Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Alhambra And The Oasis Of Luxury That Was Moorish Spain

Interior of the Alhambra, Patio of the Lions
GRANADA, April 6, 2013 - What did the height of luxury in Europe look like in the year Colombus sailed to America?

It looked like the Alhambra, the last palace of a Moorish ruler in Spain.

Even today, the Alhambra takes visitors' breath away. It is an oasis of light and shadow, of white arches and honeycomb ceilings, of cool marble columns multiplied in reflection pools, and flowers and trees overflowing garden walls.

Imagine its sitting rooms strewn with rich carpets and pillows and it becomes everything its most famous admirer, Washington Irving, wrote in his 1829 book Tales of the Alhambra:

"The abode of beauty is here as if it had been inhabited but yesterday."

If the Alhambra is an abode of beauty, it is not by accident. The palace was the product of a culture of luxury in Andalusia that lasted from the Arab-led Moorish conquest of the Spanish peninsula in 710 to the final surrender of the Alhambra to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492.

Right from the beginning, the court culture of Moorish Spain sought to imitate and even surpass those of Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. The reason was in the origins of Moorish Spain itself.

Unlike many territories the Arabs conquered when the swept out of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, Spain at the time offered no opulent prize cities. Its previous prosperity as part of the Roman Empire had been destroyed in the barbarian invasions that brought down Rome itself and its comforts had sunk to the level of those elsewhere in medieval Europe.

Muslims in Iberia, from Tale of Bayad and Riyad 
So, when Arab generals led a horde of Berber tribesmen from North Africa across the straits of Gibraltar in 710, the challenge was to build a new civilization rather than merely adapt a pre-existing one to their tastes.

Their building efforts got a further impetus in 750 when the Umayyad caliphate that ruled the Islamic world from Damascus was overthrown by rivals who would found the Abbasid dynasty. As the usurpers established their new capital in Baghdad, a survivor of the Umayyad family fled to Moorish Spain to establish his own caliphate and vowed to outshine them.

By the tenth century, Moorish Spain had become one of the brightest stars of the Islamic world. Its capital, Cordoba, had over 300 mosques and innumerable palaces and public buildings, rivaling the splendors of Constantinople, Damascus, and Baghdad.

It also had one of the largest libraries in the world, with at least 400,000 volumes, and was a center for translating ancient Greek texts into Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew. Those same translations would later help spark Europe's renaissance by re-connecting it to its lost classical heritage.

At the same time, the great cities of Moorish Spain were comfortable. Cordoba was the first city in Europe to use kerosene lanterns to light its main streets at night. Many streets were paved. And rulers were not only patrons of the arts but led a courtly life with distinctly hedonistic tones.

One 11th century poet in Seville, Ibn Hamidis, writes of a drinking party where goblets of wine were floated along a stream to the guests who lounged along the bank:

"It is as it we were cities along the riverbank while the wine-laden ships sailed the water between us,
For life is excusable only when we walk along the shores of pleasure and abandon all restraint."

Almoravid Empire, 11th Century
Moorish Spain was wealthy because it was the European extension of a trade route that stretched from southern Morocco to the Niger valley near Timbuktu. Along it flowed camel trains bringing gold and free labor in the form of slaves -- enough of both to build magnificent cities.

The Moors introduced new crops into the Spanish peninsula, including rice, sugar-cane, cotton, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, pomegranates, spinach, artichokes, and figs.

These exotic foodstuffs became part of Moorish Spain's profitable export trade, which also included luxury goods like ceramics, glass, and beautifully wrought leather and wood boxes.

In his 1992 book Moorish Spain, historian Richard Fletcher observes that the prosperity of Moorish Spain at its height can be gauged by the existence of a famed workshop for ivory carving in Cuenca during the middle years of the 11th century. He notes the ivory could only have come from as far away as East Africa or India, evidence of how far-reaching were the trade networks of the time.

But despite all these signs of prosperity, Moorish Spain was a fragile and tumultuous place.

That is partly because its was caught between two great forces. To the north were Christian states which grew more powerful with time. To the south were the Berber tribes from which Moors sprang and which eyed the riches of Andalusia enviously.

Yet the main reason the Moorish states were so weak was not just the strength of their neighbors but also their own constant infighting and calling in of outside forces to help fight their rivals.

Christian and Moor, Book of Games of Alfonso X, 1285
By 11th century, Moorish rulers were so regularly calling upon the Christian states of northern Spain to intervene that the most powerful Christian kingdoms like Castille and Aragon were in a position to demand tribute in exchange for protection.

Abd Allah, the ruler of Granada, has left this description of his negotiations of protection payments with King Alfonso VI of Leon-Castlle in 1075:

"Alfonso accepted my plea after much effort on my part and I finally agreed to pay him 25,000 (gold) pieces, half the amount he had demanded. Then, as presents for him, I got together a large number of carpets, garments, and vessels and placed all these things in a large tent. I then invited him to the tent. But when he saw the presents he said they were not enough. So it was agreed that I should increase the amount by 5,000 (gold) pieces, bringing it to a total of 30,000."

At the same time, Spanish and French kings were engaging in Christendom's first crusades to constantly push the borders of Moorish Spain southwards. Their crusades -- like the better known later crusades to Jerusalem -- were motivated both by religion and the chance to plunder or conquer the richer Islamic lands.

The danger from the south was no less. To relieve the pressure of the Christian states, Moorish Spain's beleaguered rulers called for help from fellow Moors in North Africa. But they often found themselves overthrown by their own Muslim allies.

This happened most famously at the end of the 11th century when the Almoravid empire, founded by a school of fundamentalist ascetics in North Africa, came to Moorish Spain to help, were appalled by its liberalism, and stayed to rule. They in turn were displaced by an even more fundamentalist group of aesthetics recruiting followers among the wild Berber tribes of southern Morocco, the founders of the Almohad empire.

Moors playing chess, Book of Games of Alfonso X, 1285
Writing in 1377, the Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun sought to explain the rapid rising and falling of Islamic empires in Moorish Spain in terms of a larger political theory.

In his book the Muqaddimah, he observed that Islam's great empires were always carved out by barbarian tribes of conquerors tightly knit by religious conviction. Yet after their conquests created a great civilization, their sense of purpose was sapped by luxuries and rivalries, and they in turn became prey to a new tightly knit horde of barbaric invaders.

The influx of new Muslim conquerors from North Africa pushed back the Christian states for a while. But when these new empires, too, decayed, it proved to be only a temporary reprieve. By the 1400's, steady pressure from the north had pushed Muslim rule out of all but a slice of coastal southern Spain.

The most famous of the remaining principalities was the emirate of Grenada, the home of the Alhambra, which would become the last Muslim state to fall in 1492.

How did Granada hold out so long?

Much of the reason can still be seen today. The emirate was mountainous and extraordinarily well fortified, with a chain of castles built on the average just five or six miles apart along the northern and western frontiers. It also had enormous numbers of watchtowers all over its territory to serve as redoubts -- as many as 14,000 according to one contemporary historian, Ibn Khatib.

The Alhambra was a vast fortress itself, but with an inner world of refined luxury. When tourists visit it today, they go directly to those parts of the castle no visitor in the 1400s would see, the dwelling place of the royal family. But the complex also contained a military garrison, stables and workshops. 

The Alhambra fortress and palace complex
It was only after an eight month siege that the troops of the combined kingdoms of Aragon and Castille finally took Granada on January 1, 1492.

On the following morning King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received the keys to Granada from the new puppet ruler they had just installed.

As Fletcher notes, it was a dramatic moment:

"Curiously enough, (Ferdinand and Isabella) had chosen to dress themselves in Moorish costume for the ceremony. Among those who witnessed it was Christopher Colombus, who was in attendance upon the court in his quest for royal sponsorship of his projected voyage of discovery into the Atlantic."

That day marked the end of Muslim rule in Spain. A new era was beginning in which Europe would become rich through its mastery of the sea and Moorish Spain would be but a memory.




Sunday, 24 March 2013

Spanish Rugs: When Spain Was Part Of The Islamic World

15th century Spanish"Admiral carpet

CORDOBA, March 25, 2013 -- Among the first oriental rugs to reach Europe were carpets woven in Europe itself.

Those rugs came from Moorish Spain, an extension of the Islamic world that once reached the Pyrenees and brought medieval Western Europe into direct contact with eastern art and culture.

From the first Arab-led invasion Moorish invasion in 710 to the defeat of the last Muslim kingdom in 1492, the Islamic presence in Spain spanned nearly 800 years.

During that time, the expanse of Muslim holdings rose and fell in contests with Christian powers, but major weaving carpet weaving centuries flourished for centuries in cities including Seville, Granada, Almeria, Malaga, and in the province of Murcia.

The carpets they produced furnished the luxurious palaces of the Moorish Spain but also were exported to other parts of the Muslim world and northward to Europe, where they were highly prized.

Often the carpets moved first to the Christian Spanish kingdoms in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. There they became part of Christian court life and moved further north to the castles of France, Italy, Britain and beyond.

Just when the Spanish carpet trade began is uncertain. But as early as the 13th century, when Spain’s rug industry was fully developed, writers were already speaking of it as long established.

Spain under Umayyad califate in 8th century
A poet named al-Shakundi, writing in Cordoba, long the capital of Moorish Spain, notes that rugs made in Murcia, were already being exported to foreign countries a full century earlier.

When Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Prince Edward of England, arrived in London in 1255, chroniclers noted that rugs, presumably from Murcia, were ceremoniously displayed in the streets and at her lodgings at Westminster.

And even today, in the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, one can see a fresco from the first half of the fourteenth century that almost certainly depicts a Spanish carpet.

Who wove the Spanish carpets and what did they look like?

The weavers are generally believed to have been Moors, the Berber population of North Africa, and were part of a skilled artisan class in direct contact with contemporaries in other parts of the Islamic world.

The weavers were both aware of, and much influenced by, trends in the other great Islamic art centers of the time, including Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, and catered to a courtly culture that was largely the same across the Islamic world.

The emphasis was on luxury and classical elegance but also novelty and designs were freely exchanged between the fields of architecture, book illumination, and textile production as artistic trends came and went.

Here is a photo of the interior of the famous mosque in Cordoba, whose construction began around 784 to 786. 

Not surprisingly, earlier Spanish carpets or carpet fragments show the geometric forms associated with early Muslim art.

They include six- and eight-pointed starts, circles, triangles and cartouches and, often, borders with religious inscriptions in highly stylized and geometric Kufic script.

But in the fifteenth century, Spanish rugs changed dramatically.

By that time, the powerful kingdoms of northern Spain had pushed far to the south in their centuries-long effort to evict the Moors from the peninsula.

The important rug weaving center of Murcia fell into Christian hands and the Moorish weavers who stayed worked for European masters interested only in the European market.

The change created one of the most distinctive features of Renaissance-era Spanish rugs: their odd proportions. They are usually very long in proportion to their width, suggesting they were deliberately woven for the long, vaulted halls of churches, monasteries, and castles.

One thing European noble families desired most was carpets that could serve as highly personalized status symbols. Specifically, they wanted carpets that displayed their own family coat of arms in center field, in the place where a medallion usually might be.

The Spanish rug industry responded to the demand by producing “armorial carpets,” a curious hybrid product that was both Western and Eastern at once.

Mildred Jackson O’Brien describes armorial carpets nicely in her 1946 work, “The Rug and Carpet Book:”

“Fifteenth century rugs show western heraldic emblems and coats of arms curiously combined with Oriental decoration. Birds and animals begin to appear, floral forms, and a more rhythmic flow of line. This is probably the greatest period of Spanish rug weaving. Often there are many elaborate borders and the field is divided into diamond-shaped panels or covered with large wreaths or circles. The influence of Italian Renaissance silk and damask patterns with their pomegranates, acanthus leaves and ogee panels is apparent.” 

Interestingly, the angular stylized birds and animals that appear in the Spanish carpets of this time recall similar figures in early Anatolian rugs.

Another rug expert, M. S. Dimand, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, notes that Anatolian animal rugs were clearly well known in Spain, as evidenced by the fact they appear in several paintings from the mid-fifteenth century.

He notes that among the Muslim element in some of the armorial rugs is “an inner border with a lozenge diaper containing a swastika – a motif that may be found in Anatolian rugs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”

Such eastern elements often competed for space in the border with bears, boars or wild men in a tree landscape that were clearly elements of European inspiration.

Among the oldest surviving rugs of this kind are the "Admiral carpets," so-called because their fields are overlaid with the coats-of-arms of the fifteenth-century admirals of Spain.

But there are indications the practice of commissioning carpets bearing owners' blazons originated still earlier, with some inventories mentioning such rugs even in the fourteenth century.

The Admiral carpets are surrounded by three to seven borders and on some carpets the human figures even include women in low-cut European-style dress.

Apart from armorial carpets, the Spanish looms also produced a group of geometrical rugs often called Spanish Holbeins and whose field is divided into large squares enclosing octagons.

The rugs are named Holbeins after the early sixteenth European painter Hans Holbein the Younger because they closely resemble a type of Anatolian rug he depicted in a number of his paintings.

Dimand notes that the Spanish Holbein’s design “recalls Eastern Islamic marquetry decorations of wood and ivory,” again showing the cross-borrowing between different fields of Islamic art so characteristic to classical rug design.

It is perhaps inevitable that Spain’s Moorish weavers, once isolated from the rest of the Islamic artistic world by the Christian Reconquista, would eventually lose their creative momentum.

The fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – known as the Mudejar period to refer to Moorish craftsmanship under Christian authority – produced many handsome rugs.

Among them are the so-called Alcaraz carpets, called after the city of the same name, which were unabashedly European Renaissance in their style. Here is an example of an Alcaraz rug, available from Nazmiyal Collection in New York,

But by the end of the seventeenth century the last of the Moorish craftsmen had departed and Spain’s oriental carpet era came to a close.

What’s left for us to enjoy in museums across Europe is a legacy of weaving that tells one of the carpet world’s most dramatic stories.

It was a time when part of Europe became part the Muslim world, and then part of the world of Islamic art became part of Europe. And it was the beginning of a long history of cultural exchange that continues today.