Thursday, 21 July 2016

Iberia – part 6: Fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba

Originally published in Slingshot, issue 290, September/October 2013 - the magazine of the Society of Ancients

During the reign of Emir ‘Abd ar-Rahmān II (d. 852 AD), the consolidation of Umayyad power in the south and the centre of the Iberian Peninsula had so far not extended to the inhospitable Christian north. Here the pattern was much more one of negotiation with independent potentates than of imposing Umayyad authority.  However, attempts were made to regain lost lands like Pamplona and Barcelona. Furthermore, the Muslims launched numerous raids on Christian lands, which usually took the form of a sā’ifa (summer expedition).  In general destruction and booty were the main objectives of such “razzias” (from the Algerian Arabic ghāzya).  In both eastern and western Islamic lands they were also an important sign of leadership and authority over the Muslim community.  Thus, their purpose was as much ideological as military.  In the meantime, the Christian communities on the northern side of the religious frontier were now consolidating into recognisable political units. The most important of these was the Kingdom of Asturias with its capital Oviedo.

Viking attacks

‘Abd ar-Rahmān II’ rule was marked by Viking attacks on Lisbon, Cádiz, Medina Sidonia, Niebla and Seville in 845 AD.  Driven away from Lisbon by the local governor, the Vikings had sailed up the Guadalquivir and attacked the unwalled city of Seville with 80 ships. Having looted and pillaged the city and finding that the river was not navigable past Seville, they took to land and were decisively defeated in a battle by the Umayyad armies.  Some of the Vikings remained and settled in the Guadalquivir area, where they took up cattle breeding, converted to Islam and lived blameless lives, selling cheeses to the Sevillianos.  After this incident Seville was walled and the city established a naval arsenal, which would frustrate later raids in 856 and 966 AD.

Muhammad I (852-886 AD)

When ‘Abd ar-Rahmān II died in 852 AD, he is said to have had fifty sons, which did not much for the stability and factional equilibrium within the family as these male heirs approached maturity.  Whereas many favoured prince ‘Abd Allāh to become his successor, the palace eunuchs had a different candidate in mind.  In order to secure the appointment of their own favourite Muhammad they smuggled him into the palace dressed as a woman, before his father’s death had been officially been announced.  Once in the palace, Muhammad summoned the wāzirs, the servants and the mawāli (clients) and had the oath of allegiance taken to him.  By dawn the coup was over and the new emir set about choosing his new ministers.

Whereas less than a century before such a succession issue would have been decided by battle, the government of al-Andalus had now become a palace-based bureaucracy.  Muhammad was 30 at the time of his accession and he was to rule for 34 years.  He is said to have been pious and erudite, and especially able at arithmetic. Inheriting his father’s completely incorruptible hājib (chamberlain), the new emir appointed widely respected wāzirs.

There were also black clouds on the horizon, however.  Once Muhammad started to rely heavily on Hāshim bin ‘Abdal’Azīz, certain Muslim leaders became determined enemies of the regime, as they regarded this man as the evil genius that corrupted the entire administration.  But this was only one of many reasons why during Muhammad’s reign the emirate would see an almost complete collapse.

Political and Financial Problems
Another issue was that large numbers of Christians were becoming Muslims.  These new converts sought to play a role in the politics of al-Andalus and inevitably came up against the oppositions of established elite groups like the Umayyad mawāli and other Arab and Berber leaders.  It is estimated that by the mid-ninth century more than 70 per cent of the villages in the Córdoba area were Muslim.

The mass conversions to Islam also had substantial negative financial consequences, as under the Muslim system people who converted no longer had to pay poll tax, which was an important source of income for the emirs.  What made the situation even more precarious is the fact that new converts did not have to pay the hashd to be exempt from military service, whereas descendants of the Syrian junds did.  This was a sure recipe for tension and it may have been the reason for Muhammad to relieve the Cordobans of the obligation to do military service.

Moreover, during the famines of 865-8 and 873-4 AD, the collection of tithes had to be abandoned, which led to further fiscal problems.  To fill the treasury, Muhammad organised various summer expeditions against the Christians.  Barcelona was raided in 856, Alava in 863, Old Castile was ravaged in 865 and in 867 AD Alava was the objective again.  In 858 AD the Umayyads launched an assault on Pamplona and managed to capture King García and held him for ransom.  Two years later they organised another raid on the Christian Kingdom and captured García’s son and heir Fortún, who was taken prisoner and subsequently spent twenty years as a hostage in Córdoba.


Almost immediately after the death of Muhammad’s father ‘Abd ar-Rahmān II, Toledo had revolted once again. It had driven out the governor appointed by the late emir and begun to launch attacks on the territory of Córdoba.   The rebellion became more dangerous when the Toledanos were joined by many of the local Berbers, who entered into alliance with the Christians, and King Ordoňo I of Asturias sent a force to help them.  Though the rebels were defeated by Muhammad’s army on the Guazalete about 30 km south-east of Toledo, the victory was not decisive and in 870-1 AD the Toledanos were described by Ibn Hayyān as being “between rebellion and obedience”.  In 873 AD they asked for peace and were given terms which hardly intruded on their autonomy.  Hostages and part of the tithe were to be sent to Córdoba, but the governor was to be chosen by the people of Toledo themselves.  When Muhammad tried to control the Toledanos by garrisoning fortresses like Qal’at Rabah (Calatrava) and by seeking alliances with neighbouring Berber chiefs, the Toledanos looked for outside support, notably from the Banū Qasī of the upper Ebro valley and Alfonso III of Asturias.

Also the Lower March around Mérida showed its old separatist tendencies again under the leadership of the muwallad (son of a convert to Islam) ‘Abd ar-Rahmān bin Marwān al-Jillīqī (“the Galician”).

In 868 AD the emir launched a surprise attack on Mérida.  After some brisk fighting the city was taken and its walls slighted, whereupon the leading horsemen and their families were relocated to Córdoba to become part of the Umayyad army.  The Umayyad governor Sa’īd bin al-‘Abbās al Qurashī was installed in the citadel of Mérida, while the rest of the city was destroyed. This marked the end of Mérida as an important urban centre.

Alcazaba of Badajoz, built by the Almohads in the twelfth century

In 874/5 AD al-Jillīqī and his companions managed to escape and settled in Badajoz, still a village at this time.  Here, in defiance of the ruler in Córdoba, he built mosques, a bath and walls for his new stronghold.  In 876 AD he was able to capture the leader of the army that had been sent against him and sent him as a goodwill offering to King Alfonso III.  This was a massive humiliation for Córdoba and in response Muhammad launched a raid against Galicia to punish the King of Asturias for supporting the rebels in Badajoz.  In 884 AD Burgos was laid waste.  A year later, Muhammad’s army managed to drive al-Jillīqī out of Badajoz and burned the town.

After the death of Muhammad in 886 AD, al-Jillīqī appeared to be powerful enough to raid the Emirate as far as Seville. When he died four years later, his little state partially disintegrated until Badajoz was finally reintegrated into the Emirate of Córdoba in 929/30 AD.
Faced with the dangerous disturbances in Toledo on his accession, Muhammad had entrusted the affairs of the Upper March around Zaragoza to the local strongman of the Banū Qasī family, thus formalising the latter’s position in the area.  Following a bloody power struggle, the Banū Qasī in their turn were kept in check by other leading families in the area, such as the Berber Banū Sālim, the muwallad Banū ‘Amrūs of Huesca and the Arab Tujībī family, who would eventually supplant the Banū Qasī in all their territories.

Area controlled by ’Umar bin Hafsūn

Rebellion of ’Umar bin Hafsūn

By far the most threatening of protest movements against Córdoba, however, was the rebellion of ’Umar bin Hafsūn, because it occurred in the heartland of Córdoba.  Though some sources claim that one of Ibn Hafsūn’s forbears was of Visigothic stock, this is a doubtful assertion.  From 881 AD Ibn Hafsūn had found a base in Bobastro (modern Ardales), in the remote Guadalhorce gorge.  Here he had become the focus of a growing band which took to raiding the surrounding small towns and also came to dominate the hinterland of Málaga.
When Muhammad died, his son al-Mundhir inherited this situation.  Unfortunately, the latter died two years alter aged about 46, possibly the victim of a murder by poison planned by his brother ‘Abd Allāh.

‘Abdallāh bin Muhammad (888-912 AD)

Al-Mundhir was succeeded without apparent conflict by his brother ‘Abdallāh, though some sources accuse him of fratricide.  ‘Abd Allāh is described as pious to the point of asceticism, but also morose, depressive and deeply suspicious.  The new emir only led one military campaign himself, but for the rest only seems to have left his palace for the chase and to go to the mosque, having a covered way constructed so that the people could not see him.

Purges and Disintegration
In 891 AD the new emir was responsible for the murder of his eldest son Muhammad.  In 895 AD another son of his, al-Mutarrif, was accused of conspiring with the rebels of Seville and was murdered after defending himself in his house for three days. ‘Abdallāh also had two of his own brothers killed.  Unprecedented in the history of Umayyad al-Andalus, these purges were probably a response to the impatience within the ruling family at the emir’s ineffective leadership.  Umayyad authority was almost universally rejected as one place after another was taken over by local lords, whereas the alliances between the usurpers cut across ethnic and social boundaries.

The rejection of Umayyad authority was also a reaction against the systematic taxation developed by ‘Abd ar-Rahmān II (died 852 AD).  The usurpers appropriated the dues which previously went to Córdoba for their own use and built strongholds from which they exercised control over the areas that they had taken over, often passing this power from father to son.

Toledo, Sevilla and Zaragoza
While Toledo managed to maintain its independence, there were conflicts between Valencia and Toledo.  In 887 AD Mūsā bin Dhi’l-Nūn led an army of 20,000 – much larger than any Umayyad army of the period – against Toledo.  He defeated the Toledanos and took a vast amount of booty back home. After this defeat Toledo looked to the Banū Qasī of the Ebro valley for protection and members of the family appear as governors in the available documents.  When in 899 AD Ibrāhīm bin al-Hajjāj became undisputed ruler of Seville after a dinner-time massacre of his rivals, Córdoba acknowledged him as malik (king) of Seville and Carmona, in exchange for some revenues, military support during the summer campaigns and a promise not to help the emir’s enemies.

Al-Hajjāj even established a small court in the city, had a standing army of 500 and appointed the qādī and the sāhib al-madīna (city prefect).  In the north, Zaragoza had obtained new masters, and neither the Banū Qasī, nor the Umayyads would be able to remove them for a period of 150 years.  The power of the Banū Qasī declined rapidly in the early tenth century, largely because of their internal divisions. Their position of power would be taken over by the Tujībis.

Ibn Hafsūn’s conversion
At the height of his power, the rebel Ibn Hafsūn, who had been accepted as the leader of the muwallad faction, raided the countryside around Córdoba and attempted a direct assault on the city in 891 AD.  In 899 AD he announced that he had converted to Christianity, after which many muwallads abandoned him. His conversion meant that compromise with Córdoba was no longer possible, as in Muslim law apostasy is punishable by death and it was inconceivable that he could be recognised as governor.  On the other hand, there is no indication that Ibn Hafsūn had any plans to overthrow Arab rule.

Ruling by Pillage
Amidst this chaos, Umayyad rule essentially survived thanks to a small band of dedicated mawāli and some members of the Umayyad family, such as the Banū Abī ‘Abda.  These had had long connections with the Umayyad family and were indefatigable leaders of military expeditions.  With an army of only 300 soldiers, who were said to be the equal of any army in al-Andalus, they drove back rebels and collected taxes.  By then systematic taxation and administration had almost completely broken down and only happened when the army visited.  Thus, the government system had become one of ruling by pillage and the Umayyad army was no more than a marauding band living off the country, while its main objective had become simply to feed itself, not to uphold the authority of the state.  Such was the situation in al-Andalus when ‘Abd ar-Rahmān III became emir.

The Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba (929 – 1031 AD)

‘Abd ar-Rahmān III

Emir from 912-29 AD

When ‘Abd ar-Rahmān III became emir in 912 AD at the age of only 21, he faced a difficult situation, with central authority weakened beyond a short radius around the capital.  Born on 7 January 891, he had reddish hair, a fair skin and blue eyes like many of his family, due to the Frankish and Basque blood on his mother’s side.  We are told that he used to dye his hair black to make himself look more like an Arab.  This was only one of several ways in which he was skilled at the business of what we would call today projecting an image of himself.  He seems to have been the first of his line to have employed an official historian to record his deeds.
It is unclear why his grandfather ‘Abdallāh had selected him, rather than two of his remaining sons to become his successor from his earliest days, but his choice would appear to be perfect.  Neither a brilliant general, not a charismatic leader, ‘Abd ar-Rahmān was a methodical and determined politician who systematically restored power of Córdoba, until the Umayyads had much more extensive power over al-Andalus than ever before.  He worked carefully, but with remarkable speed, systematically aiming to destroy the power of the many local lords, some of whom controlled a large town like Seville, others just a single castle on a remote rocky Andalusi pinnacle.
The problem of questionable and divided loyalties was tackled by recruiting mercenaries, mainly Berbers from North Africa, but also contingents of Turks, probably from Ifrīqyia (North Africa) to augment the units of slave soldiers.  Skilful in organising systematic sieges, ‘Abd ar-Rahmān used blockade, economic warfare by e.g. the cutting down of fruit trees at Badajoz and Toledo, and siege engines. 
The Caliphate of Córdoba at around 1000 AD
At Bobastro, the hide-out of the brigand Ibn Hafsūn clan and at Toledo he built permanent siege camps in 927 and 930 AD, respectively, which had their own sūqs (markets).  His determination and ability to maintain a siege meant that no fortification in al-Andalus could resist him forever.   Conquered fortresses were either destroyed or occupied by a garrison. The same happened with the strongholds of larger cities like Seville, Toledo and Badajoz.  Those strongholds that were persuaded to surrender were treated well and its leaders given posts in the Córdoba military.   Even Hafs bin Hafsūn, the last surviving son of the infamous ‘Umar bin Hafsūn, and one of ‘Abd ar-Rahmān’s most bitter opponents, was allowed to enrol in the army, when he finally surrendered Bobastro in January 928 AD.

Another important element of ‘Abd ar-Rahmān’s policy was jihād, or holy war.  He himself led five expeditions between 917 and 939 AD and he took care to have the heads of his slaughtered enemies delivered to Córdoba for public display on the al-Sudda gate.  Though some of the campaigns were launched to protect Muslim communities on the frontier against Christian advances, the purpose of these raids was not so much to conquer Christian Iberia, but to enable him to keep in touch with important people who never usually came to court and to demonstrate his leadership.  As the area under control expanded, so did the revenues. To administer his expanding assets and lead his armies, ‘Abd ar-Rahmān reorganised the structure of government, building an effective bureaucracy and a network of loyal provincial governors, in which family ties were very important.

The rise of the Ghilmān
During ‘Abd ar-Rahmān III’s rule, a large number of pagan Slavs and other northern Europeans were captured in the campaigns of the Franks and exported to Iberia. These slaves were often referred to as ghilmān (singular ghulām, “young man” or “page”) and the term was used throughout the Muslim world from the ninth century onwards to describe slave soldiers, usually of Turkish origin in the east and Slavic in the west.  These ghilmān would rise in importance as the caliph’s most trusted military assistants, which led to the partial eclipse of members of the ruling Umayyad family.   Some Umayyads clearly felt dissatisfied about this development and in 921 AD an uncle of ‘Abd ar-Rahmān’s was executed for aspiring to the emirate. In 936 AD a descendant of the Umayyad Caliph Marwān I was put to death for stirring up the lords of the Upper March against the caliph.
Ghilmān with a youth
The rise of the ghilmān led to the reduction in the importance of the Syrian junds as sources for military power. The tenth-century traveller Ibn Hawqal, however, coming from the eastern world, was not impressed by the qualities of the Andalusi soldiers and had especially a very low opinion of their horsemanship.  He states that ‘Abd ar-Rahmān was never able to enrol more than 5,000 horsemen for his army.

Caliph from 929-61 AD

By 929 AD ‘Abd ar-Rahmān III had restored Umayyad power to the peak it had reached under his great-great grandfather ‘Abd ar-Rahmān II. It was against this background of this achievement that he decided to adopt the title of caliph and the regnal title of an-Nāsir li-Dīn Allāh (“Defender of the True Faith of God”).  So far the Umayyads of al-Andalus had been restrained from claiming the title by the general feeling that there could be only one caliph (khalifa means “Successor to the Prophet”) in Islam at the time, and the ‘Abbasids held on to this honour.  However, since the ‘Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad had slid into chaos during the reign of ‘Abd ar-Rahmān III and the caliphs themselves had lost all effective power, the title appeared to be up for grabs.
Moreover, in 909 AD the Shi’ite Fatimids, whose leader claimed to descend from Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, had proclaimed themselves caliphs, too.  Old enemies of the Umayyads, they had captured Qayrawān, the then capital of Tunisia, and established a powerbase in Morocco.   If the Fatimids could claim the title, then why should the Umayyads not be able to do so, if only as a counterbalance to their enemies across the strait?   However, this Caliphate would only last a hundred years, of which the last twenty years would prove to be extremely unstable.
Fortified by the legitimacy his new title conferred, ‘Abd ar-Rahmān was determined to extend his authority. Only once, in 939 AD, did he suffer a severe setback when his army was crushed by a coalition of Christian armies led by King Ramiro II of León in the so-called battle of Simancas, 10 km to the south-west of modern Valladolid.  The confrontation took place at un unidentified place called Alhandega in Spanish (from al-Khandaq ”the ditch” in Arab) on the Duero in the north of the Peninsula.  After this defeat, in which he was also severely wounded, ‘Abd ar-Rahmān III never visited the north again and the frontier lords were allowed their previous independence in return for defending the Muslims against the Christians of the north.

Intervention in North Africa
After the Fatimids had risen to power in Tunisia, the rebel ‘Umar bin Hafsūn caused the Fatimids to be proclaimed in all the mosques under his control. The threat came nearer when the Fatimids of North Africa attacked allies of the Umayyads in Nekor, 300 km east of Ceuta. In 922 AD the Fatimids sacked Sijilmāssa and Fès, where a pro-Fatimid Berber chief took over.  ‘Abd ar-Rahmān sought allies among rival Berber chiefs and established bases on the African coast.  The isle of Mallorca was occupied as a buffer against a potential naval invasion.  Next Melilla was taken in 927 AD and, more importantly, Ceuta in 931 AD (two cities in Morocco which are still Spanish enclaves today) and ‘Abd ar-Rahmān was proclaimed ruler of the Magreb and Mauretania in 932 AD.  Tangier fell in 951 AD. Although ‘Abd ar-Rahmān would not be able to hold on to his conquests, except for Ceuta and Tangier, his North African policy had been extremely successful, having preserved his country from invasion at very little cost. Moreover, he had established a network of alliances which his son al-Hakam was to use to establish a widespread dominance over Morocco.

The caliph’s prestige led to exchanges of embassies with other powers. In about 950 AD there was an exchange of ambassadors with the Emperor Otto I (938-73), also known as Otto the Great, founder of the Holy Roman Empire.  Otto wanted ‘Abd ar-Rahmān’s cooperation in the suppression of the Muslim pirates who had occupied Fraxinet(um), modern La Garde Freinet, near Saint-Tropez in Provence, and had raided far up the Rhône valley. The caliph also entered into diplomatic relations with the  Byzantine Empire.

Otto I, Manuscriptum Mediolanense, c. 1200 AD
In 840 AD the Emperor Theophilos had already tried to interest the caliph’s great-great grandfather in an alliance against the Arabs who had taken Crete, but without success.  In 949 AD delegations of both powers visited each other, but the visits did not result in a political alliance.  However, Byzantine mosaicists came to work in Córdoba and Greek manuscripts were sent.  In 951 AD a Greek monk called Nicolas was dispatched to work on a text of Dioscorides, the first scientist of antiquity to attempt a systematic study of the medicinal properties of plants, as apparently nobody in al-Andalus knew the Greek language at this time.

Medīnat az-Zahrā
In 936 AD the caliph began to work on a new fortified palace city some 5 km north-west of Córdoba on the lower slopes of the wooded hills overlooking the Guadalquivir valley, where he surrounded himself with scholars and poets.  The city was called Medīnat az-Zahrā, named after his favourite concubine, of which substantial remains survive until today, though it was destroyed by rebellious Berber soldiers from North Africa in 1013 AD.  The centre piece was an audience hall where the caliph received international deputations.  This highly developed and ordered court culture had no equal in Western Europe.  Medīnat az-Zahrā is the most magnificent fortified enclosure in al-Andalus. Three of its four sides had a doubled wall, each five metres thick, with a five-metre passage down the middle. The towers are linked to the central raised precinct by an arcade. On the north side there was only a single wall. 
Medīnat az-Zahrā, reception hall
Buried for almost 900 years, the city was rediscovered in the late 19th century and excavations began in 1911 AD.  Medīnat az-Zahrā is considered one of the most significant early Islamic archaeological sites in the world.  Excavations at the city’s site are still ongoing.  Up till now, only about ten percent of the fortified area of the city has been excavated.

The Green Revolution
In the tenth century al-Andalus had become extremely wealthy and this wealth was largely based on agriculture.  Two new trends had contributed to what has been described as a green revolution.  Firstly, the introduction of new crops such as sugar cane, bananas, pomegranates, watermelons, citrus fruits, artichokes, aubergines, spinach, sorghum, rice and hard wheat, from which pasta is made, greatly increased the quantity and variety of staples available.  Also cotton plants for the production of fabrics and clothing were imported.  Secondly, the use of new irrigation techniques (waterwheels fitted with buckets), which may have originated in Yemen, or the oasis of Damascus, was extended, which was especially useful in the Guadalquivir valley.

Largest city in Europe
As a result, in the tenth century Córdoba had developed into a large multicultural city with a population of probably well over 100,000, making it, along with Constantinople, the largest city in Europe.  A contemporary author mentions the much higher number of 300,000 inhabitants and describes Córdoba as a city with 213,000 dwellings inhabited by people of the lower and middle classes, over 60,000 villas and palaces occupied by the aristocracy and higher civil servants, 600 public bath houses and almost 80,500 shops and workshops.  The old city-centre is said to have been surrounded by 21 suburbs, which all had their own city walls, markets and mosques.  After Córdoba, the second city of al-Andalus was probably Seville, with 60,000 inhabitants.  Toledo may have been half that size. All other cities in Iberia would have been much smaller.
Al-Andalus was linked with international commercial networks, which until the twelfth century seem to have been predominantly the other Muslim states of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Textiles and dyestuffs were probably the most important exports.  There was little commercial contact with the Christian north and Andalusi merchants were unknown in the Mediterranean ports of France and Italy.  This would change after the great expansion of Frankish maritime trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when al-Andalus became an important destination for Latin merchants, but lost its commercial contacts with the eastern Islamic world.

Al-Hakam II al-Mustansir (961-76AD)

When the caliph died in 961 AD, he was buried with his predecessors in the Alcázar at Córdoba. His chosen heir, Al-Hakam, born in 915 AD, had long been acknowledged and given the regnal title of al-Mustansir (“He who seeks Victory”) and his accession was marked by a continuity of policy and personnel.  A genuinely cultivated man, who was a great book collector and literary patron, his reign would be one of unrivalled political stability and a period of great cultural efflorescence.  He continued with the construction of Medīnat az-Zahrā and also made an addition to the mosque of Córdoba, with richly decorated carved stone, stucco and mosaic, produced by Byzantine craftsmen.
During his rule, Al-Hakam came to rely on two individuals, Ghālib bin ‘Abd al-Rahmān, a siqlabī (slave) soldier and Ja’far bin ‘Uthmān al-Masafī.  Ghālib was a central figure in the northern frontier defence and had also led a naval expedition to ravage the shores of Fatimid Tunisia in 956 AD.  He was appointed chief general (al-qa’id al-a’lā), which was the first time any individual had been singled out for such distinction.
al-Hakam II, Córdoba
In 972 AD al-Hakam began to assemble a large army in Ceuta. The object was to attack the Idrisid prince al-Hasan bin Ganun, who had taken over all of north-west Morocco, including Tangier, a threat which could not be ignored.  In 973 AD Ghālib led a major expedition to Morocco.  The Idrisids were brought in triumph to Córdoba and were finally deported to Egypt, where they took refuge with the Fatimid court.  In 975 AD Ghālib relieved a hard-pressed Muslim garrison at Gormaz on the Upper Duero in the north, and went on to pursue Count Garci Fernandez of Castile into his own territory. After these triumphs he was decorated with two gilded swords and given the honorific title Dhū’l-Sayfayn (Lord of the Two Swords).

Hishām al-Mu’ayyad (976-1009 AD)

When al-Hakam died in 976 AD, he had become very isolated. Access to the royal court was controlled by only a small number of palace officials.  For an experienced man like al-Hakam this caused no problems, but a youthful and uncertain caliph could easily be manipulated and managed. This was to be the fate of al-Hakam’s only son and successor Hishām.  Hishām was born in 965 AD and only eleven years old when his father died.  In 967 AD the thirty-year old ambitious Abu ‘Amir Muhammad Ibn Abi ‘Amir al-Mansur (“the Victorious”), or Almanzor for short in Spanish, of the tribe of the Ma’afir, had been entrusted with the administration of the property settled by the caliph upon his favourite wife Subh.  She was the Basque mother of Hishām, and Almanzor had thus become the manager of her considerable wealth and that of the young prince.

Almanzor (981-1002 AD)

This patronage led to further promotion and in 973 AD Almanzor was appointed qādi of the Umayyad held areas in Morocco.  As such he acted as a political officer alongside the military commander and governor of the Middle March Ghālib, and he became the main link between the Berber chiefs of the area and Córdoba.  When in 976 AD the oath of allegiance had been taken to the young Hishām, who was given the regnal title al-Mu’ayyad (“the Endorsed”), it was Almanzor, who had been nominated vizier and vice-prime minister, who supervised the process.  When the Christians tried to test the power of the new ruler by beginning raids on Muslim territory, Almanzor set out for the frontier and made the expedition to his first military success, after which many more would follow.  He got rid of the Berber sāhib al-madīna of Córdoba and made an alliance with Ghālib, who was a very old man by now.  This alliance was sealed by Almanzor’s marriage with Ghālib’s daughter Asma.  Over time Almanzor ruthlessly eliminated all political rivals and became the effective ruler of al-Andalus, which he would remain until his death in 1002 AD.  The prestige of the Umayyad family was such, however, that even at the height of his career Almanzor did not dare to depose the inept Hishām.
The Arab chronicles have an ambiguous attitude to Almanzor.  On the one hand his rule saw the apogee of power of Muslim Iberia, but on the other hand it seriously undermined the prestige and influence of the Umayyad family, which had been so long the real focus of unity in the country. Moreover, Almanzor also brought large numbers of Berbers to al-Andalus to serve in his armies, who by some sources are held responsible for the calamities which struck the country.  In all sources Almanzor monopolizes the limelight, and the account of his rise to power and his subsequent rule completely eclipses all other events and personalities.  There is, for example, virtually no information about provincial governors and their names and deeds are not recorded.
The old Ghālib and Almanzor finally clashed in a final power struggle in a series of battles at Catalayud, Atienza and finally Torrevicente in 981 AD.  At Torrevicente Ghālib’s army was supported by the Basques under Ramiro Garcés, sub-king of Viguera, and brother of Sancho Garcés II, King of Navarre, as well as the Castilians under Count García Fernández. Both Ramiro and Ghālib died during the battle and the victory went to Ibn Abi ‘Amir.  It was the latter's twelfth campaign, known to Muslim sources as the "Campaign of the Victory", in which he earned his title of al-Mansur.

Córdoba, Roman bridge with the cathedral-mosque, on the left
Almanzor’s usurpation did not go entirely unchallenged.  In 989 AD there was an abortive conspiracy led by a descendant of al-Hakam I, known as al-Hajar (“Dry Stone”, because of his avarice).  Al-Hajar was supported by ‘Abd al-Rahmān, a member of the Tujībī family, who was lord of Zaragoza and the Upper March, and Almanzor’s own son ‘Abd Allāh, who had been staying with the Tujībī in Zaragoza. ‘Abd Allāh was a keen rival of his brother ‘Abd al-Malik, who was being favoured by his father as a successor.  The conspirators had agreed that al-Andalus would be divided, with ‘Abd-Allah taking Córdoba and the surrounding area, and the Tujībī taking the Marches. The plot was discovered and ‘Abd al-Rahmān was executed, while ‘Abd Allāh and al-Hajar took refuge with the Christians in the north. Almanzor’s son was surrendered to his father by Garci Fernandez, Count of Castile and executed, while al-Hajar remained in prison for the rest of Almanzor’s reign.
After ‘Abd al-Rahmān’s execution, Almanzor was obliged to nominate the latter’s nephew in his place to retain the loyalty of the Tujībī lords of the Upper March.  In 996 AD Hishām’s mother Subh, now completely alienated from Almanzor, attempted to secure her son’s restoration to power but her attempts were immediately uncovered, so that the Umayyad family were obliged to accept their effective exclusion from power.  Though Subh remained out of Almanzor’s reach, she died soon afterwards.

Reform of the Army
Distrusting both the palatine guards and the Arab aristocracy, Almanzor dismantled the remains of the jund system that originated from the Syrian army.  The junds performed military service when summoned and had the usufruct of agricultural properties in exchange.  Their rights and obligations had passed by hereditary rights to their descendants.  By the tenth century the term jund was applied to all who owed military service, no matter what their origin.   In 991 AD Almanzor replaced the junds by a fully professional army, largely recruited from saqāliba (slave and mercenary soldiers) and Berbers. However, over time the saqāliba were increasingly recruited from the Christian areas of the Peninsula rather than from Eastern Europe.  The best ones were said to come from Galicia (Jilliqīya, a term used for the whole of the Kingdom of León).  They were commanded by fityān, who could acquire estates and recruit their own followings among the saqāliba. Almanzor recruited large amounts of Berber troops as a balance to the saqāliba and the remaining Andalusi elements in the army.  These developments made heavy demands on the fiscal system and the payment of these troops seems to have caused genuine distress.  Almanzor also established monthly stipends for the troops, which were paid in cash through the imposition of a tribute on the land collected by the army.  Thus, Andalusi society had become divided into a small military caste recruited from outsiders and the bulk of demilitarised taxpayers.
Originally Almanzor’s regime undoubtedly enjoyed some popular support, partly because of the prosperity and stability it brought, but also because of a strong commitment to rigorist Islam.  The problem was, however, that the large amounts of troops ruined the people and devastated their agriculture.  In the end, the population fled and agriculture became impoverished, so that the state revenues declined and the army was enfeebled.  Ultimately, this situation would lead to the conquest of Muslim territory by the Christians.   This state of affairs would continue until the arrival of the Berber leader Yusuf bin Tashfin of the Almoravids (al-Murābitūn in Arabic, or Imrabden in Berber), who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Algeciras in 1086 AD and defeated a coalition of Castilian and Aragonese armies at the Battle of az-Zallaqah (Sagrajas).
Himself a devout Muslim, Almanzor built a massive final extension to the mosque in Córdoba for the Berber immigrants and others.  It still stands today as an austere and dignified contrast to the luxuriant decoration of al-Hakam II’s work in the same building.   He also took strong measures against any sign of heterodoxy and purged al-Hakam’s great library of any works which might upset orthodox opinion. Moreover, he publicly crucified a scholar accused of heresy.  The most important part of his populist commitment to Islam (he always carried with him a Qu’ran, copied by himself) was the systematic pursuit of the jihād against the Christians.
Campaigns of Almanzor
However, these raids were not so much inspired by religious zeal, but should more be seen as an incentive for his soldiers to collect booty. Significantly, there was no attempt to establish Moorish garrisons or to recruit converts after the raids. cThe fact that mostly churches and monasteries were the victims of the expeditions has to do with the riches they contained.   The Arabic sources mention more than fifty raids, from small-scale expeditions to major campaigns, such as the sack of Barcelona in 985 AD and that of Santiago de Compostela in 997 AD.  After the fall of Santiago the bells of the cathedral were carried south to Córdoba by prisoners of war to be used as lamps in the Great Mosque.
Cities were sacked but, apart from a brief and abortive attempt to establish a Muslim garrison at Zamora in 999 AD no efforts were made to advance the frontiers of Muslim settlement.  At the same time, Christian resistance remained strong and in the summer of 1000 AD Sancho García, Count of Castile, inflicted major losses on the Muslims and nearly clinched a remarkable victory.  Paradoxically, Almanzor’s policy of aggression went along with the development of kinship ties across the frontier. For instance, Almanzor married ‘Abda, daughter of King Sancho Abarca of Navarre, who would be the mother of his son ‘Abd al-Rahmān, also known as Sanchuelo, born around 983 AD.  In 993 AD he took a daughter of King Vermudo II of León as a concubine whom he subsequently liberated and married .

Money plays no role
Almanzor built a new palace complex to the east of Córdoba, Medīnat az-Zahira (“the glittering city”), obviously intended to rival in splendour Medīnat az-Zahrā, ΄Abd ar-Rachmān III’s – similarly named – construction to west of the capital, to which he transferred all the government departments in 981 AD.  Whereas al-Hakam was said to have left a colossal reserve of treasure (forty million dinars) in the treasury of Córdoba at his death, Almanzor cut taxes to win favours.   Moreover, he balanced on an intricate network of bribery, poured money into buildings and hugely increased the size of the army with large Berber contingents on which his power rested in the last resort.  Perhaps it was the pressure of financial need which led to the campaigns against the Christians in northern Iberia, for which he has become most famous.

As Almanzor died in 1002 AD, his son ‘Abd al-Malik al-Mazaffar (“the Triumphant”) succeeded him until his early death in 1008 AD.   It was then that trouble started, as the policy of Almanzor and his son had had two fatal flaws.  Firstly, they had effectively displaced the caliph and in doing so weakened the institution of the caliphate, resulting political instability.  Secondly the army had mushroomed into an enormous body.  In addition to the financial strain, its expansion had introduced new peoples into al-Andalus, such a Berbers form the Maghreb and Slavs from central Europe, who were not assimilated into Andalusi society but remained an alien element.  Their generals felt more loyalty to the house of Almanzor than to the Umayyad caliphs and in the turmoil of the years after 1008 AD they would play a sinister political role.
Disintegration of unitary political authority was the most important process during the period between 1008 and 1031 AD. The result was that the last of a succession of thirteen (!) short-lived and powerless caliphs, Hisham III was sent packing in 1031 AD.  Too insignificant to be required to sign an act of abdication, he was not even considered worth executing.  The caliphate of Córdoba as an institution would be finished for ever.

The next instalment will focus on the rise of the Christian Kingdoms in Iberia 

Sources and Further Reading

  • Collins, Roger, The Arab Conquest of Spain, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK, 1989, 1994
  • Collins, Roger, Caliphs and Kings, Spain 796-1031, Wiley- Blackwell, Chichester, UK  2012
  • DESPERTA FERRO, No 7, Al-Andalus, de la conquista a la quiebra del califato, Desperta Ferro Ediciones, SLNE, Madrid, 2011
  • Fletcher, Richard, The Quest for El Cid, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991
  • Fletcher, Richard, Moorish Spain, Orion Books Ltd., London, 2001
  • GEO-EPOCHE Nr. 35, Die Welt im Jahr 1000, Al-Andalus, pp. 46-52, Grüner + Jahr, Hamburg, 2009
  • Goetz, Hans-Werner, Europa im frühen Mittelalter 500-1050, Eugen Ulmer, Stuttgart, 2003
  • Hattstein, Markus and Peter Delius, Spanje en Marokko, Islam - Kunst en Architectuur, pp. 208-278, Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Köln, 2000
  • Kennedy, Hugh, Muslim Spain and Portugal, Longman, London & New York, 1996
  • Kennedy, Hugh, The Armies of the Caliphs, Routledge, Abingdon & New York, 2001
  • Nicholas, David, The Growth of the Medieval City, from Late Antiquity to the Early Fourteenth Century, Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, Harlow UK, New York, 1997
  •  Nicolle, David, Armies of the Caliphates 862-1098, Men-at-Arms 320, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 1998
  • O’Callaghan, Joseph F., A History of Medieval Spain, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1983
  • Wasserstein, David J., Inventing Tradition and Constructing Identity: The Genealogy of ‘Umar ibn Hafsūn between Christianity and Islam, Tel Aviv University, al- Qantara XXIII, 2, 2002 pp. 269-97,

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