Al-Andalus. 11th Century. Taifa kingdoms

The “Taifa” Kingdoms 1031-1086.
The Umayyad dynasty, which controlled the fortunes of al-Andalus from 756, came to an end with the fall of Córdoba in 1031. Its demise was precipitated by the vizier, al-Mansur, who usurped power from 978 to 1002, reducing thereby the role of the Umayyad caliph, Hisham II, to that of figurehead.

At his death, al-Mansur was succeeded by his sons Abd al-Malik (1002-1008), and Abd al-Rahman or Sanchuelo (1008-1009); like their father, both restricted Hisham to a figurehead role. Sanchuelo’s assassination in 1009 unleashed a period of political instability as warring rivals for the caliphal title embroiled al-Andalus in two decades of civil war.

Following the demise of Córdoba in 1031, al-Andalus collapsed into a fragmented heap, out of which numerous mini states –known as the kingdoms of taifa (“party” or “faction”)– emerged. The dismemberment of al-Andalus was later described poignantly by an Andalusi poet as “the breaking of the necklace and the scattering of its pearls” (Fletcher, Cid27).

Exactly how many taifas emerged is difficult to determine. Some scholars put the number as high as 50 at first; others place the number in the 30s.  Where there is general agreement is that the taifas were forged by local strongmen who took power into their own hands.

Some of these new “kings” or emirs belonged to existing family dynasties whose allegiance to Córdoba was already suspect, especially in those areas furthest from Córdoba.

Others were Berber mercenaries (or descendants of Berber mercenaries) and still others rose from locally prominent figures, civil, military or even descendants of slaves, taking power by dint of their own personalities. The discord arising from the disunity, however, could only lead to instability. These small states were fragile creations, constantly pressured both by internal rivalries and by external challenges from more powerful neighbours.

The result was that gradually the more powerful taifas swallowed up the smaller ones, until we have left some half dozen of consequence, grouped around large cities: Zaragoza, Valencia, Toledo, Badajoz, Seville and Granada.

With time, Seville became the most important taifa, and Córdoba now scarcely features in the list! As political units, however, the taifa kings carried little weight: they had neither the prestige of a caliphal title nor could they lay claim to any connection with the Ummayad dynasty.

Al-Andalus in 1035, showing main taifa kingdoms. These were further reduced, leaving some half dozen major taifas: Zaragoza, Valencia, Toledo, Badajoz, Seville and Granada.

There is no need to follow the convoluted internal world of these taifa kingdoms. What is clear is that as small independent units, their ability to influence matters beyond their frontiers became negligible. The fall of Córdoba then not only meant that al-Andalus was unable to interfere in the politics of the Christian kingdoms to the north or undertake raids (razzias) at will (as Abd al-Rahman III and al-Mansur had done in the 10th century), it also signalled a loss of influence in the Mediterranean and, particularly, in the Maghreb.

Indeed, as separate political entities, the taifa kingdoms struggled to survive.  And since survival was as much a political question as it was religious, the taifa kings often allied themselves with the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain against fellow Muslims if rivalry from the latter made it necessary.

The nature of the alliances with the Christian kingdoms, however, was not that of equals. It was based, rather, on annual payments (called parias) whereby the stronger Christians kings promised aid in return for a generous tribute.

It was in effect a humiliating compromise, but it satisfied the parties concerned: the Christian kings got gold which they could farm out as they saw fit, and the taifa kings could claim protection if threatened. But underneath the diplomatic niceties, what was taking place was a large scale protection racket.

One of the best at it was Fernando I, king of León and Castile from 1035 to 1065, who ended up receiving tributes from Zaragoza, Toledo and Badajoz (and occasionally also from Seville and Valencia!). His son, Alfonso VI, was also a good exponent of the art of extortion, as were Sancho IV of Navarre and the counts of Barcelona. How Abd al-Rahman III or al-Mansur must have turned in their graves at the humiliating reversals of fortune in so short a time!

Political instability was not limited to al-Andalus. Following the death of Ferdinand I in 1065, his kingdom was divided between his three sons, a decision which precipitated outbreaks of hostilities as the three sought control of León and Castile.  One anomaly arising out of this was that two of them, Alfonso (later Alfonso VI) and his younger brother, García, ended up exiled in the courts of taifa rulers, Alfonso in Toledo and Garcia in Seville. They were both treated royally by their Muslim hosts.

Naturally, not all Muslims were satisfied with paying of parias, and voices were heard to protest. One was that of the poet, theologian and philospher Ibn Hazm (994-1064), an Umayyad supporter who had witnessed and been horrified by the destruction of Córdoba. Shortly before his death, he declaimed against the shame of collaboration:
By God, I swear that if the tyrants [i.e taifa rulers] were to learn that they could attain their ends more easily by adopting the religion of the Cross, they would certainly hasten to profess it! Indeed, we see that they ask the Christians for help and allow them to take away Muslim men, women and children as captives to their lands. Frequently they protect them in their attacks against the most inviolable lands, and ally themselves with them in order to gain security  (Fletcher Moorish Spain 109).

Ibn Hazm’s preoccupation centred on the shame of submission; Muslim religious leaders focussed on the corruption of court life and on the imposition of taxes by the emirs on their  own subjects, contrary to Islamic law.

No serious change in the situation occurred, however, until 1085 when Alfonso (by now back from exile and king of León/Castile as Alfonso VI), dissatisfied with the internal instability of the taifa of Toledo, took over the kingdom.

The fall of Toledo had a galvanising effect on the rest of the taifas. The vulnerability of their situation stared them in the face and so, led by the ruler of Seville, al-Mu’tamid, they turned for protection to their fellow Muslims in the Maghreb. It was not an easy decision, however, because a newly established and militant fundamentalist regime, the Almoravids, had taken power in the Maghreb and the taifa rulers knew about their fanaticism.

For the taifa kings, then, it was a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils; in making up his mind, al-Mu’tamid is reported to have said that he preferred to be camel driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile (he did end up in Morocco, a captive rather than camel driver!). With the advent of the Almoravids, a new chapter was about to begin in al-Andalus.

Taifa Culture.
Despite the political fragmentation of al-Andalus, the taifa states provided surprisingly favourable conditions for a wide array of cultural and intellectual pursuits.

During the pre-eminence of Córdoba, much of the artistic and intellectual activity had centred on the capital. With the fragmentation of al-Andalus, however, the creative spirit now extended to the capitals of the taifa kingdoms.

The explanation for this is to be found in the rivalry amongst taifa rulers as they vied to outdo each other in emulating the greatness of Córdoba. Politically impotent, the kings sought self-aggrandisement through patronage of the arts and sciences, and attracted poets, artists, artisans and scholars to their courts with promises of profits and prestige.

The flowering of the arts took many forms, from ivory carvings, ceramics, textiles, glass and metalwork  to exquisite poetry and splendid architecture.  Of these, lyric poetry –always a feature of Arabic culture– was especially cultivated. Indeed, many of the taifa leaders were themselves poets (al-Mu’tamid of Seville comes to mind), but equally important poets became effective tools in a literary battle between the taifa kings, as well as useful and prestigious mouthpieces to eulogise the leaders themselves.  The panegyric tradition was a long and cherished one in Arabic culture and its propaganda value widely recognised: it legitimised the role of the leader and upheld his authority at the same time that it proclaimed the artistry of the poet (and the better the poet the greater prestige of the king, and the greater the poet’s reward!). But the pen of poetic praise could also be armed with satire and directed at the enemy; it could also ease and oil the wheels of diplomacy.

Poetic competitions, often in the form of riddles on given topics, sharpened the wits of the participants and landed them prestigious positions at the same time that it whetted the appetite of a cultured elite well versed in the intricacies of poetic compositions. Perhaps no better indicator of the significance of poetry and poets is the observation that the major part of the budgets of the taifa states was spent on poetry.

Given the rivalry between various taifas, it is not surprising that the rulers also sought to impress with the construction of palaces, and the building, enlargement or strengthening of fortresses (strong fortresses were also vital in view of the precarious political situation of the taifa kingdoms).

Very little remains now of the taifa palaces; the best preserved and most beautiful example is the much restored Aljafería of Zaragoza. Begun under Ahmad ibn Sulayman al-Muqtadir in the second half of the 11th century, the palace is a complex combination of Umayyad inspired arches (the horseshoe and polylobed arches are reminiscent of the Great Mosque of Córdoba).

Zaragoza.Patio in the Aljafería.
Zaragoza: Aljafería. These arches are reminiscent of the multilobed arches of the maqsura in the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

Al-Muqtadir considered himself something of a poet, astronomer and mathematician, and attracted like-minded scholars to his court in the Aljafería, which soon became a centre of intellectual activity.

Barrucand, Marianne & Bednorz, Achim  Moorish Architecture in Andalusia  Cologne 1992
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  The Quest for the Cid London 1989
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
Vernet, Joan & Masats, Ramon  Al-Andalus: El Islam en España  Barcelona 1987
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