11/2/09 - more andalusia - and slaves

In today's excerpt - under Muslim rule, Spain became the center of wealth in Europe and Cordoba was Europe's most glamorous city. Converting to Islam became fashionable and one of Christian Europe's most profitable new businesses was selling slaves to the Muslims, the highest-quality of which were eunuchs. The ruling dynasty in that era was the Umayyads, the ruler himself was known as the Caliph, and his domain was known as the Caliphate. That part of Spain under the Caliph's rule was al-Andalus or Andalusia:

"At the start of the tenth century, it has been estimated, the population of al-Andalus was only one-fifth Muslim; by ... 976, that percentage had been reversed. The status of Christians in Islamic Spain had [become] unfashionable. The Church in al-Andalus had long been thundering against the passion of its flock for Saracen (Muslim) chic; but increasingly, whether translating the scriptures into Arabic or adopting Muslim names for themselves, or dancing attendance on the Caliph at his court, even bishops were succumbing to its allure. ...

"The Caliphate ... offered, to the ambitious merchant, a free-trade area like no other in the world. Far eastwards of al-Andalus it extended, to Persia and beyond, while in the markets of the great cities of Islam were to be found wonders from even further afield: sandalwood from India, paper from China, camphor from Borneo. What was Christian Spain, with her flea-bitten little villages, to compare? Why, unlike their equivalents in Italy, they were not even good for slaves!

"The Andalusis, [were now the importers of slaves]; and a swarm of Christian suppliers, with little else to offer which might serve to tickle Andalusi palates, had competed to corner the market [in slaves] no less eagerly than their Muslim competitors. ... In Arabic, as in most European languages, the word 'Slavs' was becoming, by the tenth century, increasingly synonymous with human cattle.

"Nothing, indeed, in the fractured Europe of the time, was more authentically multicultural than the business of enslaving Slavs. Wends captured in the wars of the Saxon emperors would be sold by Frankish merchants to Jewish middlemen, who then, under the shocked gaze of Christian bishops, would drive their shackled stock along the high roads of Provence and Catalonia, and across the frontier into the Caliphate.

"Few opportunities were neglected in the struggle to obtain a competitive edge. In the Frankish town of Verdun, for instance, the Jewish merchants who had their headquarters there were renowned for their facility with the gelding knife. A particular specialization was the supply of 'carzimasia': eunuchs who had been deprived of their penises as well as their testicles. Even for the most practiced surgeon, the medical risks attendant on performing a penectomy were considerable— and yet the wastage served only to increase the survivors' value. Exclusivity, then as now was the mark of a luxury brand.

"And luxury, in al-Andalus, could make for truly fabulous profit. The productivity of the land; the teeming industry of the cities; the influx of precious metals from mines in Africa: all had helped to establish the realm of the Umayyads as Europe's premier showcase for conspicuous consumption. Cordoba ... the capital of al-Andalus, [was a wonder of the age]. Just as Otto, emperor [of the Holy Roman Empire] though he was, lacked a residence that could rival so much as the gatehouse of the palace of the Caliph, so was there nowhere else in western Europe a settlement that remotely approached the scale and splendour of Cordoba. Indeed in the whole of Christendom there was only a single city that could boast of being a more magnificent seat of empire—and that was Constantinople, the Queen of Cities herself."


Tom Holland


The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West


Doubleday a division of Random House


Copyright 2008 by Tom Holland


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