Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Islamic Spain

Although it was never part of the Ottoman Empire, most of Spain was controlled by Muslims for three centuries, and they maintained a presence there for another four centuries. The Moors started invading the Iberian Peninsula (which includes Spain and Portugal) in 711 and made it north of the Pyrenees, into the body of modern Europe, briefly, until they were stopped by Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) in 732. Muslim rule was unified until after 1036, when the end of the Umayyad caliphate fragmented the Muslim world, including the Muslim states in Spain. These fragmented kingdoms were more vulnerable to Christian expansion from the north, at a time when the Christians were unified and newly energized to fight the infidel in the Crusades; the Muslims gradually lost central Spain to the Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) in the 11th and 12th centuries. By 1230, only the kingdom of Granada was still Muslim. In 1492, the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon finally took control of Granada, pushing the Moors out of Spain.

The leaders of the Moorish armies were Arabs, the soldiers were Berber converts from North Africa. When they settled in Spain following their conquests, these Muslims married Spanish women, making for a distinctive mix of blood and culture that marked Moorish Spain with a cosmopolitan mix unseen in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. In particular, the Moors were literate. They had books written on paper (Europe was still using parchment), sold in bookstores and housed in libraries. The libraries contained works by Greek and Roman authors as well as newer works by Arab mathematicians and philosophers. Serious students from the rest of Europe traveled to study with the Spanish scholars – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, for the Muslims were tolerant of other “people of the book” – to learn philosophy, mathematics, and medicine that was far more advanced than in their own countries.

After Toledo was taken by the Reconquista in 1085, Christians scholars began a massive project to translate the Arabic books into Latin. The subjects covered by the texts included algebra, astrology, astronomy, architecture, biology, botany, chemistry, geography, geometry, history, hydrostatics, law, medicine, mechanics, meteorology, mineralogy, music, navigation optics, pharmacology, physics, physiology, psychology, trigonometry, and zoology. While the Renaissance didn’t start here, the new information pouring into European scholarly circles broadened their knowledge of the world and set the stage for the later cultural flowering. In particular, the geometry, architecture, and optics texts led to the development of perspective which marked Renaissance painting so dramatically from medieval art. And the incredible strides in math and science that the Arabs had made inspired generations of European scientists to new ways of looking at the world.

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