From Damascus to Cordoba: A Golden Era of Arab Art

Article excerpt

The current exhibition at the Insitut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris captures the essence of Andalucia during the Moorish period. There have been few civilisations as prolific and creative as the Moors whose destruction was on such a massive scale that only a handful of monuments and buildings survive. Only 300 artifacts are made accessible to us in the Paris exhibition, collected from no less than 80 museums from Copenhagen to Qatar -- nevertheless they provide a revealing insight into a fascinating period of history.

The historical period featured relates to the years 711-1492. In 711 Muslims conquered Spain with speed and incredible ease, maintaining their reign firstly under the Omeyyads from Syria, followed by the Emirs, then the Califs, until Christians reclaimed the area in 1492.

With the construction of the mosque at Cordoba in 786, as well as universities, palaces, schools and public baths, the city acquired a similar level of sophistication to that of Baghdad and Byzantium, and was considered to be one of the most refined conurbations of the Middle Ages. The Alhambra in Grenada was to follow later, in 1238.

Much of the beauty and magic of the architecture of the time is recreated within the exhibition in Paris, which features detailed marble carvings, enhanced by subtle lighting that attempts to recall the soft, warm, afternoon sunlight which dappled the courtyards of the ancient Moorish palaces.

The 10th and 11th centuries were the Andaluscians' most glorious. It was at this point in history that Cordoba was recorded as the largest western city, with 300,000 inhabitants, 700 mosques and the largest library of the time, containing an astounding 400,000 volumes.

Spain, under Arab rule, was a major attraction for the intellectual elite, including writers, scientists, scholars, poets and artists, all working together to create what was to become the golden age of Arab civilisation within Spain.

A selection of ornate volumes is displayed in Paris, along with scientific documents illustrating the advanced knowledge, some of it medical and surgical, of the time as well as astrological/astronomical and mathematical theories.

The astronomical globe, like the measuring instruments on display, demonstrates the immense knowledge that already existed at the time. …