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Arabia Felix: why everyone should read the story of a failure

SquareKufic

“On a calm winter morning, on 4th January, 1761, a company of five men, clad for a journey, were rowed out from the Tollbooth into the shipping roads of Copenhagen. […] They were bound for “Happy Arabia”, but none of them seemed particularly happy at the thought”.

This is how Thorkild Hansen starts his book , Arabia Felix. The Danish expedition of 1761-1767. Hansen’s work was published in 1962, roughly two centuries after the Danish expedition took place, and by then, the adventures of the five men, the first European scholars to embark on a scientific expedition to Yemen, was well forgotten. Hansen compiled the book starting from the original documents concerning the expedition – articles, journals, letters, drawings – and combining them with a touch of gentle imagination. The result is an exquisite account. Of a failure.

Niebuhr_-_Map_of_taiz,_Yemen.jpg Map of Taiz, drawn by Niebhur.

The Danish expedition that left…

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Real Alcazar (Sevilla) in the late 19th/early 20th c.

The Alcazar (from the Arabic al-Qasr meaning palace) is the royal residence of the kings of Spain. The Alcazar is considered a World Heritage Site, like many other extraordinary pieces of architecture in Spain, and is magnificent to behold. It is one of Spain’s lesser known sites, since most visitors often consider the Alhambra in Granada or the Mezquita-Catedral in Cordoba to be more significant. However, the Alcazar is not only an amazing piece of work in its own right, but even rivals the Alhambra as a palace. The palace is built almost entirely in Hispano-Muslim style and, in many ways, resembles the Alhambra. Thus, there is a natural tendency to assume that this was a palace built by and for Muslims. This is both right and wrong. Yes, the palace was initially constructed in the taifa period and served as the royal residence of the Banu ‘Abbad dynasty, whose most famous son was al-Mu’tamid (the poet-prince). However, in its current form, the building was commissioned by a Christian king, Pedro I of Castile, in the late fourteenth century. Pedro (or Peter) hired a number of Muslim artisans and architects from among his own population in the kingdom of Castile, but also some from the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, to work on the palace. Interestingly, some of the very same artisans who worked on constructing and beautifying the Alhambra were also those who worked on the Alcazar, hence the similarities. Also worth noting is that Pedro I was a close friend and ally of Muhammad V, the Nasrid sultan who commissioned the major parts of the Alhambra palaces(Patio de los Leones, etc.) which have become the hallmarks of the structure. The building itself also integrates northern Spanish influence. As such, the building itself–in addition to underscoring the power and legitimacy of Pedro I–is also a demonstration of the medieval Spanish cultural co-production in which various medieval Iberian Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures interacted with one another and formed different parts of a unique whole.

 

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Map of the Expansion of the Kingdom of Zaragoza during the late 11th c.

This map shows the territorial evolution of the Andalusi Muslim Kingdom of Zaragoza, ruled by the Banu Hud dynasty, from a frontier principality into one of the largest taifa kingdoms during the late 11th century.

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French Translation of Ibn Khaldun’s History of the Nasrid Dynasty

The following is a link to a 19th-century French translation of ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun’s History of the Nasrid Dynasty, excerpted from his Kitab al-‘Ibar. It was translated by Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombynes and printed in Paris in 1899 as Histoire des Benou’l-Ahmar : rois de Grenade. It provides a French translation of all the relevant sections from Ibn Khaldun’s universal history dealing with the 13th- and 14th-century history of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada.

http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6209967r/f1.image.r=ibn%20khaldoun

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Paradise Lost

Originally posted on S.J. Pearce:
I’ve taken one for the team. I’ve read it so you don’t have to. Yep. That book. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a self-proclaimed corrective to a “wide-spread belief that it was a wonderful place of tolerance and convivencia of three cultures under the benevolent supervision of…

Not a Moor, Exactly

S.J. Pearce

Following a truly bizarre exchange on Twitter a few months ago, the racial animus that inheres in the term moor has been on my mind. It’s not just social media, either: I’m teaching a Muslim Spain course this fall and using Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain as the main text, which meant that I had to devote part of my lecture on race in the Middle Ages to why we don’t use that term even though Fletcher does, and what it means for us to live with the book this semester and to try to do better than its author does when we write and talk about questions of race. It’s been percolating in the back of my head, then, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the role of moor in Spanish historiography and popular perception made its way into the talk I gave at the University of Minnesota…

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A Fragment of the Lost History of al-Raqīq al-Qayrawānī (d. ca. 418/1028)?

Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm b. al-Qāsim al-Qayrawānī (d. ca. 418/1028), better known as Ibn al-Raqīq or al-Raqīq, was a high-ranking secretary and ambassador in the Zirid emirate (corresponding roughly to modern-day Tunisia, Libya and eastern Algeria), which ruled North Africa on behalf of the Fatimids following the latter’s conquest of Egypt. In addition to his influence within royal circles, he was also a celebrated poet and historian. His historical chronicle, Kitāb Tārīkh Ifrīqiyah wa al-Maghrib, had a profound influence on subsequent generations of Muslim historians, including Ibn al-Athīr (d. 630/1233), Ibn al-Abbār (d. 658/1260), Ibn ʿIdhārī (ca. 706/1306-7), al-Nuwayrī (d. 732/1331-2), Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406) and al-Maqrīzī (d. 846/1442). Ibn Khaldūn, in particular, considered him to be one of the foremost experts on North African history. Although his work is now lost, many of these historians quote him at length and rely upon his chronicle for their narrations of the early Islamic history of North Africa. His history is therefore among the main sources of information for later historians seeking to understand the various developments in North Africa between the 1st/7th and 5th/11th centuries.

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