It’s only logical, at the halfway point, that there’s been some defence of the Muslim culture but the reader is reminded that these four posts refer to the supposed “Golden Era”, not later building, including the Moorish and Ottoman.
The apologists refer to the Golden Age of the flourishing of Islamic culture. These posts say there was little that was genuinely Islamic and of value. Apologists will refer, of course, to Alhambra and Cordoba, so let’s look at those first.
The dates are the thing. It was built as a small fort in 889, remembering that it was in Andalusia, therefore out of the desert and into surroundings which already supported much architecture.
Yes it was then developed by Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar in the 1200s, near the end of the Crusades, remembering of course Byzantine architecture and the way the Muslims like building over other people’s structures.
And yes, it was converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. However, what is rarely mentioned is how it was neglected for centuries by the occupying Muslims until Al-Ahmar, which is testament to the nature of Islamic influence – the Arabs have always been itinerant and non-contributory to conquered lands.
In fact, on a map of Europe and the middle-east, architecture becomes “thicker” the closer one gets to the fertile crescent and even then, the influence of the Persian and Byzantine has to be taken into account. Contrast that with the castle building in Wales and Scotland.
The Great Mosque of Córdoba follows a similar pattern. For a start, it was Visigoth, not Muslim and here we see the repeated pattern – Muslims on someone else’s site, they build their own on top of it and then claim it’s Muslim architecture.
Abd al-Rahman I took over what had been a joint Christian, i.e. Spanish site, along with Muslims -therefore of mixed style. His ambition was to erect a temple to rival Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus – once again, joint influences.
Plus he did it via zakat and jizya on Christians and Jews. Slap in the face for the latter who were eventually expelled. The architects incorporated a number of Roman columns, some of which were already in the Gothic structure; others were sent from various regions of Iberia as presents from the governors of provinces.
There is that motif again – building on other people’s places, using their design but adding their own embellishments. And always this centralizing of wealth, rather than its spread across whole communities. Cordoba mosque was heavily based on Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist. Always earlier influences, always someone else’s site and layout.
What is needed here is the perspective of the actual numbers of these centres across the whole of the conquered territories and a readiness not to automatically accord the Muslim cuckoos building on other’s nests the status of a new and great cultural influence on architecture.
Where there was no other previous architecture, there remained largely barren land, apart from gathered communities. The Arabs are itinerant, not specifically an Islamic thing.
One way to see this is to look at the Gaza strip today. When the Muslims get to an area, apart from a central, Mecca like place, the rest is eminently forgettable. The motif is constant with what are, after all, warriors. What is in place is either razed or it falls into neglect.
Another example is Kazan, Russia. Once under the Khanate, the Kremlin went Russian from 1552 but in the 2000s, the Muslims built a mosque within its walls and destroyed a famous bar on the slopes of a nearby hill. Muslim building always involves the destruction of other people’s buildings or large parts of them.
But apologists ignore all this, dazzled by the marble in a few places and accord “Muslim” or “Islamic” architecture kudos it does not deserve, except in those central places and even then only in combination with other influences.
Other examples of Muslim architectural additions
Generalife in Granada, Giralda in Seville, Paderne Castle in the Algarve, Portugal, the mosque of Koutoubia and University of Al-Karaouine inMorocco; the Great Mosque of Algiers, the Great Mosque of Tlemcen in Algeria, the Mosque of Uqba in Kairouan, Tunisia, the palace city of Medina Azahara, San Cristo de la Luz in Toledo, the Aljafería in Zaragoza and baths at for example Ronda and Alhama de Granada.
That’s about the sum total of anything culturally “great” and let’s be fair, they did use other influences to ally with the Islamic to put in muqarnas, horseshoe arches, voussoirs, domes, crenellated arches, lancet arches, ogee arches, courtyards, and decorative tile work.
But look at the vastness of the conquered regions and compare to the quite narrower eastern and western Europe, crammed with every conceivable style. It’s sparse in Muslim controlled lands, except where something was there before and they thought they’d create some sort of Muslim paradise on earth upon the remains.
Remember, Generalife was 1302, Paderne had been a Roman fortification. It was the incursion of Christians from the north which forced the Muslims to build forts but there was nothing great about them. The Mosque of Algiers, if you look carefully, was Berber, plus it was built in 1097, not during this supposed Golden Era.
And this is what we’re finding all the way along the line. Apologists are peddling this line about the Islamists handing culture over to the west. In fact, the opposite has always been true and regarding a so-called Great Era – what Great Era across the whole of the conquered territories and ascribable solely to Islam?
The archaeological evidence
John J. O’Neill writes, in Islam’s Golden Age: An Archaeological Nonentity2:
Islam, far from being a force for enlightenment in the so-called Dark Age, was actually responsible for the destruction of the literate and urban civilization that we now call Classical; and that, if anything, it was Islam that caused Europe’s descent into backwardness during the Middle Ages.
In the same place I have argued in detail that the Islamic Golden Age of the late seventh to the mid-tenth centuries, during which the world of Islam is supposed to have basked in the light of science and learning, is a complete myth, and that no such epoch ever existed. The evidence for this is archaeological.
By the mid-twentieth century, archaeologists had begun to put together a fairly comprehensive picture of the archaeology of Europe and the Near East. Indeed, several areas of the Near East, such as Egypt, Palestine and Iraq, were and remain among the most thoroughly excavated regions of the earth.
Medievalists had of course been very interested in throwing light on the somewhat romantic though apparently fabulously wealthy and cultured Islamic world of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries. Strange and wonderful tales were told of this epoch, though all agreed it was an age of high civilization. Indeed, the seventh to tenth centuries, as we saw, were regarded as the Islamic Golden Age.
This was the age of the Omayyad and Abbasid Caliphs; the romantic epoch of Scheherazade and Harun Al-Rashid, the fabulously opulent Caliph of Baghdad, who is said to have donned the disguise of a commoner and wandered by night through the dimly-lit streets of the metropolis — a city of reputedly a million people.
And so on – any modern text today has it so. H. St. L. B. Moss, The Birth of the Middle Ages; 395-814 (Oxford University Press, 1935) p. 172, is one of those eulogizers.
All are agreed that in later years, from the eleventh century onwards, the Islamic world began to fall rapidly behind the West.
Before getting down to the archaeology, let’s pause and look at this as an overview:
How logical was a Muslim Golden Age?
Europe had been Rome – even the Visigoths got civilization to a point, plus left some of it behind. There was a Church age in which Church architecture, painting and sculpture took place, none of which was shoddy.
That was followed by the Renaissance, the Reformation, learning began in earnest, then began to disintegrate after about 1776 for specific ideological reasons. Perfect example is the marginalization of people like Kepler and the promotion of Galileo and Newton – the Venetian school of Them.
Societies of savages do not tend to suddenly develop culture. They can adopt someone else’s and build on it but always there is the throat-slitting warrior motif with Muslims, far more characteristic of their “culture”. We’ve already seen in posts passim how they terrorized the southern European coast, even moving outside of the Mediterranean and the result was always the same – rape, murder, slavery, savagery, butchery, oppression of non-Muslims, just as they’re faithfully doing today, to the letter.
The invaders held up signs yesterday thanking Vortigern Merkel for inviting them. Now observe what happens. Gates of Vienna? They’re already inside.
So to some archaeology
On the word of the written histories, then, archaeologists expected to find, from Spain to eastern Iran, a flourishing and vibrant culture; an Islamic world of enormous cities endowed with all the wealth of antiquity and the plunder gathered in the Muslim wars of conquest. They hoped to find palaces, public baths, universities and mosques; all richly decorated with marble, ceramic and carved stone.
In fact, they found nothing of the sort. The archaeological non-appearance of the Islamic Golden Age is surely one of the most remarkable discoveries to come to light in the past century. It has not achieved the sensational headlines we might expect, for the simple reason that a non-discovery is of much less interest to the public than a discovery.
[A]s archaeologists searched in vain through site after site, they imagined they had just been unlucky; that with the next day’s dig the fabulous palaces and baths would be uncovered. And this has been the pattern now for a hundred years.
Always bear in mind that there very much were artifacts down there, from many civilizations, layer upon layer, there was the fossil record. It’s just that it was not Muslim/Arab.
In fact, the entire Islamic world is a virtual blank for roughly three centuries.
… has been seized on as saying there was no Islamic culture, full stop. This is not what he’s saying – he’s saying that the archaeological record outside of those major centres does not exist. Unless they lived in adobe huts and ate from palm leaves, or were semi-itinerant tribes, it’s hard to explain. Compare that to Egypt’s rich cultural heritage.
Egypt was the largest and most populous Islamic country during the Early Middle Ages. The Muslim conquest of the country occurred in 638 or 639, and we should expect the invaders to have begun, almost immediately, using the wealth of the land to begin building numerous and splendid places of worship — but apparently they didn’t.
Only two mosques in the whole of Egypt, both in Cairo, are said to date from before the eleventh century: the Amr ibn al-As, AD 641 and the Ahmad ibn Tulun, AD 878. However, the latter building has many features found only in mosques of the eleventh century, so its date of 878 is controversial.
Thus, in Egypt, we have a single place of worship, the mosque of Amr ibn al-As, dating from three years after the Muslim conquest, then nothing for another three-and-a-half centuries.
Spain, as we have seen, is supposed to have witnessed a flowering of Islamic culture and civilization in the two centuries after the Arab conquest of 711; and the city of Cordoba is said to have grown to a sophisticated metropolis of half-a-million people or more.
We recall the description of a flourishing and vastly opulent metropolis painted by the writer quoted above. Yet the same author admitted that “Little remains of the architecture of this period.”
Little indeed! As a matter of fact, the only Muslim structure in the whole of Spain dating from before the eleventh century is the so-called Mosque of Cordoba; yet even this, strictly-speaking, is not an Islamic construction: it was originally the Visigothic Cathedral of Saint Vincent, which was converted, supposedly in the days of Abd er-Rahman I, to a mosque.
Yet the Islamic features that exist could equally belong to the time of Abd er-Rahman III (latter tenth century) whom we know did conversion work on the Cathedral, adding a minaret and a new façade. (Louis Bertrand, The History of Spain (2nd ed. London, 1945) p. 54) Most of the Islamic features in the building actually come after Abd er-Rahman III, and there is no secure way of dating anything in it to the eighth century.
This is the issue. We are focussing, in these four posts, on the supposed Golden Era.
Now Cordoba has been extensively excavated over the past seventy years or so, often specifically to search for Arab/Moorish remains. What then has been found?
According to the prestigious Oxford Archaeological Guide, the city has revealed, after exhaustive excavations: (a) The south-western portion of the city wall, which was “presumably” of the ninth century; (b) A small bath-complex, of the 9th/10th century; and (c) A “part” of the Umayyad (8th/9th century) mosque. (The Oxford Archaeological Guide (Collins, 1998) pp. 73, 119, 120)
This is all that can be discovered from two-and-a-half centuries of the history of a city of supposedly half a million people. And the rest of Spain, which has been investigated with equal vigor, can deliver little else. A couple of settlements here and a few fragments of pottery there, usually of doubtful date and often described as “presumably” ninth century or such like.
The sheer poverty of these remains can only be properly understood if we compare them to other well-attested archeological eras. Thus for example any single century of Imperial Rome’s history has produced not thousands, but literally millions of archeological finds, ranging from amphitheatres and temples down to pieces of pottery and objets d’art.
Curiouser and curiouser:
The first real mark left (in archaeological terms) by Islam in Spain is dated to the mid-tenth century, to the time of Abd er-Rahman III, whose life bears many striking comparisons with his namesake and supposed ancestor Abd er-Rahman I, of the eighth century.
Again, there are strange and striking parallels between the major events of Islamic history of the seventh and eighth centuries on the one hand and of the tenth and eleventh centuries on the other.
Thus for example the Christian Reconquista in Spain is supposed to have commenced around 720, with the great victory of Don Pelayo at Covadonga; but the real Reconquista began three hundred years later with the victories of Sancho of Navarre around 1020.
Similarly, the Islamic invasion of northern India supposedly commenced around 710-720 with the victories of Muhammad bin Qasim, though the “real” Islamic conquest of the region began with the victories of Mahmud of Ghazni, roughly between 1010 and 1020.
By the late tenth century Europe was experiencing her own “renaissance”, with a flowering of art and architecture, much of it strongly reminiscent of the Late Classical work of the Merovingian and Visigothic period.
1. Ward-Perkins in Fall of Rome points out (Umayyad) Syria and Egypt as the big exception to the poverty of the Dark Age (p. 126).
2. Yazid III, social reformer. He’d got his support from people sick of earlier Umayyads who were wasting tax monies on big architectural boondoggles. So clearly there WAS building being done – Yazid counts as a witness complaining about it.
3. Where’s Harun al-Rashid’s palace and why the mosque at Samarra, commissioned 848 AD, doesn’t count as architecture?
4. Hulagu Khan. The Mongols deliberately sought out and destroyed Muslim buildings (saving Nestorian churches, for whatever reason).
The objector makes some good points but then says O’Neill is only referring to “backwaters”. Europe a backwater? There’s a case that there was some building done in the core Islamic areas, e.g. the fertile crescent but that the “backwaters”, i.e. the conquered lands,were left to rot. And the Umayyad has already been addressed further up.
Compare this to Rome in Britain or the building in Wales and Scotland.
A different take from a reader:
It was largely due to Muslims blocking European trade routes to Asia and Africa etc that Europe fell into the Dark Ages as this caused huge damage to Byzantine and other European nations economies and it was not coincidence that European fortunes reversed only when they overcame this Muslim blockade with ocean going voyages in the 16th centuries once again opening up trade routes to China (etc) that had existed under Rome.
Now a curious one – not sure if it helps this particular series of posts along one way or the other but still:
Problem – there are Muslim coins bearing both AD and AH dates as far back as the 11th Century. This is 1-2 centuries BEFORE the book says that the AD dating system was popularized by Rome. What the coins mean is that the AD dating system was in widespread use with European lands that the Muslims were in contact with, if not the rulers of.
11th century by the way, not 7th to 10th. Another comment for the overall picture:
John J. O’Neill thesis corresponds with the theorie of some german researchers (Heribert Illig, Hans-Ulrich Niemitz and others). They state that the early middle ages have not existed at all. Not only in the muslim world, but also in Europe you cannot find archaeological artifacts from say 700 to 800.
Part four tomorrow looks at inventions and implements.
– Jonathan David Carson
– Ralph Ellis
– John J O’Neill
– Emmet Scott
– Richard Butrick
– Ali Hassan, translated by Ibn Kammuna, reviewed and Edited by Jon MC
– Atheist Universe [nom-de-plume only given]