Simon Doubleday December 15, 2015

ISIS in Seville

Early in the second episode of his series Blood and Gold, we find Simon Sebag Montefiore in hot pursuit of the 12th-century Almohad movement, hailing from “the deserts of Morocco”. Appropriately, he is driving a Jeep Wrangler Sahara. The drama is high: the Almohads were not unlike ISIS, he tells us, drawing–perhaps unconsciously–on the cliché that identifies Islamic State as a somehow “medieval” phenomenon. A few minutes later, sitting with the narrator in a restaurant in Triana (directly across the river from the Torre de Oro in Seville), the leading Spanish specialist on the Almohad movement, Maribel Fierro, offers a more nuanced reading. This was, she says, “a revolutionary movement that produced revolutionary violence”–a description that implicitly aligns ISIS with modernity (with the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks) more than with the Middle Ages.

There is little time for detail. Sebag Montefiore travels on; Christian armies quickly pick off Almohad cities. An unnamed Christian king (Fernando III) conquers Seville, a city suffused with the very Almohad architectural wonders–the Torre de Oro, the Giralda…–that in fact undercut easy comparisons with modern fanatical death cults.

The viewer waits with bated breath for a description of the Christian king, Alfonso the Wise, who was entranced by those same wonders and by the intellectual and artistic sophistication that accompanied Almohad rule. There is none. It is instead time for Sebag Montefiore to dip his feet in the luxuriant pools of a hammam in Granada, waxing lyrical about the Alhambra. Two centuries of cultural symbiosis are bracketed, as the narrative fast-forwards to the 1460s and the new drama of the Catholic Monarchs. For it is Blood and Gold, not cultural exchange between Christians and Muslims, that fuel the story he tells. Medieval history, however we tell it, is filtered through modern anxieties. Sebag Montefiore’s emphasis on the fear, paranoia and instability of late-medieval Nasrid rule refracts these anxieties, and reminds us of the fate of embattled societies that turn inward upon themselves.