The Myth of Spain’s Islamic Golden Age

by Emmet Scott (June 2013)

We have traditionally been told that the first two centuries of the Spanish Emirate, supposedly founded in 756 by Abd’ er Rahman I, constituted a veritable Golden Age of Spanish history. And indeed the opulence and prosperity of Spain during these years is contrasted very favorably with the poverty and ignorance of Christian Europe in the same period. The following description of eighth-tenth century Cordoba, written by English historian H. St. L. B. Moss in 1935, may be regarded as fairly typical of the genre: “In Spain … the foundation of Umayyad power [in 756] ushers in an era of unequalled splendour, which reaches its height in the early part of the tenth century. The great university of Cordova is thronged with students … while the city itself excites the wonder of visitors from Germany and France. The banks of the Guadalquivir are covered with luxurious villas, and born of the ruler’s caprice rises the famous Palace of the Flower, a fantastic city of delights.”

The picture Moss paints was derived from medieval Arab annalists, who spoke of a city of half a million inhabitants, of three thousand mosques, of one hundred and thirteen thousand houses, and of three hundred public baths – this not even counting the twenty-eight suburbs said to have surrounded the metropolis.

Over the past sixty years intensive efforts have been made to discover this astonishing civilization – to no avail. Try as they might, archaeologists have found hardly anything, hardly a brick or inscription, for the first two centuries of Arab rule in Spain. Between 711 and 911 there is almost nothing, with substantial remains only beginning to appear around 925 or 930. According to the prestigious Oxford Archaeological Guide, the first two centuries of Arab control at Cordoba has revealed, after exhaustive excavations: (a) The south-western portion of the city wall, which is presumed to date from the ninth century; (b) A small bath-complex, of the 9th/10th century; and (c) A part of the Umayyad (8th/9th century) mosque. This is all that can be discovered from two centuries of the history of a city of supposedly half a million people. By way of contrast, consider the fact that Roman London, a city not one-tenth the size that eighth and ninth century Cordoba is said to have been, has yielded dozens of first-class archaeological sites. And even the three locations mentioned in the Guide are open to question. The city wall portion is only “presumably” of the ninth century, whilst the part of the mosque attributed to the eighth century is said to have been modeled by Abd’ er Rahman I. However, the latter character sounds suspiciously like his namesake and supposed descendant Abd’ er Rahman III, of the mid-tenth century, who indisputably made alterations to the mosque (which was originally the Cathedral of Saint Vincent).

Even when real archaeology does appear at Cordoba, from the second quarter of the tenth century onwards, the settlement is absolutely nothing like the conurbation described by the Arab writers. Indeed, at its most opulent, from the late tenth to the late eleventh centuries, the ‘metropolis’ had, it would seem, no more than about forty thousand inhabitants; and this settlement was built directly upon the Roman and Visigothic city, which had a comparable population. We know that Roman and Visigothic villas, palaces and baths were simply reoccupied by the Muslims, often with very little alteration to the original plan. And when they did build new edifices, the cut-stones, columns and decorative features were more often than not simply plundered from earlier Roman/Visigoth remains. A text of the medieval writer Aben Pascual tells us that there were, in his time, to be seen in Cordoba surviving buildings, “Greek and Roman. … Statues of silver and gilded bronze within them poured water into receptacles, whence it flowed into ponds and into marble basins excellently carved.”

So much for the “vast metropolis” of eighth to tenth century Cordoba. 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. Altogether, the Oxford Guide lists a total of no more than eleven sites and individual buildings in the whole country (three of which are those from Cordoba mentioned above) which are supposed to date from before the first quarter of the tenth century. These are, in addition to the above three:

Balaguer: A fortress whose northern wall, with its square tower, “is almost entirely attributable” to the late-9th century. (p. 73)

Fontanarejo: An early Berber settlement, whose ceramic finds date it to “no later than the 9th century.” (p. 129)

Guardamar: A ribat or fortress mosque, which was completed, according to an inscription, in 944. However, “Elements in its construction have led to its being dated to the 9th cent.” (pp. 143-4)

Huesca: An Arab fortress which “has been dated to the period around 875.” (p. 145)

Madrid: Fortress foundations dating to around 870. (p. 172)

Merida: A fortress attributed to Abd’ er-Rahman II (822-852). (p. 194)

Monte Marinet: A Berber settlement with ceramics within “a possible chronological range” from the 7th to the early 9th century. (p. 202)

Olmos: An Arab fortress with ceramics “dated to the 9th cent.” (pp. 216-7)

The above meager list contrasts sharply with the hundreds of sites and structures from the Visigothic epoch – a comparable time-span – mentioned in the same place. (It is impossible to be precise about the Visigothic period, since many sites, such as Reccopolis, contain literally hundreds of individual structures. If we were to enumerate the Visigoth structures by the same criteria as we did the Islamic remains above, then the Visigoth period would reveal not hundreds, but thousands of finds). And it needs to be stressed that most of the above Islamic finds suffer from a problem highlighted by Richard Hodges and William Whitehouse in regard to finds from other parts of Europe during the Dark Ages: an almost unconscious attempt to backdate material of the tenth century into the ninth and eighth in order to have something to assign to the latter epoch. Look for example at the fortress of Guardamar. Although an inscription dates the completion of the edifice to 944, we are told that “elements” in its construction have led to it being dated to the ninth century. What these elements are is not clear; yet we should note that such defended mosques, being essentially fortresses, must have been raised very quickly – certainly in no more than a decade. Why then are we told that this one took fifty or perhaps seventy-five years to complete? Bearing this in mind, we can say that there is scarcely a single undisputed archaeological site attributable to the first two centuries of Islamic rule; whilst there are, to date, hundreds of rich and undisputed sites linked to the Visigothic epoch! The first real Islamic archaeology in Spain occurs during the time of Abd’ er Rahman III, in the third or fourth decade of the tenth century (when the Guardamar fortress was completed).

The same poverty of material remains and signs of occupation is found throughout Islamic North Africa between the mid-seventh and mid-tenth centuries, and Richard Hodges and William Whitehouse speak of an Arab-created “dark Age” in the region during those years.

What could all this mean? Whatever interpretation we might put on it – and there are several possibilities – one thing is very clear: The opulent and refined Islamic civilization which up till now has been placed alongside and contemporary with a dark, ignorant and impoverished Christian Europe of the seventh to tenth centuries, is a myth. When Islamic cities do appear, in the middle of the tenth century, they are very comparable, in terms of size and level of culture, to the contemporary cities of Christian Europe. Our entire understanding of European and Middle Eastern history during the seventh to tenth centuries needs a radical rethink.

Emmet Scott’s latest book is Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited. His next book, The Impact of Islam, will be published by New English Review Press coming this December.

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