Chapter One: Sunrise in Andalusia (Continued...)
MOSES BEN MAIMON, known in Hebrew literature as the Rambam and in Western culture since the Renaissance by the Greek Maimonides, was born at one o'clock in the afternoon of March 30, 1135, into an era of splendor. Spain, under Islamic rule, was enjoying a true "Golden Age," and the Jews, more than during any other time in history until the twentieth century, fully participated in it. They took part in politics, culture, science, medicine and commerce. Cordoba, a city of legendary beauty and sophistication, was home to many ethnic groups and cultures, together creating a rich, exciting atmosphere. Some Arab geographers claim that almost half a million people resided in the city and the suburbs surrounding it, though the real number could have been anything between that and a hundred thousand. Even the low estimate is quite large for any city at that time. Cordoba had hundreds of mosques, thousands of public baths, and numerous well-stocked libraries and observatories. Schools flourished and well-equipped hospitals served as centers for the study of medicine. As part of Islamic Spain, Cordoba accorded its citizens full religious freedom. Regarding Jewish studies, Cordoba slowly replaced the Babylonian cities of Sora and Pumbaditha as the center of Jewish learning. Strolling among the sparkling fountains and tiled pools, relaxing in the well-tended gardens, the inhabitants and the many visitors enjoyed paved streets, illumination in most public areas, and in many private homes, even indoor plumbing. As a center of industry and commerce, the city granted good employment to all who needed it, at all levels of education, and extraordinary luxuries to those who could afford them.
Trade was the core of Islamic economy, and included much travel, both on land and sea. Muslims viewed travel for the sake of learning as even more important than for commerce, as it was highly recommended in the Koran. Jews felt similarly—traveling for the purpose of learning was also highly regarded by the Talmud. However, they also traveled for commerce, political reasons and for creating marriage alliances with Jewish families overseas. Generally, Jews preferred sea voyages because traveling by ship did not desecrate the Sabbath, but during winter they had to travel by land caravans. Land travel was more expensive because the caravan had to stop for a full day every Sabbath. A wealthy Jew often owned houses in three different countries, and credit was established between commercial families, facilitating all forms of trade. Christians, Muslims and Jews traded freely with one another, sharing a truly cosmopolitan society. Correspondence and travel books from this era, such as the Arabic Book of Roads and Kingdoms and the Jewish book The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, show how ordinary and even common such distant travel was, despite dangers from weather, pirates, robbers and local
Such extensive commercial travel allowed constant intellectual exchange among the Jewish communities. Hebrew was their common language, so letters from various rabbis in distant lands could resolve matters of law and ritual. A commercial traveler often carried such letters with him. Rabbi's Maimon's correspondence, or responsa, as these letters were called, were eagerly awaited in many communities.
The location of young Moses' childhood home is debated. Most likely he was born in the Juderia, the Jewish quarter. No stigma was attached to living in this section. Jews preferred to live in concentrated neighborhoods, where they could exercise mutual protection, but they experienced no restrictions or any form of segregation. Christians and Muslims also lived in groups, for the same reason.
At the wealthier parts of the Juderia, each house was usually built around a central courtyard decorated with fountains, pools and stone columns. Ornamental and fruit trees flourished, ground covers and flowers draped the stonework, growing luxuriously and supplying coolness and beauty. Despite the traditional Jewish objection to any visual images that may suggest idolatry, some luxury homes belonging to courtiers even contained statues of animals such as lions and deer, showing how strongly the three cultures intermingled.
A Jewish household of a wealthy man like Rabbi Maimon was comfortable, well-furnished and afforded excellent food, including such luxury items as good wines, exotic fruit and costly spices. Valuable carpets from Egypt and Persia covered the stone floors, wall hangings and tapestries decorated the walls and beautiful textiles were purchased for household use and clothes. The rooms were filled with bowls of lead crystal, ivory carvings and beautiful ceramics—some produced locally, some imported. The lady of the house, and often the man too, wore clothing made of colorful silks, accessories of fine leather and precious jewelry. Private libraries included not only traditional Jewish texts, but extensive collections of works of philosophy, medicine and science and many works of ancient and contemporary poetry. Books were widely available, as paper was introduced into the Islamic world in the ninth century, by Chinese traveling merchants.
Stay tuned -- next Wednesday we'll have the last part of Chapter One...