The Short-Lived Romance of Muslim Spain

The city of Córdoba was once dubbed the "ornament of the world."

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The city of Córdoba was once dubbed the "ornament of the world." That might seem praise enough for the Muslim capital of Spain, except the compliment came not from an Arab chronicler of Islam's triumphs but from a 10th-century Christian nun—proof positive of how strong a mark the city left on medieval visitors.

While the rest of Europe languished in the Dark Ages, southern Spain flourished under the rule of the Muslim Umayyad caliphate. Muslims from Morocco had invaded Spain in the early eighth century, and within 50 years, under caliph Abdar-Rahman and successors, Córdoba emerged as a serious rival to Baghdad. Once an outpost of the Roman Empire, it became the gorgeously civilized center of Muslim culture.

Tolerant and diverse—it was home to the Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides, who wrote his greatest work in Arabic—Córdoba was also Europe's most modern city. It had paved streets, running water, even streetlights. It attracted artists, musicians, and poets. And at its center stood the Great Mosque of Córdoba, its wondrous ribbed vaulting serving as the model for the Gothic cathedrals built a century later.

Equally impressive was the dazzling Alhambra fortress in nearby Granada, the finest surviving example of medieval Muslim architecture and still Spain's most popular tourist attraction. A sprawling complex of palaces, mosques, and gardens, the Alhambra was a representation of paradise; it is planted with lush walled gardens and lavishly decorated with mosaic tiles and intricately carved plaster and wood. Courtyards, divided by rivulets and embracing pools of water, fill the palace with light. Fountains flow from room to courtyard. When the American writer Washington Irving stayed at the crumbling Alhambra in 1829, he quoted a "turbaned Moor" saying, "When the Moors held Granada...they thought only of love, of music, and poetry."

But the romance of Islamic Spain—and the dreams of an Islamic European empire—were not to last. Muslim rulers were pushed south as the Christians gradually conquered Spain, and in 1490, Christians laid siege to Granada. The last Muslim ruler, known to the Spaniards as Boabdil, fled to Morocco. As he departed, he looked back at the beautiful Alhambra and wept. Ever since, the spot has been known as El Suspiro del Moro—the "Moor's Last Sigh."