Lecture Review: Al-Andalus as a Civilizing Bridge

It is always an incredible feeling to lecture at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina where once, in its original version, students and scholars gathered around the likes of Euclid, Ptolemy and Hypatia! Am I not, after all, a distant heir to their legacy?

“An orchard is a treasure if the gardener is a moor.” – Spanish Proverb

This phrase is a proper metaphor of the civilizing effect that the Muslim presence had on the Iberian Peninsula and beyond after they had conquered that part of the world in the VIII century, referring to it ever after as ‘al-Andalus’.

More than just a geographical denomination, al-Andalus eventually became synonymous with an extraordinary human condition, as people from different cultures and creeds came to forge a golden age whose zeitgeist was the coexistence and whose epitome was the Library of Cordoba.

From the introduction of new crops and irrigation techniques to the establishment of libraries, universities and observatories, one can hardly perceive the scale and scope of the unparalleled body of knowledge developed and bequeathed to us by generation after generation of Andalusi philosophers, mathematicians, physicians, botanists, astronomers, poets, and the list goes on. The names include Al-Majriti, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), al-Zarqali (Arzachel), al-Zahrawi (Albucasis), Ibn Zuhr, Ibn al-Baitar, Ibn Ammar, and countless other figures. It was in al-Andalus that Ziryab founded the first proper musical institute in Western Europe, the Umayyads founded Europe’s first paper mill in Xativa and its first silk workshop in Almeria, while Cordoba’s Library became the world’s second largest under the enlightened rule of al-Hakam II in the tenth century (second only to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad).

The cultural imprint of al-Andalus can still be seen today, not only in the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb, but also in some of the most unexpected parts of the world, like Latin America (where the Islamic mudejar style was introduced by the Spanish invaders) and Basin of the River Niger (which hosts one of the biggest collections of Andalusi manuscripts in the whole world).


Mediterranean Art Presentation (10 June 2014) – Teaser

Next week, I will be giving a presentation on Mediterranean Art at my university, the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC). The presentation is centered on seven tales and seven masterpieces from Prehistory, Ancient Civilizations and Classical Antiquity, namely:

1. Michelangelo of the Cave (Magdalenian Culture, France & Spain)
Cave Paintings of Lascaux & Altamira

2. The Stone Idol (Saflieni Phase, Malta)
The Sleeping Lady of Malta

3. Beyond the Minotaur’s Labyrinth (Minoan, Greece)
The Bull-Leaping Frieze

4. Tragedy of the Horse-Tamers (Mycenaean, Greece)
The Mask of Agamemnon

5. Mystery of the Heretic King (Pharaonic, Egypt)
The Bust of Nefertiti

6. The Seafaring Purple Traders (Phoenician, Lebanon)
Ivory Panel with Lioness devouring African Boy

7. Till Death Do Us Apart (Etruscan, Italy)
Sarcophagus of the Spouses

Below are some questions to help you ‘warm up’ for the presentation:

– Which European cave is known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory? Why?
 – How did a queen & 80 women lay the foundation for Carthage?
 – Who were the Purple Traders that sailed the Mediterranean & founded Cádiz?
 – Who was Ancient Egypt’s Heretic King?
 – What Med. culture erected the world’s oldest freestanding stone structures?
 – Who were the Mediterranean Vikings?
 – Who were the Etruscans? Where did they originally come from?
 – Who were the Hippodamoi that were conquered by a horse?
 – How did the Trojan War start with Paris?
 – When and why did the Classical Antiquity come to an end?


My Lecture in Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Tales of al-Andalus (2 Jan 2014)

(Scroll down for Arabic)
I am pleased to announce that I will be giving a lecture at Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Egypt) on 2 January 2014, titled ‘Tales of al-Andalus’ (2 hours, in Arabic). Through these tales, I will try to trace distance memories and present an alternative history of one of history’s most fascinating periods. The lecture starts at 18:00h and the tales are:

Bird of the Orient
Saint Matamoros
Between two ‘Hakams’
The Majus Crisis
A Manuscript’s Odyssey
From Yusufiya to Nasiriya
Ibn Khaldun’s Orange
The Hornachos Pirates

محاضرتي في مكتبة الاسكندرية: حكايات الأندلس (2 يناير 2014)
يسعدني أن أعلن عن قيامي بالقاء محاضرة في مكتبة الاسكندرية في 2 يناير 2014 بعنوان “حكايات الأندلس” (ساعتين، باللغة العربية). سأحاول من خلال تلك الحكايات أن أستحضر ذكريات بعيدة وأن أقدم تاريخ غير تقليدي لواحدة من أروع فترات التاريخ. تبدأ المحاضرة في تمام الساعة السادسة مساءاً، والحكايات هي:

عصفور من الشرق
القديس قاتل العرب
بين الحَكَمَين
محنة المجوس
رحلة مخطوط
من اليوسفية إلى الناصرية
برتقالة ابن خلدون
قراصنة هورناتشوس


The delusional calls to ‘recover’ al-Andalus

Following the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (which they would call al-Andalus) in 711 AD, the Andalusi society eventually featured a very interesting ethnic and cultural mosaic. Then came the Reconquista, the Christian armies started gaining back territory slowly but surely, and the social mosaic became even more sophisticated. A couple of days ago, while lecturing on al-Andalus at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, I explained some interesting ‘elements’ of the Andalusi society:
1- Muwallads (muladíes مولدون)
These were the sons and daughters of Muslim conquerors and native Christian women. The term also extended to describe natives who converted from Christianity to Islam.
2- Mozarabs (mozárabes مستعربون)
These native Christians maintained their religion under Muslim rule, but adopted many elements or the Arab culture and language.
Later on, two more elements would come into play:
3- Mudajjan (mudéjar مدجنون)
As the Christian armies took back several cities, several Muslim communities chose to stay and live under Christian rule, maintaining their religion.
4- Moriscos (moriscos موريسكيون)
Following the surrender of Granada and the introduction of the Inquisition courts, scores of Muslims had to convert to Christianity, becoming new Christians of Moorish origin, better known as moriscos. They were finally expulsed from Spain (some 300,000 moriscos) between 1609 and 1614 under Felipe III following a tragedy that extended for over one century. The Jews were forced to leave much earlier (Sephardim), and also scores of them had to convert.

Obviously, from the Arab-Islamic viewpoint, al-Andalus was ‘lost’, while from the Western standpoint, it was ‘liberated’. Such is the case with history always: it can never be read in a unilateral way or a linear form, or based on a single discourse.

Calls among some Arabs to ‘recover’ al-Andalus are more than just absurd: they are delusional! For one thing, al-Andalus no more exists; because it is a historical concept and should always be treated as such. It was occupied by the Arabs and Berbers, but was never their homeland or their native territory. Moreover, calls to ‘recover’ territory just because, hundreds of years ago, it was under Islamic rule, is closer to intellectual terrorism than it is to rational thinking that would foster intercultural dialogue. With all the Islamic and Arab countries around the world that are lagging behind culturally and scientifically, wouldn’t it be a better idea to start with themselves and alleviate the suffering of their own people than ‘yearn’ for a land that their modern feet never stepped?

I yearn for al-Andalus myself, not the land but rather the state-of-mid, not the territory but rather the cultural renaissance, not the traditional geography but rather the moral one… and I will end it here.

Boabdil handing the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs

My lecture on al-Andalus @ Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Jan 2nd)

On 2 January 1492, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, king Boabdil (Abu Abdalla al-Saghir), handed the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs, bringing to an end the rule of Islam in al-Andalus in the present-day Iberian Peninsula.

What followed was a tragedy at all levels and it took the Catholic Monarchs no time at all to violate the vows they had made. The first to suffer were the Jews, then the Muslims, and even those that converted into Christianity did not survive the horrors of the Inquisition Courts. The definitive expulsion of the Moriscos (Muslims that had converted into Christianity) came in 1609 through a royal decree by Felipe III. Over 300,000 moriscos were kicked out, and this marked the beginning of a new episode of pain and passion: the moriscos diaspora in the Mediterranean.

On 2 January 2013, I will be giving a lecture titled ‘The Fall of al-Andalus: Reasons and Consequences’ at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. This is an open invitation. ANDALUS - Copy

Published: The Andalusi Legacy in Alexandria – I (Intro)

Few cities in the world can rival the glory of Alexandria’s radiant past. Throughout its history, Alexandria was always a cosmopolitan city (things changed in the 1950s). Much can be said about the city’s Ptolemaic rulers, its Hellenistic refinement, its Roman importance and its Coptic splendor. Nevertheless, one the most interesting chapters of the city’s history remains to be largely ignored: the Andalusi presence and culture in Alexandria, brought by medieval travelers, intellectuals, scholars and saints from al-Andalus (the name given to the territory governed by Muslims in present-day Spain and Portugal between 711 AD and 1492 AD).

My new series examines this ‘chapter’ as it tracks the footsteps of three of the most important and iconic Andalusi figures that left a lasting legacy in Alexandria and the Delta. Here is the link to the introductory article of the series, published 3 days ago:

Alexandria, the perfect destination for many Andalusi scholars and refugees

My 10th Article in El Legado Andalusí: al-Mahdiya, under the sign of the Lion

Another article of mine was published by El Legado Andalusí, this time about a marvelous little city in the Tunisian coast, called al-Mahdiya.
The city, once a Fatimid capital, is dotted with monuments and archaeological sites from the tenth century. Apart from being a picturesque Mediterranean port, it was once home for such figures as the poets Ibn Hani’ al-Andalusi and Ibn Rashiq al-Kairuani. Following a brief period under the rule of the Norman kings of Sicily, the city fell to the Almohads in the twelfth century, signed peace treaties with Sicily, and flourished economically and culturally. Ibn Khaldun would refer to it in the thirteenth century as the richest Berber city of the era.

You can read the original article in Spanish at:

You can read the English translation for excerpts from the article below:

Mahdiya, the first Fatimid capital

Better said, the first capital founded by the Fatimids, who had lived in Raqqada (some 8 km from Qayrawan) before moving to Mahdiya.
The city bears the name of the caliph al-Mahdi who ordered its construction in 916. It’s a Mediterranean city that occupies a rocky peninsula whose isolation allowed for defending it by land, while the solidity of the Fatimid float guaranteed the security of the port against possible attacks form the sea. Moreover, Mahdiya was far enough from Qayrawan, whose religious scholars and people were known for their religious rigor and their rejection of the Shiite doctrine of the Fatimids.

The Fatimids, famous for their obsession with astrology and astronomy, waited till the lion (the Zodiac sign of Leo) dominated the constellations to start building the city, according to the astrologers’ instructions. Historians mention a very similar story that would take place later in Egypt with the founding of Cairo by the Fatimids in 969: only this time it was the sign of Aries that dominated, and the city was called ‘al-Qahira’ (the conqueror or invincible), the feminine form of ‘al-Qahir’, the ancient Arabic name of planet Mars which controls Aries.

Is this for real or is it just one more example of what we can call ‘the magical realism of the medieval chroniclers’? What we know for sure is that the lion (a symbol of power in Islamic iconography) became the city symbol, according to the travel accounts and the symbols seen in the walls.

With the exception of Cairo, one cannot compare Mahdiya to other Islamic capitals like Fez, Damascus or Baghdad. A typical medina of the Islamic World would have the great mosque more or less at its heart, surrounded by markets, caravanserais, hamams, etc. The Fatimid model is distinct because of the Shiite doctrine: In Mahdiya like in Cairo, the heart of the city is occupied by the palace of the Fatimid caliph, who represents the shadow of God on Earth.