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History in Review

The Ornament of the World

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The Ornament of the World
How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.
By Maria Rosa Menocal. Foreword by Harold Bloom. ( Little, Brown and Company, Boston: 2002. Pg. xvi, 315. Illustrations, Maps, Reading Group Guide.) ISBN: 0-316-16871-8.

Reviewed by Sheldon Ztvordokov - June 9, 2003

In a world filled with sectarian violence, it is hard to imagine that in the not too distance past their was once an island of tranquility were peoples of various faiths lived, and thrived, together. According to Maria Rosa Menocal, this period of harmony lasted from about 750 - 1492, and it took place in the al-Andalus (Andalusia) region of Islamic Iberia / Medieval Spain. During this golden age of tolerance and mutual respect, members of these three faiths - Muslims, Jews, and Christians - worked together to create a vast body of literary, artistic and scientific works that still invokes a sense of wonderment and admiration in all that are exposed to the accomplishments that emerged from this cultural mix.

In her fascinating and poignant work The Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal explores how this commingling of cultures came to occur, the great works that were produced, and how it came to an horrific conclusion with the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from 'Christian' Spain. Menocal examines how this golden age began under the auspices of the Moors and how it ended due to the machinations of the Catholic Church. On the whole, the books paints a 'rosy' picture of the period, highlighting the vast periods of amiable coexistence that occurred. However, while she does not accentuate the negative, she does touch briefly upon some of the contentious issues and events that divided the various groups. For instance, the change over from Islamic to Christian rule involved years of warfare, and ended with the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, which in turn was followed, with devastating economic consequences for Spain, by the expulsion of the Jews.

This compelling history begins in 750 with the saga of Abd al-Rahman, a native of Damascus, who established the House of Umayyad in al-Andalus. From this modest beginning, Menocal embarks upon a whirlwind survey of Moorish Spain told through a series of readable historic vignettes. Combined, these vignettes provide a unique overview of this 'golden age' from the viewpoint of all three cultures. They also serve to personalize the people and events that occurred, and to make the dissolution of this loose confederation even more poignant when seen against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle to end sectarian violence in the modern world.

The Ornament of the World is a moving and dynamic narrative that will fascinate readers of every ilk. While reading this book, I was most fascinated by Menocal's exploration of the growth of various artistic styles, and the scientific advances that occurred during this "golden age of tolerance." It serves, I feel, as an indication of the all the 'great' works that could be achieved if mankind learned to work together.

If nothing else, this book will make you totally revamp your idea of what the Middle Ages were like. While they may have been 'dark' in some regions of Europe, in Andalusia they were proverbially bright and sunny! This is a well-written, although non-academic history of the period. It does not included footnotes / endnotes, nor does it include a bibliography. For those wishing to study further on the subject of Moorish Spain, I'd recommend the following books as a good starting point. This edition of The Ornament of the World concludes with a Reading Group Guide that lists a series of questions, with answers provided by the author. For example, one question is "Why is this chapter of European history - which, after all, lasted some seven hundred years - so little known?" This question is followed by a short, yet compelling answer. Also included is a list of ten Questions and Topics for Discussion. Combined, these two sections will prove indispensable for reader's groups and students wishing to gain deeper insights into this book.

Related Reviews:

Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, by Israel Abrahams.
A sweeping social history of Jewish life in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages, Edited by Elkan Nathan Adler.
19 firsthand accounts of Jewish travel during the Middle Ages that were written between 801 and 1755. The accounts touch upon Jewish life in Europe, Africa, and the Near East.

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