The trouble with being alive is that you never really get a clear view of reality.
We see the present moment through a keyhole. We think none of the events we witness has ever happened before, that religious fundamentalism and refugee crises are problem foisted on us in the twenty first century.
Let’s take a good look through one particular keyhole; and a very pretty one it is, too.
It looks out onto the manicured gardens and reflected pools of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
The Alhambra represents the apogee of Islamic culture in Spain, its roseate walls rising on a crag high above the city, framed by the snowy flanks of the Sierra Nevada.
Last year two and a half million tourists visited the Alhambra palace to gasp at the impossible beauty of the Court of Myrtles or gaze up in awe at the honeycombed dome of the Sala de los Abencerrajes.
Built during the fourteenth century by Yusuf 1 and Mohammed V, the Alhambra rose to fame at a time when Islam was not associated with terrorist atrocities in the leading cities of Europe. There was another group responsible for that. (We’ll come to them in a moment.)
13th century illustration depicting a public library in Baghdad, from the Maqamat Hariri. Bibliotheque Nationale de France
In fact, while Europe was wallowing in a mire of religious conservatism, Muslim scholars were laying the foundations for modern science, medicine, astronomy and navigation.
The Abbasid caliphs of the 8th to 13th centuries had promoted a rationalistic vision, making it a sacred duty to inquire into the workings of the world.
Their scholars had direct access to the remnants of the Roman and Hellenic cultures, in places such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Cairo, whose libraries held literally hundreds of thousands of books at a time when the best monastic libraries in Europe housed, at most, a few dozen.
They prepared Arabic versions of the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy and Archimedes, and set up schools such as the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
Not only did they preserve classical scholarship, Muslim thinkers also innovated in fields such astronomy, optics, cartography, medicine, and falsafa (philosophy).
They developed the astrolabe (the most powerful analog computer before the modern age) and men like the Persian al-Khwarizmi (from whom we get the word algorithm) discovered algebra (al-jebra).
More importantly, without Islamic tolerance for the People of the Book, it is unlikely that the Jewish race could have survived.
Imagine a world without their contribution to art, medicine, science, literature and music (… think about no Albert Einstein, no Sigmund Freud, no Albert Sabin – who developed the polio vaccine – no Paul Simon, no Leonard Cohen, no Chagall, no Asimov …)
Oh, and you can also forget about Google and the invention of the Internet.
So who was the equivalent of ISIS back then? Which religious group tried to impose their fanatical views by employing extreme acts of violence and used God to justify them?
You may have heard of them: they called themselves the Holy Inquisition
Granada’s surrender in 1491 signaled the end of what later became known as the Reconquista. The reconquest of Spain from the Moors had largely been financed by Jewish money but now the job was done Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, urged on by the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada, had the Jews expelled.
The ‘Alhambra Decree’ gave all Jews living in Spain three months to quit the country – leaving behind all their gold, silver, money, arms, or horses. (Or convert to Christianity. Those that chose that option became targets for the Inquisition anyway.)
Where did the diaspora go?
Some went to Portugal, where their sanctuary lasted only a few years, or to Naples. Most went to the Maghreb, to seek the protection of … Islam.
Every historical novel is a keyhole in time. One problem for HF readers is that the time in question may seem so distant, it is hard to relate to it.
The problem for HF authors is that after a while history becomes so eerily familiar you realize that mankind is caught in an endless loop.
ISIS, Trump, the refugee crisis in Europe?
It’s all been done before, and because we didn’t learn anything the first time, one day soon we’ll do it all again – just with a different cast.
Oh and by the way the edict expelling all Jews from Spain was finally revoked, of course.
Fifty years ago.
The end of the Reconquista.
Diego Sanchis is Seville’s most famous painter; his tryptychs and murals fill every church in the city.
He is also ugly, angry, possibly Jewish and a dwarf.
Nobody but his father loves him and Diego likes it just that way.
Until one day he is asked to take on a new student.
Mercedes Goncalvez is the most beautiful young woman in the city, and her father is rich and powerful.
What could such a woman possibly see in him?
But there are many ways to see beauty.
And beyond the dungeons of the Inquisition; beyond betrayal and torture; and even as the guns pound the heavenly gardens of the Alhambra, and the Moors prepare to leave Spain forever, Diego finds true beauty among the ashes of his last hopes.
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