One of the delights of living in Spain was its Arabic history. The Spanish language is mostly Latin-based and therefore easy to get along with, but about a third of the words derive from Arabic and are therefore (to me) unguessable. But it’s not only in the language that this heritage survives; it’s also in much of the architecture. You have only to go to Granada to see a magnificent rambling collection of spare Islamic architecture, all the more beautiful for being unadorned and all the more fascinating for the mathematical sequences contained in the decoration. The Arabs were – and probably are – great mathematicians and this is reflected in the art and architecture, the more so because depictions of the human form are haram, forbidden – and when you reach the cathedral which was built on top of the mosque, the Catholic kitsch seems sentimental and overdone beside the spare Islamic arches. There’s something dry and unsentimental about Islam, especially set side by side with the emotional outpourings of Catholic architecture. You can see something of the contrast in this picture:
And now in Seville a hammam, or bathing place has been discovered lurking under a tapas bar. I may well have been in this bar at one time – it’s impossible to know – but this is a hugely interesting find and is the most completely decorated Arabic bathhouse in the whole Iberian peninsula.
Cross the Pyrenees and you don’t merely enter another country, you enter a whole new world. The cultural differences between France and Spain are far greater than between Britain and France, and the further south you travel, the more evident this becomes. Of course there were Romans in Spain as well as Britain but after they left our histories diverged dramatically and by the time Beowulf was being composed and England a collection of warring tribes, most of Spain was under Arabic rule. Al Andaluz – the country of light – was an organised kingdom comprising Jews and Christians as well as Arabs and although the two former groups were somewhat circumscribed they were generally able to get along together. The Arabs ruled Spain for 800 years and left behind buildings which, to my mind, are far more beautiful than the Christian architecture which supplanted them.