Ornament of the World
book by Maria Rosa Menocal

During my past few years living “apartment-free,” I labored under the great dilemma of being both a voracious reader and having no place to store the books I rapidly acquired. My clever solution to this accumulation-problem was to read books at Barnes & Noble. A few times a week, I’d head off to one of the dozen B&N outlets in New York City, randomizing my location choices so the sales staff wouldn’t catch on, pull a book off the shelf and take up wherever I’d left off. I’ve never been a bookmark user, so this system worked well enough. It worked so well, in fact, that I never questioned its fundamental insanity.

Then one day a friend of mine told me about this revolutionary book reading utility: The Library. You can actually go to The Library, choose a book, take it home with you, read it, and, wonder-of-wonders, give it back when you’re finished. Amazing! No longer would I suffer the relentless build-up of heavy boxes filled with books. No more would I encounter the crippling exchanges of cash for text. Finally, I was freed of long hours spent listening to bookstore cafe customers prattling about their sex lives over interminably long cell phone conversations. The Library was a revelation. It changed my life.

I choose library books in about the same manner that I choose wines. I walk into the room, gravitate to my preferred section (red wine or non-fiction, depending on the setting) and pick out something intriguing and not too hefty. This methodology is decidedly unsophisticated, but it keeps me open-minded—I’ve always valued flexibility over expertise. I mention this merely to explain how my last batch of library booty came to include Drake’s Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World’s Greatest Confidence Artist, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, and the text which is the subject of this review, Ornament of the World. None too discerning as a selection of books, I know, but you’ll wish you had me at your next cocktail party.

Drake’s Fortune would have been a fabulous read if the author had more story-telling talent than research skill. The geological time book, despite being penned by Stephen Jay Gould, was as impenetrable as igneous rock. The only gem in the lot, in fact, was Ornament of the World. Comprised of a series of chronologically arranged essays, Ornament of the World paints lovely sketches of seemingly isolated moments through the early history of al-Andalus/ha-Sefarad/Castile/your-religion’s-name-for-Spain-goes-here. Its essay-esque structure renders the book a tad repetitive at times, but I found the redundancy useful since most of the proper names confusingly begin with the letter “A,”—Algazel, Avicenna, Averroes, Almohads, Almoravids, Alcazar, Alhambra, a phenomenon primarily attributable to the baffling tradition of treating the Arabic article “al” as part of all Arabic words—and thus keeping the names straight was sometimes a challenge.

I’ve spent most of my life avoiding history books, which may go a long way towards explaining why I know so little about history. History books always seem to focus on battles—Caesar’s army marched north, guys from the north fought back, folks crossed the mountains and wiped out everyone, etc. I find battles both depressing and dull and, ultimately, uninformative. Who wins what when interests me far less than whether or not the winners introduced the cultivation of orange trees or burnt books or banned a language or adopted the vernacular forms of poetry. To my mind those things change history, and if battles are the “cause” for these changes, okay then, but don’t spend so many pages boring me to tears with campaign details. Ornament of the World wasn’t boring; and if I retained some knowledge of medieval battles and politics, well, wouldn’t my old teachers be proud.

I suppose they might be proud, if they’d ever tried to teach any of this to me in the first place. Before I read this book, what I knew about Spain was that they sent a lot of boats across the Atlantic and spread Christianity and death all over the Americas. I’d assumed that Spain, having once been colonized by the Romans, had essentially been Christian for centuries. What I thought the Inquisition was all about, I have no idea, just Christian in-fighting I suppose, along the lines of the whole Queen Elizabeth/England debacle.

What no one ever bothered to mention is that the very same year these “Christian” Spaniards sent Columbus across the water was the year the Christians effectively took over Spain—evicting all the Jews and Muslims and forcing conversions on those who remained, an act which necessarily predates the Inquisition wherein the Christians then doubted the validity of those conversions. And certainly no one ever mentioned that all the Jews and Muslims had been the primary players in a vast empire based in “Spain” spanning nearly one whole millennium.

One thing I did know previously was that a great number of the Latin texts used by early European Christians arrived courtesy of Spanish-made Arabic translations from Greek copies—or, worse still, via a medieval “telephone” game of Greek-Hebrew-Arabic-Latin. When you consider how many so-called holy wars were (and are) waged on the basis of so-called holy words, the role of these translators isn’t ironic, it’s heartbreaking. However, I’d always assumed these academic fanatics had simply been a tiny pocket of intellectuals eeking out their cultural highlife far removed from the rest of civilization. I didn’t realize the translation endeavor had been so fruitful because everyone—Jews, Christians and Muslims—had grown up in massive, flourishing Arabic-speaking culture.

Ornament is suspiciously subtitled “How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created A Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.” I can’t help feeling that this was tacked on to capitalize on the whole September 11th thing. In any case, this is primarily an academic work, concerned less with battles and bloodshed—past or present—and focused more on works of art, architecture, literature and science. It’s a history of the time as viewed through a lens of aesthetic creation and intellectual discourse.

This book might be about tolerance—the author definitely glosses over a lot of religiously motivated killings during those seven hundred years in order to spare you the battle scenes—but its underlying message is about educational intolerance. Despite my fairly respectable academic pedigree, my education was lacking in a few key historical details. I honestly can’t remember anyone ever mentioning a culture whatsoever in pre-Christian Spain. The history of Western civilization, according to the canon, goes Greek, Roman, Nothing, Christian Europe. For the majority of accounts, medieval Spain simply bursts forth, Venus-like, direct from the head of Greek and Roman culture. As a result, most of the “west” seems to think of the Islamic world as something “over there,” rather than a part of their very own European heritage.

This travesty isn’t confined to history books and bad teachers; it’s ingrained into almost every aspect of our culture. Take, for example, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. The very layout of this ode to human achievement lulls you into thinking that world history and artistic mastery has been progressing ever westward since the dawn of time—from Egypt, up and over to Greece and Rome, lingering a bit in (western) Europe before finally landing in the Americas (the westernmost destination of civilization, assuming the world is still flat). Sure, there are some scattered Celtic works alongside the museum’s main stairs, and a lot of Chinese pottery overlooking the Great Hall—but the Islamic works, all the luscious art from the euphemistic Dark Ages, are stashed away in a remote wing that is all but impossible to find without a map.

The Ornament of the World makes for a very good map. Geologically speaking, the book can be a little disorienting—what with Spain apparently being stationed too far east to be considered part of Western civilization before the thirteenth century. This is exactly the sort of guide that might help lead us out of the dead-end at which we seem to be stuck. —HP