Al-Andalus. 10th Century. Al-Mansur.

Muhammad ibn Abu ‘Amir: Al-Mansur (b. ca 938-d 1002).
During the 10th century, al-Andalus reached the pinnacle of its power, with its influence stretching from the Pyrenees well into North Africa. When the powerful caliph, Abd al-Rahman III, died in 961 the Umayyad dynasty seemed more entrenched than ever, but amazingly within 70 years the caliphate was in ruins.

But at least it did not go out without a kind of bang, the fireworks being provided in the last years of the century by the powerful vizier, Muhammad ibn Abu ‘Amir, de facto ruler during most of the reign of Abd al-Rahman’s weak grandson, Hisham II (ruled 976-1009, 1010-1013).

Abu ‘Amir, better known by his honorific title, al-Mansur (meaning “the Victorious.” Almanzor in Spanish) was a noble of Arab background from near Algeciras. He manoeuvred his way into power when befriended by Hisham’s mother, a Christian captive from Navarre (who allegedly became his lover as well).

Al-Mansur is best remembered for the numerous, devastating raids (razzias) –some 57 in all– directed against the Christian north. He swept across Christian lands, from Barcelona (985) to Coimbra (987); he attacked León and Zamora (988), and numerous smaller places.

The high point was the raid on Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) in 997, in which the town was razed, the church destroyed and its bells taken to Córdoba –on the backs of prisoners-of-war– to be used as lamps in the Great Mosque. All that remained apparently was the tomb of Santiago (St James**) which, we are told, was spared because it was a holy place, and because al-Mansur was impressed by the courage of an old priest who refused to abandon it.

** St James –son of Zebedee and apostle to Christ, and historically Spain’s national saint–, is said to have been buried in Santiago de Compostela.  During the Middle Ages Santiago became an important pilgrimage destination, surpassed only by Jerusalem and Rome.  Nowadays, the Route of Santiago (Camino de Santiago), stretching from southern France along the north of Spain, has become very popular with both pilgrims and others.

Himself a devout Muslim, al-Mansur always carried a copy of the Qur’an with him, and his raids against the Christian north were conceived as holy war, something that had not hitherto played a significant role in Umayyad policy.

These endless campaigns against the Christians served as a constant demonstration of the greatness of Islam and undoubtedly appealed to the religious leaders in Córdoba; they also helped unite the disparate Muslim population.

In order to improve the efficiency of his forces for the razzias, al-Mansur reorganised his armies in 991, and eliminated regiments made up of tribal groups. He also recruited mercenaries, especially Berbers from the Maghreb –and even Christian soldiers– to provide the manpower that the raids required.

Nevertheless, we should be cautious about assuming that these raids were inspired solely by religious zeal. They were also a practical source of booty and served as an important incentive, especially to the mercenaries, with promises of wealth, slaves, livestock etc. 

Significantly there was no attempt to establish Muslim garrisons or to recruit converts following the raids, which would be clearer signals of an ideological purpose. The fact that in many instances churches and monasteries were the victims of the expeditions probably has less to do with religion than it does with the riches they contained; the Church very simply was probably the wealthiest institution around.

In addition, al-Mansur had high overheads to cover, not only his enlarged army, but also the costs incurred by an extensive addition to the Great Mosque of Córdoba and a large palace complex he had built to the east of Córdoba.

In many ways, the actions of al-Mansur were a challenge to the Umayyad caliphate and an attempt to establish his own personality on Córdoba: he was more pious than the caliph (ostensibly the successor to the Prophet, Muhammad), he burned secular books from al-Hakam’s magnificent libraries, and he undertook more razzias than Abd al-Rahman III. 

And in adding to the Great Mosque and building his own palace complex, al-Mansur signalled his power and authority in much the same way the palace of Madinat al-Zahra conveyed the greatness of Abd al-Rahman III. The eight-aisled extension at the east end of the Mosque is remarkably restrained, but it underlines al-Mansur’s piety, especially when compared to the luxurious addition of al-Hakam II (ruled 961-76).

As for the palace, whose name –Madinat al-Zahira— implicitly challenges that of Abd al-Rahman III’s Madinat al-Zahra, it has never been found. All we know is that it was built somewhere on the other side of Córdoba from Madinat al-Zahra!

Nevertheless, al-Mansur was not above coming to terms with his Christian enemies if it served his personal ambitions.  Having usurped power from the Umayyads, he sought to legitimize his dynastic aims through marriage to royalty, in this case with a Christian princess. 

In 992, he married the daughter of the king of Navarre, who bore him a son pointedly named Abd al-Rahman, but equally or better known as Sanjul or Sanchuelo (after his maternal grandfafther, Sancho, king of Pamplona).

Al-Mansur’s death in 1002 when returning from a successful expedition in the Rioja area effectively marks the end of Córdoba. His older son, Abd al-Malik, succeeded to the same authority but died in 1008, possible assassinated. Sanchuelo turned out to be a disaster, and lasted only a year before being murdered in 1009.

Calatanazor. View from castle. Scene of one of al-Mansur’s many victories.

The effete Hisham II (r 976-1009, 1010-1013; he apparently wore a veil and applied makeup) was quickly deposed and there began a political free for all that ended with the ignominious expulsion of the last of the Umayyads, Hisham III, from Córdoba in 1031. What became of him is not known.

The political infighting of the early years of the 11th century highlights the powerful personalities of Abd al-Rahman III and al-Mansur. But we could turn this around and argue that those same personalities covered a tendency, already evident in the 9th century and perhaps inherent in any political body that covers a large geographic area with limited access to communication: a drift towards local autonomy, expressed very often in rebellions or separate alliances.

In fact when al-Mansur took over the reins of power, he enacted a kind of rebellion, not against central authority (which he simply usurped) but against the Umayyad dynasty. Al-Hakam II and Hisham II reigned but did not rule; authority was clearly in the hands of al-Mansur.

By successfully seizing power, however, al-Mansur seriously undermined Umayyad prestige and weakened its claim to the loyalty of its subjects, especially when no Umayyad claimant could assert himself after al-Mansur’s death. It isn’t difficult to understand the chaotic political conditions when we realise that between 1008 and 1031 six Umayyads and three rival family members briefly occupied the throne.

Fall of Córdoba.
Two developments typify the dizzy and chaotic fall of Córdoba at this period. First the urgent visits of two competing Umayyads to Christian courts in search of support for their respective claims after Hisham II had been deposed. One, Sulayman, obtained the help of the Count of Castile (Sancho García), the other, Muhammad II, was supported by two Catalan counts (of Barcelona and Urgel).

Both Sulayman and Muhammad met violent deaths after brief periods as caliphs. Sulayman was deposed and executed in 1016. Muhammad fled Córdoba dressed as a woman before being assassinated.

Sulayman and Muhammad’s journeys to solicit help from Christian rulers point to an ominous development for the future of al-Andalus: namely the intervention of Christian kingdoms as power brokers in Muslim politics. The days when al-Mansur was the scourge of Northern Spain were scarcely over and already the balance was swinging clearly in favour of the Christians, reversing thereby the situation of the 10th century.

The second detail that illustrates the chaos of the early 11th century is the destruction of the two palace complexes, the one by Abd al-Rahman III, the other by al-Mansur. Symbols of the authority of the two rulers, the demolished palaces are metaphors of the ineptitude of the Umayyad line as internal political feuds turned into a ferocious orgy of destruction. But not only were the two palaces demolished, Córdoba itself underwent a two and a half year siege by Berber soldiers and thousands of citizens were massacred.

Bereft of strong leadership and a sense of direction, the caliphate of Córdoba collapsed dramatically and fizzled out when the last of the Umayyads, Hisham III, was expelled in 1031.

Out of the debris rose numerous mini states —known as taifa kingdoms– grouped around the most important urban centres. Although many would have their moments, none would shine with the intensity of Umayyad Córdoba, not even Seville which gradually assumed greatest influence.

Collins, Roger Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity Basingstone, Hampshire 2nd ed 1995
Constable, Olivia R Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources Philadelphia 1997
Dodds, Jerrilynn, Menocal, Maria R & Balbale, A K The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture  New Haven, London 2008
Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain London 1992 (paperback 1994)
Lomax, Derek    The Reconquest of Spain London 1978
MacKay, A Spain in the Middle Ages: From Frontier to Empire, 1000-1500 London 1977