Photo of John D. Cressler

Historical Primer for Shadows in the Shining City

 Shadows in the Shining City  Comments Off on Historical Primer for Shadows in the Shining City
Mar 032014

In the Islamic world, the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. without a chosen successor led to several decades of bloody internal power struggle, the remnants of which linger to this day in Shiite vs. Sunni tensions. By 661, however, the Sunni Arab Umayyad clan prevailed, and to solidify their power moved the Islamic capital from Medina (Saudi Arabia) to Damascus (Syria). A rapid swelling of Islamic culture, wealth and power ensued, launching a conquest of conversion reaching from the western end of the Mediterranean basin to the Near East.

By 711, the Maghreb was breached (land including the rugged Atlas mountains of extreme northwest Africa and the coastal plains of modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). An Islamic army, led by an Arab Syrian general named Tariq ibn Ziyad and comprised of a freshly-converted, capable warrior clan of local Berber tribesmen, invaded Iberia at Gibraltar. They rapidly conquered the Iberian peninsula under the banner of jihad, effortlessly absorbing the nominally-Christian Visigoths and post-Roman era towns and peoples. The incursion of the Muslims was largely welcomed, and in some cases were even assisted by, the Iberian Jews, who had long been persecuted by the local Christians. Al-Andalus, the Arabic name for the lands of Iberia under Muslim rule, was born in 711. Al-Andalus will endure for 791 years.

Several pivotal events in the history of al-Andalus are important to Shadows in the Shining City. In 750 C.E., the Umayyads in Damascus were slaughtered by the rival Abbasids, and the sole surviving Umayyad heir, Abd al-Rahman, a boy in his late teens, set out on the twenty-five hundred mile journey to al-Andalus to boldly reclaim his own slice of history in a forgotten corner of the Islamic empire, Córdoba, located on the banks of the Guadalquivir river in southern central Spain. The Umayyad regime re-emerged like a phoenix from the ashes with the crowning of Abd al-Rahman Emir of Córdoba in 756. He set about unifying al-Andalus, and one of his first mandates, remarkably enough, was to welcome both Jews and Christians into his kingdom.

Al-Andalus blossomed under Umayyad rule. Abd al-Rahman’s grandson (the III) declared himself the rival Caliph (from the Arabic khalifa, “successor” (to the Prophet Muhammad) – supreme ruler of Islam) to the Abbasid Caliph in January 929. Unified and under capable and enlightened Syrian-Arab leadership, al-Andalus rose to its full glory.

Córdoba becomes the crown jewel of Western Islam and a magnet of learning and intellectual fervor that rivaled Baghdad. Late tenth century Córdoba was the largest city in Europe, with a population of over 300,000. The city was rich beyond belief, with a revenue estimated to be 40,000,000 gold dinars per annum. Public works abounded. The citizens enjoyed baths, sewers, hospitals, running water, indoor toilets, and lighted streets. Córdoba had the largest library in the Europe, with over 400,000 volumes in the Royal Library alone. Convivencia reigned.

In 936, Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, following Islamic tradition, broke ground on Madinat al-Zahra, the Shining City, a massive Royal Palace complex located several miles to the west of Córdoba at the edge of the Sierra Morena mountains. His intent? To create the most lavish Islamic palace in the world, an edifice fitting for a Caliph.

Legend has it that 10,000 workers labored four years to complete the first phase of construction. The massive, 112 hectare, walled complex of Madinat al-Zahra was built on three enormous terraces cut from the side of the mountain. It contained ceremonial reception halls, mosques, administrative and government offices, the Royal Treasury, libraries, Islamic gardens, the Royal Mint, a zoo of exotic animals, artisan’s workshops of all manner, a garrison for several thousand troops, parade grounds, orchards, lavish residences for the Royal Court, and of course heated baths by the dozen. Madinat was a city of flowing water and elaborate fountains, supplied to the entire complex through aqueducts from the mountain streams of the Sierra Morena. No expense was spared to create the most ostentatious palace in the world.

Our story begins in Madinat al-Zahra on 8 April 975. This period, the late tenth century, is considered the economic, cultural and intellectual zenith of the 791 year history of al-Andalus.

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.”