The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
by María Rosa Menocal
Little, Brown
315 pp.; $14.95, paper

Most Western European nations claim a continuous Christian heritage stretching back to the 5th or 6th century, but Spain—in this as in so many aspects of its history—is different.

The first Christian regime, that of the Visigoths, was violently ended by a dramatic invasion of Berber and Syrian-Arab Muslims in 711. Within two centuries these forces had wrought the same kind of profound cultural and religious conversion that had swept the eastern Mediterranean not long before: large numbers of Muslims had immigrated to Spain; indigenous pagans and Christians had converted to Islam; and in all but a few mountainous hinterlands, culture and politics were thoroughly Arabized. Córdoba now vied with Baghdad and Damascus as a center of Islamic art and letters.

In the 10th century, the Christian communities of the north began to expand southward, but only after 1200 did Christians gain the balance of political power in the peninsula. The last holdout of Muslim Spain, the Kingdom of Granada, fell to Christian armies in 1492. Since the Middle Ages, Christian Spaniards have made the "Reconquest" their national foundation myth, in which the centuries between 711 and 1492 are reduced to a protracted struggle between cross and crescent. While scholars have long since discarded this paradigm, like all origin myths, it has nourished too much compelling art and literature to die easily in the popular imagination.

María Rosa Menocal crafts her eloquent popular history of medieval Spain as an ever-so-gentle polemic against the myth of the Reconquest. Without denying that Muslims ...

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