The Ornament of the World

by María Rosa Menocal
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What space did Jews occupy in Iberia according to The Ornament of the World?

The Jews of Iberia occupied a privileged and protected space for almost 800 years under Islamic rule originating with the Umayyad overlord Abd Al-Rahman. The Jewish population contributed many illustrious courtiers and poets to the Iberian peninsula before being summarily expelled in 1492.

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When Abd Al-Rahman, fleeing from the forces that had usurped his Umayyad brethren in Arabia, crossed the straits into Iberia in 755, 40 years had elapsed since the arrival on the peninsula of Berbers from the Mahgrib led by Syrian Arabs. Abd Al-Rahman became the first of a long line of Islamic overlords that would reign over most of modern-day Spain for the next 700 years. In The Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal starts with al-Rahman's story, before ranging through the history of Islamic Iberia, touching chiefly upon its Islamic, but also Christian and Jewish, communities.

Jews first arrived on the peninsula along with the Romans around 200 BCE. Under the Visigoths, who descended upon the Roman province from 400 BCE, Menocal writes that in the countryside they lived in "nearly enslaved squalor." Under the rule of Abd Al-Rahman and his successors, however, Jews (as well as Christians, both being "Peoples of the Book" according to the Quran) were protected.

During the next almost 800 years, the Jews of Iberia occupied a secure and productive place in society. Maria Rosa Menocal tailors her history of Iberia under Islamic rule as a series of portrayals of outstanding cultural figures. Chief amongst the Jewish figures is Samuel the Nagid, one of the greatest poets of the era and vizier to the other Iberian city-states, known as the taifa. He was also the leader of Granada's armies.

Granada, the last Islamic city-state in Europe, was overtaken in 1492 by the Catholic Queen and King of Aragon and Castile. Despite the valiant efforts of the Jew Isaac Abravanel, a highly placed courtier, all of his fellows were summarily expelled from Iberia later that year. Many avoided their fate by hastily converting to Catholicism, but for their fellow Iberian Jews, their sojourn in paradise, in the Ornament of the World, was at an end.

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