Muslim Spain – heaven or hell for Jews and Christians?

For seven hundred years, all or part of modern day Spain and Portugal was under Muslim rule. In the year 711 CE, an Arab and Muslim led army crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain and conquered a Christian kingdom advancing across Spain and up into central France before being stopped.

This was in the decades immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when the new Muslim religion had conquered north Africa, Arabia, the Levant, Persia and reached China and India.

The kind of caliphate that emerged in Spain has traditionally been seen as remarkably tolerant and reaching a very high level of cultural and philosophical sophistication.

It was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed along together in what has been termed the ‘convivencia’. Churches, synagogues and mosques existed side by side in contrast to Christian run medieval Europe where Jews in particular were brutally oppressed.

READ MORE: LGBT Muslims in history

But this view has been trashed in a new book called The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Dario Fernandez-Morera. He argues the following points:

  • It’s not true that Spain before the year 711 was a barbaric, underdeveloped post-Roman kingdom run by uncouth Visigoths but an emerging civilisation synthesising Roman and Goth culture with a high level of learning and architecture
  • The Arab/Muslim caliphate absorbed the civilisation of the Roman and Persian empires it conquered but independent of those influences, it was an arid desert faith with little culture
  • The conquest of Spain was a militaristic ‘jihad’ and modern scholars, embarrassed to say so, have downplayed the religious element of the invasion
  • Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians in Spain were reduced to ‘dhimmi’ status forced to pay a special tax and often subject to pogroms and persecution – the much vaunted tolerance is mythical
  • Just because there was liberal thinking among the Muslim elite that ruled Spain doesn’t mean that applied to the general population who were subject to rigid control by Muslim clerics

I have been reading the book as a much needed corrective to some of the muddle-headed thinking about ‘convivencia’ in medieval Spain and Portugal. But I do wonder if the author has pushed his point too hard. I tend to agree with this blogger that at times, Fernandez-Morera is being as dogmatic as those he is criticising.

His targets are orientalist scholars over the last century in particular who have wanted to prove that under Muslim rule, tolerance and free thinking was not only possible – but happened in contrast to savage crusader and church run medieval Europe. Those crude stereotypes should be demolished but I was left wanting to know:

  • Where is the evidence for a great Visigothic civilisation?
  • Why did Jewish populations co-operate so readily with the Muslim invaders if Visigoth rule was so enlightened?
  • Weren’t there way more scholars coming out of Muslim ruled Spain than the Christian kingdoms in the north – Leon, Castile and Aragon?

It’s a fascinating and very topical discussion and despite my reservations, I recommend you read this book.

Myths about the Titanic disaster

I’ve just visited the Maritime Museum in Liverpool that includes an excellent permanent exhibition on the Titanic. It also busts some of the lingering myths about the disaster that refuse to go down – pardon the tasteless pun.

The company that built this mega-ship – the White Star Line – was based in Liverpool while construction was carried out in Belfast and the Titanic sailed from Southampton. As we know, it promptly sank with a massive loss of life. And ever since, many myths have circulated about the Titanic disaster.

So, let’s bust some of those myths…

TITANIC MYTHS: It wasn’t really the Titanic that sank but another ship

To compete against its rival shipping company Cunard, the White Star Line built bigger and more luxurious. Titanic was one of these ships and another was called the Olympic. The theory runs that White Star lied about which ship went down. It wasn’t the Titanic – but the Olympic.

The Olympic had been damaged in a collision off the Isle of Wight, which threatened to put it out of service and delay the maiden voyage of the Titanic. So, White Star switched ships redecorating the Olympic as the Titanic and then sank it as an insurance scam.

This story can be researched further online but the more I read it, the less plausible it seems. And would White Star really have committed mass murder knowingly in this manner?

TITANIC MYTHS: The Egyptian mummy of an ancient priestess was on board

No it wasn’t. But the story is pretty amusing. I’m pretty sure it emerged in the early 20th century when amazing finds were taking place in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings like the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. The story goes that an Englishman had come across the mummy of a priestess of Amen-Ra.

This chap conveniently disappears. And then everybody who comes into contact with this mummy has a terrible accident or dies. Eventually, it ends up with the British Museum but their staff are freaked out when they can hear the priestess trying to claw her way out. So, it’s sold to an American and placed as cargo on the Titanic. Then you know what happens next!

Some versions of this story have the famous Victorian occultist Madam Blavatsky warning that the mummy must not be taken on to the ship. The problem is that the Titanic sailed in 1912 while Blavatsky died in 1891. Therefore, impossible, unless she uttered this prophecy from the grave!

FIND OUT MORE: Ten facts about Queen Anne you didn’t learn from the movie The Favourite

TITANIC MYTHS: Titanic was trying to break a world speed record when it hit the iceberg

Nope. I’m afraid not. White Star built its liners for size and opulence – but not speed. These were intended to be floating stately homes – well, at least for first and maybe second class. Third class had a more basic experience. But what they were not were turbo-charged vessels zooming across the Atlantic at dangerous speeds.

While I was at the Maritime Museum, I came across some objects rescued from the wreck site at the bottom of the sea and donated to the museum. Here are some of them.