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The Jews in Al-Andalus


The Muslim invasion freed the Jews from Visigothic oppression and in certain cases they collaborated in guarding castles and cities. Arab rule brought a time of flowering for Spanish Jewry. Andalusian culture and power was represented by the caliph Abd ar-Rahman III, who made Cordova the cultural capital of the West. It was a Golden Age for the Jews; they learned Arabic and built prosperous communities in Seville, Granada and Cordova, the capital. Under the Caliphate, the Jews were able to preserve their rites and traditions. Peaceful coexistence led to their economic and social flourishing. Bit by bit they began to acquire positions of importance in the Caliphate administration and also stood out as skilful craftsmen. They played a role in the caravans which moved across Al-Andalus' main routes and cities, with skins, cloth and jewellery as their main products. The Jewish community of Cordova enjoyed extraordinary growth under the protection of Abd ar-Rahman III, counting on royal support for their relations with the State.

The most important Jew of the time was Hasday ben Shiprut, the Caliph's efficient personal physician and minister. It was he who received Juan of Gorze, envoy of the German emperor Otto I; who negotiated treaties with the ambassadors of Constantine VIII of Byzantium, and who cured Sancho I of Leon's obesity, concluding treaties with the latter as well. He knew Latin and Arabic; with Hebrew now relegated mostly to cultural and liturgical functions, he translated the treatise "Medical Materials of Dioscorides".

The fall of the Caliphate led to the appearance of the Taifa kingdoms and persecution of the Jews, which contrasted sharply with the peirod of tolerance. Nevertheless, Jews were valued as counsellors, physicians and politicians, particularly Ibn Nagrela of Granada. With the Almoravid and Almohad invasions, Jews began to take refuge in the northern Christian kingdoms. The Golden Age of Al-Andalus had ended.

Jewish culture in Al-Andalus. The prosperity the Jews had enjoyed under the Cordovan Caliphate and Arabic culture's influence on them enabled them to stand out as scientists and literary figures, but especially as physicians. Open contact with East and West produced a type of Jew with wide knowledge and who could be simultaneously poet, physician, scientist and philosopher, in particular in Nature, Astronomy (a discipline with considerable Arab influence). After the fall of the Caliphate the Taifa kingdoms saw a flourishing cultural epoch for the Spanish Jews. Philosophy and science were favoured, and the Jews stood out as intellectuals, administrators and diplomats, and especially as poets. It was the Golden Century of Hispano-Hebraic poetry.

Yehuda ha-Levy was the first to write in Castilian. His religious poetry is beautiful and accomplished. The Sionidas are the eternal cry of the Jewish soul for the loss of Jerusalem. Abraham ben Ezra was one of the most educated and cultured men of the time. He studied grammar, philosophy, poetry, science, astrology...and travelled through Italy, France and England, bringing with him Hispano-Arabic and Hispano-Hebraic culture. He wrote in Hebrew and Latin for Jews and Christians. He was famed for his works on astronomy and his Biblical commentaries.

But the height of Jewish thought for all epochs was the Cordovan figure Moises ben Maimon, Maimonides. Though he spent most of his life outside Spain, he always considered himself Sephardic, that is, Spanish. His philosophical works were to influence all the great minds of the Middle Ages. In 1190 he wrote his most important work, The Guide for the Perplexed, in which he harmonizes faith and philosophy, humanity and divinity. An expert medical practitioner, he was also personal physician to the Sultan Saladdin.

This page has been translated from Spanish by Judith Cohen.


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