Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.

Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.


(The flag of the Nasrid Dynasty, the last to rule in Moorish Spain)

In 711, not 90 years after the birth of Islam, black clad Berber tribesman and their Arab allies crossed what are now called the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa to the Iberian peninsula with their wiry horses, and galloped north, conquering all before them, destroying the decadent Visigothic rulers and laid the foundations for modern day Spain.

They called it Al Andalus, and it began as it was to continue for the over 300 years of the first Umayyad dynasty, with tolerance for the other ‘people of the book’ as they called the Christians and Jews they found there.

But the hero of this story, a hero who deserves his own epic film, is the adventurer and statesman, Abd al-Rahman, the Falcon of Al Andalus.

Abd al-Rahman’s family, the ruling Umayyads, were slaughtered by their rivals, the Abassids in Damascus in 750.


He and his brother Yahiya, his son Suleyman and his Greek servant, Bedr, escaped and found refuge in a village on the banks of the Euphrates on the edge of a deep forest.

But the Abassid troops found them and they dived into the Euphrates. Al-Rahman, a strong swimmer, held onto his son. Together with Bedr, these three made it to the opposite bank. But not so Yahiya. Here, in al-Rahman’s own words, is what happened:

“No sooner had I set my feet on the shore, than I began anxiously to look about for my brother, whom I saw in the hands of the soldiers, and whom I expected every moment to see put to death. I was not mistaken ……having dragged him to a spot not far from the river, they beheaded him and marched triumphantly away with his head. My brother was then thirteen years old.”

After five years of adventure, intrigue and wandering from refuge to refuge, and the prophesy of a Jewish seer that he ‘shall in time become a great conqueror’ and that ‘he shall found in Andalus an empire for him and his posterity’ he crossed, with his son and servant into Andalus.

There, employing a combination of guile and diplomacy, he eventually became Abd al-Rahman I, the Emir of Cordóba, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty which, over the next 300 years, would transform the Caliphate of Cordóba into a world centre of scientific, philosophical and agricultural innovation and attainment, a beacon for musicians, poets and writers in the Muslim and Jewish worlds.


(The Great Mosque of Cordóba, begun  by Abd ar-Rahman I

Cordóba was, at that time, the shaft of light cutting through what in the West were called the Dark Ages. All this was possible because these desert Arabs, the Umayyads, in conquering the peoples of the Iberian peninsula, had been confronted with a universe of languages, cultures and peoples.

Their response was to define their version of Islam as one that rejoiced in dialogues with other traditions, other cultures, and other religions. This was an Islam that translated the long forgotten Greek philosophers into Arabic, and appointed Jews as advisers.

The Jews, especially, flourished at this time, the two languages, Hebrew and Arabic the dominant ones in the land. Latin was abandoned by ambitious young Christians who flocked to learn the far more sinuous and poetic Arabic, much to the dismay of their Bishops.


(The Santa Maria La Blanca Syngogue, also built in the Moorish (or Mudéjar) style)

The arrival of these new settlers also brought about a green revolution in Spain, a revolution which ran on water: these desert dwellers were geniuses at irrigating crops and filling their fragrant gardens with the sound of running water.

They brought with them oranges, lemons, limes, apricots, and bananas, rice from Asia, sugarcane from India – some say they invented caramel, in Arabic kurst al milh.

New vegetable crops planted were artichokes, aubergines, celery, spinach, and carrots. Most important of all, hard durum wheat. Did the Arabs invent dried pasta, which can only be made with this hard wheat? One of the first mentions of dried pasta dates from the twelfth century and the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, who wrote that it was being manufactured in Sicily – by Arabs.

The usual diet for rulers and commoners alike in Christian Spain was based on the trilogy of meat, wheat, and wine. Arabs were accustomed to a more sensuous mix of fruit, vegetables, and legumes, a cuisine low in animal protein. But at banquets roast lamb was often served, stuffed with chopped meats fried in sesame oil, with crushed pistachios, pepper, ginger, cloves, mastic, coriander, cardamom and other spices, sprinkled with musk-infused rose water. It was not only their language that was more appealing. Life, generally and food specifically was more luxurious, more pleasurable.

And Al-Andalus soon filled with luxuriant flower gardens, planted with ornamentals imported from the Orient: tulips from Turkey, narcissi, lilacs, yellow and white jasmine and roses from China arranged along walkways under canopies of orange trees and sweet-scented almonds and everywhere, the cooling sound and sight of running water.

Cordóba became the urban garden centre of all Spain, if not the world, with an estimated fifty thousand private gardens gracing the villas of that city at the time it was recaptured by Christians in 1236.

Living in Mallorca in the early 1970s, I met a man who claimed to have travelled through time and offered to teach me the technique. Not your usual nutter, Ben Wright was a poet who also lectured on the Nordic Saga Beowulf. He claimed that another resident of our village, the English poet Robert Graves, had also time travelled to write the I Claudius series of books. I declined his invitation because back then, there was then no other time I wanted to visit. If offered that chance again today, I would happily travel back to that golden period of Moorish Spain.

But this year you can come with me and explore the material and culinary remnants of this remarkable period. I will be conducting a tour of Andalucia in October: Moorish Spain: Architecture, Culture and Cuisine.

It will follow the route of the caliphates and will visit out of the way villages (including the only Jewish city in Moorish Spain) and explore the Islamic, Jewish and Christian legacy of that time in such world heritage buildings as the church of San Simón in Toledo, the Alhambra in Granada, the Mesquita and the Madinat al-Zahra in Córdoba.

The food chosen for this tour will explore Moorish, Sephardic Jewish and Spanish culinary traditions. There will also be a tasting of the wines of the little known (outside Spain) region of Montilla-Moriles where winemaking practices date back to the 8th Century.

To find out more about this tour, go to:

San Roman

(The Church of San Román, built as a Christian church but in the Mudéjar style partly Gothic partly Moorish)



The song that kills: cante jondo



It was just outside of Granada that we found the source of this strange yearning for Spain. It was announced in the local paper that Jose Merce, a singer of cante jondo, deep song, the most profound form of Flamenco singing, was to perform that night in a Flamenco club, or peña, in Illora, a small town just outside Granada, near Montefrio. He was billed as ‘one of the most interesting of the young flamenco singers.’ We jumped in our little yellow car and set off.

We left early, found Illora with some difficulty – a dusty no account town of farm workers – and found the peña. Then, because we were early, we went for a drive through the country around Montefrio, rolling hills of wheat and olives, huge flocks of goats tended by old goat herds. But we could find nowhere to eat, so went back to Illora and ate at the Meson de Refugio next to the Peña.

At around 10.30 we went into the club. A large basement, walls plastered with white stucco like clichéd Spanish restaurants the world over,  hung with strands of plastic ivy. The tables were plastic, new and almond leaf green, the chairs,  also new, uncomfortable and faux rustic rush-bottomed. On every table was a vase containing 2 long stemmed carnations, one pink and one orange.

The audience began to build around midnight, a mixture of farm workers, Gypsies of all ages, from babes in arms to ancient grandmothers and beautiful black haired girls, pale skinned earnest intellectuals from Granada,  and a sprinkling of polo shirted “yoopies” from Granada, the latter two groups, like us, revelling in the authenticity of the atmosphere.

“Do we have to pay?” I asked the waiter as he delivered two finos and a lemonade for Laura.

“No” he replied, “it’s for members of the Peña.”

“We’re not members” I said stupidly and unnecessarily.

“You are now” he winked.

There was a support act, a young woman with dyed blonde hair in an outsize black and white polka dot dress. She was OK. The crowd applauded politely.

After half a hour, at around 1am, Merce walked onto the little stage. We’d heard the muffled sound of his singing back stage, limbering up his voice. But we were not prepared for what we now heard.

Jose Merce is a big man, big like a footballer or a farm boy, with a mouth full of strong white teeth, his light brown hair brushing his shoulders.  He sat awkwardly, too big for the flimsy little chair, staring at the ground, his shoulders stooped, next to his guitarist who looked expectantly at him. A hush fell over the packed room. Very faintly, he began to clap. The guitarist picked up the melody. They did this for a couple of minutes while Merce stared into space. It was as if he was searching  for something.

Then he threw back his head with his eyes closed and he bellowed, bellowed like a bull pierced by the lance of a picador. It was a sound he’d dragged up from deep inside the past of every Andalucian in that room. And that was the first sound he made.

In two hours, he sang only four songs. Not songs in any traditional sense of having melody or anything vaguely musical other than the rhythm that  inserted itself in between the  bellowed, shouted, whispered, twisted, zigzagging, hoarse, tearful, exultant, defiant – sounds he made, not with his voice but with his body, his whole being.

I couldn’t understand the lyric, only occasionally plucking out a word  – corazón, mujer, sangre, viento,  luna (heart, woman, blood, wind, moon) but a word was rarely allowed to leave his mouth without being given another 15 or 20 syllables of varying lengths and shapes.

Each song ended the same way. He stood suddenly, swung his arms in the air and stamped his feet before sinking back into the little chair, which threatened to break each time.

We too were drained by these songs –  these deep songs, cante jondo.

I was intrigued. Where did they come from? Not just the songs themselves but from this young man, this splendid male animal. I’ve seen his type all over the south, in Córdoba and Sevilla and the little country towns we stopped in, now wearing smart suits – Merce’s was sodden with sweat – what impulse made him want to wound himself this way for his art? And this singing is art, the way that the music of Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk or Philip Glass is art. Maybe more so.

In his essay on Deep Song, Lorca tells us that that almost all the great cantaors (singers of cante jondo) die of heart attacks.

There’s a clue in the clipping from the Granada newspaper. It tells us that Merce,  from the city of Jerez de la Frontera, comes from a ‘vasta  dinastia’ of singers of cante jondo. So it’s in the family. But more than that it’s in the blood. Those songs are from the deepest part of these people – that part that we guiris (a pejorative word for Anglos) will never understand.

Manuel de Falla’s analysis of the sources of cante jondo traces the influence of the Spanish church’s  adaptation of the Byzantine liturgical chant, the Saracen (Moorish) invasion and the arrival of bands of Gypsies, originally from India.

The Gypsy siguiriya – the prototype of cante jondo – has been described as singing of ‘pains without possible consolation, wounds that will never close, crimes without human redemption, the lament of the earth that will never be the sky, the sea that knows no limits, the goodbye eternal forever. It is the soul stripped bare’

Falla claims, without ascribing ethnic origin, that the siguiriya is perhaps the only genre of song on the European continent that has conserved all the purity and the most important characteristics of the primitive song of the oriental people.

Merce’s eyes are closed, his head thrown back, his voice is one long undulating bellow. Each note raised goose bumps on my arms – I have never before had goose bumps for two hours straight. At the end of a particularly searing passage, the crowd would murmur, rather than shout, “olé, olé, olé”. Lorca calls to attention the similarity of this to the Arabic cry of Allah! Allah!

If I close my eyes, I could be listening to the muezzin calling the faithful in to prayer in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, I could be in a water splashed marble temple on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi or trying to sleep in a Moroccan bus with the loudspeaker blaring out readings from the Quran. Lorca says it best.

‘Like the primitive Indian musical systems, deep song is a stammer, a wavering emission of the voice, a marvellous buccal undulation that smashes the resonant cells of our tempered scale, eludes the cold rigid staves of modern music, and makes the tightly closed flowers of the semitones burst into a thousand petals.’ It is anti-music, pro life, death and  glorious noise.

Si mi corazón tuviera

Birieritas de cristal

Te asomaras y lo vieras

Gotas de sangre llorar

If my heart had

Windows, panes of glass

You could look in and see it

Crying drops of blood

Nobody writes these songs. They have always been. Lorca sees similarities to the ancient Andalucian  poets, and cites one collected by Ibn Said from the 12th century:

To console me friends say visit my mistress’ tomb.

Has she a tomb, I answer, other than in my heart.

But the duende  was in that room in Illora  that night. Lorca, in his essay on duende in the book Deep Song and Other Prose quotes Goethe on Paganini to define duende: “A mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher can explain.” Writing on  the music of Manuel de Falla, a critic said ” all that has black sounds has duende.”

“We know the roads where we can search for God” wrote Lorca, “….But there are neither maps nor disciplines to help us find the duende….we only know that he burns  like a poultice of broken glass…..”

The Spanish, perhaps more than any other Europeans, understand that death is at the end of every journey. “The dead are more alive in Spain than the dead of any other country…” wrote Lorca. And this informs their life with passion and intensity. And at heart, I reckon, apart from the architecture and the food  and the wine and the landscape and the coffee laced with brandy for breakfast, that is what I respond to.

He sang for three hours. For the entire time, our three year old daughter stared, rapt, at the singer. No baby in the room cried, no child whimpered. At the end, we filed silently out, drained ourselves.

(In 2012, at 57, Jose Merce is one of the most popular of the cantaors of ‘new flamenco’. Then he was a kid from Jerez de la Frontera with a good flamenco pedigree. We had to go to illora to hear him:  you can go to YouTube.)

All the peoples

They got to the Alhambra before the busloads of tourists, just as they had planned to do. They walked up the Cuesta de Gomérez where all the Republican prisoners  – including Federico Garcia Lorca – had been taken at dawn after the Franquistas  had taken Granada, and where they were staying now in a cool room overlooking a courtyard full of dusty potted plants and almond trees.

The forest on the edge of the Alhambra hill was cool in the morning, the water gurgled down the ditches and the birds sang in the elm trees. They walked slowly and Georgia ran up and down dipping her hand in the water and throwing leaves in and watching them sail down the hill. He was still in that mood of tranquil optimism brought  on by the news about the big show in Madrid. It was  a good feeling, a feeling that everything was going to be alright. The only other time he’d felt like that was the one time he’d taken really good cocaine. He’d done it. The gamble had paid off. He knew the feeling wouldn’t last, but he was enjoying it while he could.

When finally they arrived outside Charles V’s castle

he said ” I’ll wait in the queue, you wait here with Georgia.” He was first in the line. There was a young Dutch couple behind him, and three American girls with cutoff jeans. While he was waiting the first of the buses pulled up and all these tourists wearing track suits tumbled out shouting.

This was his fourth trip to the Alhambra, one of his favourite places on earth. He’d bought the one before here, and now he was bringing Georgia’s mother, the woman he loved and trusted more than any other. He wanted it

to be perfect and tranquil for her.

They got their tickets and went in. They were first. “Listen” he said when they got to the Hall of the Ambassadors and were standing staring down at the Albaicin through the double arched fluted windows, spread out on the hillside opposite,   “listen, let’s run ahead and come back slowly. That way we’ll beat the hordes.”

They walked swiftly past the Patio of the Lions which

was full of cleaners and squealing starlings and then

all the way to the Patio de Daraxa, dragging Georgia along by the hand. They strolled among the orange trees and running fountains for a few precious, solitary minutes. Georgia said  “look Mummy, monsters!” The ground was alive with tiny black frogs hopping towards the hedges. Then they went back inside.

They actually had almost an hour of silence in this, the most beautiful of buildings. It always brought him to the edge of tears to stand in the Court of the Myrtles and absorb the mood of this place. He felt the presence of the court of poor Boabdil. He remembered the elegant Afghani in the pink turban choosing apricots in the bazaar in Mazar i Sharif. He heard Manuel de Falla. He felt sorry for the man  whose tragedy it had been to leave all this behind. It was the calmest he had ever been in this place. There was always tension with the one before.

When they got to the Patio of the Lions, they walked into a wall of humanity. The cleaners and the starlings had gone. The courtyard was packed shoulder to shoulder with flocks of Japanese carrying videotapes, clumps of Germans with bellowing guides pointing at the roof, chattering Spaniards with Lacoste T shirts chewing pumpkin seeds, and spitting the skins out on the ground. One man sat and read a newspaper. She had to pick Georgia up. Georgia

was bewildered and a little frightened. ” Daddy, all

the peoples! Too many peoples!”

They hurried to the Generalife, and wandered through the gardens. It wasn’t so crowded. Then they went and sat on

a balcony overlooking the Patio de la Acequia, where fountains danced among roses and exotic flowers. Even Georgia was overwhelmed with the beauty of the place.  “Would you like to live here?” he asked her.  “Yes!”

she said wide-eyed.

Then a curious thing happened. Japanese began queuing in pairs in an orderly fashion at the entrance to the little balcony where they were seated, looking down on the garden. One by one, the Japanese would come in and stand with their backs to the view. The other member of the pair would take their photograph, or video them. Then they would swap. Then they would move on. The entire operation took two minutes. None of them looked at the garden. They were gathering evidence. One of them motioned that she wanted to borrow Georgia as a prop for her picture. Angrily, he shook his head no.

Afterwards they had lunch at the wonderful cool bodega on Elvira. They sat amongst the large wooden barrels and drank chilled fino and ate bocadillos with tuna and alioli, salad and ham and fried pimientos. Every time he ordered something the boy with the long white apron chalked it up on the bar.

“I don’t understand why they come there” she said, ” there’s no point in being there when there are so many of them. The whole point is lost. It makes me angry.”

“It’s the problem of the world. Simple. Too many fucking people. Stop them fucking. No problem.”

“But why don’t they stop them from coming to places like that. They don’t see anything. They don’t care.”

“They should build a fibreglass Alhambra somewhere else. Like they did with Lascaux.”

They went back to their big airy room in the ramshackle hotel with the bakelite switchboard and the mother and three pretty daughters who did all the work and after Georgia went to sleep they lay down for a siesta.

He dozed and dreamed and the white curtains ruffled at the windows and then he felt sleepy no longer. He looked across at her lying there on her side, naked, the swell of her arse and her hair tumbling over her shoulder. He slipped across into her bed and ran his hand along her back and down her thigh. Then he stopped.

“When’s your period due? It’s been a long time coming this one.”

“It’s overdue.”

“How much?”

“Two weeks.” She still lay with her back to him.

He couldn’t see her face.

“What does that mean?”

She rolled over and faced him. She looked straight into his eyes with her clear blue ones.

“What do you think it means?”

He looked out the window. The prettiest of the three daughters was watering the plants in the courtyard. Her skirt was skirt tucked into her panties. She had long black hair and she sang softly to herself as she hosed the trees and the pots. She really was very pretty.

“I don’t understand. You knew what was going on.

With your body I mean.”

“But you know I haven’t had been really regular since

we came to live here. I can’t be sure anymore.”

“But you keep records. You know roughly when we shouldn’t. You should have kept that up.”

“You never asked.”

Georgia woke up.  “Mummy. Come. Juice.”

They sat in the Plaza Nueva. He had a beer. She had a water. A group of Gypsy children marched smartly into

the square. They were dirty and handsome and fierce.

One little girl began to dance, a primitive dance, wiggling her ten year old arse frantically in a short grimy skirt. The others sat on the ground behind her and sang loudly, one banged the ground with a dented plastic five litre water bottle. Georgia was fascinated with these children. She stared at them solemnly. One little girl with her raven black hair pulled back passed around a dirty tin plate. He gave them a hundred pesetas. Then they moved up to the next cafe. Georgia walked after them. His good mood had gone.

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Will you leave it?”

“But I don’t understand. We’ve talked about it.”

“Listen. It’s not a problem. We’ll deal with it.”

“No!” he said quickly, angrily. ” No. We won’t do that.

It’s just that… we went through all the reasons.

The money. We’ve changed our lives. We’re too old.”

“Then why did you turn to me and say ‘can we have one like this?’ when you saw Paquita’s baby?”

“Did I say that?”


He finished his beer. He noticed a handsome Gypsy

boy with long red brown hair making eyes at her. He

was singing gently and clapping his hands, directing

the song at her. She responded with an embarrassed half smile, and stared the boy down. He sat there pretending he hadn’t noticed and finished his beer.

They left the next day for Valencia. They drove through the sunbaked cavelands of Guadix, little windows poked

in all the flat topped mountains that reared straight up from the plain. They drove through mist and rain and past more apricot trees than either of them had ever seen, all hanging with little golden fruit and they spent the night in Jumilla in the world’s worst hotel. It was hot and neon lit and they were so close to the Valencia highway the windows rattled all night as the big semis passed. It was packed with Dutch geologists seriously and endlessly studying maps of mountains. Which is probably why they were given the worst room.

They went for a walk in the dusty park opposite the hotel. Georgia played on the swings and climbed on the swings and bars. There was a statue of a boy riding a snail. Somebody had broken the boy’s head off. All the flowers in the park were dying. Teenagers sat around smoking and looking at each other. Then they had dinner in the dining room. He ate young goat and drank a whole bottle of the strong red Jumilla. Sometime during the course of the meal he told her, that were she not pregnant, they would definitely try when they got back, that he hadn’t known how much she wanted a second child.

When he went to bed and lay in the horrible room with

the neon sign outside, flickering on and off, and the semis roaring past he thought how this was going to ruin their lives now that he’d just begin to get serious and a little successful with his work. Yet he also knew that

he believed both these things, what he said to her and what he was thinking now, and that the struggle was going

to be working out which was the truth. He went to sleep thinking about Georgia and how much he loved her.

He had a dream that night. He caught his mother in bed with a young man. It was the mother he remembered before the long illness that killed her. She was beautiful. The young man was slightly effete. He attacked the young man with a stick and drove him away. He left, laughing holding his arms up against the blows, saying  “listen, don’t blame me, she invited me.”