The Ornament of the World

by María Rosa Menocal
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The Mosque and the Palm Tree Summary

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Last Updated on April 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

Menocal begins this chapter in 786 Cordoba with fifty-year-old Abd al-Rahman, who had worked to maintain the Umayyad legacy despite Abbasid attempts to stamp out the Umayyads. He brought plants, architectural knowledge, and a scrappy spirit from Syria to begin rebuilding Andalusia. Years before Abd al-Rahman became ruler or the Umayyads, Muslim forces had tried to advance northwest out of Iberia but were halted by the Franks, limiting the spread of Islam in Western Europe to the Iberian Peninsula. Roughly fifty years later, however, during Abd al-Rahman’s reign, a group of Muslims disloyal to Abd al-Rahman allied with Charlemagne and attempted to take many of the established Umayyad cities. These attackers lost, and by 778, Charlemagne was forced to withdraw his troops, who were attacked by a group of Basques on the way back to France and almost entirely annihilated. However, despite his military victories and the fact that he had established a thriving Muslim empire, Abd al-Rahman did not begin his most important project until nearly the end of his life: the building of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. In many ways, Menocal suggests that this was a continuation of and homage to his lost life in Damascus. The mosque used local resources and followed Romanesque architectural styles of pre-Muslim Spain. In this way, the Great Mosque of Cordoba “became as lovely an example as one might want of living dialogue with the past, a way of bringing the past to life.”

Menocal shares a poem that Abd al-Rahman wrote in his old age about a displaced palm tree, far from home. The Islamic faith and the pre-Islamic Arabic love for language and poetry are separate ideas, and the fact that they exist in a close relationship lays the groundwork for contradiction: the former is sensual, whereas the latter is spiritual, yet they coexist. History shows that pre-Islamic Arab tribes held poetry competitions in Mecca. When Muhammad appeared in Mecca and began reciting the Quran, it was also in this poetic language, and thus this poetic approach became associated with God as a sacred language. As Islam spread, so did the Arabic language, to the point that it was spoken from Spain to the Chinese border. Menocal closes this chapter by reflecting on how important palm trees were to the homesick Abd al-Rahman, as they were native to his homeland of Syria.

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