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A Vanished World:
Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment
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By Chris Lowney

Between the years 711 and 1492, European Christians and North African Muslims vied for control of the Iberian Peninsula, while Europe’s largest Jewish community frequently found itself caught in the middle. In a fast-paced, engaging narrative, the author traces both the positive and negative results of this lengthy experience.

On the negative side, many of the contemporary antagonisms among members of the three great monotheistic religions are traceable to misdeeds in that period and place. The author describes these in even-handed detail. On the positive side, there were just as many hopeful precedents for peaceful coexistence, cooperation, and mutual development. Among the fascinating vignettes are chapters entitled “The Pope Who Learned Math from Muslim Spain” and “A Jewish General in a Muslim Kingdom.” The Christian warrior El Cid is shown to be a rather more enlightened conqueror than his popular image suggests.

Moses Maimonides, Jewish physician, theologian, and confidant of Muslim rulers, was a “Renaissance Man” before either the term or the era came to exist, and he rightfully gets a chapter to himself. Especially fascinating is the author’s exposition of the common threads among contemplative, peace-loving religious movements that grew on Spanish soil. These include Muslim Sufism and the Jewish Kabbalah as well as the work of the great Spanish Christian mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

The book also makes forays into science, architecture, agriculture, and even the origins of the “cowboy” culture that now is most associated with the Americas, especially the United States. Impressive in scope and sweep, this book nonetheless is a tightly focused, elegantly constructed, and most enjoyable voyage of discovery to a far-off time and place that bears many valuable lessons for us today.

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