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Volume 27, Number 5September/October 1976

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The Golden Caliphate

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

By 718 the Muslims had taken control of most of Spain. In the north, tough Berber tribesmen still patrolled disputed areas, but in the central highlands Muslim rule was relatively uncontested and in the area today known as Andalusia the Arab military and administrative leaders had chosen the old Roman city of Cordoba as their capital and were settling in for a long stay.

As they had since the beginning of the century of rapid Islamic expansion, the Muslims, although looking on the conquest of Spain as a jihad, or holy war, did not exert pressure on Spanish Christians or Jews to embrace Islam. This policy, which dates back to the lifetime of the Prophet, is summed up in an injunction in the Koran. "Be courteous when you argue with People of the Book, except with those among them that do evil. Say: 'We believe in that which is revealed to us and which was revealed to you. Our God and your God is one. To Him we surrender ourselves.'"

Admittedly, there were also practical reasons for not forcing mass conversions. Muslims were exempt from taxes while Christians and Jews were not. Nevertheless, the approach of the conquerors was definitely based on a real spirit of tolerance, as one treaty of surrender—of Murcia in 713—illustrates:

"In the name of Allah, the Clement, the Merciful! a letter addressed by 'Adb al-'Aziz ibn Musa ibn Nusair to Tudmir (Arabic for the Visigothic name Theodemir) ibn 'Abdush: This last obtains peace and receives an engagement, guaranteed by Allah and His Prophet, that nothing will be changed in the position of him and his; that his right of sovereignty will not be contested; that his subjects will not be killed, nor reduced to captivity, nor separated from their children and wives; that they will not be burned, nor despoiled of their holy objects; and that this will hold good as long as they satisfy the charges we impose. He is accorded peace subject to the surrender of the following seven towns: Orihuela, Baltana, Alicante, Mula, Villena, Lorca and Ello... He and his subjects will each year pay a personal tribute amounting to a dinar in money, four bushels of wheat and four of barley, four measures of musk, four of vinegar, two of honey and two of oil..."

The policy of tolerance extended to the practice of religion too. The Great Mosque of Cordoba, for example, was built on the site of a Visigothic church, but at first the Muslims shared the church, then bought it—at a good price—so that they could build a proper mosque. And whenever that occurred the Christians were allowed to build new places of worship. Indeed, during the first half century of Moorish rule in Spain, the Muslim conquerors experienced considerably more difficulties with each other than with the Spanish as the' mixed armies—Berbers and North African and Syrian Arabs—broke into factions.

In Damascus, meanwhile, the Umayyads—then the rulers of the Islamic empire—were also facing unrest, which in an unexpected way was to transform Cordoba and al-Andalus. In 750, the Abbasids of Baghdad overthrew the Umayyads and replaced them as the ruling dynasty. Only two members of the Umayyad family got away—young Abd al-Rahman and his even younger brother. The escape was described in Abd al-Rahman's own words in the Akhbar Majmu'a, a contemporary chronicle:

"Joined by my freed man, Badr, we reached the bank of the Euphrates, where I met a man who promised to sell me horses and other necessities; but while I was waiting he sent a slave to find the Abbasid commander. Next we heard a noise of the troop approaching the farmhouse; we took to our heels and hid in some gardens by the Euphrates, but they were closing in on us. We managed to reach the river ahead of them and threw ourselves into the water. When they got to the bank they began shouting 'Come back! You have nothing to fear.' I swam and my brother swam..."

The brother was caught and killed but Abd al-Rahman—poet, warrior; tall, red-haired, one-eyed, with shrunken cheeks and a mole on his forehead—survived still more adventures and eventually made his way west to al-Andalus. There, only 26 years old, he went triumphantly to Cordoba and claimed his position as surviving head of the Umayyads. His claim did not go unchallenged—either in Cordoba or in Baghdad—and Abd al-Rahman had to quell rebellions and cope with intrigues for more than 20 years before he consolidated his power as leader of the Cordoba emirate, with roughly three-quarters of the Iberian Peninsula, including present-day Portugal, under his control. At one point his personal militia totaled some 40,000 warriors, mostly Berbers and Slavs.

This unrest, which would eventually undermine Islamic rule in Spain, continued under his successors Hisham I and al-Hakam I. But somehow they also found time to reestablish and increase commercial and cultural contacts with the faraway Eastern Caliphate where, under the Abbasids, science and art were flourishing. These continuing contacts would eventually make Cordoba and al-Andalus the cultural center of western Islam and a seat of learning for Christian Europe.

Cordoba's prosperity, and its era of splendor, began in the reign of Abd al-Rahman II. By then the hospitable climate and fertility of Andalusia had begun to mellow the tough desert warriors and a love of books, poetry and music began to replace their infatuation with intrigue and battle. Ziryab, for example, a musician from Baghdad, founded the Andalusian school of music and also brought a taste for fashion with him when he arrived from the East. He prescribed brightly colored silk robes for spring, pure white clothing during the hot season and fine furs and quilted gowns for the cold weather. Ziryab also prescribed hair styles and, some say, even ran a hairdressing salon.

There was also considerable integration with the original non-Muslim populations. As the warriors had come without their women, many married local Christians while others turned to blond and blue-eyed concubines from the north. Reputedly, some of the later Moors, who were especially proud of their North African heritage, had to dye their hair black to conceal their northern ancestry.

The local populations were also, in increasing numbers, accepting Islam. As the wealth and culture of Andalusia grew, those Christians who did not voluntarily embrace the new faith began to complain that their impressionable young people were being unduly influenced by the splendor of Muslim culture. The Indiculus luminosus, written in 854, expresses how some of them felt:

"...intoxicated with Arab eloquence they greedily handle, eagerly devour and zealously discuss the books of the Chaldeans (the Muslims), and make them known by praising them with every flourish of rhetoric, knowing nothing of the beauty of the church's literature, and looking down with contempt on the streams of the church that flow forth from Paradise; alas! the Christians are so ignorant of their own law, the Latins pay so little attention to their own language, that in the whole Christian flock there is hardly one man in a hundred who can write a letter to inquire after a friend's health intelligibly, while you may find a countless rabble of all kinds of them who can learnedly roll out the grandiloquent periods of the Chaldean tongue. They can even make poems, every line ending with the same letter, which displays high flights of beauty and more skill in handling meter than the gentiles themselves possess."

In contrast, Spanish Jews, who had been persecuted by the Visigoths, had welcomed, even aided, the Muslim invasion. Though living in close-knit groups they nevertheless played an active and successful role in the life of Muslim al-Andalus, working as tradesmen, scientists, scholars and even as advisors and administrators. They were far outnumbered by Spanish Christians, however, as the Christians also came to be outnumbered by Muslims.

In the 10th century, during the reign of Abd al-Rahman III (912-61), probably the greatest ruler of Muslim Spain, this richly diverse society reached a memorable level of affluence and culture. And Cordoba, the most sophisticated city in Europe, was its center. As al-Idrisi, the great medieval geographer, wrote:

"Cordoba is made up of five continuous cities, each surrounded by walls that divide it from the rest, and possessing enough markets, hostelries, baths, and buildings for the different professions. From east to west the city covers a distance of five kilometers (three miles). From the Gate of the Jews in the north to the Gate of the Bridge in the south is a little over one and a half kilometers (just under one mile).

Another writer of the time once counted all the houses in the city and suburbs and found that they came to a total of 213,077. "This figure includes the dwellings of the common people such as workmen and artisans, but excludes the rented attics, inns, baths and taverns. The palaces of the nobles, viziers, officials of the royal household, generals and wealthy citizens, the barracks, hospitals, colleges and other public buildings come to a total of 60,300." The population of Cordoba was about 500,000 compared to about 40,000 for Paris at the same time. The streets were lighted, there were 700 mosques and some 900 public baths. Many wealthy people had lavatories with running water in their homes. The houses of Andalusia were typical of those found in the western Mediterranean region since Roman times and the style survives today not only in Spain but in parts of North Africa as well. The exterior was usually whitewashed and plain. As in the Arab heartland, people concealed their private lives and possessions behind their massive, wooden studded doors. Life centered around a sheltered outdoor patio paved with marble or stone, or not paved at all, according to the size of the owner's purse. From the patio, doors led to the bedrooms, sitting rooms and storage areas. Rush mats, wool carpets and cushions covered the floor. Brass lamps or candles supplied lighting and charcoal in braziers supplied heat. At the end of the bedrooms there would be a raised screened niche or alcove for sleeping, which the Moors called al-kubba.

The most impressive buildings, of course, were the mosques—especially the Great Mosque, which still stands in Cordoba. Begun by Abd al-Rahman I, it was enlarged and improved by successive rulers. Abd al-Rahman III contributed the magnificent minaret which was later imitated in Seville as well as in Rabat and Marrakesh in Morocco.

In al-Andalus, as in most of the Arab world, the mosque was a center of education as well as worship. But in Cordoba education flowered elsewhere too as the fame of its writers, philosophers, poets, astronomers, physicians and other scientists spread throughout Europe. Indeed, Andalusian intellectual life was years ahead of the rest of contemporary Europe. There was a university in Cordoba and some 70 libraries in which not thousands, but hundreds of thousands, of volumes were amassed. Al-Hakam II's library contained some 400,000 books. And though philosophers of the time complained of the lack of opportunity for the development of women's talents, there were female poets, librarians and book copyists and other women were involved in teaching, law and medicine.

In sum, as geographer al-Idrisi said, the Cordobans were:

"...the most advanced in science and most zealous in piety... They have won fame for the purity of their doctrine, the rigor of their honesty, the formality of their customs in regard to dress, riding accoutrements, elevation of feeling in assemblies and gatherings and finally in often exquisite taste as regards food and drink; add to all this great amiability and perfect manners."

Then, as now, the citizens of Cordoba loved music and song passionately. At times people reached a state called tarab, a state of physical pleasure attained through music. According to the famous Spanish Arabist Emilio García Gómez, "Spain, that stronghold of ancient forces, still keeps the tarab in its cante jondo, an inner room in an Andalusian tavern; glasses of golden wine, a guitar, a voice..."

Outside Cordoba, the countryside was lush with Spain's traditional olives and wheat and also the sugarcane and oranges imported by the Muslims. As a Mozarab bishop, Recemundus, described it in March 961:

"Fig trees are grafted in the manner called tarqi; the winter corn grows up; and most of the fruit trees break into leaf. It is now that the falcons of Valencia lay eggs on the islands of the river and incubate them for a month. Sugarcane is planted. The first roses and lilies appear. In kitchen gardens, the beans begin to shoot. Quails are seen; silkworms hatch; grey mullet and shad ascend the rivers from the sea. Cucumbers are planted and cotton, saffron and aubergines sown... Locusts appear and must be destroyed. Mint and marjoram are sown..."

Al-Andalus had not attained this happy state of material prosperity and the peaceful pursuit of knowledge and pleasure without an effort. Abd al-Rahman III, who came to power in 912, was beset by perennial rebellions by minor Muslim rulers and continual skirmishes with Christians from the north, who had begun to raid further and further south.

In a series of brilliantly planned and well-executed annual campaigns the stocky, red-haired, blue-eyed ruler first eliminated the resistance within al-Andalus and, in 929, proclaimed himself a sovereign caliph under the title of al-Nasir, the Victorious, thus formally breaking what had become only a nominal link with the Eastern Caliphate. Abd al-Rahman then turned his energies against emerging Christian kingdoms.

Initially successful, he organized what he called the "Omnipotent Campaign," in which, at Valladolid, he led 100,000 men into battle with the combined forces of the kingdoms of Navarre, Castile, and Leon—and nearly lost everything. Abd al-Rahman himself barely escaped with his life, apparently losing a golden suit of armor and his precious personal Koran in the confusion. But as the Christians rarely seemed to follow up their victories, and turned to internal feuding not long after, Muslim forces soon returned to the attack. Before long, as a result, the three Christian kingdoms of Navarre, Castile and León were again paying annual tribute to the Cordoban Caliphate, Abd al-Rahman III reigned supreme and Muslim power reached its zenith in Europe. Ambassadors from throughout the known world came to pay their respects at his court (See box).

Abd al-Rahman's successor, however, was to be the last of the great Andalusian rulers. This was the caliphate's greatest warrior and minister, al-Mansur, the Conqueror, who came to power in 976. Ambitious and ruthless, he established military rule, introduced secret police, employed large numbers of mercenary troops and, although warring constantly with Christian kings, married two of their daughters.

Al-Mansur's most spectacular campaign took place in 997 when he led a great force to the holy of holies of Christian Spain, Santiago de Compostela. This was the site of the tomb of St. James the Apostle (Santiago), whom Spanish Christians believed to be the twin brother of Jesus. Since 830, when relics of St. James had been found there, Santiago de Compostela had been a center of pilgrimage for Catholic Europe.

During the battle the city was sacked and the church of Santiago de Compostela was destroyed. Out of respect for Christian beliefs, however, al-Mansur left the tomb of Santiago itself alone and placed a guard around it. He also spared the life of an old monk found sitting next to the tomb. Al-Mansur asked what he was doing there and the monk replied simply: "Praying to St. James (Santiago)." "Then pray on," said al-Mansur, and gave orders to leave him in peace.

Santiago de Compostela having been a rallying point, its fall was considered a disastrous defeat for the Christians. But St. James was also the symbol that helped maintain Christian faith in the ultimate reconquest of Spain; when al-Mansur died five years later, the Christians credited St. James with having punished the Moors for the rape of his city and cathedral.

Santiago de Compostela having been a rallying point, its fall was considered a disastrous defeat for the Christians. But St. James was also the symbol that helped maintain Christian faith in the ultimate reconquest of Spain; when al-Mansur died five years later, the Christians credited St. James with having punished the Moors for the rape of his city and cathedral.

As no strong ruler succeeded al-Mansur in Cordoba, and as his military rule had made his reign unpopular, Cordoba itself rebelled and civil war engulfed al-Andalus. Within 20 years the caliphate—previously the emirate—which had lasted nearly 300 years, collapsed. By 1031 it was over, the occasion marked by a riot in the capital.

Andalusians, Berbers and even minor functionaries began to carve out little kingdoms for themselves, called taifas, from the Arabic for faction. Some lasted only months; others, like the Berber kingdoms of Malaga and Algeciras, and the Berber Zirids of Granada, founded local dynasties that lasted till the Almoravid invasion at the end of the century. But the long decline of Muslim rule had begun.

This article appeared on pages 12-16 of the September/October 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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