Al-Andalus. 9th Century.

Al-Andalus: 9th Century.

Emirs: Al-Hakam I (r 796-822), Abd al-Rahman II (r 822-852), Muhammad I (r 852-886), Al-Mundhir (r 886-888), Abd-Allah (r 888-912) 

Between the dramatic changes of the 8th century and the splendour of the 10th, the 9th century might best be described as combining turbulence with periods of prosperity.

Territorially, al-Andalus still controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula, although the emerging Christian kingdoms of the North West were gradually inching their way south. Already, by the second half of the 8th century a broad buffer zone, a kind of no man’s land, existed along the Duero river valley, subject to raids from both Christians and Moors.

Perhaps the course of events would have been different had the Moors secured frontier garrisons further north, but their principal defensive positions ran in a line roughly from Badajoz, Mérida, Toledo, Medinaceli to Zaragoza.*

*Lesser garrisons or outposts ran roughly
from Coimbra (Portugal), Salmanca,
Sepúlveda, Tudela, Huesca.

This was to give Christians from Asturias and Galicia ample room to manoeuvre southwards, and gradually populate the buffer zone.

Although the map is entitled “Spain in 910,” it reflects quite accurately the extension of both al- Andalus (Emirate of Córdoba and Independent Moorish States on the map) and the early Christian kingdoms in the late 9th century.

Within al-Andalus the conflicts and feuds of the 8th century persisted. There were tensions between Arabs and Muwallads (i.e. Christians who had converted to Islam), and between both of these groups and the Berbers throughout the 9th century.

As early as 806 al-Hakam I (r.796-822) is documented to have ordered the beheading of 5.000 of Toledo’s leaders in reprisal for a rebellion. Later he put down a revolt in Córdoba itself, crucifying some 300 of the instigators upside down, and demolishing their quarter across the river. The remaining families, some 8.000 individuals, were packed off to Fez (in Morocco), where they settled in an area still known as Fes el Andalous.

Not for nothing did al-Hakam earn the title of “Butcher of al-Andalus.” Obsessed with passing on his emirate intact to his descendants, al-Hakam justified his brutal measures to his son, claiming that “Like the tailor who uses his needle to sew together pieces of cloth, so I used my sword to unite my divided provinces… I leave you, my son, a pacified domain; it is a bed on which you can sleep untroubled, for I have taken care that no rebel will disturb your slumber” (Williams 52).

Events show that the son, Abd al-Rahman II (822-852), wasn’t able to sleep entirely untroubled, although consensus is that his reign was by and large peaceful and productive. He directed a military campaign against the Asturians in 842, put down a rebellion in Zaragoza the following year and beat off an attack by the Vikings in 844 (they sailed up the Guadalquivir to Seville and looted the area).

Abd al-Rahman II’s main interests, however, were books and concubines, and Córdoba under him developed an indulgent and relatively relaxed life style. An amateur astronomer and scientist, as well as an accomplished poet, Abd al-Rahman II encouraged learned men from all over the Muslim world to his court.

The most accomplished undoubtedly was Ali ibn Nafi, better known as Ziryab, a famous musician and singer at the court of the Caliph of Baghdad, whose skills also extended to astronomy and geography. Ziryab took with him the latest in musical innovations from the east, and is said to have added a fifth string to the four-string lute, thereby expanding significantly the instrument’s potential.

But it is as arbiter of taste that Ziryab is best remembered. Fastidious about his hygiene, he advocated short hair cuts, clean finger nails, and the use of an underarm deodorant and toothpaste. He was also a keen chess player and something of a gourmet.

Long before the West knew what a menu was, he scorned the serving of food en masse, and insisted on separate courses, first soup, then hors d’oeuvres, followed by fish, meat and desserts of fruit, nuts or compote. And out went heavy gold or silver goblets for drink, to be replaced by delicate glassware. To ensure this, he saw to it that a glass factory was established in Córdoba, the fame of which soon spread far and wide.

For a refined taste such as Ziryab’s, clothes clearly required attention. He advocated different fashions according to the seasons: light silk robes and bright colours for the spring, white for the summer and quilted gowns or furs for the winters.

Abd al-Rahman’s successor, Muhammad I (one of 45 sons and 42 daughters, so Arab chronicles tell us!), did not enjoy such a peaceful reign (852-886). He started off by inheriting a problem that sprung up during the last two years of his father’s rule: a rash of Christians (Mozarabs i.e. Christians living in al-Andalus who had assimilated Arab customs and habits) who were feverishly bent on martyrdom.

It started when leading Christians in Córdoba expressed concern with the loss of Christian identity in their community.  They remarked that many Mozarabs were more versed in Arabic than Latin, wore Muslim clothes, ate Muslim food and read Muslim poetry. 

A lengthy quote from Paul Alvarus a Christian scholar of those times, gives some idea of the concerns of the Mozarab leaders: Our Christian men, with their elegant airs and fluent speech, are showy in their dress, and are famed for the learning of the gentiles (heathens here, i.e. Muslims); intoxicated with Arab eloquence they greedily devour and zealously discuss the books of the Chaldeans (i.e. 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 thousand 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 better poems, every line ending with the same letter, which display high flights of beauty and more skill in handling metre than the gentiles themselves possess (Watt & Cachia 47). 

Given the relatively generous degree of tolerance by the Muslims, the Christians had to work quite hard at upsetting the Muslim hierarchy. The key was to insult Muhammad or Islam and declare them false, for which the punishment was death.

Even so, the Muslims appeared to have tried to reason with the blasphemers if the case of a certain Isaac is anything to go by. When the cadí or judge suggested to him that his behaviour was prompted by drunkenness or a momentary derangement, Isaac haughtily rejected the opening offered and welcomed a violent death. He got it, hanging upside down on the gallows. Several dozens are calculated to have died in this eccentric search for martyrdom between 850 and 859, when finally the Church, fearing that the Muslims would lose patience and impose forced conversion, discouraged the practice.

More problems for Muhammad I and his successors, Al-Mundhir and Abd-Allah, arose from the three major border garrisons, Zaragoza, Toledo and Mérida, not so much from Christians but from local Muslim leaders of Muwallad origin. One of the results of entrusting the defences of these frontier regions to powerful families was that they developed a degree of independence that threatened central authority.

Rebellions became common in the second half of the 9th century, and set a disturbing trend that was arrested during the 10th century only by the personality of two powerful figures, Abd al-Rahman III and al-Mansur. (With their deaths, however, allegiance to Córdoba quickly collapsed when the city itself was overrun by rebellious Berbers in 1031.)

Not all of the problems came from the border areas; internally too Muhammad, Al-Mundhir and Abd-Allah, faced challenges from several quarters. The main one came from a rebel Muwallad, one Umar ibn Hafsun, entrenched in the mountainous region surrounding Ronda.

A certain mystique surrounds Ibn Hafsun, part brigand with something of a Robin Hood aura in that, according to a late source, he protected the local peasants against excessive taxes and forced labour imposed by Córdoba. Ibn Hafsun started his adventurous life killing a man and escaping into the mountains. He sought protection in North Africa, returned to al-Andalus, gathered around him a rebel army of dissatisfied Muwallads and set up his headquarters in Bobastro, deep in the mountains north east of Ronda.

Obliged to surrender in 883 and join the emir’s army, he deserted (claiming discrimination), returned to the mountains and actually extended his influence along a large area of the south. He outlasted Muhammad, Al-Mundhir, and Abd-Allah, and held his position until his death in 917/8.  Quarrels amongst Ibn Hafsun’s sons allowed Abd al-Rahman III to regain control 10 years later.

A curious tale was attached to Ibn Hafsun. When Abd al-Rahman III’s forces entered his fortress at Bobastro, they found a Christian church (the remains of which still stand as an example of Mozarabic architecture). Upon removing his remains (which were to be taken to Córdoba for public “execution”), they discovered that Ibn Hafsun had been buried in the Christian tradition.

If it is true that Ibn Hafsun converted to Christianity –and it appears he did in 899, according to the 10th-century Cordoban historian Ibn Hayyan–, then he might well have been responsible for the Mozarabic church at Bobastro.

Bobastro: remains of the church cut out of rocks.

The tale of ibn Hafsun`s Christian burial also casts light on the dynamics of religious tensions, not so much of the period in which Ibn Hafsun lived, but of later times when certain claims could have significant propaganda value.

For Christians of the later Reconquista, it would be quite a coup to demonstrate that a supposed Muwallad had really been a Christian who had outwitted the best that the Moors could throw against him. Abd al-Rahman III, however, would have been much more concerned with demolishing Ibn Hafsun than wondering what future generations would make of the rebel.

A note about Bobastro: Not all scholars are satisfied that Bobastro was ibn Hafsun’s fortress; they feel that the church was carved out of rock by a small rural Christian community living in virtual mountain isolation. But the association of ibn Hafsun with Bobastro enjoys such wide currency that it will require irrefutable proof to overturn popular acceptance.

Collins, Roger  Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity 400-1000  London 1995
Collins, Roger  Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide  Oxford 1998

Fletcher, Richard   Moorish Spain  London 1992
Hitchcock, Richard Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain Aldershot, Hampshire 2008
Jacobs, Michael  A Guide to Andalusia  London 1990
Lomax, Derek  The Reconquest of Spain London 1978
Monacal, Maria R  The Ornament of the World  Boston, New York, London 2002
Watt, Montgomery & Cachia, Pierre  A History of Islamic Spain Garden  City, New York 1967
Williams, Mark  The Story of Spain Fuengirola, Malaga, Spain 1990

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