Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice

The Ornament Of The World

Stream now or tune in Saturday, Dec. 12 at Noon & Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2

Largely built by the Nasrids in the 13th-century, Grenada's Alhambra is one o...

Credit: Courtesy of Kikim Media

Above: Largely built by the Nasrids in the 13th-century, Grenada's Alhambra is one of the great achievements of Islamic civilization in Spain and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1984.

The Story Of Medieval Spain, A Rich And Complex Period When Muslims, Christians And Jews Shared A Vibrant Culture

“The Ornament Of The World” explores a story from the past that is especially relevant today: a remarkable time in medieval Spain when Muslims, Christians, and Jews forged a common cultural identity that frequently transcended their religious differences.

From 711, when Muslim armies swept across the Mediterranean, until 1492, when Christian power was consolidated under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the era lasted almost 800 years.

The Ornament Of The World: Preview

Traveling through Cordoba, Granada, Seville and Toledo, we retrace the 800-year period in medieval Spain when Muslims, Christians, and Jews forged a common cultural identity that frequently transcended their religious differences. This remarkable story reveals what made this rare and fruitful collaboration possible, and what ultimately tore it apart.

During this period, known as La Convivencia, the intermingling of these three groups led to a vibrant shared culture of arts, architecture, science, music, and letters, raising Spain to dazzling heights of glory and power.

A fascinating journey through the cities at the center of the story — Cordoba, Seville, Toledo, and Granada — the film reveals what made this rare and fruitful collaboration possible, and what ultimately tore it apart.

Abd al-Rahman’s Flight

In 750 the long-standing rulers of the Muslim empire, the Umayyads, are overthrown. The Abbasid family, who stage the coup, invite them back to the palace as a gesture of peace. But it’s a ruse. The Abbasids slaughter nearly all the Umayyads except Abd al-Rahman, a young prince, who escapes the onslaught and becomes the most hunted man in the Muslim empire.

Blending evocative location cinematography with dramatic animation, the film is based on the book by Maria Rosa Menocal and directed by Michael Schwarz.

In today’s world, when Christianity, Judaism and Islam often seem more inclined to violent conflict rather than peaceful cooperation, few remember the period when the three monotheistic faiths lived together in relatively harmonious, mutually enriching cultures.

"The Ornament Of The World" explores the complexities and contradictions of this misunderstood era through a series of portraits of major figures.

The David of My Age

Samuel the Nagid, who would become a poet and one of the most influential Jews in Muslim Spain, was discovered by the royal court of Granada as he worked in a spice shop in Malaga. He soon rose to the position of Vizier of Granada, second in power only to the king. His writing commenced the golden age of new Hebrew poetry.

With stories as unexpected as they are riveting, they include Jewish and Christian thinkers writing in Arabic; Muslim conquerors building empires where Judaism and Christianity flourish; and a variety of poets, philosophers and religious leaders who helped define our ideas about religion, philosophy and human nature, asking questions that we continue to ask today.

The Sacking of Cordoba

The leader of the Muslim south, Al-Mansur, conducts raids against the Christian kingdoms of the north. The attacks unite his opponents against him, and prompt him to recruit conservative Berber mercenaries to strengthen his forces. But the Berbers are troubled by the growing materialism around them. When Al-Mansur’s death leads to a succession crisis in Cordoba, they sack the city.

Filmed on location, "The Ornament Of The World" highlights stunning architectural wonders such as the Great Mosque of Cordoba, medieval synagogues in Toledo, the Alcazar in Seville, and the Alhambra in Granada.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kikim Media

Abd Al-Rahman I began construction of the Great Mosque in 784, building over the ruins of a small Visigoth church. It would be expanded over the centuries to become a landmark of Islamic Spain but converted to a Roman Catholic church after Cordoba returned to Christian rule.

Changing little over the centuries, the historical areas of these cities — with their cobbled streets, ancient mosques and tiny synagogues — bear powerful witness to the people who constructed them.

The film also draws upon a rich trove of arts and artifacts and features illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, tiles, objects and paintings preserved at the Spanish National Archeological Museum in Madrid and elsewhere.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Oronoz

In the 13th century, culture in Toledo continued to flourish under Alfonso X, known as Alfonso the Wise. One of his greatest literary productions, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, includes many scenes of Christians, Muslims, and Jews working together.

Interviews with the late Maria Rosa Menocal and leading scholars in medieval Spain, Judeo-Islamic studies, art and architecture, Middle Eastern Studies and more bring valuable insights to the film.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kikim Media

The Courtyard of the Maidens. In the mid-14th century, Muhammad V sought asylum at the Alcazar in Seville, the home of Pedro I. The two men shared an appreciate for each other's architectural taste and accomplishments. After Muhammad returned to the Alhambra, he built the Court of the Lions which is highly influenced by Pedro's courtyard.

Eight hundred years after Muslim armies first invaded Spain, the period of La Convivencia drew to a painful, prolonged and bloody close. By the early 16th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forced both Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity, leave Spain, or be slaughtered.

It was an ending so traumatic that it has obscured the story of a time and place where Muslims, Jews and Christians created a common culture, one whose legacy still continues today.

“Culture is powerful and often contradictory to political and ideological narratives,” said Menocal. “It tells us a different story. Sometimes it tells the more lasting and important and enduring story.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kikim Media

Andalusian music reached new heights under the Taifa Kingdoms. These three contemporary musicians keep that tradition alive. They play the Muwashshaha, a form of music sung in Arabic.

Watch On Your Schedule:

This film is currently available to stream on demand with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.


Directed by Michael Schwarz and produced by Kiki Kapany and Schwarz. Original Music is by Jamshied Sharifi and animation by Brian O’Connell. Director of Photography is Vicente Franco. Editors are Gail Huddleson and Rhonda Collins.


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Every weekday afternoon, we’ll send you our top TV picks so you can hear about upcoming programs and never miss your favorite shows.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.