Two weeks ago, I visited the fabled Alhambra palace in Granada. The complex is an architectural poem, literally. Arabic verses are carved on the walls of its profusion of rooms and corridors. Wandering amongst them evokes a burst of geometric ecstasy.
A beautiful, bygone era
The Alhambra is also the embodiment of the extraordinary aesthetic and intellectual flowering that took place in Islamic Spain over a period of 700 years.
Between the 8th and 15th centuries, Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Iberian Peninsula often clashing, but also cooperating.
Muslim armies from North Africa first crossed into Spain in 711. The Moors, as these North African Muslims were called, quickly overwhelmed the Christian Visigoths, who had ruled the region since the fifth century.
Over time, the Moors established a series of powerful polities collectively known as al-Andalus. Of these, Granada – the city where the Alhambra was constructed in the period between 1238 and 1358 – was among the best known.
The Christians fought hard to “reconquer” the territories of al-Andalus. Much blood was spilled in the process. Yet, the centuries of Muslim rule were also marked by interfaith cultural melding.
Bridge builders between cultures
Across the great cities of Spain, from Toledo to Cordoba, Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars worked together, their heads bent over the Greek classics that they translated into Arabic, Latin and Hebrew.
In the 12th century, for example, an Italian-origin scholar and translator, Gerard of Cremona, worked with a Muslim colleague, Ghalib the Mozarab.
The collaborated on translating more than 80 works of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and logic, into Latin. It was one of the great revivals of scholarship in Europe, referred to sometimes, as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.
In many ways, the Muslims and Christians of medieval Iberia were open to appropriating certain elements of each other’s culture, even as they faced off in battles for territorial control.
The parallels with India…
The parallels with India, where Hindus and Muslims lived in a similar state of simultaneous tension and embrace over the centuries, are evident.
In its minglings and marvels, the Alhambra is like the Taj Mahal, or the tomb of the Mughal emperor Humayun, in New Delhi.
… and Indonesia
It put me in mind also of Indonesia, an archipelagic cauldron of the Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and animist.
A few years ago, for example, I watched the Ramayana, a Hindu epic, being performed by Muslims to the backdrop of Hindu-Buddhist temples in Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s cultural capital.
Culture wars and cross-fertilization
In fact, every country I have lived in has had a history of culture wars, but at the same time a history also, of cultural cross-fertilization.
Japan’s aesthetics come from China. The “Chinese” folding fan is originally Japanese. Both nations imported Buddhism from India, adding their own magic and lore to the philosophy in the centuries-long process.
Japan’s “national” sport is arguably the very American, baseball. And the latest Yokozuna (grand master) in the very Japanese world of sumo wrestling is the Mongolian, Terunofuji.
Culture isn’t static
Some time ago, my husband and I met a Jewish itinerant on the streets of Istanbul in Turkey. He might have been a tad inebriated when he embraced Julio upon learning his nationality.
“I am Spanish too,” he told Julio in broken, archaic Spanish (a Judeo-Spanish argot called Ladino). He claimed his ancestors had been Spanish Jews.
I was embraced with similar tenderness a few months later in a smoky tavern in Madrid, when the Gypsy flamenco singer we’d been listening too, learned that I was Indian. “I am from India too,” he’d said, tapping his chest with an open palm.
Culture isn’t static. It is like shot silk, changing colors in different light. It can slip through cracks, heedless of walls and borders.
The high priests of cultural warfare – the inquisition/ the ayatollahs/the prophets – have always been tempted by neatness. But as humans we are unruly. We strain to escape our straightjackets, to bend and entwine.
Great science, literature, food – indeed great love – exists on the intersections of, and in the crossings of policed boundaries.
Muslims and Christians of medieval Iberia were open to appropriating certain elements of each other’s culture. The parallels with India where Hindus and Muslims did the same, are evident.
The Alhambra is like the Taj Mahal, or the tomb of the Mughal emperor Humayun, in New Delhi.
The high priests of cultural warfare - the inquisition/ the ayatollahs/the prophets – have always been tempted by neatness. But as humans we are unruly. We strain to escape our straightjackets, to bend and entwine.
Great science, literature, food - indeed great love - exists on the intersections of, and in the crossings of, policed boundaries.