Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Islamic Iberia: The Golden Age (921-1031)

Muslim ruler Abd ar-Rahman 3rd (890-961) began his reign of almost half a century in 912. Because of his tolerance of Jews and Christians and generous patronage of the arts and humanities, Andalusia (Islamic Iberia), and especially his capital city of Córdoba, enjoyed a golden age of economic prosperity, cultural creativity, and harmonious relations between Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Jews in Andalusia shared in the economic prosperity of this period and the Jewish community developed almost unparalleled wealth and stability.

Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915-970), born into a wealthy Jewish family, mastered Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin by the time he was a teenager. He went on to study medicine and eventually became Abd ar-Rahman's personal physician. Abd ar-Rahman was so impressed with his intelligence, insight, skill, and charm that he made Hasdai his primary diplomat.

Responsible for Abd ar-Rahman's foreign relations, Hasdai negotiated positive relationships with Christian leaders in Iberia, Gallia, and Germania. He enjoyed the chance discovery of the existence of a Jewish state beyond the eastern boundary of Olympia. His letter to Joseph, ruler of the Khazars, written around 960, and Joseph's response still exist. Hasdai also wrote to Helena, Roman empress in Constantinople, asking her to grant her Jewish subjects the same religious freedom that Abd ar-Rahman had granted his.

Hasdai made Córdoba as important a place of Talmudic studies and source of normative legal rulings as the yeshivas at Sura and Pumbedita in Mesopotamia had been for centuries. He purchased books in Hebrew for use by the whole Jewish community and financially supported Jewish scholars and poets.

Al-Hakam 2nd(r. 961-976), Abd ar-Rahman's son, vigorously pursued scientific studies, financed teams of scholars to translate Greek, Latin, and Hebrew works into Arabic, and lavishly supported the purchase of books for his library. By his death the library of Córdoba was the first to exceed the Great Library of Alexandria in number of books. Like the Ptolemies before him, Al-Hakam financially supported scholars and encouraged their use of his library.

By 1000 Córdoba, with a population of 500,000 people, had surpassed even Constantinople to become the largest and richest city in Olympia.

Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Amir, better known as Almanzor (b. 938, r. 976-1002), initially exercised the power of the caliphate as guardian of al-Hakam's 10-year-old son. He began the end of Islamic Iberia's golden age when he ordered the burning of all the scientific books that al-Hakam had collected. He continued its decline by never surrendering the power of the caliphate to the caliph once the latter had become an adult. The result, following the death of Almanzor's son in 1008, was civil war.

By 1031 the unified Muslim state in Iberia collapsed into dozens of smaller quarreling states. These much weaker statelets mustered little strength against their more aggressive neighbors. Alfonso 6th, Spanish Christian ruler of León and Castile, was able to take the major city of Toledo from them in 1085.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.