Photo of John D. Cressler

Convivencia (Coexistence) – Did You Miss the Boat?

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Convivencia (Coexistence) – Did You Miss the Boat?
Oct 182013

History is my second love, right after my wife. So how is it, then, that my history teachers managed to omit a fact so breathtaking and so relevant to this broken world of ours rife with multicultural religious conflict? How did I get short-changed in the historical knowledge department?

I’m not alone. Chances are you missed the boat, too!

The Q:

It all began with my simple question: Is it possible for Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together in peace? You know, get along? Hang out? Play together? Party together? Fall in love? Marry one another? Share languages and customs, that sort of thing?

Well, 90% of the responses come in the form of a knee-jerk retort of, “Are you CRAZY?! Look around, open your eyes!” This is often chased by a derisive laugh, maybe even a kick in the rear.

The A:

Let me break it to you gently. Here’s what my teachers didn’t tell me. Not only did Muslims, Jews, and Christians find a way to live together in peace (shocker #1), but they lived together in peace for a couple of hundred years (shocker #2). Who knew? I didn’t. Bet you didn’t either!

When and where? In medieval Muslim Spain (a.k.a. al-Andalus), under the enlightened, tolerant rule of the Umayyad Muslim Caliphs in Córdoba, Spain, beginning in the 10th century. This was smack in the middle of The Dark Ages, a time when my teachers told me civilization ground to halt.

Guess what? It didn’t.

A Little Reminder:

Córdoba in the mid-10th century was a truly remarkable place, a place almost impossible to exaggerate. Córdoba was the largest city in Europe, the richest, the cleanest, with the largest library in the world (over 400,000 volumes!), running water, indoor toilets, lighted streets, public paths, and public hospitals. One of the largest mosques in the world (the Mesquita – pic below). All this, plus an unprecedented intellectual flowering as the lost books of the ancient Greeks and others in the Near East were rediscovered and translated (into Arabic), setting the stage for major breakthroughs in medicine, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, agriculture, art, architecture and science. As I said, breathtaking! 10th century Córdoba was a city of song and dance, of poetry and book, of recitals and discourse.

This exuberant civilization blossomed in an embracive Umayyad Muslim culture that welcomed Christians and Jews into their ranks and encouraged their churches and synagogues. Here was a society with a progressive social mobility for minorities, and an intentional intermingling of languages, cultures and customs. This remarkable period is known today as convivencia (coexistence), a time still recognized by Jews as their “Golden Age.” Oh, and it occurred within the bounds of a Muslim-ruled society! Imagine.

That is not to say that life between the three Abrahamic faith traditions in al-Andalus was all a bed of roses; it wasn’t. Jews and Christians paid a tax to live there, and Christians were forbidden to ring their church bells or try to convert Muslims, but all in all, these three found a way to make it work over an exceptionally long period, and work well it did.

The Moral to the Story:

Here, then, is a singular existence proof of a lasting peace achieved within the obvious constraints imposed by a diverse multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic society. If it happened once, why not again?

Let me not be too harsh on my teachers. There was no conspiracy. To be sure, the fact of convivencia and the marvels of al-Andalus are out there, but somehow they tend to get glossed over, hidden within dense history texts, neatly squirreled away and tucked out of sight. Why? Perhaps in our post 9/11 world, it is just too easy to embrace the simple-minded view that peace among Muslims, Christians and Jews is a patently absurd idea.

But now you know. Peace did happen. Let’s join together and make this the year we reawaken a lost world that can help reshape our collective memory as a global community. Let’s dream a different ending, a world centered on tolerance and peace between we three. Convivencia.

Historical Relevance: Anchoring Fiction Upon Non-fiction Roots

 Emeralds of the Alhambra Book Tour  Comments Off on Historical Relevance: Anchoring Fiction Upon Non-fiction Roots
Jun 302013

The following was a guest blog I did on the site Straight-from-Hel ( —


As a non-fiction author, professor and scientist, I come to the noveling business from a unique vantage point. For my first ten years of writing, I published five non-fiction books. My great love remains, however, historical fiction, and in 2009 I decided it was finally time to write a novel. Emeralds of the Alhambra, my debut historical novel, an interfaith love story set in medieval Muslim Spain, was just released by Sunbury Press ( That transition from non-fiction author to novelist was a fascinating one, and exceptionally rewarding. While I suspect I will never return to writing non-fiction, I do think my fiction benefits from my non-fiction career. Let me explain.

Writing non-fiction and fiction are very different, in many obvious ways: tone, narrative style, subject matter. I find that writing fiction requires much more contact with my material, a daily obsession of sorts. What I most enjoy about writing fiction are the nearly constant unanticipated discoveries in plot and character, the unexpected twists and turns.

With Emeralds, before pen ever met paper, I first mapped out the plot in several dozen pages, to bind the themes and characters to historical events, describing in bold strokes what I thought should happen. The magical part of the creative process with fiction is that inevitably the characters and plot threads begin to deviate from plan, assuming a life of their own. I love this! On almost a daily basis, as I was driving to work, thinking about my characters still, retracing the plot threads, thoughts would spontaneously jump into my head: “Well, of course, she needs to do this!” or “Obviously this needs to happen.” These were things that I had never anticipated during my initial planning phase, but were birthed from the creative energy of noveling. While the broad strokes of the story remained at the end of the day, the nuances of plot and character evolved in fascinating ways. That creative aspect is unique to fiction and I find it profoundly satisfying. It is something I have never experienced writing non-fiction.

All that said, I do believe my background in writing non-fiction has served me well as training for my fiction writing. Writing non-fiction forced me to be a detail person, comfortable with facts and figures and dates and people. Emeralds tells an epic story, so being able to balance multiple intricate plot threads with a large cast of characters was key, and my non-fiction writing made me quite comfortable doing that. I think my scientific background (physics and math), my vivid imagination, and my artistic sensibilities also helped me in my description of the magical art and architecture of the Alhambra Palace in Granada (the setting for Emeralds).

In addition, topical relevance was always a big deal with my non-fiction. I attempted to craft books that people needed to read, that were relevant to their lives. Especially in my non-fiction sculpted for general audiences (Silicon Earth and Reinventing Teenagers) this was always my key concern. With Emeralds, this aspect of relevance was also priority #1. I wanted to tell a great story, yes, but I wanted it to be relevant to a modern reader, not just a good yarn set in antiquity.

After quite a bit of research, I found a period of history that suited my goals perfectly: medieval Muslim Spain. As all would agree, our modern world is stained with the blood of religious conflict and fanaticism, and yet somehow we managed to forget that for hundreds of years in medieval Spain, Christians, Muslims and Jews found a way to live together in relative peace, sharing languages and customs, whispering words of love across religious boundaries, embracing a level of mutual acceptance and respect unimaginable today. Together, they launched one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. My fiction is intended to break open this fascinating time period in an engaging manner (a love story). Relevant to 2013? You bet it is!

Is my fiction better for having non-fiction roots? Definitely. While it is fiction full-steam-ahead for this author, my non-fiction background will always be treasured as a foundation for better, more relevant novels.

Review of Cressler’s Emeralds of the Alhambra

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Review of Cressler’s Emeralds of the Alhambra
May 072013

Having just come to the end of the review cycle by the endorsers of Emeralds of the Alhambra, I have discovered something new in the process. Placing your ‘baby’ into the hands of a diverse set of very well-known people can be incredibly anxiety producing! Thankfully, the results have been truly gratifying. I thought Professor Susan Abraham’s review of Emeralds was particularly insightful. She “got” the broad themes of the book that I was striving for when I wrote it, and codified my message beautifully. I am including her review below. Enjoy!

Emeralds of the Alhambra, by John D. Cressler, to be released by Sunbury Press, June 15, 2013.

“John D. Cressler’s debut novel reveals the infinite artistic capacity of a polymath whose diverse interests create a vivid and gorgeous world of romance, intrigue, murder and negotiations between multiple religions in medieval Spain. Emeralds of the Alhambra is a fascinating and historically realistic portrayal of life in Muslim Spain in the 14th century. Cressler has woven an imaginative and intricately persuasive story that successfully does two things. One, the historical details provide for absorbing reading in the depiction of medieval Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures and religious identities living side by side. Here, conflict, war, assassinations and cooperation for religious, cultural and political survival translate into lessons from history for our contemporary time. Second, a model for interreligious life emerges in these pages: one that is nurtured in the context of intimate, covenanted and familial relationality. Interreligious marriages have been in many parts of the world a prime vehicle for interreligious convivial life. The possibility of intimate love sprouting in the context of multiple religious identities is one that reveals the true meaning of “conversion” to the human and Divine Other. Cressler deftly presents his characters as multidimensional; Jews, Muslims and Christians are not Westernized caricatures of good and evil. The novel prods us to note that there never was a monolithic Christianity, Judaism or Islam in human history, a compelling lesson gleaned through Cressler’s artistic vision. The difference between the Muslim Maghreb and Muslim Granada are meticulously sketched in an imaginative frame to reveal its influence still being played out in our time.

Of the more evocative perceptions the reader is left with at the end of the novel is Cressler’s loving attention to the unparalleled beauty of the Alhambra and the manner that Muslim architecture presents the occasion for glorifying the divine in its sumptuous materiality. Cressler’s engineering reflexes, inflected with a deep love of beauty, are in full view in the various descriptions of the palaces and mosques of the Alhambra. In one exquisite passage describing the Hall of the Abencerrages within the Palace of the Lions, he writes: ‘The mocárabes coalesce into an elaborate eight-pointed star, the heavens, resting upon the cubic hall below, the earth, inviting the visitor’s gaze upwards to the divine….The calculus of the ceiling produces a meditative sculpture on the nature of time, the separation of heaven and earth, Allah and man.’

Emeralds of the Alhambra is a coruscant story of love between human beings, for God, and for the creation so graciously bestowed on us. A thoroughly gripping and engaging first novel.”

─Professor Susan Abraham, Harvard Divinity School

The Role e-Technology Plays in My Historical Fiction Writing

 Novel Writing with e-Technology  Comments Off on The Role e-Technology Plays in My Historical Fiction Writing
Jan 282013

As my family knows well, as do my students, I have a love-hate relationship with electronics technology (e-Technology) in most forms (those ubiquitous e-Gadgets). While my laptop is an essential companion and I am addicted to e-mail as a form of communication, I do not carry a cell phone, and I do not text (the horror!). I find smart phones just too intrusive, and the constant interruptions of the insidious “ding” of an incoming text disturb my sense of balance and my need to reflect/think/imagine. But I have been musing of late on the role that e-Technology has played, and is playing still, in my novel writing. Let me explain.

While I grew up writing in longhand (which has since devolved into near illegibility these days!), and have kept a journal for most of my life in longhand, the demands of academic life quickly forced me to learn to compose on a computer using a word processor (i.e., MS Word). I found this cumbersome at first, then more comfortable, then absolutely indispensable, especially with respect to productivity in my writing enterprise (my research team has published over 500 scientific papers).

When I begin to compose I start by laying down a few lines, then editing it, often trashing what I just wrote, then starting anew for another variant, and I repeat this process until the words begin to smoothly unfold in a way that pleases me. Finally, I arrive where I need to be, I find my muse, my voice, and all flows from me rather fluidly at that point. But my habit with composition (especially with fiction) is to do a paragraph at a time, and then go back edit, re-edit, write another paragraph, then re-read/re-edit from the day’s beginning, slowly but surely advancing the wordscape (admittedly at a snail’s pace!). In short, composing is a highly iterative process for me, and one that requires a ton of changes to my prose as I go. When done, I may still tweak what I wrote from time to time, but I don’t rest well with a “rough draft” in a conventional sense, instead preferring to edit/re-edit until it is 95% of what I want (hopefully 100%). It is just my creative style.

During my research for Emeralds of the Alhambra, I traveled to Spain and spent two weeks on site (Sevilla, Córdoba, Jaén and Granada). To my intense chagrin, my laptop died only a few days after arriving. Major panic! At that stage I was already about five months into my writing. One of things I had really wanted to do while in Spain was not just note taking and absorbing, but also some composing, especially while on-site inside the Alhambra while that special world was at my fingertips.

Sigh. It was back to longhand. Wow, what a chore! I filled a whole notebook with scribbling, inked blue with cross-outs and arrows and annotations and whole pages chopped up to insert elsewhere. And the ache in my hand after even an hour of writing! That, I had forgotten. This forced rediscovery of the perils of longhand composition was no surprise, in retrospect, but it did make me step back and appreciate just what a productivity boost electronic word processing brings to the novel writing business. One obvious downside of e-composing? It is not easy to look back and study the changes to an author’s prose with the various drafts as they evolve (I just saw a new book on Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms that includes the various drafts and the word changes and strikeouts and key alterations – fascinating). To at least partially get around this I date-stamp and save my manuscript as I go (every couple of weeks), so that I can look back and see how things went if I ever need to.

What are the attributes to e-composing that I enjoy most? The breeze of cut-and-paste. A quick search to locate a scene from 166 pages back I need to instantly find and re-read, or typing a character’s name in to locate all the scenes they are presently hiding in. Spell checks. Word counts. Passwords.

And then there is Google. Wow! I find that as I write, especially with historical fiction, where so many facts and people and dates are involved, there are constantly things I need to know while writing that I do not know, despite my many months of research. I call these the “unanticipated must-haves.” For example: What types of chain mail were used by knights in the fourteenth century? What did crossbows look like and how were they used? How quickly could they be fired? What was on the flag of the Kingdom of Castile in 1367? How did coinage differ between medieval Christian and Muslim kingdoms? How do you say “good morning” in Arabic? “I love you”? What names were common in the fourteenth century for Muslims and Christians, men vs. women? What did the Sufis’ believe vs. mainstream Muslims in the medieval period? When did Rumi’s poetry make it to Spain? The list is positively endless!

In the old days, one was forced (I suppose) to construct a list of daily information needs and then spend time locked in the library chasing things down. Today, I pop up Google Chrome, do a Google Search, then find a Wiki entry or a map that tells me everything I need to know. The world at my fingertips. I have found that there is a real knack to a quick data track-down of “unanticipated must-haves.” The interruption to my composition process of this search? Minimal. Five minutes to find and absorb and then I am back elbow-deep in my prose and moving forward. I cannot begin to imagine how much slower the writing process would be if the internet were not at my fingertips.

Do I maintain a love-hate relationship with e-Technology? I do. Am I a hook-line-and-sinker subscriber to e-composing with the internet at my fingertips? I am. Believe it!

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.