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Medieval and Byzantine History Medieval and Byzantine History Forum - Period of History between classical antiquity and modern times, roughly the 5th through 16th Centuries


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Old December 8th, 2017, 04:06 AM   #1

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European conquest of Sicily and al Andalus: an act of historical vandalism?


In the 11th century, the advanced and enlightened Muslim societies of Sicily and al Andalus were conquered by barbarous and uncivilized barbarians from the north: the Normans and Castile.

Córdoba was famous as a centre of learning and education. Al Hakam II had a large library. Knowledge in the fields of "medicine, mathematics, astronomy, botany" exceeded the rest of Europe.

In a scene comparable to the fall of Rome, these invaders who were seen as barbarians ransacked the works of a more developed civilisation, throwing the regions they conquered into a new dark age. The Spanish Inquisition was barbaric. Centuries of progress were undone and the regions declined for centuries under tyrannical misrule.

By 1330, Palermo's population had declined to 51,000, compared to 350,000 In it's Arabic heyday. Meanwhile Cordoba had 450,000 to 1 million inhabitants in its Islamic golden age. It's decline was even more spectacular. After centuries of misrule, by the 18th century it was reduced to just 20,000 inhabitants.

The Norman/Castilian conquest of both places was a calamity and an act of historical vandalism that set civilisation back by centuries. Discuss!

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Old December 8th, 2017, 04:34 AM   #2

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The Caliphate of Cordoba self-imploded without any external help. The only significant conquest in the 11th century was Toledo - and that was by treaty. Castilla was pushed back to the gates of Toledo by the Almoravids.

Alhaken's libary was largely destroyed by Almanzor as he took power in the late Xth century, as part of a policy to win the minds of the more radical holy men. He 'conquered' the army, he 'conquered' the treasury and he 'conquered' the islamists - job done, total power. What remained of Alhaken's library was destroyed by the Almoravids when they conquered Al Andalus. Although I have read that some elements survive or survived in Morocco.

I know we read a lot about Cordoba, but I think some of it is misplaced in time. Both Abderraman III and Almanzor seem quite terrifying. Alhaken seems to have been somewhat friendlier and more 'cultured' - and had the benefit of an all-powerful empire in place, with the wisdom to use it
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Old December 8th, 2017, 04:42 AM   #3

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Thanks John, I appreciate the historically interesting and informative response. I had overlooked the role of the Almohads - by thinking too much about the state of Cordoba perhaps.

So maybe the real division is not a question of Normans/Castilians versus the Emirate/ Caliphate, but one between a relatively liberal ruler style versus a more fundamentalist one?

Would that be a fair historical assessment? For example I understand the Holy Roman Empire rule in Sicily may have been far worse than Normans like Roger of Sicily.

But weren't the Normans initially just mercenaries? Did they grow more civilised over time? Does this explain Roger II in the 12th century? And why did things change? It seems "northern" rule became worse after the 13th century, sadly.
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Old December 8th, 2017, 11:45 AM   #4

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I wouldn't call Sicily a prosperous Muslim society. It had only been wrenched out of Roman control in the 900's and the Romans retook it in 1042, or at least the Eastern coast and forts. There was a lot of Islamic influence but it was still predominantly Southern Italian and mostly Orthodox Christian.
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Old December 8th, 2017, 12:27 PM   #5

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Sadly the Greek Orthodox seem to have been eliminated from the 13th century on just like Arabs under a wave of Catholic persecution. The demise of Byzantium is yet another example of cultural vandalism, when the Fourth Crusade destroyed much of the heritage of that civilisation too.
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Old December 8th, 2017, 12:36 PM   #6
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Feudal arms


Feudal armies were not very large; they would not have conquered Sicily or Andalusia were it not for significant under-performance on the part of the Muslims.

If Palermo were as well off as advertised; I doubt an army as small as the Normans would have been able to take it. Palermo must have been in decline by the time the Normans got to it; and Palermo and Andalusia proably weren't as well off as they were in the 900s.

The Islamic golden age had frankly ended by the 11th century; and the Muslim world was too big to generalize. If there was an Islamic golden age, it would have been more like 760-1000.

Quote:
Originally Posted by SufiMystic View Post
In the 11th century, the advanced and enlightened Muslim societies of Sicily and al Andalus were conquered by barbarous and uncivilized barbarians from the north: the Normans and Castile.


Last edited by Piccolo; December 8th, 2017 at 12:42 PM.
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Old December 8th, 2017, 12:52 PM   #7

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The Muslims acted exactly like the Normans about Sicily ... they raided the coasts of the isles coming from the see for years and years [the Byzantines organized some expeditions to face them, but without great results].

We could make a list of this raids ... 652, 669, 703, 728- 734 ... Muslims attacked the coasts of Sicily like Normans would have done centuries later.

And despite the truce signed by the Sicilian "Patrizio" Constantine and Al-Aghlab [805 CE], the Muslim pirates kept on attacking and raiding the Sicilian coasts. Al-Aghlab's son ordered, in 812CE an invasion of the isle, but he failed [because of a storm, if I remember well].
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Old December 8th, 2017, 01:31 PM   #8

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The Romans lost control due to the usurpation but regained control, although the Arabs slowly conquered the Island from that point forward, but they weren't kicked off the Island until like 930 or so. They came back after Basil II's death in the 1040's and retook up to Taormina and Syracuse, but lost it again with the beginning of the Norman conquest.

And don't forget despite being a Feudal Army, the Normans were absolutely ruthless. They had a pretty fair quality advantage and strong leadership.
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Old December 8th, 2017, 02:09 PM   #9

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Quote:
By 1330, Palermo's population had declined to 51,000, compared to 350,000 In it's Arabic heyday. Meanwhile Cordoba had 450,000 to 1 million inhabitants in its Islamic golden age. It's decline was even more spectacular. After centuries of misrule, by the 18th century it was reduced to just 20,000 inhabitants.
Those population figures are monumentally over inflated. 350,000 people is almost closer to the population of all Sicily circa 1000ad than it is to the population of 11th Palermo, which reasonable higher estimates place at around 100-150,000 before the Norman conquest and 80-100,000 after. Regarding Cordoba, the city likely had a population of some 225,000-300,000 people at the turn of the millennium, which is still, when the goal of the estimate isn't to make up for feelings of inadequacy to Rome, positively huge by any pre-modern, let alone medieval, standard.

Remember that cities weren't, and aren't, just abstract numbers that increased or decreased in proportion to the sophistication of a civilization, they were organic collections of people that only grew, or even sustained their current population, if there existed both the means and incentives to do so. Cordoba reached the peak population outlined above because there were enough jobs, there was enough food, enough water, and enough of an incentive for peasants to emigrate from the countryside that, despite disease and the occasional crop failure, it was able to sustainably function at that exceptional level. The city, like its rough equals in population Alexandria, Antioch, Cairo, and high medieval Paris, reached these heights in large part because of the creation of jobs, expansion and concentration of the patrician class, and influx of food from the countryside brought about by its status as the long-term capital of a great power.

What it did not have, on the other hand, is any special draw or crutch that put it on the level of Rome or Xi'an. There was no reason for the population of Hellenistic Alexandria to be 2 or 3 hundred thousand after 3 centuries of being the unmolested capital of a great kingdom but the population of Cordoba to be double or triple that, let alone 1,000,000, after only 2, meaning it almost certainly wasn't.
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Old December 8th, 2017, 02:50 PM   #10

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Not sure why Rome is mentioned. It was a backwater at this period. Population below 20,000. It had declined into complete irrelevance by the Middle Ages.
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