Sunday, February 5, 2012

Unit 5: Among the Cordovans

Overview of the unit
  1. A living mosaic

    Cordova in the tenth century was home to people of many backgrounds. The text describes the different groups of people who lived in the city. We learn about the regions from which these people came, the languages they spoke, the religions to which they belonged, and their status in relation to other groups.

  2. The people of the book

    We deepen our understanding of the communities who lived in Cordova by focusing on people' of various faiths. We examine the relations that existed between Jews, Christians and Muslims — the three religious communities that lived together in Cordova. The text also highlights the movement of people across the boundaries of their religious traditions in these times.

  3. Slaves or masters?

    Cordovans belonged to groups who held different levels of power, wealth and status. The text helps us to identify these groups and their position in relation to one another. We learn about a range of groups, from the very powerful to those who were at the bottom of their society. The text also discusses the extent to which people in the Middle Ages could change their status by crossing the divisions that existed between the various groups. 

  4. The royal city of Zahra

    In the final section of this unit, we focus on the status of women in Cordova. We learn about the position of women in the past, and the roles they played in their society. The text discusses how the way of life of women in these times depended to some extent on the social group in which they were born.

    6.1     A man of many talents

    We are back on the streets of tenth-century Cordova, visiting its markets. It is a busy day, and the stall-owners are doing goad business. We look around us and see all kinds of people. Who are these people who live in Cordova?

    People of different cultures

    The first thing that strikes us is the colour of the people's skins! There is no single colour that stands out. We find among us people who are black, brown as well as white. We find people of all types of shades between these colours. We listen to what they are saying. Some are speaking in Hebrew and others in Romance. Some are using North African dialects while a few converse in Latin. Many of them also know Arabic, a language which is used by the caliph and his court officials.

    People of different faiths

    Perhaps we can divide the Cordovans according to their faiths. But this is more difficult than it first appears. Some of the people are Jews who have come from various lands. Many of the people are Christians who accept the Pope as the head of their Church. Others follow different versions of Christianity that are found in Byzantium, Syria and Egypt. Some of the people dress like Arabs and speak Arabic but are Christians.
    The rest of the people are Muslims but they are from various backgrounds. There are Sunnis who belong to the the different schools of law, as well as Shias. Some of the Muslims are Sufis, while others are recently converted Jews and Christians.

    Peoples from different lands

    We could group the Cordovans according to the lands of their ancestors. We find that the people of Cordova come from different regions. Many of them are Iberians who settled in the peninsu1a in ancient times. Some of them have Visigoth ancestors who came from northern Europe. Others are eastern Europeans from the land of Slav.
    Then there are Arabs who have settled here from Syria and Arabia, and Berbers from North Africa. We also have people who have come all the way from Yemen, Persia and the Sudan.

    The rich and the poor

    We could divide the Cordovans according to their wealth and power, and the work they do. There are people at one end who are lords and nobles, and at the other end, slaves. In between, we find the merchants who have become very wealthy and are great influence in the city.
    We also come across numerous people who are craft workers, artisans and small traders who are not as well off as the merchants. Many of the people are from the countryside. They work as labourers and earn just enough to make their ends meet. Although Cordova is a wealthy city, many of its people are poor.
    We look at the people around us once again. We realise that it is difficult to tell who each person is, unless we ask that person about his or her background. A visitor to Cordon has written the following verse about the city:
    'in Cordova,
    there are not Jews, Muslims or Christians.
    In Cordova,
    there are probably not even Spaniards.
    Jn Cordova,
    there are just Cordovans.'
    Living together

    Cordova is like a living mosaic made up of people from different races, faiths and cultures. All these people find themselves having to fit into a way of life where everyone lives close together. Cordova is like an exciting experiment in the Middle Ages where people of different cultures are trying to live with one another.
    There are other places too, like Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem and Baghdad, where we find Muslims, Christians and Jews living in the same city.
    Not all cities in medieval times are like Cordova. There are many places where people of only one faith or culture live. The people of the Middle Ages are suspicious of anyone who is different from them, and they have little knowledge of foreign lands.
    Even in Cordon, the ordinary Muslims, Christians and Jews have made little effort to understand one another's faiths and ways of life. However, living together peacefully is an important achievement in the middle Ages.

    What groups of people lived in 10th century Cordoba?


    • Dialect • Sufis
    • Slaves

    Cites such as Cordova in the tenth century were places where people of different cultures religions and backgrounds
    lived together.


    Find out about the composition of people in other civilisations in the middle Ages. What were some of the factors that led people of different backgrounds to live together?
    Write a poem about Cordova that expresses your own views about the people of this city in the tenth century.


    In today's world, there is far more interaction between people of different cultures than there was in the past. Yet there is also suspicion, hostility and conflict between different groups of people all over the world. What are some of the reasons why this situation exists today? What are some of the ways in which Muslims can help to create a more peaceful world? 


    What issues have arisen from groups with different faiths and cultures living together in your country? What factors are creating misunderstandings between these groups? What is helping to bring them closer together? 
    5.2    The people of the book

    Cordova has not always been a place where different groups of people live together peacefully. How did the Jews, Christians and Muslims come to live in the same city? We walk along the streets of tenth century Cordova, trying to find clues that will answer our question.
    We find ourselves in an area of Cordova that reminds us of a place we have visited before, but we cannot quite remember what it is. In this quarter, there are narrow alleys with crowded whitewashed houses, their walls and balconies decorated with pots of flowers. The houses lead to shared courtyards where children play near bubbling fountains.
    Then we remember the area we are in — it is the Juderia. This is the place where the Jewish community of Cordova lives.

    The ahl al-kitab

    The Christians and the Jews have their own holy books. The Quran refers to these communities as ahl al-kitab, the people of the book. Like the Muslims, they believe in one God and honour the prophets whom God has sent to guide them. The Muslim rulers respect the Jews and the Christians in al-Andalus as the ahl al-kitab. They are treated as the dhimmi, the protected ones. They are free to practise their faith and given protection during war. 

    An old story

    We talk to some of the older residents who live here. They remember a story which has been passed on to them by their parents and grandparents. This story is about a time when the Jews were faced with a very difficult choice. The Visigoth kings ordere4 them either to become Christians or leave the Iberian Peninsula.
    It was a very difficult choice indeed. Some pretended to become Christians and others left for North Africa. But many remained behind, hoping things would get better.
    Better times did come for the Jews. The rule of the Visigoths came to an end when the Muslims settled in the Iberian Peninsula. From the very beginning, the Muslim rulers did not force either the Jews or Christians to leave the land they had conquered. The rulers did not force the people of these religions to become Muslims. Most of the time, the Jews and Christians were left free to follow their own faiths.


    With time, some of the Christians and Jews have become Muslims. This has happened very gradually. There are different reasons for people changing their faiths. Some people have done so for religious reasons because they have found the beliefs of one faith more convincing than another.
    There are also other reasons for people changing their religion. Many marriages are taking place between Muslims, Christians and Jews, leading to new relationships between the people. It is quite normal in these times to find people of one household belonging to two faiths.
    In recent times, the number of Muslims in Cordova has increased greatly leading the rulers to enlarge the mosque of Cordova several times.

    The Mozarabes

    We can also find many Christians living in Cordova who have not chosen to convert to Islam. Since many of them dress like the Arabs and speak Arabic, they are known as the Mozarabes or Arabised Christians. 
    In later centuries, the Mozarabes will take the art and architecture of al-Andalus to the northern Christian kingdoms. Here, they will construct buildings very similar in style to those found in Cordova.

    Solving conflicts between the communities

    In Cordova, Jews and Christians are to be found in all kinds of professions. Some of them occupy important positions in the caliph's court. The caliph often calls upon bishops when he wants to send envoys to Christian lands. He also uses the services of Jewish advisers, doctors and scholars.
    When problems do arise between the communities, the caliph asks the rabbis and the bishops to help him deal with them.


    What were the relations between the Muslims, Christians and Jews in Cordova?

  • Ahl al-kitab
  • Mozarabes.
  • Bishop
  • Rabbi
  • Dhirnmi

Imagine the everyday life of three people in Cordova: a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. Write a list of things that would have been common to all of them. What kinds of things would have been special to each one? In what ways would these three people have interacted with one .another in Cordova?


In tenth century Cordova Muslims, Christians and Jews could be found living together in the same city;


Compare the relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews in different lands of the middle Ages. What were some factors that created hostility and division between these communities? What factors led to peace and cooperation between them?


People of different religions share much in common with one another. To what extent do you agree with this statement? How can greater understanding be created between people of different beliefs?


Some peop1e claim that religion is responsible for much violence, in the past and today. Others claim that without religion there would be greater violence in the world. Examine a recent conflict where people of different religions have been involved. What role has religion played in this conflict? Are there other factors that need to be taken into account?

5.3    Slaves or masters

Cordova has many groups of people living together. These groups are based on the different religions that the Cordovans follow. The people of this city can also be divided in terms of their wealth and power. There are some groups who are rich and rule over others. At the other end, there are many people who are poor and have little control over their lives.

The nobles

The wealthiest people in Cordova are the nobles, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews. Some of them live in the city, but others prefer to live, in the countryside where they own large estates.
The nobles live in grand villas and mansions which have ail kinds of luxuries, such as ornamental gardens and fountains. All the work is done by the slaves they own and the large number of labourers and peasants who work on their land.
The land and property of the nobles is passed on from one generation to the next, so that the wealth always remains within the same families.
Some of the nobles are patrons of art and learning. They support poets, scholars and other individuals with special talents.

The merchants

After the nobles the merchants of Cordova are the next wealthiest. Much of the money they have made has come from trading goods and merchandise. Some of the merchants have acquired their wealth quite recently from the new markers that have opened up in Cordova.
The goods sold by the merchants in these markets are in great demand: ivory, musk, silk, precious stones, spices, perfumes, dyes and leather goods. The merchants have strong links with other traders in the Mediterranean lands, with whom they exchange a wide range of goods.

Caftworkers, traders and labourers

The majority of the people in Cordova are craftsmen, tradesmen and labourers who have to work very hard to earn a living. Among then are the coppersmiths, cobblers, butchers and bakers, water carriers and street cleaners. They usually do work which requires special skills or that other people do not like doing.
These people live in simple dwellings in the crowded parts of city. They do not posses any land property, and have to pay rent to landlords. They look upon the wealthy with envy and are not always happy for being poor.

The slaves

Another group of people in Cordova are the slaves who have been captured from lands such as eastern and northern Europe, and from Africa. They are sold in the markets of Cordova to people who can afford to buy them. Most slaves end up working for the nobles and the merchants.
If the slaves are lucky, they could find themselves working in the palaces of the caliph or in his army. Here they can rise to very high positions becoming even more powerful than nobles and merchants. It is said that when Abd al-Rahman II died, it was the palace slaves who decided which of his sons would be the next amir.

Born into a way of' life

In the middle Ages, it is very difficult for people to change their position or leaving one group and joining another. Slaves, for example, have no freedom of their own. Unless their masters choose to set them free, they remain captives for the rest of their lives.
Similarly, a poor cobbler can do very little to change his way of life and become a merchant or a noble. To do so he would require a great amount of wealth which he does not have. It is very likely that his sons and their sons will continue working as cobblers.
A person born as a noble will most likely die a as a noble, unless something unexpected happens.

Unexpected changes

There are times in the middle Ages when sudden changes to people's positions may come about. Warfare and other disasters may lead to nobles losing their land and property. If they are unlucky, they may find themselves captured and sold as slaves.
Soldiers on the winning side may end up becoming very wealthy if their ruler gives them land and the booty won from battle. In al-Andalus, many of the Arabs and Berbers have become wealthy by gaining new land.
There are other ways in which the positions of people may change. In Cordova, some of the people have become rich merchants in a short period of time. They have managed to do this out of their own effort, but also because of the busy trade that has opened up in Cordova.
People with special talents, such as musicians and poets, can also be fortunate and find themselves supported by a rich noble.
In cities like tenth-century Cordova, new chances are being created for different groups of people. However, the vast majority of the people in these times continue to lead a way of life that has not changed much for centuries.


How were groups of people in Cordova divided in terms of wealth, power and status?


Look carefully at the objects shown on this page. List the materials and processes required to make them. Which groups of people would have been involved in making them? For which groups of people would these objects have been made?


In the past, as in modern times, there were groups of people with different amounts of wealth, power and status In Cordova1 people of different groups lived in the same city.


Compare the lives of slaves in Muslim empires in the Middle Ages to those in other lands. What was common to all these societies? In what ways did this differ in their treatment of slaves?


In modern times, two views have emerged about the differences between groups in modern societies. One view is that all people should have equal wealth, Another view Is that people should be free to acquire wealth based on their skills and efforts. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each view.


In modern societies, the gap between the very rich and the very poor is increasing. What are some of the factors that are creating this situation? What are some of the ways in which those groups who are the most disadvantaged can be helped to raise their standard of living?

5.4    The royal city of Zahra


We are in a very special place that we have visited before. It is located about five miles from Cordon on a hillside covered with almond and fig trees. We are back in Madinat al—Zahra, the palace—city of the caliph Abd al-Rahman III.
What we see before us dazzles our eyes. We are no longer surrounded by broken ruins and shattered tiles. Instead, we are in the middle of a living royal city where 30,000 people live and work. In the centre of the city stands a magnificent palace, surrounded by other fine buildings belonging to the caliph's officials.
Fountains and bathing places abound in the city, flowing with water brought down from the mountains. The biggest fountain is in the caliph's palace. Its basin is made of green marble and decorated with twelve sculpted pieces of animals.
The grandest place of all is the caliph's royal chamber where he holds his court. Here, blue-and-pink marble pillars gracefully support horseshoe arches covered with red- and-white patterns that branch out like the rays of the sun. It has taken thousands of workers almost forty five years to build this royal city.

Women of royal households

Abd al-Rahman III has named this city after one of his favourite wives who is called Zahra. Madinat aI-Zahra has become the envy of rulers all over the Mediterranean world. Some people say that it was Zahra who first suggested to the caliph the idea of building a new royal city.
In Cordova, some of the wives of the amirs and caliphs have played an important role in influencing events. Some have tried to get their own sons chosen to succeed their husbands as rulers. Others have looked after princes who have become great rulers.

Skilled poets and writers

In royal households and in the homes of nobles, there are many women who are well educated. They have libraries in their palaces and mansions which contain a wide range of books. These women take a keen interest in events that are happening in Cordova. Some of them are skilled poets and writers, known for their wit and learning. Others have special knowledge in subjects such as history, grammar and the sciences.

Working to earn a living

The lives of women who are not born in rich households is quite different. Some of these women have to work hard to earn a living. A few of the women are doctors and others are teachers. There are female scribes who work in Cordova's libraries, making copies of valuable books.
Some of the women work as midwives, helping mothers during childbirth. Others manage their own stalls in the markets, or help in preparing various crafts for sale, such as mats, pottery and basketwork.
Among the Cordovans are women and girl slaves. They work in female bath-houses and as maids, nurses and in the servants in the houses of the wealthy. A large number of are to be found in the royal palaces and household. Here, they may grow up to become educated and gain positions of influence over their masters and mistresses.

Everyday life

Most women who belong to ordinary households in Cordova work at home, looking after the children. They often visit neighbours or relatives, and the many markets of Cordova. Public baths are also important places where women meet. Here, they exchange news and share their problems. On festival days, Muslim women visit places of worship and cemeteries to offer prayers for the dead.

Women in the Middle Ages

The life of women in the Middle Ages varies greatly. A woman born as a noble leads a life quite different from one who is born a peasant. Some women enjoy a life of luxury while others struggle hard to feed their children. Women who are married to rulers and other men in high positions can acquire great power and influence, as can slave girls. The majority of women in these times have very little say, except in their own everyday lives.


  • 10th century CE: Madinat al-Zahra built by Abd al-Rahman III.

Select two groups from those on the previous. Page, compare the everyday life of women to these two groups. What would have been common to the lives of the women? How would their lives have been different?


In the middle Ages, the social groups to which belonged played an important role in their lives.


Find out more about the role and status of women in different civilisations in the Middle Ages What wore some of the major difficulties that all women faced in those times? What were some of the opportunities open to them?


In modern times, women in many parts of the world still suffer all kinds of difficulties. What are some of the issues that women in Muslim societies face? What are some of the ways in which these concerns can be addressed?


In Islam, all men and women are equal before God. How should we interpret this guidance In modern times?

Review of unit 5
Review questions
  • A living mosaic
    • What kind of society would a visitor have encountered in tenth-century Cordova?
    • What were some of the regions from which the different groups of people originated?
    • Which were the main religions represented in the city?
    • How were the people grouped in terms of their wealth and status?
    • In which other cities did people of different backgrounds lived together?

  • The people of the book

    • How were the Jews treated by the Visigoths, and how did their situation change under the Muslims?
    • How does the Quran describe the Jews and Christians? What does the word 'dhimmi' mean?
    • What were some of the reasons for people in al-Andalus converting to Islam?
    • Who were the Mozarabes?

  • Slaves or masters?

    • What were some of the groups that could be found in Cordova, and what was their status?
    • Why was it difficult for a person to move from one level of wealth and importance to another?
    • In what kinds of situations did people find their status changed in the. Middle Ages?
    • What kinds of differences exist between groups of people today?

  • The royal city of Zahra

    • What different roles did women have in the Middle Ages?
    • To what extent was the position of women related to the social group in which they were born?
    • Why was it difficult for women in the Middle Ages to be free to choose the work they would have liked?
    • To what extent has the position of women in modem societies improved? What are some major problems that women all over the world face today?

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