The Ornament of the World

by María Rosa Menocal
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Last Updated on April 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 301

Menocal’s The Ornament of the World begins with an account of the Arabic Abbasids seizing control of the House of Islam circa 750 and eradicating the formerly ruling Berber Umayyads in what is modern-day Syria. Menocal explains that one Umayyad, Prince Abd al-Rahman, escaped to Eastern Africa, in what is currently Morocco. At the time, the entire north of Africa and Iberia were largely controlled by Islamic Berbers and Syrians. Abd al-Rahman crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Iberia, particularly al-Andalus (Andalusia) to find a thriving Muslim community that had ousted the previous inhabitants, the Visigoths. Being the prince of the Umayyads, Abd al-Rahman easily developed a group of followers and overthrew the governing body of the city of Cordoba, which was on the edge of the Abbasidian-controlled caliphate. The Abbasids, having moved their capital far east to Baghdad, were not concerned with the reemergence of the Umayyad who got away. Abd al-Rahman built a new estate in Cordoba and reestablished himself as a ruling body.

Menocal then pauses to comment on the point of the book, which is to focus on Umayyad history; most histories, she explains, explore the achievements of the Abbasids, despite the 700-year rule of Muslims in Spain until they were vanquished by Christians in 1492. Menocal aims to show how, over this time period and in this location, Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived side by side and inevitably affected one another’s cultural traditions, despite religious contradictions and rivalries. She further hopes to convey the ways that these cultural traditions extend even into current practices and to show why, in the tenth century, Cordoba was referred to as “the ornament of the world” through a series of “miniature portraits” rather than chronological or political events. Before beginning these portraits, she attempts to create a context for 756 Cordoba.

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