Abu al-Quasim, Father of Modern Surgery


English: Map of the Iberian Peninsula in 1000....
English: Map of the Iberian Peninsula in 1000. Русский: Карта Пиренейского полуострова в 1000 году. Español: Mapa de la peninsula ibérica en el año 1000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Al-Andalus was the Islamic realm that covered the whole of modern Portugal and Spain and even reached in to the south of France at one stage. In the year 711CE, Muslim armies fanned across the Iberian peninsula and as with north Africa and the Levant, Iberia became part of the Islamic world. For three hundred years, most of the peninsula remained under the rule of the caliphate with its capital at Cordoba. It then fractured in to rival ‘taifas’ before falling under the Almohads, who we would probably term ‘fundamentalist’ now.

The tenth century was arguably the high point of Islamic – or Moorish – rule in Al-Andalus and it’s been estimated that about two thirds of the population was Muslim by this time. Jews and Christians had a lesser status and paid the jizya tax but there was an interesting cross-fertilisation between the three religions with cities like Toledo and Seville having churches, synagogues and mosques rubbing up against each other. Al-Andalus produced some fine thinkers including Abu al-Qasim and the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides. When the crusaders did eventually take Al-Andalus, they also imbibed the contents of its libraries and schools – which undoubtedly influenced Christian thinkers in the later Middle Ages and in to the Renaissance. I’ll be blogging more about Al-Andalus in the weeks ahead.

Moorish Society

Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi (936–1013), also known in the West as Abulcasis, was a Moorish physician who lived in Al-Andalus, Spain. He is considered the greatest medieval surgeon to have appeared from the Islamic World, and has been described by some as the father of modern surgery. His greatest contribution to medicine is the Kitab al-Tasrif, a thirty-volume encyclopedia of medical practices. His pioneering contributions to the field of surgical procedures and instruments had an enormous impact in the East and West well into the modern period, where some of his discoveries are still applied in medicine to this day.

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Dealing with the violent bits in the Bible

I was at a christening two years ago when a priest in an Anglican church read a passage from the Old Testament.  It was the story of how God’s annointed people, the Israelites, totally destroyed a rival tribe taking no prisoners and laying their villages waste.  “It’s an allegorical story of course,” he lisped while I tried to suppress my laughter.

In the crusader era, nobody thought the bloodier passages of the Old Testament were allegorical. On the contrary, they were an object lesson on how to deal with the wicked enemies of Christianity – ie, the Saracens.  For Saracens, read Canaanites and every other tribe that opposed the children of Israel.

However, there have been tender souls throughout the Christian era who have found the violence in the Bible a little hard to handle.  And different solutions to the conundrum have been offered.  In the earliest years of Christianity, there were conflicts between two groups called the Ebionites and the Marcionites.  The former believed Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies and was essentially a Jewish figure.  The followers of the thinker Marcion of Sinope decided that the Old Testament was such a ghastly, blood drenched text that the Christian god could not possibly have inspired it.  The solution: lose the Old Testament entirely.

In the second century AD, this was fiercely opposed by Origen – who is not a saint because he thought Jesus was inferior to God the father (tut tut in later Catholic eyes).  Along with the fifth century theologian Augustine, he argued that these were illustrative stories.  Sure the Israelites went off and smote people in foul ways that would have landed them in a tribunal at the Hague in our own time….but these tales are simply pointing us towards better behaviour.  So – for example – the Israelites finding and killing five kings in a cave – it’s not what it looks like.  No, the five kings (Origen tortuously explains) are the five human senses which dwell in the cave of our mind.

That didn’t wash with the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century – including a couple of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  The writer and fervent supporter of the American revolution, Thomas Paine, even said that the god of the Old Testament was so abhorrent that he had little by way of moral virtue.  He should be completely discarded.

In a book out last year called ‘Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the bible’s violent verses‘ – Philip Jenkins says it’s pointless trying to ignore the insanely vicious nature of some of the bible.  He argues that the bible is actually more violent than the Koran, it’s just that Christians have gradually eased away from the tribal conflicts that obviously fired up some of the book’s many authors.  Parts of the Old Testament are borderline genocidal and Jenkins asks us to try and look at the Israelites through the eyes of the Canaanites – and imagine how scary they would have seemed.

Several blogs give almost amusing examples of the psychotic behaviour of God.  For example – he leads his people out of captivity in Egypt.  A joyous occasion for the world to be sure.  Unless you happen to be King Og of Bashan and his people whom God took a dislike to and ordered the Israelites to slay en masse not leaving a single person standing.  Expanding in to Palestine, God ordered his people at various times to wipe out entire populations including the citizens of Jericho.  The prophet Samuel instructed Saul to kill all the Amelakites….and he meant all of them.  Men, women, children, babies in arms, herds, flocks, camels, asses, etc   Quite how a camel had offended God is anybody’s guess.

Or how about Isaiah on what should happen to the good folk of Babylon: “All who are found will be stabbed, all who are taken will fall by the sword, their infants will be dashed to the ground before their eyes…”


How Portugal nationalised the Knights Templar

Templar artworkAs we all know, on the fateful day of Friday the 13th in 1307 – the pope condemned the Knights Templar and orders went out to round up the masters and knights.  King Philip IV of France pressured Pope Clement V in to banning the two hundred year old military order, which was already on the wane after failures in the crusades in the east.  Jerusalem was lost to the Saracens forever along with most of the crusader kingdoms set up in the late eleventh century and twelfth century.

But the ban on the Order was not enthusiastically embraced everywhere outside of France.  England seems to have dragged its feet and the tortures and executions that characterised the French suppression of the Templars were not present in other kingdoms.  Portugal in particular seems to have felt a debt of gratitude to the Templars – had they not been in the vanguard of driving back the Moors, the muslim rulers of southern Portugal and Spain?

thumb-350-567826Portugal was also a smaller and less wealthy kingdom than France and probably more pragmatic in outlook.  The Templars had been a wealthy Order operating across frontiers – so why not embrace all that talent (and money) in some way?  King Dinis of Portugal set up a new state sponsored organisation called the Order of Christ and duly enrolled the old Templars in to it.  Pope John XXII recognised the new order and it was eventually headquartered in Tomar – where the Templars had been based up to their suppression.

A hundred years later, its Grand Master would be a son of the then Portuguese king.  This man was Henry the Navigator who would instigate two hundred years of Portuguese ‘discoveries’ from Brazil to India and give birth to a vast maritime empire.  The cross of the Order of Christ would be emblazoned on the sails of the caravels that plied the seas from Goa to Salvador.  It’s often been said that Portugal’s mastery of international trade and commerce in this period was in no small way due to the Templar spirit imbued within the Order of Christ.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the revenues of the Order of Christ were huge.  Four hundred and fifty commanderies oversaw annual revenues of a million and a half livres.  The papacy often believed it had the right to appoint new members of the Order, a move resented by the Portuguese kings who insisted that the Order fell entirely under their control.  Bizarrely, this dispute still rumbles on and on the Vatican website, the Holy See today indicates that it is reticent to appoint new members of the Order even though it would like to.

In other kingdoms, the estates of the Templars often transferred to the Hospitallers or in Spain, they went to the Order of Montesa.

The Ninth Gate – how to make your own devil’s book

Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) shows his 17th-c...
Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) shows his 17th-century copy of The Nine Gates to Dean Corso (Johnny Depp). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have never seen the Ninth Gate – Roman Polanski’s mystical thriller set in a world of antiquarian booksellers, then view it.   In a nutshell, a book called ‘The Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows’ exists in three copies only.  Originally written in 1666 by Aristide Torchia and based on a work called the Delomelanicon, a heretical script possibly crafted by Satan’s own hand.  The three copies are held by characters in the movie called Victor Fargas, Boris Balkan and the shadowy Kessler Foundation.  Johnny Depp plays a bad boy of the book world called Dean Corso who is paid by Balkan to find the other copies.  It transpires there are differences between the three books – they are not completely identical – and it’s no pun (well it is actually) to say that the devil is in the detail.  Needless to say that the devil arrives in a very Polanski form….and I shall say no more.

The movie is based on a 1993 book called The Club Dumas and this website helps you to make your own copy of  The Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows – provided you understand the diabolic risks involved.

Here is the trailer of the movie which will flesh out all of the above.   The video is disabled to play instantly – just click on the underlined sentence about watching on YouTube and you will be taken straight to it.

You can still see the movie in parts here but I suspect it may be taken down soon.

This video analyses the esoteric meaning of the Ninth Gate in the book mentioned above.

Eurabia is nothing new – Arab Europe 1,000 years ago

An imaginary flag of a futuristic Islamic Euro...
An imaginary flag of a futuristic Islamic Europe (i.e. = Eurabia) 

In certain American and European newspapers, magazines and chat show hosts – like Glenn Beck – there are claims that Europe is being ‘islamified’ and that very soon we will be living in an entity they call ‘Eurabia’.  Well, I have news for these columnists, shock jocks and blow hards – we’ve been here before.  Parts of Europe were under Islamic rule for centuries and I’m talking about parts of Europe that subsequently became almost a hundred per cent Christian.

Spain and Portugal are the classic examples but Sicily, Greece, the Balkans and even southern France (in the period after the initial invasion of Iberia in 711 AD) were under the sway of Islamic emirs and ruled effectively by the Caliph – first in Damascus and then Baghdad.  The evidence is strongest in the architecture you can still see all over southern Europe but also in the language.  For instance, in Spanish – one can exclaim ‘ojala’.  In Portuguese, the word is ‘oxala’.  In front of a sentence it means ‘I do hope…” and then whatever you hope.  The word is undeniably derived from the Arabic ‘In sa Allah’ – God willing.

From 711AD, Spain and Portugal were mainly under Arabic/Berber Islamic rule.  There’s no ifs or buts about it.  And most of the large cities like Cordoba, Silves, Valencia and Seville were in the parts of the peninsula most effectively controlled by the Islamic authorities.  What is most controversial is that modern scholarship indicates that by 1000AD, most people in what is now Spain and Portugal were muslim.  Whether they were converted or had come over with the invading armies.  And I’m talking about 70 to 80 per cent of the population.

Likewise, Sicily still had a large Byzantine Greek community after it was invaded by the Arabs but by the time the Normans were conquering it in the eleventh century, most of the population was praying in a mosque.

Last year, I went to Cordoba for the first time and it’s simply incredible to see buildings constructed in the ninth and tenth century that were way ahead of anything being built at the time in northern Europe.  The great mosque of Cordoba is the most splendid example of this and was built from the eighth century onwards but more or less completed by 987AD under the rule of Al Mansur.  It’s not difficult to appreciate how the wealth and opulence of the Islamic world must have turned the heads of many Christians in the so-called Dark Ages – a term now largely out of favour.

Here are some photos I took of the Great Mosque in Cordoba and just think to yourself – this was built a thousand years ago…

Inside the columned hall of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba
Gold gate at Cordoba Mosque
Courtyard of the mosque in Cordoba

Why so much blood and gore in Roman Catholic churches in the Latin world?

Porto, Portugal

I’m half Portuguese and for years I’ve watched English friends of mine recoil at the sight of the blood and gore that is to be found all over statues in churches in southern Europe. My great grandmother’s crucifix has pride of place in my study in London and it’s a gore fest. Why is it then that the Latin world loves to see Jesus, the saints and martyrs covered in wounds, cuts and bleeding?

Porto, Portugal

The first thing to say is that at the time of the Knights Templar between the 12th and 14th centuries, it may have also been a common sight in northern European churches. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century demanded simplicity and a cull of graven images, seen as being sinful as per the Ten Commandments. So an English church in 1150, say, may have had equally gory paintings on its walls subsequently whitewashed during the Reformation.

Click HERE for an article on the discovery of lurid murals in an English church where William Shakespeare was born. While England has got used to a more restrained and buttoned up form of Christianity over the last five hundred years, southern Europe has continued with life sized representations of Jesus and the saints being scourged or executed.

Spain is home to some pretty gory Christian icons and this life sized Jesus was one I discovered in the Roman/medieval city of Segovia.   The same city includes a Templar church built in the shape of the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem.

Christ in death in the church of San Martin, Segovia
A close up image of the same image of Christ

The Johannite heresy and the Knights Templar

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ
English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We tend to regard Christianity as a ready made religion with in-built concepts like the Trinity, the divine and human natures of Christ co-existing and the redeeming of sins through the great example of the crucifixion.  But all these concepts were hotly fought over in the early centuries of Christianity.  The Trinity was seen as a lapse in to polytheism, the human nature of Christ was spurned by Gnostics while the idea of a purely divine messiah was rejected by the Ebionites.  And the idea of God in the form of his Son being actually crucified was rejected by others who still called themselves Christians.

One variant of Christianity – or offshoot – even denied that Jesus Christ was the saviour.  Indeed he was seen as either a lesser figure to John the Baptist or an outright imposter.  Far from blazing a path for somebody to come after him, John was the redeemer and the baptism of Christ was the act of a superior bestowing a gift to an inferior.  Incredibly, there are still people adhering to this view in the Middle East today.

When the Templars were in ‘outremer’ – the Holy Land and crusader territories in the Levant – they undoubtedly encountered many of the eastern variations on Christianity.  Unlike the west, religion was disputed and debated over much more vigorously in the east.  From the legalisation of Chrisianity under Constantine to the Middle Ages, the clash of views resulted in murderous feuds between patriarchs in Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople.

Most Christians, though, would have outrightly condemned the Johannites or ‘Saint John Christians’ as the Portuguese called them when they encountered such people in the Arabian gulf during their sixteenth century age of navigation.  But it’s been conjectured that the Templars, far from condemning this obviously heretical view – embraced it.  Thus the head of the creature called ‘Baphomet’, said to be held by the Order, was the head of John the Baptist.  Look at the similarity between the two words – Baphomet and Baptist – say supporters of this view.

This rather gnostic veneration of John the Baptist as a great teacher – a view sometimes called Mandaeism – was the great secret of the Templars, it is alleged.  A proponent of this theory is Lynn Picknett and here she is explaining it in more detail.