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Review of Emeralds and Shadows for Medievally Speaking by Julia Baumgardt

 Medieval Muslim Spain  Comments Off on Review of Emeralds and Shadows for Medievally Speaking by Julia Baumgardt
Nov 012017

A review of both Emeralds of the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City, by Julia Baumgardt, a medievalist scholar. Review and indepth interview can be found on Medievally Speaking, an open access medievalist journal. Links below. My third novel in the series, Fortune’s Lament, is done! Soon to flow to early readers. Expect it spring 2018!




Shadows in the Shining City Book Launch and Coming Events

 Medieval Muslim Spain  Comments Off on Shadows in the Shining City Book Launch and Coming Events
Aug 132014

My second novel, Shadows in the Shining City, book two in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series, launched on July 22, 2014 in midtown Atlanta. Yippee! It was a great night.

Shadows is available on Amazon:


Or from my publisher, Sunbury Press:


Or select bookstores.


eBook?! Yes, the eBook is coming any day now. Stay tuned!

I have a number of book events coming this fall. Next up is the 2014 Decatur Book Festival, the largest independent book festival in the US. I will be a featured author, speaking on Saturday, August 30th at 3:00 pm in the Marriott Conference Center in Ballroom C. Presentation, reading, Q/A and signing. Join us!

I LOVE meeting with book groups! Add Shadows to your book list and contact me. I’d love to visit.





Apr 172013

The Great Mosque of Córdoba (la Mezquita), together with the Alhambra Palace in Granada, are the most important architectural legacies of medieval al-Andalus. The Great Mosque was constructed between 785 and 987 C.E. and even today remains one of the largest mosques ever constructed. Its distinctive red-and-white double horseshoe columns are iconic in medieval Islamic architecture. I visited the Great Mosque in the fall of 2010 while doing research for Emeralds of the Alhambra. Wow! I arrived just after sunrise, before the crowds descended. It was a magical moment, a chance to travel back in time, to imagine. An unforgettable experience. Below are some pictures of the interior as well as an impressionist scene excerpted from book two of the “Anthems of al-Andalus” Series, Shadows on the Shining City.

Interior view of the double-arched interior.


The mihrab, constructed by Caliph al-Hakam II in the late 10th century Córdoba (the setting for Shadows in the Shining City). Over 1800 kg of gold and tons of mosaics were sent as a gift by the Byzantine emperor to help complete the structure.


The gold dome rising above the mihrab.

The second novel in the “Anthems of al-Andalus” series is set in late 10th century Córdoba, at the height of the Umayyad Golden Age (when la convivencia (coexistence) reigned).

Excerpt from Shadows in the Shining City, by John D. Cressler, coming 2014 from Sunbury Press.

“The doubled-tier of arches floats upon marble columns slender as a young girl, evoking a dense forest of date palms ringing a lush oasis in the Syrian desert. The trees are endless, stunning in their uniformity, the view from any vantage upon the floor identical. Umayyad horseshoes, commandeered from the ancient Visigoths and perfected, visually arresting in their alternating bands of red and white, the colors of the Caliph.

The doubled-horseshoes join forces to disperse and break the weight of the low ceiling, producing a complex play of light upon shadow, sound upon silence, a paradox of intimacy bounded by such a vast open space.

There is some magical architectural abstraction at work in the forest of Umayyad palms, a labyrinth without walls, a spatial arabesque of red and white that shouts its metaphor, the infinity of Allah. The worshipper praying at any location in the giant structure resides at the very center of the cosmos, a mirror to Allah’s desired union, Creator with his creation, at one instance of time, at one location in space, there to stretch out in all directions, for all eternity. This is a temple of prayer. This is a communion of souls.

The floor of the great space is a sea of woven hemp, the shifting sands of an endless desert. Rows of the prostrate faithful stretch straight as arrows, hundreds times hundreds. Their foreheads and palms are flat to the sand, the ocean of souls gathered in perfect symmetry about the breathtaking mihrab of Byzantine gold and cobalt mosaics, a pathway opened to Mecca.

The Grand Imam proclaims, “Subhana rabbi al-a la wa-bi-hamdih.” Glory to my Lord, the Most High, the Most Praiseworthy. Thousands of whispers coalesce in echo. Again. A third time. Then the Grand Imam says, “Allahu akbar!” God is Great! Deafening roar. Hundreds times hundreds rise into a kneeling posture as a single organism.”

Mar 232013

Emeralds of the Alhambra takes place in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, during the Castilian Civil War (1366-1369). The Alhambra is the best-preserved medieval Islamic palace in Europe, if not the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Alhambra” refers to the entire walled fortress that clings to the long and narrow red-soiled ridge overlooking Granada (maps can be found on my website: The red hill itself is the source of the palace’s name (al-hamra is Arabic for ‘red’). Unlike today, in the fourteenth century the towers and walls of the Alhambra would have been white-washed and the hill laid bare for defense, a stunning white on red contrast. The fortress is compact, as dictated by the terrain, about one hundred yards wide and seven hundred yards long, and is nestled within the walled and garrisoned city of Granada, located in extreme southeastern Spain. The Alhambra Palace complex contained the royal palace of the Nasrid Sultan, the complete functioning town that supported it, all of the judicial and administrative services required to run the kingdom, and a separately castled garrison.

Like all Islamic palaces, the Alhambra has a remarkably plain exterior, with no hint of the marvels lurking with, and is divided into several distinct palace complexes. Below are pictures I made while visiting the Alhambra in the fall of 2010 while I was doing research for Emeralds.

The Courtyard of the Myrtles in the Comares Palace, with the Hall of the Ambassadors rising behind it. In medieval times the myrtle hedges would have been inset into the ground to avoid obstructing the view of the pool.

An interior view of the Hall of the Ambassadors, the throne room of the Sultan. Note the elaborate stucco carvings on the walls. The Sultan’s throne would have been at the extreme left.

The ubiquitous motto of the Kingdom of Granada, inscribed everywhere within the palace complex. Read right to left, it translates, “There is no victor but Allah.”

The famous courtyard of the Palace of the Lions, containing 124 columns, and the marvelous lion fountain at its center. All of the fountains within the Alhambra (dozens) were gravity powered.

The remarkable prismatic ceiling mocárabes of the Hall of the Two Sisters within the Palace of the Lions.

The prismatic ceiling mocárabes of the Hall of the Abencerrages within the Palace of the Lions.

Let the Doodles Begin

 Medieval Muslim Spain  Comments Off on Let the Doodles Begin
Dec 272012

I am no historian. But I am passionate about historical fiction. And the timelessness of love. I believe that if you are determined, have a vivid imagination, and are willing to pay your dues and invest the proper amount of time and energy, you can enter history. Step into the action, awaken names and places, see what they saw, feel what they felt, think what they thought, love as they loved, die as they died.

Yes, you must locate some good reading material and digest those whole, chew them up and sometimes even spit them out. Wrestle with them. As I said, pay your dues. Then you must set aside all the facts you have so painstakingly made your own and go visit the darn place so you can absorb the sights and sounds and smells. Do all these things properly, toss in a little luck, and you can indeed bring a dead place to life, awaken a time long past, enter history, breathe it. I do believe that. Such is the magic of well-executed historical fiction.

During my sabbatical at Georgia Tech in the fall of 2010, following nine months of reading, hard thinking and obsessive straining of my imagination with all sorts of images of medieval Granada, I finally ventured to Andalusia, remarkable place that it remains to this day. I traced a big circular arc; Seville, Córdoba, Jaén, Granada.

I roamed the streets of Seville, slurped my delicious orange salmorejo (tomato soup topped with ham and egg) at the rowdy tapas bars as the dozens (hundreds!) of Iberian hams dangled above my head. I heard the distant Arab whisper buried deep within the rich, tortured sounds of flamenco, stared skyward in the Hall of the Orange in the Alcazar, traced the Arabic on the stucco walls Pedro copied from the Comares Palace.

Next I wandered the magnificent, unmistakable red and white columned arches of the fabulous Mezquita in Córdoba, for hours and hours, relishing the time alone before the inevitable tour buses arrived. I even attended Mass inside the Mezquita, sad irony of ironies. I chased steaming three-inch thick buttery potato tortilla with a cold cerveza. Daily! I sat in the Plaza de la Corredera and tried to conjure the terror of the burnings held there during the Inquisition.

I stayed in the exquisite Parador (state-owned luxury hotel) nestled beside the ancient Castillo de Santa Catalina, perched high atop the mountain towering over Jaén. I stood with Chandon, hand resting on the giant cross, as we scanned the battlefield together.

Finally, my bus wove its merry way among the rolling hills and endless olive groves, arriving at last in Granada, my heart pounding, pounding, as I craned to steal my first glimpse of my beloved Alhambra. I planted myself in a hotel off the Plaza Nueva, climbing over and around and through the Alhambra and the Albayzín, day after day, even absorbing the palace and Generalife by moonlight. Twice.

I climbed each morning from my hotel through the Pomegranate Gate and entered the Alhambra through the Justice Gate, just like Chandon. I secured my thimble of sweet coffee and made my way to the big chestnut tree that towers now over the hammam Salamun and Chandon luxuriated in off the Upper Royal Road in the medina. There I wrote.

I sneaked a snip of myrtle from the Comares Palace as I peered up at the jalousie windows on Layla’s suite and then across to Chandon’s room, visualizing their all-clear signals by candlelight. I awakened their budding love in my mind, smiled at the bravado of their midnight rendezvous, their secret kisses and stolen glances, transported back to my own delicious early years with my Maria.

I stood agape at the marvels of the Hall of the Ambassadors, the Hall of the Two Ladies, the Hall of the Abencerrages. It was easy to picture Sultan Muhammad in his element there, no more difficult for Ibn al-Khatib, Zamrak, the Royal Harem. I dipped my fingers in the fountains and pools of the Partal Gardens, witnessed the Brethren of Purity in all black and hushed and secret in the Partal Oratory under the new moon.

I climbed the Water Stairway in the Generalife, located the secret space of my young lovers’ first encounter with tawhid under the starlight so many, many years ago. I was there. I even jumped the security fence and found the Royal Cisterns that powered the palace fountains those many centuries ago. It was a magical time of discovery for me, an awakening of six hundred years of silence.

The great service of historical fiction, it seems to me, lies in the bringing of a time and a place long dead magically back to life. This was my primary aim in writing this book. That, and to share my own small understanding of the truth and holiness and timelessness of the love I have come to know with my wife of 30 years, my Maria.

Al-Andalus desperately deserves remembering. This was no ordinary time or place. Our world aches for its memory, aches. Medieval Muslim Spain was a head-spinning intersection of three great cultures, three great religions, three great languages – Islam, Christianity, Judaism. Remarkably, for long stretches of time not far removed from our young lovers, all three religions lived together in something closely approximating harmony, following the enlightened Arab Muslim dictates of mutual respect and religious tolerance. Convivencia (coexistence). Tense, historical boundaries between the Muslim, Christian and Jewish peoples softened, then blurred. Languages were shared by all, cultural and intellectual achievements celebrated by all. Mutual acceptance and tolerance naturally blossomed with the lowering of time-honored artificial barriers. Love inevitably began to cross ethnic and religious dividing lines, just as in my book. Love always finds a way. Beautiful convivencia. If only we could recall that time.

To approach al-Andalus as a modern reader, you must put aside the common association of the word “medieval” with “Dark Ages,” by standard inference a time of backward, unclean, uneducated peoples mired in a stagnate civilization. This pat answer has no value here. In al-Andalus, there was an unprecedented bubbling up of so much intellectual prowess and cultural sophistication as to make the lettered among us feel like bumpkins. There was rediscovery, translation and absorption of Greek and Roman and Far-East knowledge lost for a millennium, and the consequent rebirth of science, medicine, architecture, engineering and agriculture. There was enough poetry, music, song and philosophy to make the ancients proud. And books. My goodness the books. At the beginning of the 11th century, there were four hundred thousand volumes in the Great Library of Córdoba alone! The largest library in Christian Europe, at the University of Paris, held four hundred volumes! Dark Ages? I think not.

With predictable irony, surrounding all this cultural enlightenment was enough political wrangling, arm-twisting, court intrigue and diplomatic maneuvering to dizzy the most jaded, jet-setting, modern head of state. Political expediency was the only law of the land. Muslim was allied with Christian against Christian, Muslim against Muslim, brother against brother. Assassins prowled the Royal Courts. And war. Of course, war. Close-fought with clenched teeth and sweaty brow, with gilded sword, crossbow and ugly studded mace, the bloodied land cloaked in shocking, casual violence and death. War was waged then for the exact same reasons as today, these six hundred years later: Ego, power, greed, religious intolerance, misguided do-gooding, ignorance. As toxic then as now to the voices of reason, to culture, to civilization. Sadly, to love.

Al-Andalus, bright light of cultural and religious tolerance, intrepid explorer of the mind and soul, boiling caldron of enlightened thinking, place of song and dance and dazzling colors. Alas, she did not stand the test of time. Born in 711, subdued finally in 1492 at the hands of Isabel and Fernando, the Catholic Monarchs of Columbus fame. But consider – nearly 700 years of inspiration! Al-Andalus left a deep legacy that molded then fired the clay that was to become modern Europe, and by extension the Americas and her peoples.

In our so-called modern era, with its hurtful religious and cultural tensions, rife with terrorism of the innocents, suicide bombings and fanatical intolerance, ancient al-Andalus has much to teach us all – Muslim, Christian and Jew alike. Al-Andalus, a distant beacon of light, perhaps the world’s greatest forgotten reminder that a peaceful future among us three is indeed a possibility, provided we make the difficult but necessary choice to set aside our differences and honor our shared sacred roots. Tolerance and mutual respect. Why is this such an impossible concept?

Emeralds of the Alhambra tells a six-hundred year old story of love, yes, but also a story of a largely unknown past we all need to remember, and memorize, if we are to place any real hope in an olive-branched world for our dear children and grandchildren.