by Tony Dayoub
Hosted by Bettany Hughes, When the Moors Ruled in Europe is a stunningly beautiful and informative documentary that debunks a lot of the myths associated with the Moors' invasion of Europe. In the course of doing that, it also illuminates the rich and advanced Muslim society of the Middle Ages, presenting an alternative view of the Islamic culture that has, unfortunately, become our society's bogeyman post-9/11.
It traces the roots of modern society's misunderstanding of the Muslims to their expansion into Europe. Contrary to popular notions, when they invaded what is now Spain, they were welcomed by many as saviors from the more primitive Visigoths. The Muslims, who valued education highly, quickly established a number of libraries, irrigated the land, and erected architectural wonders that survive to this day (like the Alhambra, pictured above). Over time, cross-cultural pollination softened some of the more orthodox practices of the Muslim conquerors, later known as Moors, and they settled in as benevolent rulers of what were for the most part, an appreciative, newly enlightened people. But the ugly head of religious intolerance reared itself, soon enough.
Catholics slowly started chipping away at the Muslim encroachment during the time of the Inquisition. Driving them first into hiding, then into disavowing their religion, before banishing them from Spain altogether, the Catholics established their dominance over Spain. They solidified their rule over Europe during the reign of Isabella, yet a curious thing happened. The architecture and the technological advancements of the Moors became such an ingrained part of the local tradition that it was assimilated by the re-conquering Catholics.
The two-episode series does a great job of summing up some of the little-known legacy of the Moors' time in Spain. They illustrate, for example, how the architecture of the Alhambra has a seemingly ineffable harmony that is directly related to the very conscious geometrical planning of the building and the relationship with its environs. Hughes speaks to various scholars who dispel long-held myths by giving credible explanations. One example is the reframing of El Cid from heroic Moor-slayer to benevolent and well-loved ruler over a mostly Muslim people. His name is actually derived from the dialectal Arab word "sïdi", or the honorific "sayyid" which means "Lord." Illustrated throughout with cinematography depicting the still-standing architectural achievements of the Moors, the documentary serves as a tempting invitation to visit Spain and experience some of these influential buildings they left behind.
Perhaps the Moors' most long-standing and unspoken legacy is visible on the faces of many Spaniards. The majority of Spain's people still bear the strong genetic features of the invading Moors, a handsome reminder of this culture's once dominant status in pre-Renaissance Europe.
This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 6/16/2008.