Reviving the Many Wonders of Medieval Muslim Spain

John D. Cressler
John D. Cressler

As a non-fiction author, professor and scientist, I come to the noveling business from a unique vantage point. During the last decade, I published five non-fiction books, ranging from graduate level textbooks to books for general audiences. And yet my true passion has always been historical fiction.

With my latest book, Silicon Earth, a non-fiction book on nanotechnology for general audiences, I managed to arm-twist my editor into allowing me to experiment with a breezy and informal, fun, non-textbooky voice (no small feat, since I was writing for the oldest publisher on the planet, Cambridge University Press!). Silicon Earth worked very well and I absolutely loved the process of finding and honing a narrative voice. When I finished Silicon Earth in 2009, I thought, ‘yep, time to try my hand at fiction.’ And so I did.

Emeralds of the Alhambra, my debut historical novel, is an interfaith love story set in medieval Muslim Spain, and was just released by Sunbury Press.

So how did I settle on medieval Muslim Spain? Well, I have always loved European history, and one magical day I stumbled upon 10th century Muslim Córdoba (located in Andalusia, in southern Spain). The more I explored the more amazed I became, particularly since this was a period of history so rich in its message for our modern world and yet so little appreciated by most people.

As all would agree, our modern world is stained with the blood of religious conflict and fanaticism, and yet somehow we managed to forget that for hundreds of years in medieval Spain, Christians, Muslims and Jews found a way to live together in relative peace, sharing languages and customs, whispering words of love across religious boundaries, embracing a level of mutual acceptance and respect unimaginable today. Together, they launched one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. I wanted to break open this largely forgotten period in a compelling way that would engage a broad audience, and settled on a love story set during a key point in medieval Spain’s history.

Alhambra front cover large thumbThe location for Emeralds is the resplendent Alhambra Palace, in Granada, Spain, during the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369), a time when, remarkably, Muslims took up their swords to fight alongside Christians. What is inside the covers of Emeralds? Forbidden love, romance, battles, conspiracy, politics, religion, art and architecture.

But, first and foremost, Emeralds is a love story centering on the relationship between William Chandon, a wounded Christian knight brought to Granada, and the Sufi Muslim princess, Layla al-Khatib. As Chandon’s influence at court grows, he becomes trapped between his forbidden love for Layla and his Christian heritage, the demands of chivalry and political expediency. Chandon and Layla must make choices between love and honor, war and peace, life and death, choices which ultimately will seal Granada’s fate as the last surviving stronghold of Muslim Spain.

Emeralds is relevant to everyone, young or old, male or female, people of all cultures, people of all religions. Sound bold? Well, I think 99.9% of people would agree that a more peaceful planet would be an excellent idea. While the triggers for human conflict are inevitably complicated, one thing is certain – religious conflict is inked all over the historical record, and since 9/11 especially, religious conflict has been at the forefront of this conversation. Emeralds is a darn-good-read, yes, but it speaks to two fundamental truths: 1) peaceful coexistence is demonstrably possible between religions, and 2) love has the power to transform the human heart and thereby cross cultural and religious boundaries in many beautiful ways. These are the BIG themes that most interest me, and they are themes which I believe will resonate with readers.

Emeralds is the first in a series of at least three novels dealing with medieval Muslim Spain. Book two is called Shadows in the Shining City, and is set in late 10th century Córdoba, at the height of the Golden Age of the Umayyad Caliphate, a remarkable period of cultural and intellectual enlightenment smack in the middle of the European “Dark Ages.” This period is also the pinnacle of convivencia (coexistence), the time when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in harmony. I also tell the story of how it all began to unravel and why. So Anthems of al-Andalus is not a trilogy in the traditional sense, with one book following the next chronologically. Book three will come back to Granada, but in the late 15th century at the fall of the Nasrid Kingdom. There will, however, be a linkage between all three books.

I am presently 450 pages into Shadows, and expect it to be released in the summer of 2014. All of my novels will be love stories.

Dr. John D. Cressler spent 8 years at IBM Research and 10 years at Auburn University before joining Georgia Tech in 2002.  Emeralds of the Alhambra is the TED talk presenter’s debut novel.  Connect with John on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and GoodReads.




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