Quicksilver diplomacy

In the years of Ziryab’s influence, the Emirs of Andalusia established so much independence from Baghdad that at last, Abd al-Rahman III called himself a Caliph, not an Emir. Emir means something like Prince; it implies high but subordinate rank. Caliph was the top: claiming the status of a companion of Mohammed.

As Andalusia became its own western Caliphate, its rulers received ambassadors and kings at the palace complex outside Cordoba. Medinat al-Zahra was an enclave of luxury. Visitors of the time have left some impression of how it contrasted with the rest of the world in the 9th and 10th centuries.

As we’ve already noted, Cordoba was well-supplied with water from Roman aqueducts, so it was a splash of green in an arid place. Naturally green places are often rainy; if you’ve ever traveled around the Big Island of Hawaii, you know what I mean. The dry side of the island is really desert-like except in the resorts where water has been brought in. There, all of the tropical plants from the rainy side can be maintained, but the rain never falls. It’s always a perfect day for golf on the dry side, as long as imported water keeps the grass green. Medinat al-Zahra made exactly that impression: it was a triumph of engineering over nature, creating an artificial paradise. Fountains large and small channeled the water to public and private gardens.

In the reception hall of the Caliph, visitors saw two astonishing wonders. First, the hallways leading to the hall were carpeted with Persian rugs. The notion of a cloth on the floor, just to walk on, was entirely new to Northern Europe, though I am not sure if Constantinople had ever used carpets. It’s possible that they didn’t; it’s possible that carpeting was one of the genuine innovations of the desert tribes who now ruled. Their tents had long used carpets to distinguish indoor from outdoor; with temporary houses, they had put their effort and money into rich carpeting and cushions, not into stone walls or windows. When they placed their thick, soft, brightly patterned carpets along the floors of a pillared stone hall, two traditions of wealth met.

In the reception hall itself, the Caliph had a large silver or gold basin placed as a fountain, but filled instead with mercury. Both Persia and Spain had natural deposits of cinnabar, the red ore of mercury. Since ancient times, it had been crushed and smelted to separate pure mercury from its red pigment. Vermilion was always in demand for paint and dye. Mercury didn’t have as many practical uses then; they knew that it was highly toxic, but it was a fascinating thing to play with. Its modern chemical symbol, Hg, stands for Greek hydra-gyrum, “silver water.” It’s also been called quicksilver, where “quick” means alive. Mercury moves as if it’s alive; it looks like water but has entirely different properties. A cannonball can float in it.

A basin of mercury was an opulent show of wealth. People from barbarian places had never seen it; if they had ever seen even a little of it in a bottle, they had certainly never imagined a wide basin full of silver water that moved as if it were alive.

The reception hall was luxurious in many ways; it had gold and silver fixtures, it was richly carpeted, and it had a raised platform where the Caliph sat on cushions. When an ambassador or other guest walked in, a servant tapped the basin of mercury so that it began to move. Reflected light danced all over the room, like the effect of a disco ball. In the 9th and 10th centuries, there was nothing like it.

All this display had a practical purpose, as well as being fun for the Caliph to own. In the 9th and 10th centuries, alliances were fluid. They were not based in religion; the Crusades were still unimagined. Constantinople sought to ally with Cordoba against Baghdad, at one point. The descendants of Charlemagne just as often allied with Cordoba as fought against it. The frontiers were filled with ambitious cut-throats who needed to be over-awed by Cordoba’s power. As long as the basin of mercury was backed by the Spanish Caliph’s private mercenary armies of Slavs and Africans, it served to knock a lot of nonsense out the heads of upstart warlords in Barcelona, Marseille and Zaragoza.


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