A Vanished World by Chris Lowney

The history of the Iberian peninsula during the middle ages is one of the most complicated fields of study imaginable. Long before Spain came into existence, the peninsula was riven by in-fighting, civil wars, and dynastic struggles that ensured that the borders between nations were ever-changing, fluid concepts.

It also doesn’t help that almost every king is called Alfonso and there are often several Alfonsos ruling different kingdoms at the same time.

Entering this bewildering web of war and disorder, historian Chris Lowney dares to take us on a journey through the period 711-1492 AD, a time when much of Spain was ruled by Arab conquerors in the hodge-podge of nations that we call al-Andalus.

Lowney’s focus is on the three religious groups who cohabited the peninsular during these seven centuries: Arabs, Christians and Jews, and he does a remarkable job of simplifying a convoluted tale.

The first thing that he has to do is scotch the idea of these three faiths living independent, separate lives, with clear battle lines drawn between them. In fact, all three groups would work together as circumstances permitted, belying the idea of a long ‘Reconquista’ (Reconquest) as the Christians doggedly clawed back land lost to the Muslim invaders.

For example, El Cid, the great Christian hero of the Reconquista, worked for a while as a mercenary serving Muslim paymasters (his name is a corruption of the Arabic al-sayyid, ‘the lord’). Indeed, the Spanish were often far less violent towards the Arabs than other troops from North of the Pyrenees who arrived periodically to ‘help out’ their Christian brothers:

the Cid [and his supporters] … lived, worked, and did business with Spain’s Muslims. Unlike [The Song of] Roland‘s French knights, these were no invaders intent on righting Spain and returning home. Spain was their home, its Muslims their neighbours … Though they would have preferred a Toledo populated entirely by Christians, they were often savvy enough to understand that wholesale banishment or mass forced conversions would have destroyed the very sources of the wealth they coveted

These shifting allegiances worked both ways. When the ‘Catholic Monarchs’, Ferdinand and Isabella, besieged Seville, some 500 troops from Muslim Granada could be found among their ranks.

Realpolitik seems to have been the order of the day across al-Andalus, with most people obeying merely the letter of the law (even if they couldn’t actually read it).

some savvy Muslims, Christians and Jews even partnered in interfaith businesses, pursuing customers from multifaith communities while remaining open on each other’s Sabbath

Alongside this peaceful coexistence raged periodic bouts of extreme violence as warlords on all sides rose up to rectify a perceived indignity. Take the crushing of the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in 997 by the Muslim forces of Almanzor, ruler of al-Andalus:

Within hours, Santiago was so thoroughly sacked that, as one chronicler put it, “nobody could have imagined [what] had stood there the day before”. With the town a smouldering wasteland, only one structure lay untouched: Santiago’s tomb, surrounded by the rubbled remains of a once mighty cathedral … The chronicler Ibn Hayyan depicts Almanzor picking his way through debris to find a wizened old monk perched atop the tomb, the only living Christian soul not to have abandoned Santiago. The bewildered old man declared himself “a familiar of St. James” and was left unmolested as Almanzor’s armies began the long trek home

Lowney argues that such bloodshed was the exception rather than the rule. In his eyes, al-Andalus provides a powerful model of peaceful coexistence that we do would well to copy today.

If I have one complaint about the book, it is that the middle section dwells too long on mystics and their thought, something which holds little interest for me. Nevertheless, it is the case that al-Andalus was home to some of the greatest philosophers, physicians and theologians of the age and it is important to recognise that fact.

For a very long time I have been looking for a concise, readable history of al-Andalus and with A Vanished World, I have finally found it. This book would appeal to anyone looking for a well-written, concise and entertaining introduction to the lost world of Muslim Spain.