Sea of Faith

Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World


(Mezquita and Ayasofya)

Cordoba’s white warren of cobbled streets and courtyards stretches out alongside the dull bleached banks of the Guadalquivir River. The old town is a capital of traditional Spanish culture, and its many merchants obligingly peddle the customary flamenco party finery and plastic conquistador gear. Yet, in the heart of its historic center, Cordoba defies shopworn narrative through its proud possession of an unusual architectural marvel. The city’s magnificent Mezquita — Spanish for mosque — bespeaks another heritage, another memory, another story altogether. To those attuned to the historic struggle over Mediterranean identity, this remarkable building offers two encounters — two moments of realization that shape this present work.

The first encounter occurs quickly. Once past the patio of orange trees and through the main portal, the eye and ear are forced to adjust. Intermittent blizzards of flashbulbs lance the dimness, accompanied by the voices of tour leaders shepherding their charges through the sanctuary. But these distractions fade in their turn as the interior takes shape. Row upon row of slender marble columns, twice the height of a man, march across a cool stone floor. For all the regimentation, the effect is not one of parade-ground monotony. Quite the contrary — the exquisite paradox of the Mezquita lies in its creation of dreamlike, shifting expanses along what is essentially a grid.

The capitals of adjacent columns in each row are joined by tall semi-circular arches, their building blocks — called voussoirs — distinctive for their alternating bands of red brick and white stone. To this shock of color comes an even greater surprise of volume: surmounting each arch is a sister arch, similarly striped, creating a crescent of emptiness between the paired curves of stone that is endlessly reproduced throughout the mosque. The peek-a-boo succession of spaces enlivens perspective no matter which way the visitor turns, the candy-cane interior seeming to shift repeatedly, all at once, like a Muslim congregation at prayer.

Abd al-Rahman, the Cordoban grandee who commissioned this astonishing mosque in the eighth century CE, had first-hand knowledge of sudden changes and dramatic new perspectives. As an Umayyad, a descendant of the caliphs who had ruled the early Muslim world from their capital of Damascus, he had been forced to flee his native Syria in 750 when a rival clan, the Abbasids, seized power under the leadership of Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah. The sobriquet as-Saffah means “shedder of blood” — the Umayyads were slaughtered to a man. Only Abd al-Rahman escaped the carnage, riding the length of the Mediterranean until reaching distant Spain and making it his kingdom.

Abd al-Rahman and his successors in Cordoba built and expanded the Mezquita for the next two centuries, the last and largest of these additions occurring under the rule of Almanzor, a ruthless vizier who wielded the real power behind a puppet Umayyad prince. Aside from doubling the size of the Mezquita, all the while maintaining its striped double-horseshoe colonnades, Almanzor added metal lamps which were fashioned from the bells he had stolen in his sack of Compostela, in the northwestern extremity of Spain. That event, in 997, had entailed desecrating the shrine of a saint who would inspire a devotional frenzy in the Middle Ages. The bells of Santiago Matamoros — St. James the Moor-Slayer — hung harmless in Almanzor’s Mezquita, illuminating the pointedly unslain Moors as they thanked god for their vizier’s victory.

The story of the waylaid bells hints at the second, spectacular encounter on offer in the Mezquita. By the time a visitor reaches Almanzor’s extension, it becomes obvious that the Mezquita is and is not a mosque. Squarely in the center of the airy grove of pillars stands a Christian sanctuary, a towering Baroque cathedral that shoots through the roof of its surroundings. An aesthetic gate-crasher, the church displays a riot of figurative Christian ornamentation that could hardly be more impolite to its Islamic host. Cordoba was wrested from the Muslims by the Christians in 1236, but only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was this dizzying addition undertaken — and then, over the objections of the town fathers. When the monarch who authorized the church viewed it, he remarked ruefully: “You have built here what you, or anyone else, might have built anywhere; to do so you have destroyed what was unique in the world.”

Whatever the merits of the Mezquita’s Santa Maria Mayor cathedral — one recent detractor called it “a great blister of tiresomeness” — its existence is a tangible testament to a rivalry between faiths that went far beyond the artistic fashions of this city on the Guadalquivir. Just as Abd al-Rahman had, in his flight, crossed the entire length of the Mediterranean, so too did this rivalry, this encounter, encompass that sea and the many lands that surround it.

At the opposite corner of the Mediterranean world stands the Mezquita’s only peer in dual identity. Rising high above the Hippodrome in Istanbul, its corpulent domes and fading pomegranate red walls resembling an unruly fruit bowl, the Hagia Sophia represents the last hurrah of classical Christian hegemony. This Church of Holy Wisdom was the Emperor Justinian’s bid to awe the world and outdo the ancients: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee,” he is supposed to have whispered on December 27, 537, as he first walked under the immense dome of his just completed church. In his enthusiasm, he might also have added that his dome had dwarfed that of the Pantheon in Rome, and, by extension, the gods that it sheltered.

Today the Hagia Sophia, like the Mezquita, is an echo chamber of indistinct murmur. Slightly intimidated groups proceed through its luminous grey-gold interior listening to explanations given in a babel of tongues. On the verge of its millennium-and-a-half mark despite earthquake, sack and the occasional structural collapse (diverse calamities occurred in 553, 558, 989, 1204, 1346), the sanctuary encloses as impressive a volume of space as any bequeathed to us by the builder’s art. The crown of the dome floats some fifteen storeys above the marbled pavement, held up by four massive piers and two elephantine half-domes to the north and south. Galleries line three sides of the cavernous nave; two of these are supported by graceful marble columns, their capitals a sculpted thicket of acanthus and palm displaying the monograms of Justinian and his empress, Theodora.

For all its magnificence, the Hagia Sophia houses a dearth of artistic treasure — a few fragmentary mosaics in the galleries hint at the glory that is gone. Some of this absence can be traced to the great iconoclast controversy of the ninth and tenth centuries, when holy images were deemed heretical and thus worthy of destruction. The opponents of the iconoclasts &mdash the iconodules &mdash eventually won the day, but much of their subsequent legacy disappeared just as definitively. To understand this latter spoliation one need only note an inscription in the southern gallery of the church. At knee height, a solitary gravestone in one wall displays the name of Henricus Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who, although blind and in his eighties, led an army of crusaders in a devastating pillage of the church and its city in 1204.

Aside from this unholy irony tucked away in a gallery upstairs, the main reason for the absence of Christian iconography concerns the same rivalry so arrestingly on view at the Mezquita. Immediately on entering the sanctuary the visitor sees that the Hagia Sophia is no longer dedicated to Christ. As with the Cordoban monument, the great building accommodates a monotheistic intruder, but here the roles are reversed. Justinian’s great cathedral of 537 was transformed into Mehmet the Conqueror’s great mosque of 1453, the year in which Constantinople, as Istanbul was then known, fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Hagia Sophia became the Ayasofya.

Graced outside by four soaring minarets constructed by successive sultans, the Ayasofya remained a lodestar of Islam until 1932, when the republican government of Kemal Ataturk converted the building into a museum — an act of secularization that has not been considered in Cordoba. The building’s 479 years as a mosque left their imprint, but did not deform the space within. A few elegant additions — the loge for the sultan, the minbar (the pulpit for Friday prayers), the mihrab (the niche indicating the qibla, or the orientation toward Mecca) — are hardly noticeable under the eye-catching flourish of bold Arabic script that covers the dome. It reads: “In the name of God the Merciful and Pitiful; God is the light of Heaven and Earth. His light is Himself, not that which shines through glass or gleams in the morning star or glows in the firebrand.” Somewhat less successful, if equally hallowed in their time, are the six levhas, giant shield-like wooden wall hangings painted with six sacred names: God, Muhammad and the first four caliphs of Islam. The monograms of Justinian and Theodora look decidedly small in comparison.

Still, the architectonic marvel created by Justinian’s engineers undermined any attempt at religious palimpsest. The master builders of the Ottoman sultans used their talents on other constructions, Istanbul’s greatest Islamic temples — Süleymaniye, Sultanahmet (the “Blue Mosque”) — paying imitative flattery to the great dome of the Ayasofya. One present-day Byzantinist has compared these giant mosques of the Ottomans, of which Ayasofya was the first, to “clouds pinned down by the enormous needles of their minarets.” Yet to reach this peaceful state, these buildings first had to displace and usurp, just as the Christianity of Constantinople replaced the gods of old Byzantium and, not incidentally, just as the Mezquita of Abd al-Rahman took elements of the Visigothic church that had stood on the spot — and which, in its day, had used as its pillars the columns and capitals of the pagan temple of Roman Cordoba. The Mediterranean world, already rich in the strata of overlaid faiths and cultures, would become immensely richer from the meeting between Christianity and Islam.


The Emperor Justinian the Great died on November 14, 565. Five or six years later, according to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad was born. For a millennium thereafter, from the seventh to the sixteenth century, Islam and Christianity would contend for primacy in the Mediterranean world, a competition on dramatic and permanent display at the Mezquita and the Ayasofya. At times acrimonious, at other times harmonious, the encounter between the two creeds in the Middle Ages provides a backdrop to much of what informs, and misinforms, public opinion on present-day conflicts. Although remote in time, the principal events and locales are worth recalling — or, at the very least, ordering accurately in one’s mind. A shared history should be familiar to all, especially in a day when the idea of an inevitable civilizational clash has once again gained currency. And, as in the admirable Mezquita, the two protagonists must be seen in shifting perspectives, in order to do justice to a long history that combined both conflict and coexistence.

War, of course, forms a large part of the story. The two faiths were brandished as battle standards by the civilizations that rose and fell around the Mediterranean. The two moved men to action, inspired feats of bravery, brought god into the affairs of siege engineer and swordsman. They gave respectable cover to the workings of age-old cupidity, by making the mundane violence of a feral time seem supernatural and sublime and by extending a blessing to even the most wanton instances of warrior atrocity.

Seven battles, selected from a much larger pageant of violence, exemplify the military aspect of the encounter between Christianity and Islam, either epochal turning points in the view of scholarly consensus or events celebrated or deplored in popular historical traditions. The first two, Yarmuk and Poitiers, represent the beginnings of the encounter, a time of mutual ignorance, when the Muslim armies seemed to have arrived out of nowhere to change forever the culture of the Mediterranean. The middle three — Manzikert, Hattin, Las Navas de Tolosa — are the high-water mark of conflict, when many of the combatants saw themselves as fighting for their faith against the infidel. Religion would never play a greater role in the conduct of warfare around the inland sea than it did from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. Constantinople and Malta, the final two, occurred at the cusp of the early modern period, as the old religious justifications were slowly being eroded by the dawn of the Atlantic era and the workings of hard-headed commercial interest. By the close of the sixteenth century, the Mediterranean could no longer be called a sea of faith — of trade, or of piracy, perhaps, but certainly not faith.

The martial canvas stretches across the entire Mediterranean world. The modern locations of these battlefields are, in the chronological order in which they came on the historical stage, Syria, France, Turkey, Israel, Spain, Turkey again, and Malta. Given this geographical range, different peoples came to the fore in different epochs. Over time Turks replaced Arabs, and Franks replaced Greeks as protagonists, while Normans, Berbers, Slavs, Mongols, Italians, and Spaniards all played a role. If the names of some of their leaders have entered universal history and folklore (Saladin, El Cid), other figures, just as colorful or influential, are renowned only in a local setting (Serbia’s Prince Lazar, Turkey’s Alp Arslan).

At the same time conflict was not perpetual. Eras of coexistence and commingling — what the Spanish call convivencia — make up another facet of Islamic and Christian contact in the Middle Ages. From Cordoba to Istanbul, from Cairo to Palermo and Toledo, the course of Muslim-Christian complicity skips around the entire Mediterranean basin, just as scholars, translators, merchants and clerics wandered that world and contributed to its halcyon moments of cultural exchange. A continuum of cooperation, audible as a kind of ground tone upon which the more martial music of narrative history must be played, convivencia informed the entire medieval millennium, even those epochs that opened or closed with battle. Four great centers of convivencia — Umayyad Cordoba, Christian Toledo, Norman Palermo, Ottoman Kostantiniyye (Constantinople) — represent the workings of the medieval Mediterranean as accurately as any jihad or crusade. By combining the epochal battles with the eras of convivencia a clearer picture of the complex encounter of Christianity and Islam emerges, one that combats the selective, agenda-driven amnesia that has settled over the subject among some of the religious chauvinists of our own day.

To be fair, the obscuring of the Christian-Muslim encounter of the distant past may not solely be the result of cultural tunnel vision — that is, learning only those histories that redound to the benefit of whichever society happens to be setting the curriculum (One need only think of how little the brilliance of Muslim Spain colors the Western view of the Middle Ages). Much of our unfamiliarity arises from not knowing the Muslim sources for the period under study, those voices that lend balance to what was, after all, a two-way relationship. Thanks to the work of professional historians in the last half-century, these sources have been made available in translation, although much of their content has yet to be presented to the non-specialist reader.

And finally, no matter how resonant in the present, the shared story of Islam and Christianity in the first centuries of their interaction remains impossibly far away in time. Fortunately, the setting for this history is supremely evocative. Fernand Braudel described the magic of the Mediterranean: “Simply looking at the Mediterranean cannot of course explain everything about a complicated past created by human agents, with varying doses of calculation, caprice and misadventure. But this is a sea that patiently recreates for us scenes from the past, breathing new life into them, locating them under a sky and in a landscape that we can see with our own eyes, a landscape and sky like those of long ago. A moment’s concentration or daydreaming, and that past comes back to life.”

The great historian’s assessment is correct. Visiting old battle sites and venerable cities of the Mediterranean world, with a view to what happened there long ago, adds a sense of place that can only deepen understanding of a distant time. Whether a story of long ago is full of death or full of life — clad, as a Cordoban shopkeeper might say, in conquistador garb or flamenco finery — meaning can be gleaned from what is on the ground today and from how the past is represented. Something can even be learned from the way the wind blows through a cypress tree. The mullah and the bishop might balk, but seeing is believing.

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From Mezquita to Ayasofya then, from Andalusia back toward the distant shore, through the Balearic, Tyrrhenian, Ionian, Adriatic, Libyan and Aegean Seas, past the islands of Majorca, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Crete, Rhodes and Cyprus — the Mediterranean is an irregularly shaped historical stage, punctuated by peninsulas and bounded by three continents, a succession of intimate cove, treacherous current and terrifying emptiness, wine-red or grand bleu or the White Sea (Akdeniz, in Turkish). When in 260 BCE the sailors of the Roman republic defeated the Carthaginian navy in the battle of Mylae (Milazzo, Sicily), the victorious crews are said to have cried out, “Mare nostrum! Mare nostrum!” And it was “our sea,” or rather theirs, for hundreds of years thereafter.

But the mare nostrum of the Romans meant more than just the sea itself. As its Latinate name announces — medio terrae, “in the middle of the land” — the Mediterranean includes the territories hemming it in. By the second century CE, the dominion of the Roman Empire encompassed the entirety of this Mediterranean world, and all of its constituent societies were influenced to some degree by the Greco-Roman model of thought and societal organization. It was a formidable accomplishment and, were it ever to come undone, a precious legacy to inherit.

Inevitably, disintegration did occur, and the Mediterranean slipped the traces of Roman control. From the fourth through the sixth centuries, the principal beneficiary was the Eastern Roman Empire. Centered on Constantinople, the new Rome constructed on the site of ancient Byzantium by the Emperor Constantine in 330, this survivor of antiquity ruled much of the mare nostrum well after its former landlord had fallen. (The year of old Rome’s collapse is commonly taken to be 476.)

Over time the eastern inheritor of the mare nostrum changed the nature of the imperium. The language of its rulers was Greek, not Latin, and the prism through which the world was viewed had radically altered. A monotheistic religion became the guarantor of legitimacy. For most of its imperial centuries old Rome deified its emperors, but its Mediterranean had nonetheless accommodated many faiths. In the Mediterranean of the Byzantine Empire — as the Eastern Roman Empire came to be called by historians — a potent belief system became the handmaiden of power, and attempts were undertaken to make the peoples of the Mediterranean into a community of like-minded believers.

The faith was Christianity, a movement of Jewish sectaries that had, over the centuries, established a claim to universality. Its avatar, Jesus of Nazareth, was seen as a divine being by most of his followers, whose proselytizing would transform the spiritual landscape of antiquity. A stepchild of Judaism, Christianity as disseminated through the Greek-speaking world claimed that Jesus had been the Messiah awaited by the Jews and that the sacred books of Judaism — known to Christians as the Old Testament – were precursor texts to the teachings of Jesus. And whereas the older faith suffered a grievous blow in 70 CE, when a Jewish revolt in Palestine was ruthlessly crushed by Roman authorities and the main temple of Jerusalem destroyed, Christianity weathered fitful persecution in its earliest days to thrive the length and breadth of the mare nostrum and eventually overtake Judaism in the number of its adherents. On its adoption as the established religion of the Roman Empire, both East and West, in the fourth century (following the favored status granted it by the same Emperor Constantine who built Constantinople), Christianity had arrived, both as the arbiter of the ontologically correct and, more important, the medium through which authority flowed. A spirit of transcendent legitimacy floated over the affairs of the Mediterranean, which had become, as is often said, “a Christian lake.”

The waters, however, were not placid. The Christians of this new Mediterranean differed noisily on the precise nature of their savior. Christological debates echoed throughout the mare nostrum, causing pogroms to be prosecuted and councils to be convened. At Chalcedon (Kadikoy, Turkey) in 451, orthodox Christian doctrine was spelled out yet again: Jesus, it was decided, had had two natures, human and divine, complementary yet intertwined; moreover, Jesus was part of a trinity of divine personae. Despite the emperor’s stamp of approval on this decision, dissident Christian doctrines — Monophysitism, Arianism, Nestorianism — held sway in Syria, Egypt, Armenia, western Mesopotamia, north Africa, Spain and much of Italy. The cacophony was such that one visitor to Constantinople remarked: “Everywhere, in humble homes, in the streets, in the marketplace, at street corners, one finds people talking about the most unexpected subjects. If I ask for my bill, the reply is a comment about the virgin birth; if I ask the price of bread, I am told that the Father is greater than the Son; when I ask whether my bath is ready, I am told that the Son was created from nothing.” Adding to these violent disagreements were the oft-times contentious relations and pecking-order disputes among the early Church’s five seats of patriarchy — Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome. As the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus noted, “[n]o wild beasts were so hostile to humans as most Christians were in their savagery toward one another.”

For all that, by the middle of the sixth century, a certain Christian commonwealth had been realized. The barbarian peoples who toppled old Rome — Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths — had either been put in their place or convinced to help create a fledgling Christian civilization in the west. A Byzantine general of talent, Belisarius, had reconquered Italy and north Africa for his master, Justinian, thereby lengthening Constantinople’s reach across the Mediterranean. If a threat to this new world order were to come, it was expected from Mesopotamia and beyond, out of which the armies of the four-century-old Sassanid empire of Persia had long been venturing to skirmish with the Byzantines and their allies. Little did the peoples of the Mediterranean realize that a far greater rival was about to emerge and that their Christological talk-shop would soon come crashing down about their ears.


A new and equally cogent religious worldview arrived on the shores of the mare nostrum in the first half of the seventh century. It had originated in the Hijaz, the west-central portion of the Arabian peninsula. Its exponent, Muhammad, a merchant of the well-established Quraysh clan of Mecca, claimed to have had serial revelations from the angel Gabriel and from God, revelations destined first for the Arabs and then for humanity as a whole. These visits to Muhammad were seen to be the final in a series of casupernatural interventions that had begun with Abraham and continued through to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and Jesus. The resulting religion, Islam (meaning submission), with its divinely dictated book (Quran, or recital), took the revelation granted to the Jews — and later appended by the Christians — and incorporated it into what Muslim believers held to be the perfection of monotheism. In this new view, the two older faiths had corrupted, in some ways, the original revelation. Abraham (Ibrahim), in being the first monotheist, was the first Muslim, and the stories of his exploits and those of his descendants found in the Hebrew Bible were reinterpreted in the light of the Quranic dispensation. Thus, in a fundamental distinction from Christianity, the sacred texts of Judaism were not embraced by Islam. The message given to Muhammad, the last in a long line of prophecy, improved and supplanted all that had come before.

The Mediterranean would thenceforth witness a formidable encounter between two claimants to universal spiritual legitimacy. Mutual incomprehension marked much of their meeting, at least in its early stages. Byzantine Christians first viewed Islam as yet another heretical variation on a theme, a new voice in the shouting match over the nature of the divine. It is doubtful that the revolutionary import of Muhammad’s message was at all evident even to the most sophisticated of Christian thinkers of the time. Muslims had a more nuanced view of the Other: They were specifically enjoined by the Quran to respect Jews and Christians as people to whom valid, if woefully incomplete and partly corrupted, revelations had been given. Despite this injunction the idea of Christians as pagan idolaters was difficult to suppress. Muhammad had been tireless in stamping out polytheism in Arabia — “There is no god but God” is the pre-eminent Islamic affirmation of faith. The tenet similarly central to the Christian credo — “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit” — suggested to the Muslim, and any other non-Christian for that matter, that these quarrelsome Trinitarians might be worshipping more than one god.

When incomprehension gave way to hostility, the force of arms often prevailed, despite the message of brotherhood preached by both Jesus and Muhammad. Christianity, at first an outsider, pacifist creed, came to don the martial mantle of empire; as the Middle Ages progressed it would put on the armor of kingship, hold the pennon of crusader knight, make warriors of its monks and saints of its pirates. Islam, on the other hand, was political from the outset: Muhammad had been very much of this world, fighting battles to unify the Arabian peninsula under his rule. Each of Muhammad’s successors (or khalifa, caliph) was considered a spiritual and temporal leader whose actions in the world of the here-and-now were divinely sanctioned, however transparently political those actions might be. This supposition of supernatural guidance might have translated automatically into rigid despotism if Islam, owing to its electrifying notion of an egalitarian brotherhood of believers, did not implicitly invite questions of legitimacy concerning the person of the caliph. If a bad Muslim, or a bad general, was he a true caliph? Whereas Christological concerns were the Achilles’ heel of early Christianity, quarrels over the succession of Muhammad would dog the younger faith, raising and dashing dynasties and creating schisms.

Despite their internal divisions, both faiths thrived and profoundly influenced the thoughts and actions of kings and emperors and sultans. One historian, writing confidently in the heyday of twentieth-century skepticism, stated that “when modern man ceased to accord first place to religion in his own concerns, he also ceased to believe that other men, in other times, could ever truly have done so, and so he began to re-examine the great religious movements of the past in search of interest and motives acceptable to modern minds.” Such a breezy claim about the triumph of the secular is not as easy to make in the present day, but the idea of inquiring into the materiality of faith-based historical moments remains valid. Certainly, in the event, the encounter between Christian and Islamic societies was not exclusively of a religious nature. Sparks flew for many reasons, the greatest of which was the belief in war as the ultimate arbiter of politics and policy. Greed, geopolitical rivalry, imperial or familial ambition, individual megalomania and sociopathy — all played their customary roles as well. Internecine warfare among Christians, and among Muslims, did not cease until the questions raised by the Islamic-Christian encounter were decided. Muslim dynasties had at each other with at least as much gusto as they would reserve for wars against the infidels. In Christendom the same was true — in 1204, to return to the Ayasofya, the crusading Latin Christians, not the Muslims, sacked Greek Constantinople.

That warfare was such a central fact of life everywhere at the time should not obscure the fundamental importance of belief in the meeting between Christian and Islamic societies. From what can be gathered across the chasm of so many centuries about the character and outlook of individual historical actors, varying levels of spiritual conviction were at play. Saladin, for example, the Kurdish hero of Hattin and vanquisher of Jerusalem’s crusaders, appears to have been a genuinely religious man, deeply offended at the Frankish interlopers in what he viewed should be a Muslim-controlled Palestine. Charles Martel, on the other hand, long celebrated for saving Europe for Christianity through his victory at Poitiers, seems to have had about as much religious feeling as the average warhorse. These inferences, even those that extend to societies at large, do not diminish the very real spiritual consequences of the actions of the powerful, however earthbound their motives. We take for granted the confessional geography of the Mediterranean, that is, which countries are, in their majority, Muslim or Christian. Yet there was nothing inevitable about Turkey being overwhelmingly Muslim, or Spain overwhelmingly Christian. This geography of belief was decided in the millennium of the Middle Ages, through the contingencies of battle and the actions of men.

The ramifications of this confessional geography are difficult to overstate. Law, language, art, the role of women, the tolerance of minorities, education, the very organizing principles of a society — all were influenced by the dominant religion, whether Christianity or Islam. In that light, Judaism cannot enter this story of the Middle Ages but peripherally, since it did not rise to the imperial prominence of the other two monotheistic faiths. Jews, although important actors in the various societies informed and controlled by Islam and Christianity, played a vital but nonetheless secondary role in the unfolding of the drama, and appear more in descriptions of convivencia than in accounts of conflict. Their relegation to the periphery is in a sense paradoxical, since Judaism is central to the genesis of the other creeds. If any faith may lay claim to paternal authority, it is Judaism — consequently, the competition between Islam and Christianity can well be viewed as a sibling rivalry writ very large. Although this may not sit well with acolytes of the two junior revelations, one metaphor for the great encounter is inescapable: that of two sons struggling over an inheritance. That this inheritance — the mare nostrum — far exceeded the actual grasp of the father matters little, for the monotheism first expressed in Judaism is as much a legacy of Mediterranean antiquity as the writings of Plato and Aristotle. From the seventh century on, as the two brothers quarrelled and composed and quarelled again, a world, an inheritance — and a god — were at stake.