Kate Maltby

The arc of our history has bent towards sorrow

The popular idea of three faiths living in harmony in Medieval Spain is a ludicrous distortion


The Mezquita Cathedral In Cordoba, Spain. This Was Once A Moorish Mosque But Has Since Been Converted Into A Cathedral.

September 28, 2023 11:05

Every year, I try to escape London for some late summer sun. In recent years, a friend and I have explored Andalusia, the southern Spanish region which offers us beaches, bull-fighting and centuries of Jewish history. She hits the beaches, I hit the Jewish history, and she’s the one who goes home with a smile on her face.

This month, I’ll be in Cordoba in southern Spain, perhaps the greatest of medieval Jewish cities. I’ll be visiting the birthplace of the great philosopher-rabbi Moses Maimonides and trying furiously to remember each of his Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith. For the first time, I’ll get a chance to see the newly excavated synagogue recently found in nearby Utera, a once-thriving Jewish building most recently in use as a disco-bar. We’ll wander together round the old Jewish Quarter of the medieval city, plastered with positive signage about the joys of Abrahamic co-existence in Spain’s Middle Ages, and I’ll ball my hands into fists while I try not to bite the heads off upbeat, Kumbaya-ish tour-guides.

It is true that Cordoba was briefly a medieval city in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in some kind of peace. Jews were tolerated — toleration! Lucky Jews! — for a few centuries, just before and after the end of the first Christian millennium. Under the Caliphate of Cordoba, which lasted by most accounts from 929 to 1031, Jews even obtained high office in the Islamic regime and were permitted to run autonomous law courts within the community — provided they paid the additional dhimmi tax, accepted secondary status in Islamic courts, and identified themselves as Jewish in public. Lucky Jews!

Amid these conditions, the Andalusian Jews of the Middle Ages did create a “Golden Age” of which the Sephardi community has every reason to be proud. I have no wish to do down the achievements of this extraordinary society. It was a briefly flourishing Jewish world whose scientific and literary thinkers gave us the cornerstone of Jewish intellectual culture.

If you want to question what we can and cannot claim to understand about an afterlife, you could do no worse than pick up Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, or Moreh Nevukhim. (Maimonides is also known as Rambam, a contraction of Moses ben Maimon.) Struggling with the limitations that the body imposes on the mind? You may find fellow-feeling if you explore the poetry of Solomon ibn Gabirol. His abiding image of himself as a “vulture in a cage”, hungry to know God, captures the tension between our animal bodies and our sacred potential like few other poets have managed. Try reading him immediately alongside the Christian poet, John Donne, whose metaphysical ideas he pre-dated by nearly five centuries.

What gets my goat, however, is the Pollyanna -ish approach to Jewish history that dominates the tourism industry here. In Cordoba, and in Spanish cities like Granada or Toledo which share the outlines of its history, you’ll hear endless gush about “medieval diversity” and little about antisemitic persecution. Historians who push the Caliphate as a model of “three faiths living in harmony” like to call this period the “convivencia”, despite plenty of scholars challenging the term. Any scepticism doesn’t seem to have made it through to the local guidebooks. Or, indeed, to ChatGPT, which sums up the internet’s collective knowledge of Cordoba as “a living testament to the power of unity in diversity… a guiding light towards a future of coexistence, understanding and harmony.”

It’s a shame, then, that Maimonides never did his great work in Cordoba, because his family were forced to flee to North Africa by the decidedly non-tolerant Almohad dynasty who arrived in 1148. Yes, Jews did sometimes hold high-office under local Islamic regimes — such as Joseph ibn Naghrela, who directed a Yeshiva while he rose to become Grand Vizier of the Berber regime of Granada. Let’s call it unfortunate that Joseph’s rise inspired such rumour and reaction that his opponents were able to instigate a pogrom in 1066 which massacred the entire Jewish population of Granada. Joseph himself was crucified, another great example of co-existence.

As for Cordoba? After the Catholic takeover, we know how soon the population turned again on the Jews. The city was the site of one of the worst antisemitic massacres of the Spanish Inquisition, when one hundred and seven people were burned at the stake in 1504 on suspicion of practising as Jews. So much for “three faiths living in harmony”.

I have no intention of disregarding the brief, exciting moments –— mainly under Islamic rule — when Catholics, Jews and Muslims did generate a fertile cultural exchange, or the many families who no doubt lived in genuine goodwill with their neighbours. But when we visit the European cities where Jewish cultural flowerings were once “tolerated”, it feels foolish to pretend that the arc of that history does not bend towards sorrow. Spain’s medieval Jewish population numbered several hundred thousand, based around cities Cordoba and Toledo. Now it is fewer than 50,000, largely based in Madrid and Barcelona. When I visit Cordoba, those numbers don’t make me feel like celebrating the past. They make me fearful for the future.

September 28, 2023 11:05

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