The glorious 'emirates of Europe'
In an age of identity politics and populist nationalism, the discovery of Islamic graves near Zaragoza in Spain comes as a timely reminder of the pluralist and tolerant society that once thrived in the "emirates of Europe" about 1,000 years ago.
Zaragoza was among the most splendid of the emirates of Europe. It first emerged to prominence under the Banu Qasi dynasty, descended from a Spanish nobleman named Cassius, rendered into Arabic as Qasi. He is said to have travelled to Syria-Palestine and been converted to Islam by Al Walid ibn Abd Al Malik, the Caliph famous for building the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
The emirate of Zaragoza peaked under the Banu Hud dynasty in the 11th century. The Aljaferia Palace, the oldest surviving example of Islamic palace architecture in Europe, was built during this period. It was there that the ruler convened literary majlises attended by poets and philosophers, presiding over a remarkable period of cultural efflorescence.
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Although the history of Moorish Spain and Portugal – called Arabic Al Andalus – is relatively well known, it is less widely appreciated that emirates once also thrived in Mediterranean Europe. Narbonne and La Garde-Freinet, near St Tropez, in France, together with Tropea, Taranata and Bari in Italy, and the island of Crete in Greece, were all among them.
Sicily was under Muslim rule for over two centuries until it was conquered by the Normans in the 11th century. The Norman king Roger II transformed Palermo into the capital of a cosmopolitan kingdom combining Arab, Greek and Latin cultures. He brought artisans from Fatimid Egypt to decorate the ceiling of the chapel built for his palace. He also had himself depicted as a Muslim ruler.
Many of the Arabs and Berbers who settled in Europe took local wives and, over the generations, became increasingly European. The most renowned of the emirs was Abd Al Rahman III, the Caliph of Cordoba, who famously had blonde hair and blue eyes.
Indigenous Europeans who became culturally Arabised but kept their ancestral Christianity were known in Spain as "Mozarabs", from the Arabic "musta'rib" meaning “Arabicised”. Those who further adopted Islam were called Muwalladun, indicating they had been born among the Muslim community and raised as Arabs.
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The emirates of Europe cannot, therefore, be dismissed as the transient outposts of alien invaders. They lasted centuries, incorporated the local population and left an enduring legacy. It was through such centres of learning as Toledo and Palermo that Greek philosophy and Islamic science stimulated the emergence of northern Europe from the Dark Ages.
The modern UAE shares in the cosmopolitanism and tolerance that made the historic emirates of Europe so successful, as exemplified by recent changes to the law. There are, moreover, some more tangible and perhaps surprising links between the two.
Sometime around 3,000 years ago, the farming communities of the present UAE began to use a kind of underground aqueduct – the "falaj" – to irrigate their date-palm oases. The oldest dated examples have been found at Thuqayba in Sharjah and at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Al Ain, leading some archaeologists to argue that the falaj was invented here.
Falaj irrigation had become widely used across the Middle East by the time of the emergence of Islam in the seventh century, and was brought by the conquering Arabs into Spain and Portugal in the following century.
The cultural achievement throughout the emirates of Europe was a pluralist and tolerant society
Perhaps the most vivid testament to the success of falaj irrigation in Spain is the Palm Grove or “Palmeral” of Elche. This oasis of 70,000 palm trees – about half the size of Al Ain Oasis with 147,000 palm trees – survives from the period when Elche was ruled by the emirate of Cordoba.
There are even genealogical links. The ruling families of the emirates of Europe claimed descent from some of the most famous tribes of the Arabian Peninsula – tribes that have historic connections with the present UAE.
The Abbadid rulers of the emirate of Seville traced their origin back to Lakhmids, who ruled over eastern Arabia, including the UAE and Oman, prior to the rise of Islam.
The Banu Tujib, one of the dynasties to rule Zaragoza, claimed descent from Kinda, a tribe that had its main centre in the pre-Islamic period at Hatta Oasis, today part of Dubai.
Some of the key sources for the history of the UAE were, in fact, written in the emirates of Europe. Without them, our knowledge of the ancient towns and tribes of the UAE would be much poorer.
The Mujam ma istajam, or Lexicon of Ambiguous Places, of the 11th-century Spanish Muslim scholar Al Bakri deals with the geography of the Arabian Peninsula. It includes a valuable description of the pearl fisheries of Tuwam, a region that included the early Islamic archaeological site at Jumeirah in Dubai, but probably also stretched inland as far as the oases of Al Ain.
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Roger II of Palermo commissioned the 12th-century Spanish Muslim scholar Al Idrisi to produce a world atlas: Nuzhat Al mushtaq fi ikhtiraq Al Afaq, or The Excursion of the One who Yearns to Penetrate the Horizons. It contains the first reference to the pearl fisheries of Julfar – the precursor of modern Ras Al Khaimah, recently inscribed on the tentative list of Unesco World Heritage Sites.
Both Al Bakri and Al Idrisi had studied in the emirate of Cordoba. According to the 17th-century Moroccan historian Al Maqqari, the library of Cordoba contained 400,000 books and the catalogue alone ran to 44 volumes.
The lasting legacy of the emirates of Europe is summarised poetically by Al Maqqari: “In four things Cordoba surpasses the capitals of the world. Among them are the bridge over the river and the mosque. These are the first two. The third is [the palace of] Madinat Al Zahra. But the greatest of all things is knowledge – and that is the fourth.”
This tremendous cultural achievement was the result of a pluralist and tolerant society that embraced diverse peoples and multiple religions. It was ultimately undermined by the politics of hate: a warning from the pages of history to modern societies that indulge in such fallacies.
Timothy Power is an archaeologist, historian and author of A History of the Emirati People, to be published in 2021
Published: December 3, 2020 06:00 PM