In the mid-eighth century, the ruling family of Islam, the Umayyads, were slaughtered in their court city of Damascus by the rival clan of the Abbasids, who then moved the “House of Islam” to the east and settled in Baghdad. The only surviving member of the House of Umayyads was a young prince in his late teens or early twenties, Abd al-Rahman, who set off across the North African desert in search of a new home at the farthest reaches of the Muslim empire. His mother was a Berber and so the young man had kin among the tribesmen of what is now Morocco. The Berbers led by Syrian Arabs had pushed across the narrow straits separating Africa from Europe into what had once been, under Roman rule, Hispania or Iberia, and which the new conquerors called in Arabic al-Andalus.
Since early in the eighth century, before Abd al- Rahman’s odyssey began, Muslim armies had been pushing northward throughout the Iberian peninsula. They eventually arrived some 150 miles south of Paris, where they were stopped in 732 at the Battle of Tours by the Frankish king, Charles Martel. The battle marked the end of Muslim advances into northern Europe. Martel’s son, Pepin, extended the victory and by 758 had succeeded in pushing the invaders south of the Pyrenees, thereby limiting the expansion of the Islamic empire in western Europe to the Iberian peninsula.
Abd al-Rahman followed the Berbers of the Maghrib, the “Far West,” and settled in their capital located in the old city of the Visigoths, Khordoba, called after the Roman Corduba, and which now was named Qurtuba, Cordoba in modern Spanish. The city eventually became known as the “Ornament of the World.” Abd al-Rahman arrived in Qurtuba in 755 and was offered protection by the local emir, who also gave him his daughter in marriage to solidify their alliance, but the young man had other ambitions and easily overthrew his father-in-law, became ruler of the city, and turned it from a provincial outpost of the caliphate into a center of learning and culture. To celebrate his presence, Abd al-Rahman built a palace, Rusafa, in memory of his family’s estate north of Damascus and claimed his conquest as the new home of the Umayyads. Two centuries later his descendants officially declared that Cordoba in al-Andalus was the seat of the caliphate, the legitimate center of Islamic rule.
After Abd al-Rahman’s initial success in Cordoba, the consequences of his vision and ambition reverberated over the former Visigoth-controlled lands. During the next three centuries, the dominance of Islam was extended throughout the peninsula. Although their military and political control was never quite completed, Muslim and Arab culture spread widely, influencing every aspect of Iberian life. Cordoba was its center and became truly an “ornament” of the world. The city experienced its golden age during the early years of the tenth century; by the middle of the eleventh it was already in decline. By the thirteenth century, al-Andalus had lost most of its political and cultural freedom, and the city fell to a Christian army in 1236.
In spite of this relatively short period of eminence, in Cordoba the secular nature of the Muslim occupation, with its emphasis on both Arabic and classical Greek learning and the encouragement of art and architecture in a hybrid of Islamic and Christian medieval styles produced an intellectual flowering of wide-reaching importance. The other cities of the Maghrib benefited from Cordoba’s example. Toledo, Granada, Seville, Avila, Saragossa, and Valencia all at various times during the Islamic hegemony became centers of cultural export of Arabic learning and translation, especially of science and classical Greek texts.
What began as the flight of a young man, an Umayyad prince, from the murderers of his family affected the...
(The entire section is 1558 words.)