When a syrian named abd al-Rahman arrived in Spain in 755, a booming Islamic empire stretched from Asia Minor to the Pyrenees. But this member of a leading Damascus family, the Umayyads, was not after a holiday in the sun; he was aiming to keep his head on his shoulders. The Umayyads had been big shots in Syria since their founder became governor there in 641, but power was slippery during the torrid times that followed the founding of Islam by Muhammad and the rapid coalescence of tribal desert peoples into an all-conquering Arab empire.
The Umayyads' slide began when the Abbasid clan-named for Abba, an uncle of Muhammad-began conspiring against them. In June 750, things came to a head, literally. The Abbasids invited all the Umayyads to a banquet, but this was no conciliatory dinner party: 80 guests were decapitated. Abd al-Rahman, the only survivor, quickly packed his bags for the long trek to Spain. There he founded an emirate in Córdoba, in what was then al-Andalus and is now Andalucía. His line kept on building, and in 929 Abd al-Rahman III declared himself Caliph, the Muslim equivalent of Pope.
In May two modern rulers, King Juan Carlos of Spain and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, visited Córdoba to open an exhibition that marks the dazzling epoch there of the Umayyads, the remains of whose buildings and works of art are on show to Sept. 30 as "The Splendor of the Córdoban Umayyads." That it was Assad's first visit to Europe since taking over from his late father underlines the importance of the exhibition at Madinat al-Zahra, a once palatial city on a hillside outside Córdoba.
As the first millennium headed into the second, Córdoba was a major world center; it has even been described as the New York of the 10th century. Archaeologist Antonio Vallejo, co-organizer of the exhibition, says that's an exaggeration. "But between Córdoba, Madinat al-Zahra and neighboring Madinat al-Zahira there may have been 200,000 people. This at a time when the population of Paris was about 10,000."
To demonstrate their resurgence, the Córdoban Umayyads dug deep into their booty chests. They brought in Arab architects and craftsmen and blended local skills learned under the Romans and the Visigoths. An indication of their shopping list is that Abd al-Rahman III had 4,000
marble columns brought from around the Mediterranean to use at Madinat, which some 10,000 workers began slaving to build in 936. Today, about 10 hectares of the city have been excavated; aerial infrared photos indicate that there are another 100 under surrounding farms.
Madinat was not rediscovered until 1910, but works from the Umayyad dynasty washed up all over the world. For this exhibition, they have come from museums across Spain and the Middle East, from collections in France, Italy, Britain, Morocco, Greece, the Netherlands and elsewhere. In the restored salon where the Caliph received dignitaries are bronze fountain spouts and elegant oil lamps, ewers, painted plates, ivory chests, gold dinars and silver dirhams, jewelry that would look good on today's rich women. There are chess sets and writings from the period, including a book on surgery and some nasty-looking tools of that trade.
Together, these pieces contribute to an understanding of how well organized the empire was under the Umayyads. It was they who imposed Arabic as the unifying language, they who reformed various monetary systems to make the dinar and the dirham a binding common currency. Under their rule, Islamic architects also came into their own, with their eclectic way of adapting the best ideas of builders who preceded them. Devotees of arches and tiles, they often mixed brick and stone. Two of the Umayyads' biggest monuments are the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem. At Madinat al-Zahra, the surviving examples of this architectural adventure are mostly in deeply sculpted marble-capitals and bases of columns, sinks and friezes, all intricately laced with animals and plants.
Umayyad opulence in Madinat was short-lived. Rebellious Berbers toppled the last of the line at the start of the 11th century and destroyed most of the city in 1010. What they left, the sands of time buried. Now on show again at their original home, these works represent pages from the story of an Islamic paradise lost.