Simon Doubleday December 13, 2015

Drones over Medina Azahara

The first, breezy episode of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s BBC4 series “Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain” brings medieval Spain center stage. Among the highlights: his rehabilitation of the supposedly ‘barbarian’ Visigoths, the playful descriptions of ibn Nafi (Ziryab) as a cross-between Beau Brummel and Mick Jagger, and the narrator’s love of prolonged alliteration (we hear of Abd ar-Rahman I’s devotion to the “plenitude” and “panoply” of his own power, and the “preposterous popinjay” Sanchuelo). Covering the vast span of history from the arrival of the Phoenicians to the massacre of Jews in Granada in 1066, Sebag Montefiore sexes up the political dossier with an array of ‘beautiful slave girls’ and ‘attractive female cousins’, spinning his tale between Cadiz, the Roman city of Italica, Seville,  Gibraltar, Córdoba, and, finally, Granada.

Someone, perhaps wearing slightly rose-tinted glasses, has been reading María Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World: there are references to the tolerant “paradise” of Umayyad Spain, and (as in Menocal’s own exilic text) to Abd ar-Rahman’s melancholic paean to the palm tree, far from its Syrian homeland. But there are other scholarly voices, too: Simon Barton makes a compelling cameo appearance, as the drone-mounted camera sails over the palace of Medina Azahara, to discuss the importance of concubines as a dynastic defense mechanism.

Over the next four hundred years, the finale promises us, Spain would tear itself apart. A fleeting glimpse, in the closing seconds, of the statue of Alfonso X in Córdoba leaves me hopeful that the Wise King will soon make a dramatic appearance.