It is Christmas Day in the year 710 AD in Toledo, capital of Visigoth Spain. King Wittiza has been dethroned, and the impulsive and tyrannical Roderic has been installed as monarch of Spain with the help of the Catholic clergy. Even so, Bishop Oppas, the deposed king’s brother, is to remain as the senior ecclesiastical figure in Spain during King Roderic’s reign.
The beautiful Florinda is the daughter of Count Julian, the governor of Sabta, a Christian enclave in Muslim North Africa. She is madly in love and engaged to the charismatic and courageous Alfonso, son of the deposed king. But she has been moved into King Roderic's palace where she is the target of the new king’s lustful desires, even though he is married. And Alfonso has been kept as a retainer in the palace so that his comings and goings can be monitored.
Will Florinda manage to thwart the lascivious advances of the depraved king? Will Alfonso be able to foil the king's designs? And how will Florinda's father, Count Julian, react when he learns of Roderic's evil plans towards his daughter? What role will Bishop Oppas play -- torn as he is between loyalty to Visigoth Spain and faithfulness to his values and his family?
The fast-paced story, full of twists and turns, unfolds as the Muslim armies in North Africa are poised to cross the Straits of Gibraltar and gain their first European foothold in what came to be called the land of al-Andalus. The Conquest of Andalusia is also the story of the battle for Florinda’s virtue and happiness ....
The events in this novel take place just before and during the conquest of Spain – or Al-Andalus to the Arabs -- in 710-711 AD (91-92 AH). This led to an Arab presence of almost eight centuries in the Iberian Peninsula until the last piece of Spanish territory under Islamic rule (Granada) was re-conquered in 1492. By the time, the Umayyads had assumed the Islamic Caliphate in 661AD (41 AH) and had established their capital in Damascus, the Islamic conquests had reached as far East as India and China, while in the West most of North Africa had been conquered. The native Berber tribes converted to Islam, but the Christian Byzantines still retained most of the ports. The major unfulfilled goal of the Umayyads was to conquer Constantinople and destroy the Byzantine Empire – a feat they attempted three times without success during their almost one hundred year reign. The conquest of Andalusia was of lower priority – and it seems to have happened more as a result of local North African initiatives than of any centralized plan. It was, after all, undertaken with local resources and limited Arab material support. The commander of a joint
Berber-Arab army, Tariq Ibn Ziyad, was himself a Berber.
Two centuries before the events depicted in this novel, the Visigoth rulers had conquered the Iberian Peninsula and had been converted to Christianity by Arian bishops. Later, when Arians were declared heretics, the Visigoths submitted to the Roman Catholic Church. When the novel opens, the Council of Bishops had forced the Jews, who held predominant positions in trade, crafts and professional services, to either convert or be banished. Meanwhile, the Visigoth dukes and counts who ruled the provinces under an elected king, exploited the indigenous population and slaves to farm the land and supply menial and military services. This socio-political context sets the stage for conflict and conspiracy between the Visigoth aristocracy and the King, between Christians and Jews and between Catholics and Arians.
The novel depicts the political climate and social mores of Spain at that time. One of the more distinctive attributes of Zaidan’s approach is the continuous and perceptive commentary and reflection on political and social organization and particularly on human behavior, emotions, and motivations under varying external conditions. Zaidan also analyses the power of a common religion or language in unifying people from different cultures – a theme found in many of his other works. Last but not least is the depiction of the Jewish role in aiding the Arab invasion. At a time when Jews in Visigoth lands were being compelled to convert to Christianity or forced into exile or executed, Jews under Islamic rule were able to preserve their religious heritage and thrive in exchange for a tax. Arab rule proved to be a golden age of tolerance and achievement for the various communities living in Spain until the Christian re-conquest of Spain in 1492, an event that led to the Inquisition and the expulsion of both Jews and Muslims.
The novel was translated by Professor Roger Allen who is the Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics, School of Arts & Sciences, Professor of Arabic & Comparative Literature, and Chair, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania. He served as President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America in 2009-2010.
Professor Allen, a noted scholar and teacher of Arab literature and an experienced translator of many Arab literary works, has also provided an illuminating analysis of Zaidan as a historical novelist in his Afterword as well as a Study Guide for students.
In his Afterword, Professor Roger Allen assesses Jurji Zaidan’s role in the development of the Arabic historical novel. He writes: “Within the context of any study of historical approaches to the development of the novel genre in Arabic, the central role that Jurji Zaidan played in the early phases of that lengthy process clearly needs to be revisited and indeed revised, as part of a widespread scholarly re-evaluation of the cultural movement in the 19th century that has been underway for the past decade or so.”
The Study Guide for students deals with a number of questions about the author, the evolution of the Arabic novel, the historical context and the events of in the novel; it also includes a list of books for further reading. Questions include the following:
1. Who was Jurji Zaidan?
2. What is a historical novel?
3. What is the early history of the Arabic novel?
4. What historical period does The Conquest of Andalusia cover?
5. What kind of social, political and religious picture does Zaidan present of Spain before the Muslim conquest?
6. Who are the novel’s main characters?
7. Why were the smaller Arab armies successful in their invasion of Andalusia?
8. How did the Jewish community help the Arab invasion? Why was it in their interest to do so?