Once upon a time, on the the Iberian peninsula, in what is now southern Spain, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in harmony, and the mild tension between them led to creativity. It became a kind of garden for the flowering of art, architecture, business, ideas, music, a (often grudging) respect for other religions — and a nest for the Renaissance.
People lived side by side, living under Islamic rule for some 7 centuries. But then it soured.
Suddenly, it was Muslim faction against Muslim faction. The Pope deciding to try and clear Spain of Muslims. Key cities were burned to the ground. Whole libraries burned. Thousands died. And so did this early example of what can happen when there’s diversity and tolerance. Meanwhile, what happened to the Jews towards the end of that period was a mini-foreshadowing of what would happen in the 20th century under Germany’s Adolph Hitler.
Is this a fairy tale? Something perhaps about a parallel universe?
Not at all — and today at 9 p.m. (but check your local listings since it may be shown at a different hour) you can see that such a place existed, in another simpler, yet in some ways more complex era.
The place: PBS. The event: the national premiere of “Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain” (check your local listings as times may vary). The production company: Unity Productions Foundation, which gave us “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet” in 2002.
Award-winning director Rob Gardner (Islam: Empire of Faith) has crafted a superb, compelling true tale about another world — one so long ago…but one that provides some warnings to the present world. Because he shows how when there was diversity, creativity flowered and the various communities coped, lived side by side, and blossomed. If it was not quite the quintessential consensus society, it wasn’t a constantly confrontational society, either.
But once the absolutists stepped in — an early version of “my way or the highway” (with the stab of a sword cut in) — the result was upheaval and everyone lost something.
He traces how confrontation led to consensus, an early version of societal “tolerance” and how extremism reared its head — and ate the tolerant society for lunch.
PBS is a strange bird in the United States. It’s supported by public funds and donations. It provides the kind of thoughtful, world-class programs that other countries have on their mass television network screens. And to some, it has a kind of boring image so at times its ratings challenged.
But this is ANYTHING but boring. The two hour-documentary blends expert “talking heads,” with masterful recreations, film footage of breathtaking Islamic architecture and scenes of Spain itself for a highly accessible and supremely satisfying mix.
It may seem strange to say MUST SEE TV is a documentary about Islamic Spain so many centuries ago — but it is just that.
TMV gives Cities of Light 10 stars on a scale of 10.
Be sure to also read Michael van der Galien’s extensive review HERE. Also read his comprehensive interview with executive producer Michael Wolfe HERE.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.