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Medieval Spain: Arabs & Jews in Cultural Embrace

Historical Background:


In this venomous age of Arab-Jewish hatred, it is easy to forget that there once was another age in which Jews and Arabs lived shoulder to shoulder in cultural, political & social harmony.  During the Golden Age in medieval Spain, Jews played prominent roles in politics, art, commerce and all major areas of social discourse side by side with their Muslim brethren.  Jews and Muslims did not hate each others religion.  On the contrary, their respective theologians learned from each other & used the wisdom learned to enrich their own religions discourse.


Jews were prominent advisors to Arab leaders.  They were the financiers who helped the viziers run the great Spanish cities of Toledo, Seville and Granada.  Jewish poets (Yehuda HaLevi, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Abraham Ibn Ezra) wrote some of the finest poetry to emanate from this region & historical era.  In their poetry, they describe the great culinary feasts at which both Arab & Jewish poets & musicians entertained guests with their elegant & cosmopolitan artistic productions.


Only in 1492, with the rise to power of Spains Christian monarchs, Ferdinand & Isabella, did the Golden Age come to an abrupt end with the Expulsion of the Jews.  With the Inquisition that followed, Christian Spain hounded, harassed and tortured the remaining secret Jews (Marranos) instituting one of historys most hateful periods of Jewish persecution (until the Holocaust).


The end of the Golden Age and the exile of Spains Jews was not the end of a Jewish life in Arab lands.  Jews have lived throughout the Mediterranean region since before the time of Jesus and up to the present day.  Many of the lands they lived in were Arab (Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Yemen and Bosnia).  And in each of these places, Jews lived in peace with their neighbors.  Indeed, they made extraordinary intellectual contributions to their societies.  Both Jewish & Arab philosophers & scientists helped preserve Greek & Roman texts by translating them into Arabic.  Without their work, many of the great Greek & Roman thinkers would be unknown to us today.  Such cultural cross-pollination continued unabated until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.  This event helped sour relations between Arabs and Jews and led hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews to leave their ancestral homelands in places like Morocco, Yemen and Iraq for Israel.


Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon) was one of the worlds greatest philosophers, scientists & theologians, who lived in 13th century Egypt.  He translated & preserved ancient texts, codified the entire Jewish halacha (a legal system like Muslim sharia) in redactions that provided the basis for all subsequent Jewish legal discourse, and he engaged in serious medical research.  In addition to his contribution to Jewish thought, he was an eminent physician, whose practice treated both Jews & Arabs patients without regard to religion.


So before today's Arabs & Jews jump to the worst possible conclusions about each other; before they assume that the other wishes them dead and has always done so; before they lift their hands to slay the other in hatred; each group should remember that there once was a time when they together were a beacon of hope & learning to the world.  And if there once was such a time; then there can (and will) be such a time again.


Sephardic Music:

Many recordings capture the wonder of Jewish music in Arab lands.  One of the best-known exponents of this music is Hesperion XXI, formed in the early 1970s by students at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland led by Jordi Savall.  As a Catalan, he became interested in medieval Spanish musical traditions and formed the group, naming it after the Greek word for the Iberian peninsula, Hespera or West.  Its Secular Music of Christian & Jewish Spain: 1450-1550 (Virgin Veritas x 2) is one of the early recordings in the field.   It was first released in 1976 with brilliant liner notes by Professors Israel Katz, Joseph Silverman and Samuel Armistead (all quotations that follow are from these notes) that give a complete & comprehensive overview of not only the music on the recording, but all of Sephardic musical tradition.  Unfortunately, the original recording is out of print and its liner notes unavailable (unless youre lucky enough to own it).  The Virgin reissue has execrable liner notes.


Jews first came to Spain in the first millennium B.C.E. along with Phoenician traders.  Throughout the centuries, the Jewish population evolved from the first small communities to sizeable populations in the major cities and indeed, they contributed to the mainstream of Hispanic culture already in the Visigothic era, but particularly during their participation, with their Christian and Moslem neighbors, in the great religious and cultural symbiosis of the Spanish Middle Ages.


The recording's title is misleading considering that the Jewish music covered on the album really derives from post-1492 (post-Expulsion) Jewish musical traditions in countries throughout the Mediterranean basin.  In fact, there is no known piece of music that can authenticated as written before the Expulsion.  We only have versions of these songs that derive from Sephardic communities in the 17th, 18th AND 19th centuries.  So the notion of a canon of medieval Spanish Jewish music is false.  We assume, but cannot prove decisively that these later songs have their roots in medieval Spanish Jewish communities.


Hesperion chose the twelve musical pieces on this recording from Isaac Levys Chants Judeo-Espanols (London-Jerusalem, 1953-1973).  Their aim has been to provide a proper context for the performance of the chosen melodies and texts, one which would coincide with musical practices prior to the Expulsion.  The result is a sincere attempt to realize a performance practice that was known to exist on the Peninsula.  It would be incorrect to state that the tunes represent a pre-expulsion Hispanic tradition.  They can only be regarded as representative of the tradition as it exists today: a rich amalgam of diverse cultural influences.  In other words, this music represents not just the musical experience of Jews in medieval Spain, but also the influences of every other Arab country they lived in subsequent to the Expulsion.


Recently, Hesperion XXI released Sephardic Diaspora (Alia Vox 9809), an account of Jewish music that focused on Arab lands of the eastern Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Bosnia, etc.).  Several songs here were also included on the earlier Secular Music recording, but there is new material as well.  Last year, Hesperion toured the U.S., giving us an opportunity to hear the extraordinary musicianship of Savall & Montserrat Figueras, his wife & the groups vocalist.  Hers is a penetrating & resonant alto voice, which provides the listener with a lush musical experience.  She vividly displays the true characteristics of the native balladeer, adept at improvising around a skeletal melody, adding richly ornamented lines and embellishments from strophe to strophe.  A Sephardic musical scholar recently complained to me that Figeuras style was aria-like, saying that no Sephardic female singer would sing this way.  This scholar finds her singing style and Hesperion's approach to the music to be inauthentic.  I will leave this debate to the scholars.


There are other worthy recordings which well represent the music of this period including . La Rondinella's Sephardic Journey: Spain and the Spanish Jews and Songs of the Sephardim: Traditional Music of the Spanish Jews (Dorian 93171 and 80105).  The latter contains one of my favorite (and one of the best known) Sephardic ballads, Los Bilbilicos:


The nightingales are singing

in the flowering tree.

Those who sit under the tree

are suffering from love.


The rose blooms

in the month of May

But my soul withers away

suffering from love.


Come more quickly, dove

more quickly come with me

Come more quickly, my love

run and save me.


As I listen to this glorious music, I tell myself: Do not despair.  The current hatred and violence cannot long prevail.  Mutual respect between the adherents of these two great faiths does not have to be long in coming if both would only remember and honor their own history.


There are several online references showcasing Hesperion XXI:

  1. an interview with Jordi Savall in which he briefly talks about the differences between the two recordings reviewed here (
  2. contains a comprehensive biography of Savall and detailed discography of Hesperion XXI and Savall.

 This article first appeared on Rootsworld ( in slightly different form.

Copyright Richard Silverstein, 2002