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The Rise and Fall of Paradise

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Elmer Bendiner.
1 review about The Rise and Fall of Paradise

How King Sancho the Fat became Sancho the Ex-Fat

  • Nov 22, 2010

I shall try to be brief. 


I am not wild about Elmer Bendiner's vignettes of the southwestern corner of Spain, Andalusia, in the 900s A.D. The book (published in 1983, reissued in 1990 and 1995) is called THE RISE AND FALL OF PARADISE: WHEN ARABS AND JEWS BUILT A KINGDOM IN SPAIN. My 1995 edition has no maps. Grr! That set me more than once to googling on the internet to envision the geography of a large part of southern Spain that included what is now Britain's Gibraltar and that approaches very close to Africa.  ***  


THE RISE AND FALL OF PARADISE does have an Index and a good one. You need it, when you have finished reading the book, to refresh your memory, for example, of a historian like "Amador de los Rios, Jose, 248," "Circumcision rituals, 167," Moslem heretic "Karaites, 179 - 181, 218, 219" or the Christian champion, Count of Toulouse, "William of the Curved Nose, 69-70, 72."  ***  


Let me cut to the chase. 


In my opinion, by far the best part of this history of a culturally fascinating part of Spain in the early Middle Ages is "Bibliographical Note," pp. 244 - 248. Only when I read this, at the end of the narrative, did I finally grasp what the author had been trying to do. He was  correcting earlier one-dimensional histories of Spain in the 900s. Some historians had focused on Moslems and Arabs. Others on Christians. A few on the Jews of Spain, especially their semi-independent decades in Granada. Nobody before Elmer Bendiner had allegedly  tried to pull all three ethnic elements together, graft them on to earlier Carthaginians, Romans and Vandals (the latter being one alleged source of the name "(V)andalusia") and give each group due weight in shaping today's Spain. ***  


There are, for instance, allegedly historians, usually Spanish Christians, who detect a pure Spanish/Iberian racial essence unaffected by outside influences. There are critics who make seven centuries of Moslem Omayyad Dynasty rule in Cordoba or Sevile too worldly, some  too religious, others as "just right" in tolerant treatment of Jewish, Berber and Christian subjects. Elmer Bendiner sets out to get things right.  ***  


Bendiner's hero and focal point of THE RISE AND FALL OF PARADISE is Abd-er Rahman III, Caliph of Cordoba (born 889, ruled 912 -961). At the end of the book, unfortunately, I still had no sense of Bendiner's having detected deep, underlying causes of how Arabs, hugely assisted by Jews, had managed to rule over a majority of Christians. There were one vignette after another and a few chapters laying out, imaginatively, daily life in Cordoba or the state of medicine, surgery, and the like. History was presented as a passing parade. Brilliant surfaces. All these loosely linked stories made me want to learn more, and more systematically. That is why I said that the "Bibliographical Note" is the book's best feature. It describes the specialized modern historians writing in French, Spanish and English who can lead you more deeply into a very civilized period of Spanish history.  ***  


Here is one vignette of hundreds that stays with me with some force: the tale of How King Sancho the Fat became Sancho the Ex-Fat. In 955 Caliph Abd-er Rahman III empowered his Jewish friend Hasdai to improve relations with King Ordono III of Leon, particularly to dismantle ten provocative frontier forts. This was easily done. Then the King of Leon died and his hated half-brother Sancho the Fat inherited. He "had the ambitions of a gallant hero encased in grotesque rolls of lard. ... He could not mount a horse without an embarrassing amount of engineering and finally had to give up riding altogether."

Later Hasdai persuaded deposed King Sancho, with mother and son in tow, to travel 500 miles from Pamplona to Cordoba to work out an alliance with Abd-er Rahman III. Sancho the Fat then slimmed down prodigiously under the care of Jewish doctors and could ride a horse again. With Moslem help, this Christian King regained his throne. After the death of the Caliph, the new Moslem ruler of Andalusia then faced nine years of trials. "Among these preoccupations was the persistent itch caused by Sancho the ex-Fat." For Sancho reneged on earlier promises to dismantle frontier fortifications, but was eventually brought to heel.  ***  


Sancho The Fat/Ex-Fat makes for amusing reading as do dozens of other vignettes. I for one have not, however, been able to pull them together in my mind in a coherent unity. May things go better with you! 


It is hard not to be impressed by tenth century Moslem Spain, where a descendant of the great Abd-er Rahman III amassed a library of 400,000 volumes. Embassies went to and from the Franks, the Byzantine Greeks and Arab rulers in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Love poetry was much appreciated. Architects had a field day. Literacy was almost total in Andalusia. And Jews, Christians and Moslems got along better then they ever would again in Spain. A fascinating period, indeed.  -OOO-

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