Sunday, February 14, 2016

The legacy of the Moors in Europe

(Picture source)

By "JD":

Most people will be aware of the Moorish influence on Spain because of the 700 years during which Spain was known as Al Andalus. Their architecture is self-evident and the Moors introduced new methods of large-scale irrigation thus expanding horticultural fertility - in the Spanish language most of the words for irrigation, drainage etc are Arabic.

Under the Umayyad caliphate (929–1031), Córdoba became perhaps the greatest intellectual centre of Europe, with celebrated libraries and schools. Not just in Córdoba but also in Toledo and other centres where arts and sciences flourished. All were part of the so-called Islamic golden age in which Jews, Muslims and Christians lived and worked and studied in relative harmony. When I first visited Toledo nearly 40 years ago what surprised me almost immediately was that the road signs were written in Hebrew as well as Spanish.

There are a number of scholars who contend that the Islamic Golden Age is a myth but that is to miss the point. The golden age was not a direct product of Islam any more than the Italian renaissance was a direct product of Christianity. Just a brief glance at the paintings of Botticelli for example would dispel that notion. Any so-called golden age in any period of history will flourish when the warrior class (the psychopaths) have a respite from the perpetual insanity of their desire for power and control.

The fact remains that in Al Andalus there was a flourishing of arts and sciences. And I have seen for myself in the bibliotecas of Madrid, Toledo and El Escorial astonishing collections of books and manuscripts in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Spanish as well as Syriac and Farsi (Persian) A lot of material came from the middle east via the Moors and these were copied and translated in the aforementioned libraries and schools.

The Moorish influence extended beyond Spain into France and Germany in ways that have been forgotten or overlooked.

We are all familiar with the myths and legends about the quest for the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail first appears in a written text in Chrétien de Troyes's Old French verse romance, the Conte del Graal ('Story of the Grail'), or Perceval, of c.1180. Several other writers over the following 50 years wrote their own versions of the Grail (or Graal) These stories are based on old Celtic and Arthurian legends and what they share is that the Grail itself is a cup or chalice. In Celtic myth this drinking vessel or 'cors' is said to satisfy the needs of all those who drank from it. This was Christanised to become the cup used at the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples.

But there is one version of the Grail legend that is different. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, the Grail is identified as a stone, it is called "lapsit exillis" and this stone had magical powers: "Such powers does the stone confer on mortal men that their flesh and bones are soon made young again. This stone is called The Gral." Wolfram indicates in his writings that the source of his story came from Kyot of Dolet in Aragon. Kyot is a Germanic version of Guy which is the dimiutive form of Guillaume or Guilliem. Dolet is usually interpreted as being Toledo but is more likely to be Tudela which is a city in Navarra in northern Spain. At that time Navarra was part of the Kingdom of Aragon. Living and working in Tudela during this period was a scholar called William of Tudela who was the author of the Chanson de la Croisade Albigeoise or Song of the Albigensian Crusade, an epic poem in Occitan giving a contemporary account of the crusade against the Cathars. This would indicate that he was a Cathar living in Spain. Working as a scholar in the Bishopric of Tarazona which was a centre for the translation of Arabic lore brought from the Middle East, William of Tudela produced a translation of a work by Thābit ibn Qurra who was a Harranian living in Baghdad. This document is undoubtedly the source of Wolfram's Parzifal because Thābit is named within the story of Parzifal. He is described as a philosopher who "fathomed abstruse arts" and when Wolfram has cause to list the planets he gives them their Arabic names.

Around the same time as these Grail stories there emerged in SW France the phenomenon of the Troubadors. They appeared as if from nowhere but did they really have roots in France or elsewhere? The word does not come from the French 'trouvère' which is what everyone thinks. It comes from the North African tradition of 'Tarab' which was and still is a form of musical story telling. Add the word 'Tarab' to the Spanish language suffix of -ador and you get Tarabador, a person who sings/plays Tarab so the word 'tarabador' is much closer linguistically than 'trouvère'.

The popular image of Troubadors is of the love-struck romantic singing of his unrequited love for an unattanable maiden. But Tarab is sung by both males and females. Here is a song by the Syrian singer Assala Nasri which is a response to a declaration of love by an unwanted suitor:-

The influence of this Moorish music continues into the 20th and 21st cebturies. You may recall that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin) made a journey to the Atlas Mountains in search of further musical inspiration.

Another modern day troubador is the Canadian Loreena McKennit who, like Wolfram, has drawn inspiration from Celtic and Arabic sources. Here she is singing, appropriately enough, in the Alhambra in Granada -

Umayyad caliphate in Spain

Quest for the Holy the Grail

William of Tudela


Thābit ibn Qurra

The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival by David R. Fideler -

Idries Shah

The Troubadors


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Wildgoose said...

The words relating to irrigation may be Arabic, but that doesn't make the irrigation Arabic. Arabia is a desert with no tradition of irrigation.

On the other hand, the Middle East had extensive Roman (and Egyptian, etc.) irrigation schemes and was quite literally the "bread basket" of Mediterranean Europe until it was over-run and conquered by the Arabs.

Moslem goat-herders were allowed to graze their goats anywhere they liked without redress - including on those irrigated Christian farms. It's easy to see why they gradually fell into disrepair.

Sackerson said...

Irrigation: Egypt!

Wildgoose said...

I may be misunderstanding your comment, and if so my apologies.

Please remember that the original (Coptic) Egyptians weren't Arabs - they were later invaders from the Arabian peninsula.

The (original) Egyptians and the Romans were both rightfully famous for their engineering prowess and skills with water - ancient Rome's population peaked at around a million people, kept by alive by bringing in water over vast distances. The Romans built magnificent aqueducts some of which (in southern France and Spain I believe) are still being used today.

Sackerson said...

I thought a Coptic was what you get when you pass your speed awareness course.

Sackerson said...

... loooks like a complicated subject: