May 27th, 2010

never there

The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes

Last one of the series/season/whatever! This one was "When the Moors Ruled Europe" and was about Moorish Spain - both the history and "what the Moors did for us", and also about how it's practically written out of history. Quite a big jump in time from the other programmes in the season, although she did tie it in by talking about how the transmission of Greek thought from the Ancient Greeks to Renaissance Europe was via the Islamic scholars.

The bias of the programme was really quite apparent - not a feeling I've had from the others in the season (although I'm sure they too had biases, just not quite as in your face as this one). But then maybe it needed to be done with that bias? If you hear about Islamic Spain it's generally in the context of the Spanish Reconquest - and of the Christians driving the Moors out, part of the general crusading zeal of the time. And of course modern global politics means that fundamentalist conservative Muslims are often in the news, and it's easy to forget that there is also a pro-science/pro-learning side to the religion and that for hundreds of years the Islamic people were where civilisation and learning were flowering - they built magnificent buildings, learnt from and extended the Ancient Greek philosophers, made great strides in mathematics, medicine and other sciences. And the European Renaissance just wouldn't've happened in the same way (or at all?) if there hadn't been this pool of scholars to learn from.

So about a third of the 2 hour programme was scene-setting - showing us the palace of Alhambra, talking about the mathematics behind its design, talking about the learning and the injunctions in the Koran to learn, how that is part of the religion, showing us the archaeological remains in Cordoba (I think it was that city) with their running water and sewage system. I think J thought this went on too long, and would've preferred more of the detail & less of the overview - oddly, I was OK with it, partly because the places we were shown were so cool to look at.

In the rest of the programme she did cover the broad sweep of the history as well as the culture - the way Islam spread as part religion, part empire across the Middle East and North Africa. And then in the early 700s they came across the Straits of Gibraltar to conquer Spain (inhabited by the Visigoths at the time) and infact made it as far as Poitiers in France (quite far up France, for those whose French geography is as dreadful as mine) before being turned back and consolidating behind the Pyrenees. There's apparently not much evidence of forced conversions to Islam and it wasn't really a bloody takeover of Spain (although there were some battles). The Visigoth civilisation was breaking down anyway, and in many places the Muslims came as rebuilders and providers of superior technology. And everywhere they brought trade connections to the wider Islamic world - so the agricultural wealth of Spain (particularly compared to the aridity of North Africa) was connected up to the gold, frankincense, silk etc etc of the rest of the world.

I was a little unclear if the Islamic Empire was subsequently ruled from Spain or not, but definitely the Caliph had palaces in Spain. And for several hundred years Spain was a part of this learned and wealthy empire. Unfortunately for the people of Spain this time of prosperity came to an end along with the Caliphate (due to a breakdown of trust between the rulers and the military - that NEVER ends well). And the subsequent fragmentation of Spain into city states rather than a unified part of the empire made it rich pickings for the Christian reconquest, partly whipped up by Crusading fervour (we're around 1200AD now, and the Crusades are in full swing). The way it's often presented in history books (and represented by the Spanish) is of a wave of "proper" Spanish people sweeping down from the north "liberating" Spain from the "intruder" Muslims. But current evidence suggests that it was more of a civil war between the two religions, and a lot of it was re-written later to present the so-called "real" story. And it wasn't as clear and cleanly done as all that - in some places a city (such as Toledo, I think) would get a Christian ruler who then wouldn't really mess with the status quo. In other places (particularly later) it would be more brutal and bloody. And also - there was an influx of more fundamentalist Muslims from another part of North Africa, partly to fight back against the Christian "invasion" and partly horrified at the "excesses" of the Caliphate, thus destroying Muslim Spain from another direction.

And then we were shown the way that after Spain was totally "reconquered" (which didn't happen till 1492) the Christians made a concerted deliberate effort to re-write the past and make their present match what "should" be the case. The Inquisition was started, and all non-Catholic Christians were killed, forcibly converted or driven out of the country. This was shown to us by interviews with a Duchess (I think) in Spain whose family have archives reaching back to the time - fantastic woman who did Not Approve of this fictionalisation of the truth. And that it had worked was shown partly by the festivals in modern Spain celebrating the Reconquest, and partly by an interview with a Spanish Professor of Arab Studies who was absolutely determined that these people had not been Spanish and it wasn't a part of Spanish history - that the Moorish occupation of Spain had been an interruption in proper Spanish history and was not of interest or consequence to modern Spain.

I thought it was a fascinating programme even if I did also think it had quite an obvious bias. And it's a big "what if" moment in history - what if the Moors had not been driven back from France and had in fact conquered more of Europe, marginalising the warlike Catholic Christianity? And what if the Caliphate had lasted longer too? If the scientific advances and thought of the Islamic Empire had continued, rather than being transmitted to & rediscovered by Western Europeans, would we have reached more modern technology sooner? The world of now would definitely look very different.