrounding the Mediterranean was developing different fabrics of cotton, wool and silk; cultivating new crops such as eggplant, peppers and asparagus; and composing music with a delicacy made possible by the evolution of the lute into the guitar that we know today.

[image]Later, as the first millennium ended, students from France, England and the rest of Europe gathered in Cordoba to study science, medicine and philosophy and to take advantage of the great municipal library with its 600,000 volumes. When they returned to their home countries, they took with them not only knowledge, but also art, music, cuisine, fashion and manners.

In my early research, I came across the amazing story of Ziryab, a freed slave renown as one of the best musicians in the Arab/Moorish world. He learned music in Baghdad then ended up traveling with his family from Baghdad to Damascus to Cairo to Tunisia and finally ended up in Cordoba.

Ziryab is recognized as the person who modified the lute by adding a fifth string, thus creating what developed into the Spanish guitar. Through his music he became an Arab superstar in Cordoba and created a music school that continued 500 years after his death. He also became one of the arbiters of fashion and dining as well. Ziryab exerted enormous influence on medieval European society.

As a gourmand, Ziryab began the cultivation of asparagus. He concocted the first toothpaste and toothbrush. He pioneered hair fashions that featured bangs and hair pulled back exposing the ears. He popularized shaving by men. He organized dining into the appetizer, soup, main course and dessert courses. He shifted the style of upscale goblets from gold and silver to crystal and introduces tablecloths.

I have the opportunity to search for the remnants of Moorish civilization through Andalucia, in southern Spain for the next week. I’ll be visiting Seville and Granada traveling with a great friend, Mario Leon, who was one of the first restaurateurs to introduce America to Spanish tapas and Spanish wines at his legendary restaurant Dali Restaurant and Tapas Bar (617-661-3254) in the Boston suburbs.

Each day, I’ll write about the Moorish influences, the architecture, the art, the history and of course, with Mario’s help, insights into some of the best tapas bars and restaurants in the region.

Published on May 5, 2008 · 

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