A Vanished World

At a time when Europe is currently dealing with the complexities and difficulties associated with the joining together of Muslim culture and European culture, an instructive time period worthy of study is the seven hundred years of Spanish history when the main monotheistic religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism interacted, sometimes with very positive results. Chris Lowney has written a compelling story of that era, mixing together cultural analysis, literary history, and political insight in A Vanished World: Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment.

Lowney's story ends with Catholic Spain's military assault on Islam's last holding in Spain, the area around Granada, and with the Inquisition's terror campaign against Spain's Jews, but King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the leaders of those two campaigns, are by no means the most compelling characters in this history. Lowney gives equal time to some less familiar names in Spanish history: Samuel ha-Nagid, a Jewish military commander loyal to a Muslim government; Ziryab, a one-time slave, who brought new ideas about fashion, music, style, and even deodorant to Muslim Cordoba; Pope Sylvester, a Frenchman who studied in Spain and became familiar with the Arabic mathematical system hundreds of years before it was adapted in the rest of Europe; and Ibn Arabi, a mystic who is often acknowledged as Sufism's greatest master.

Lowney is equally impressive in his literary analysis: he spends two chapters analyzing the cultural and historical origins of Roland and El Cid, two epic poems that speak about the perils and triumphs of living in a world in which the border between Christendom and Islam is fluid.