Friday, April 18, 2008

The Ornament of the World

In 955 a Benedictine nun named Hroswitha wrote of the marvels of a city far from her convent in Saxony. The city was Cordoba in present-day Spain, and Hroswitha called it "the ornament of the world." I'm struck by her metaphor.

Hroswitha learned about Cordoba from a man who came from there--a Christian bishop named Racemundo who was also called Rabi ibn Zayd. Racemundo was both a leader in his church and a diplomat in the corps of Cordoba's Muslim ruler. In 955 he was sent to the German court of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, and there he met Hroswitha. Racemundo spoke Latin and Arabic and knew the literature of the long-forgotten Greeks. He was a reflection of the ornament-city.

Exactly two hundred years before Racemundo's trip, in 755, a young Muslim of the ruling Umayyad family escaped the slaughter of his relatives by rival Abbasids. That was back east in Damascus. Abd al-Rahman fled west and wound up in Spain, in a frontier of the Islamic Empire known as al-Andalus, or Andalusia. A year later he became its emir. The House of Umayya had a new home.

Author Maria Rosa Menocal describes what happened next:

Abd al-Rahman . . . vigorously and uncompromisingly administered al-Andalus while refusing to play the games of tribal loyalties. In the long run his strategy succeeded brilliantly, and the result was (among other things) a thriving, powerful, and well-organized state, which he passed on to
his heirs, and they to theirs, for a quarter of a millenium." (The Ornament of the World, p. 57)

At the heart of al-Andalus was Cordoba, known for its wealth, its military prowess, its palaces, its running water, its paved and well lit streets--but especially, wrote Hroswitha, "for its seven streams of wisdom." By one count, the caliph's library held four hundred thousand volumes, at a time when the largest in Christian Europe held a scant four hundred. Here Andalusians translated and eventually brought to the Latin West the lost works of the Greeks. The "Dark Ages" never cast a shadow on the ornament.

Cordoba was a city of tolerance. Despite intractable differences and enduring hostilities, Jews, Christians, and Muslims managed to live together in peace. And more: they blended cultures, as in the person of Racemundo. You could see it in their food, clothing, and language, in their philosophy, art, poetry, and song. Today it's visible in their architecture. (Take a virtual tour.) Cultures fused in Cordoba not because of interfaith dialogue but because beauty was allowed to cast its spell. The triumph wasn't doctrinal; it was aesthetic. Hence Hroswitha's methaphor.

Cordoba continued to shine even when bitter civil wars among Muslim factions destroyed the caliphate and fragmented al-Andalus. Christian power grew (the first Crusade was announced in 1095) but not at the expense of symbiosis in Andalusia. Even Ferdinand III took part. A Christian saint-to-be, he used a Muslim alliance to take over Cordoba in 1236. When he died, his son had his tomb inscribed not only in Latin, Hebrew, and Castilian, but also in Arabic.

Two weeks ago I wondered if science and religion could meet along the "Beauty Way." In Cordoba it appears they did. It wasn't the science of our day, but still it mingled freely with three different monotheisms. There was beauty in that mingling. Hroswitha chose her metaphor well.

P.S. You can learn more about the Andalusian story from the book (and upcoming PBS special) by Maria Rosa Menocal. The Metanexus Institute will celebrate this story at its forthcoming conference this July in Madrid. Menocal will be there.




Bill Elkington said...

I've always been partial to the aesthetic of the natural world. Long before I was a person of faith, I was a lover of beauty. One day I wondered into Yosemite Valley, and I could not for the life of me understand what was happening to me. I was overwhelmed, shot through with an awe and a wonder and a sense of the holiness of the place. And here I was an atheist. It didn't make any sense to me why I was weak in the knees. But I was. I couldn't deny it. There was something in me that recognized and responded to the mystical, God's own presense there. Beauty had me at its feet, and I was indeed convinced of the reality of something that rationalism did not begin to approach until the birth of quantum physics.

John Kotre said...

To read more from Bill Elkington, click on his name above. Be sure to see his blog of April 14, 2008 called "Odd How Aesthetics."

Anonymous said...

Once when we were visiting my mother-in-law, we decided to spend a day in Miami. We wandered into a store called “Art by God”. The store was filled with shells, rocks, corral etc. Even though everything could be placed in definite categories, each was unique.

I use that phrase “Art by God” a lot when I see something in nature that strikes me…ice forming like lace on an evergreen, fall leaves, sunsets, animals, people, the stars…and oh so much more. I just stop and think and even say out loud, “You can’t beat 'Art by God.'" Even the greatest artist can’t beat Him. He not only creates wondrous things, but He keeps changing them.

Maybe one of us writes well or paints well or sings well. But place us next to all the rocks in nature. Listen to all the music in nature made by wind, water, animals, etc. God doesn’t need a printed page. He just “instills” the deepest thoughts, sights, sounds, and feelings in us. When you see and experience “Art by God”, you are seeing and experiencing God’s inner soul.