All You Need is Love: A Review of Emeralds in the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City from the Anthems of Al-Andalus series by John Cressler
Reviewed by Julia C. Baumgardt
About his foray into historical fiction with the first two in a series of historical novels centered on Islamicate Iberia, Dr. John D. Cressler, —and author of five additional non-fiction books—states: “My principle goal was to reawaken this time period for modern readers, and to do that while telling a great yarn.” Richly layered with historical detail and carried forward by casts of extremely loveable characters, Emeralds in the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City roundly achieve this aim. Readers from a general audience will be captivated by what may be a new discovery of the cultural flourishing of medieval Spain and more initiated readers will likely enhance their knowledge of the minutiae of life in Islamicate Iberia.
The first book in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series, Emeralds in the Alhambra, opens in 1367 in the Nasrid kingdom of Granada under Sultan Muhammad V. With plenty of space given to military endeavors, political intrigue and florid architectural and spatial description, the novel follows the story of two young lovers: the decorated Breton soldier William Chandon and Layla al-Khatib, the daughter of the Sultan’s Gran Vizier. Their story parallels the fight between King Pedro of Castile and the (eventually successful) pretentions of his brother, Enrique of Trastamara, in a Castilian Civil War; the quite longstanding alliance between Nasrid Granada and Castile; as well as the Catholic Church’s meddling in Iberian political and religious life. The novel opens as Chandon, allied with Enrique, prepares his troops for battle at Jaen against the Nasrids, who are allied with Castile. After an impressive display of both knightly valor and swordsmanship, Chandon defeats the Grenadine commander—the Military Vice-Vizier’s nephew—but is then seriously wounded by a cheap shot and taken back to Granada as prisoner. The famous Jewish physician Salamuun heals Chandon and in so doing befriends him and educates him on the sophisticated and heterogeneous culture of Granada. As both a political move and a cultural transaction, the Sultan arranges for Chandon to learn Arabic from his Grand Vizier’s fiercely intelligent and independent daughter, Layla, and for the Breton to teach her English. Through their interactions, they fall in love, Chandon decides to become a Muslim, and the two marry, with the blessing of many—but not all—from the Alhambra community. During their lessons and courtship, Layla is also studying under the great Sufi master, Mansur al-Mussib and, through the latter’s direction, begins to volunteer in the Maristan hospital for the infirm and destitute. It is here that she opens her heart to love—platonic, romantic and spiritual—and has her first experience with Tawhid, mystical union with the divine. The pursuit of and respect for love in its many forms is a central component of this novel, where love is linked to any and all inclusive, non-dogmatic practice of religion and spirituality. In contrast, religious practice characterized by regulation and prohibition is portrayed as love’s antithesis and connected to political machinations, the accumulation of power, and the exclusion of the Other.
Shadows in the Shining City is the second book in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series, though temporally its prequel, and is set in the “Golden Age” of Al-Andalus, the Caliphate of Cordoba under al-Hakam II. The story’s action begins in 975 and carries to the dissolution of the Caliphate and the time of fitna, all of which occurred historically over the course of a decade but which the novel compresses to a span of two years. Central characters are the historically infamous Muhammad ibn Abi Amir (al-Mansur) and his daughter Rayhanna, as well as their lovers, friends and enemies. Shadows follows the Abi Amir family’s trajectory: Rayhanna’s voracious appetite for books and thirst for knowledge that leads her to the Royal Library, Aristotle’s Book of Optics and replica of his camara obscura, and Zafir; as well as Muhammad ibn Abi Amir’s insatiable desire for wealth, prestige and power that leads to his steady moral decline and that of the Caliphate itself. The political focus is on Muhammad’s illicit introduction into palace life through the beguiling and beguiled Subh (wife of the Caliph and mother of al-Hakam’s only heir), his machinations to secure dominance in Cordoba through alliance with North Africa, and his eventual self-inflicted dehumanization as his quest for power grows. As with Emeralds, Shadows also centers on a love story—and Cressler promises the final installment will continue this tradition—though this time played out in a more complex, tri-part network of protagonists. Rayhanna and her beloved Zafir—a saqaliba with a prominent role as translator of Greek and assistant to the Royal Librarian—are the story’s primary romantic couple. Samuel, the librarian himself, and his wife, Rebekah, are the second set of lovers in Shadows and, as a mature couple, they provide both a fitting complement to the headstrong and hormone-driven young lovers and invaluable assistance in Rayhanna and Zafir’s quest to be united. The third pairing is significantly different from the first two but no less important to the plot: the haunting presence of Ibn Abi Amir’s great love with his late wife, Rayya. The memory of their passion, as well as Rayya’s apparent wish that Rayhanna marry for love, serves as the catalyst for Rayhanna’s grandmother’s timely intervention as the plot develops. It is this intervention that stalls what would have unfolded as a Shakespearean tragedy, complete with poison, faked suicides and a rather unreliable antidote. The spectral memory of Rayya haunts al-Mansur as well, and his tender memories of their love and his devastation at losing her round out his personality by providing a sympathetic backstory and a plausible explanation for his seemingly inhuman hardness and unquenchable ambition. The contrast of a great love lost and the brutal impossibility of recovery after the fact triangulates with the other two couples and provides a much-needed balance and dose of reality to the otherwise rose-colored portrayal of love in both Anthems books.
The plot and characterization of both novels are engaging, though Emeralds’ characters—however loveable—at times come off flat and one-dimensional. Shadows demonstrates a blossoming in Cressler’s narrative craft, with al-Mansur in particular represented in considerably more depth. In addition, the inclusion of certain questionable or outright problematic cultural elements in both novels goes far to balance and nuance the portrayal of an often overly idealized period. Likely the most well-known of the controversial cultural practices is the harem, a space of enclosure-prison for royal women. Shadows’ portrayal of Subh’s unhappiness and isolation within the harem and the Sultan’s near undoing because of his lust for Layla in Emeralds highlights this problematic institution. In addition, the depictions of these more objectionable aspects present a cautionary tale of the volatility of even the most seemingly stable of polities when they are constructed upon the oppression or marginalization of certain groups. The creation and maintenance of eunuchs, an element of the harem often overlooked in popular portrayals, is also brought to light through the character of Jibril and his young protégés. Anthems does also present local responses to such challenges and social problems, such as the existence of the Maristan Hospital and the new hospital Layla founds in Emeralds.
An especially strong area in both novels is the rich historical detail in weaponry and warfare, politics and historical events, and cultural elements such as architecture, contemporary literature, food and bathing practices. Anthems not only creates loveable characters and compelling plots, but also places them within an entire historical world reconstructed meticulously and in vivid color. In the areas of warfare and city geography in particular, the novels take on a more documentary quality, which strengthens their purpose and complements the love stories. It is clear that the series has been thoroughly researched and each book contains not only the text of the novel but also maps, a glossary, several historical primers, notes about facts and fiction in the text, and an extensive bibliography.
Religion in general is rightly given a central place, with an emphasis on tolerance, open-mindedness and love. That Chandon learns Arabic and converts to Islam in Emeralds is an excellent demonstration of the linguistic and religious permeability of the heterogeneous Islamicate culture Anthems celebrates. The same is true for the recognition of social mobility for Jews and Christians (slaves or free) within the Caliphate and Emirate through characters such as Salamuun (the Caliph’s doctor, Emeralds), Reccimund (the Christian Bishop and Vizier of Dhimmi, Shadows), Samuel and Zafir. All the ostensibly good characters in the novels cultivate and practice a kind of open spirituality that expresses itself within a specific Abrahamic faith, whereas religious dogmatism is equated with political quests for power and control. On the portrayal of strict religious observance as incompatible with tolerance, Cressler states that “tolerance and openness to the Other are indeed essential aspects of what religion can and should aspire to.” It is noteworthy, and, as Cressler indicates, “historical,” that those characters who influence the plot most negatively seek to limit the possibilities of spiritual expression of both their religious Other and those within their same confessional community, and always do so in the pursuit of power, riches and prestige.
As is fitting, then, both Emeralds and Shadows pay commendably nuanced attention to the intricacies of politics and their intermingling with religion. Throughout both novels, the complex alliances and scheming of various political players take center stage and influence the tide of decisions made by the Emir and the Caliph as well as those of their allies and enemies to the north, the northeast, and the south. The complexity of the political situation in al-Andalus and Castile, Iberia generally, and the Mediterranean more broadly is extremely well-presented given the scope of the novels and their intended readership. Anthems offers a nuanced approximation to the papacy’s pretended political and ecclesial influence through the depiction of the visiting monks of Cluny in Shadows and the Cardinal in Emeralds. In addition, the books rightly complicate what contemporary readers might well have assumed to be a homogenous medieval Christian (i.e. Catholic) church by depicting the unique practices of southern Iberian Christians in the Mozarabic rite.
While the text proper of the novels is appropriately complex in its approach to the socio-politico-theological matrices of medieval Iberia, the historical summaries and primers surrounding the novels do not appear to be quite so carefully worked. In those texts, the tensions between Iberian Christians, Cluny, and the Papacy, as well as the Castilian Civil War, are presented as “infighting” and “bickering” within otherwise unified groups (Emeralds 406). This oversimplifies the situation as it existed historically and as it is generally depicted in the novels and feeds into an all-too-black-and-white notion of Reconquista as a time-tested, unified, and perdurable impulse. The word “reconquista” itself appears sixteen times in Emeralds in the mouths of a variety of its characters and another nine times in the historiographic materials surrounding the text of the novel. With each use it gestures toward a universally understood and accepted (by all the kingdoms of Iberia, England, France, and Rome) notion of a common, underlying impetus uniting all of Christianity against Islam, in a struggle for both ecclesial domination and territory. While this conception of Reconquista is not by any stretch novel—and may perhaps be an easy way for the uninitiated reader to dive into the historical and historiographical questions surrounding medieval and Early Modern Iberia—the simple use of the term in the mouths of characters is likely an anachronism. Evidence suggests that “restoration” (in ecclesial terms) or “conquest” (more military/territorial) were used in reference to the confessional and military changing of hands of Iberian kingdoms, and according to Ríos Saloma, the earliest extant incidence of the term “reconquista” referring to armed struggle between Christians and Muslims does not appear in Spanish until 1796 (194). This is not to say that the impact of the crusading mentality and rhetoric did not reverberate within Iberia, nor to deny the presence and influence of Jimenez de Rada’s vision of the Christian character and destiny of Iberia—it was he who so firmly connected the dots from Visigoth rule to Pelayo at Covadonga through to the conquest of Toledo and the continuing might of united Christian armies at la Navas de Tolosa. This concept of a slow but steady regrouping of Christians post-711 Muslim “invasion” and the REconquest of “their” territory toward the teleological victory of (Christian) Spain makes for a great story. However, a tape-measure notion of Reconquista as “no illusion…inevitable” (325) as the Military Vizier al-Bistami suggests in Emeralds, involves a fair amount of glossing over the very political, cultural, linguistic, and even religious intricacies that Anthems otherwise works hard to present in their complexities.  That the Visigoths were Arians (and thus, heretics) until (at the earliest) the end of the seventh century, that the Mozarabic (Hispanic) rite was banned by the Council of Burgos in the eleventh century but has been practiced continually in some form into the present day, and even, in fact, that a (if not the) principle enemy of the Christian front alongside which the Grenadine army fights at the beginning of Emeralds is Pedro—another Christian ruler—all run the risk of being elided by the repeated emphasis on the term “reconquista.” Perhaps with this the novels pave the way for Anthems’ final installment, which will treat the Catholic Monarchs and the fall of Granada and, as such, will likely (and hopefully) take up the rhetorical strategizing and propaganda campaign around the completion of the Christian conquest of Spain engineered by Isabel the Catholic.
The use of the term “Moor” and “Moorish” in Emeralds and Shadows as a blanket signifier for all Muslims and all things Islamicate on the Iberian Peninsula presents similar misgivings. Cressler acknowledges on the very first page of Emeralds, prior to the text of the novel itself, that “the Muslims of Spain, regardless of ancestry, are known collectively to Europeans by the term ‘Moors,’” but fails to acknowledge the racialization of the term and the problems of its continued use. As I and many others have argued, the word “Moor” refers to a monolithic and universalized Muslim Other—an always already imagined figure, a repository of anxiety of the Christian Other, and never a real and contextualized individual (Baumgardt 115; Flesler). While it may be fitting to place the term in the mouth of the Cardinal or Papal envoy, its use in the front or end matter of the novels and in their description might be productively replaced by Hodgson’s “Islamicate” or similar nomenclature.
Overall, the first two novels in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series depict the complexity and heterogeneity of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages in vivid color. Emeralds of the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City weave well the varying shades of its immense tapestry and unfold around characters that are alluringly attractive (or despicable) enough to captivate both period specialists and a general readership. Few will want to resist Cressler’s consistent portrayal of love as spiritual experience, as antidote, and as all-powerful force for good. This series is a welcome foray into a period still underrepresented for Anglophone audiences. Its conclusion will be awaited with anticipation.
Julia C. Baumgardt, Marian University, Indianapolis
The Times of Al-Andalus: Performing Alternative Temporalities in Spanish
New Historical Novels, Festive Reenactment, and Conversion Narrative
, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global
Flesler, Daniela. The Return of the Moor. Purdue UP, 2000.
Ríos Saloma, Martín F. “La Reconquista: génesis de un mito historiográfico.” Historia y Grafía,
no. 30, 2008, pp. 191-216, www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=58922939009. Accessed 8