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Spanish history in art and literature

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Be careful who you ask for help
26 September 2020

The vicious civil war amongst the ruling Umayyad taifas in al-Andalus had debilitated them and culminated in the destruction of Córdoba and the Shining City. However, King Alfonso VI of Castile and León was still as big a threat as ever, and would certainly take advantage of this weakness. Sure enough, the taifa of Seville soon came under threat from Alfonso’s forces. After the fall of Toledo to Alfonso in 1085, its caliph, al-Mu'tamid, had launched a series of aggressive attacks on neighbouring kingdoms to amass more territory for himself, but in the end he was still vastly inferior to the Christian forces. 

He consulted with his advisors about asking the Almoravid caliph in Marrakesh, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, for his help. If he were to be conquered by the Christians, he would be forced to pay a humiliating jizya (tribute) that would cripple his caliphate. His son, Rashid, was more outspoken and he railed against inviting the Almorovids into al-Andalus. His father answered with the famous speech.

“I have no desire to be branded by my descendants as the man who delivered al-Andalus as prey to the infidels. I am loath to have my name cursed in every Muslim pulpit. And, for my part, I would rather be a camel-driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile.”  In their haste and fear, they made a huge error and sent envoys to Marrakesh asking for help.

We have been watching events in Iberia, but North Africa had undergone its own revolution. Western North Africa had been made up of a number of separate tribes, but a Gazzula Berber leader named Abdallah ibn Yasin rose to prominence and united them. His name is a clue to his origins, "son of Ya Sin" suggests that he had obliterated his family past and was "re-born" of the Holy Book, meaning that he was probably a convert to Islam rather than born to the faith. He was a puritan zealot, characterized by a rigid formalism and strict adherence to the dictates of the Qur'an, and Orthodox tradition. Other Berber tribes often referred to them as the al-mulathimun (the veiled ones) because of the tagelmust, a veil which covered their lower face below the eyes. Present day Tuareg people still wear them, and though highly practical in the dust of the desert, the Almoravids insisted on wearing them everywhere as a way of emphasising their puritan brand of faith. Under their law, those not of their creed were forbidden to wear the veil, and so in al-Andalus, it served to distinguish them as the ruling class. The Umayyads considered them to be fanatical barbarians, but they knew that without Almoravid help, the Christians would have stormed through al-Andalus.

The Almoravids, led by Yusuf ibn Tashfin crossed the straits to Algeciras, and from there to Seville, where they set up a base camp. Tashfin was joined by the caliphs of Málaga, Seville and Granada, and their troops marched as one army to Badajoz, where they were joined by the troops of that taifa. The Muslim army now numbered between 60,000 to 80,000 men.

Outnumbered 20 to 1, Alfonso opened peace negotiations. Tashfin offered to allow the Christians to convert to Islam, pay a crippling tribute, or fight. Alfonso chose to fight. At dawn on the morning of October 23, 1086 the Christians charged and sacked the camp of one of the taifas, killing several of their leaders. By the afternoon however Alfonso was encircled by the superior forces, and the battle was clearly lost. By the evening, half the Christian army lay dead on the battlefield. The losses were heavy on the Muslim side, too, and this prevented the Moors from capitalising on their gain. Castile had not lost the psychologically important city of Toledo, and many of the taifas had lost so many leaders and troops that it would take months to rebuild their armies. At this crucial time, Tashfin had to return to Morocco because his oldest son and heir had died. Now known as The Battle of Sagrajas, it took its name from the Arabic description of the battlefield, az-Zallaqah, or "slippery ground" because the warriors had difficulty fighting on the bloody soil.

Yusuf ibn Tashfin returned to al-Andalus in 1090 and was dismayed by what he saw. The lax behaviour of the taifa kings, both spiritually and militarily, struck him as a breach of Islamic law and principles. Even before the invasion, he had been writing to the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad about extending the Orthodox Qur'an to al-Andalus with the clear intention of, "The spreading of righteousness, the correction of injustice and the abolition of unlawful taxes." The caliphs in such cities as Seville, Badajoz, Almeria and Granada had grown accustomed to the extravagant ways of the west. On top of doling out tribute to the Christians and giving Andalusian Jews unprecedented freedoms and authority, they had levied burdensome taxes on the populace to maintain their lifestyle.

That year, Tashfin exiled the caliphs Abdallah and his brother, Tamim from Granada and Málaga. A year later, al-Mutamid of Seville suffered the same fate. Yusef united all of the Muslim dominions of the Iberian Peninsula, with the exception of Zaragoza, to the Kingdom of Morocco, and situated his royal court at Marrakech. He took the title of Amir al-muslimin (Prince of the Muslims), seeing himself as humbly serving the caliph of Baghdad, but to all intents and purposes he was the caliph of the western Islamic empire. The military might of the Almoravids was at its peak.

The Almoravids had gained little ground from the Christians, but one city above all others offended Tashfin’s sensibilities. Valencia was the home to Muslims, Jews and Christians, and under the weak rule of a petty caliph who was paying a  jizya to the Christians, chief of whom was the famous El Cid. However, Valencia proved to be a stubborn obstacle for the Almoravid military. Tashfin led his fourth campaign against the Christians in 1097 when he tried to fight his way to the practically abandoned, yet historically important, Toledo. On August 15, 1097, the Almoravids delivered a blow to Alfonso’s forces, with a battle in which El Cid's son was killed. The war had become personal.

Tashfin appointed his son, Muhammad ibn’ A’isha, as governor of Murcia, and he laid siege to El Cid's forces at Alcira. The city didn’t fall, but Tashfin was satisfied that the Christians had been brought to heel, and he left for Marrakesh. He returned two years later and renewed his campaign in 1099. El Cid had died in the same year, and his wife, Jimena, had been ruling Valencia with the aid of King Alfonso. Tashfin ordered his lieutenant, Mazdali ibn Tilankan to lay siege to the city, and after a seven-month standoff, Jimena burned down the city’s great mosque and abandoned Valencia to the Moors.

Even though Yusuf ibn Tashfin was Caliph of al-Andalus and all Morocco and had conquered the home city of El Cid, the Christian hero, it is El Cid who is remembered in Spain’s oldest epic story, Poema del Cid, or El Cantar del Mio Cid.

Worse was to come for The Prince of the Muslims. His dynasty would only last another 47 years. In his homeland of Western Africa, in the Atlas Mountains, another Muslim faction was growing and gnawing at the Almoravid’s power base. The Almohads led by Ibn Tumart had begun their climb to ascendancy.

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El Cid, the freelance warrior.
19 September 2020

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar: El Cid

This statue of El-Cid  stands in Seville on El Parador de San Sebastian next to the Plaza de Espña. It is one of 5 editions sculpted by Anna Hyatt Huntington in 1927. The others are located in Valencia, Lincon Park San Francisco, Balbao Park San Diego and Buenas Airies, Argentina. She also sculpted the four Castilian warriors around the statue.

Whilst the looters were still ransacking the remains of The Shining City, a young boy born to minor nobility was working in the court of King Ferdinand I of León under the wing of one of his sons, Prince Sancho. Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar showed his military abilities from an early age. In 1057, Rodrigo fought with Sancho against the Moorish stronghold of Zaragoza, making its emir, al-Muqtadir, a vassal of the king. In the spring of 1063, he fought in the Battle of Graus, where Ferdinand's half-brother, Ramiro I of Aragon, was laying siege to the Moorish town of that name. Al-Muqtadir, aided by Castilian troops including El Cid, fought against the Aragonese. During the battle Ramiro I was killed, and the fight turned into rout. One of the stirring legends surrounding El Cid was that during the conflict he killed an Aragonese knight in single combat, thereby receiving the honorific title "Campeador".

When King Ferdinand died in 1064, his will divided the kingdom between his three sons. Sancho’s brothers became Alfonso VI of León and García II of Galicia, and Sancho became king Sancho II of Castile. Sancho immediately began a series of campaigns during which he captured land from his two brothers as well as the Muslim kingdoms in al-Andalus. Rodrigo, grew in Sancho’s court and rose to become a military commander and the royal standard-bearer for Castile.

After the death of Ferdinand, Sancho continued to enlarge his territory, conquering the Moorish strongholds of Zamora and Badajoz. He also fought in many major battles against Sancho’s brothers, and his reputation grew as a general. But when Sancho learned that Alfonso was planning on overthrowing him in order to gain his territory, it was El Cid that he sent to bring Alfonso to his court so that Sancho could speak to him. The avaricious Alfonso evaded all charges made by his brother, but the jealousy between them increased and during a siege at Zamora, Sancho was lured into a private meeting and murdered. El Cid was now in the centre of a royal murder trial.

This depiction of the "Santa Gadea Oath" was painted by Armando Menocal in 1889 and is one of several paintings showing the famous trial. Armando was a native of Cuba, but came to Spain in 1880 where he discovered the work of Joaquin Sorolla and others. He exhibited in Spain winning several awards before returning to Cuba to become the director of the Academy of San Alejandro

Rodrigo was now in the difficult position of having bear witness against Alfonso who was accused of killing his own brother. Alfonso was cleared of the charges, and became King Alfonso VI of Castile and León, but Rodrigo was never fully trusted again, and was demoted in the new king’s court. He carried on serving the king for a while, but finally in 1081 he was forced into exile.

Allegiances had to be fluid to survive in those times, and Rodrigo went to fight for the Muslim rulers of Zaragoza, who were warring against the Christian states of Aragon and Barcelona. He distinguished himself as a general during campaigns against the Muslim rulers of Lérida and their Christian allies. It was around about now that he earned his Arabic nickname, al-Sayyid; the Lord. It was corrupted by Christian tongues into El Cid, and the name was carried into history along with the fame of Rodrigo.

King Alfonso strengthened his borders with the caliphates, which were organised into separate autonomous taifas led by local lords. Castile had the same system, where the fueros were administered by a local dukes, and Alfonso fed them arms and soldiers until they were ready to creep forward and take Muslim lands. He repopulated the cities of Segovia, Avila and Salamanca, but his biggest prize was the conquest of the taifa of Toledo. Alfonso was a very clever king, who used all diplomatic means to achieve his aims and only used force as a last resort. His taking of Toledo was over several decades, and Alfonso played the infighting lords of the Muslim city-states against each other and encouraged Christian settlers to move into Muslim lands until there was a mix of both living in the Muslim controlled city. The most powerful of the Islamic leaders was al-Quadir of Toledo, but he soon found that he was under attack from other Muslim states, and was forced to ally himself with Alfonso to defend himself from them. The inhabitants of Toledo, now sick of the constant power-plays, gladly allowed the Christians to “take” Toledo, even staging a fake siege to let everybody keep face. In fact, the capture of Toledo was entirely bloodless. 

Toledo had been an important Visigoth city, and was still powerful under the Arabs. Its inclusion into Castile earned Alfonso great respect throughout the Christian world. He added Galicia and León to his kingdoms, and began a campaign to take Zaragoza, too. As his power and fame spread, he gave himself the title of Emperor of all Hispania instead of just King of Castile. His use of Hispania was the first time that the namehad been used in the context of a unified country of kingdoms.

The taifas were worried now about the Christian incursions into their caliphates. They were weak and disorganised after their own bouts of civil war, and asking for help from the Almoravids, though not entirely popular, seemed like a good idea. The Almoravids arrived and Alfonso met them near to Badajoz at the Battle of Sagrajas. Alfonso lost the battle, but retained all his lands. Unfotunately for the caliphates, they had allowed a greedy and very powerful emir and his army into al-Andalus.

Alfonso now realised that the game had just changed for the worse, and he needed all the allies that he could muster. Rodrigo was not easily bought, and began to strengthen his ties with the kingdom-city of Valencia, operating more or less independently of Alfonso.  He began supporting the Banu Hud and other Muslim dynasties who opposed the Almoravids and gradually increased his control over Valencia.  By 1092 the city was under his control, and the Islamic ruler, al-Qadir was forced to pay him parias, or tribute. The Almoravids by now controlled many of the smaller city-states and stirred up an uprising against El Cid. In the battle to regain control of Valencia, al-Qadir was killed and El Cid took control and created an independent principality with the full support of both Muslims and Christians.

When the troubled Muslim princes had asked the Almoravids to intervene on their behalf, they had made a big mistake. The Arab princes who ruled al-Andalus had been replaced by Almoravid leaders, and by 1094 the Almoravid lord, Ibn Tashfin, ruled all of Muslim Iberia.

El Cid and much more about the history of Spain can be seen on my website at:


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Yes, but what did the Arabs ever do for us?
12 September 2020

My aim with these blogs about Spain was to show the art and writing of Spain during its history, but so far I have been talking mostly about warfare, and in the next few weeks I will be writing about 3 more waves of African invasion. But I want to stop here and take stock of where we are and maybe show you something better than warfare.

We have reached the first millennium after the birth of Christ, but peace on Earth was as far away as it was in Roman times. The Catholic Church covered Europe north of the Mediterranean, whilst Islam and the Arabs ruled its eastern and southern shores. The pope in Rome was now emperor of Christendom, and the Church was about to show its muscle.

From about 1020, with papal backing, the Normans invaded and captured Muslim controlled Sicily before going on through many campaigns to take control of the toe and heel of Italy, which had been under the control of the other half of the old Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire.

In 1066, again with papal encouragement, the Normans invaded England, which had been struggling with repeated Viking attacks, threatening to turn it into a pagan country. But in 1070, the Seljuk Turks took Jerusalem and began to torture the Christians who lived there. By 1095, the mistreatment of the Christians had become so bad that Byzantine Emperor Alexios I sent his envoys to Pope Urban II asking for help from western Christians to liberate the region from the Turks. Pope Urban II toured Gaul to encourage support for a campaign to free Jerusalem from Muslim control. He gave a historic sermon at the Council of Clermont when he exhorted the nobles to embark on the journey to "liberate" Byzantines, or Eastern Christians from the "pagan race." The First Crusade was underway.

We can’t look at the history of Spain without mentioning the other Abrahamic religion. Two of Rome’s emperors were from Italica in southern Iberia; Trajan and Hadrian, (Theodosius may have been a third emperor born in Italica, but it has been disputed.) and it was during the reign of Nero that the Jews first rebelled in 66. The Jews had lived in Canaan since the late second millennium BCE, but after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Romans tightened their control of the Jews in the area, and unrest against the Romans grew. Revolt erupted again in 132 led by Bar Kokhba, and it quickly spread from central Judea across the country, cutting off the Roman garrison in Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem).  Despite arrival of significant Roman reinforcements, initial Jewish victories over the Romans established an independent state over most parts of Judea Province that lasted two years.

Hadrian was emeror by this time and he gathered a force made up of six full legions to invade Judea in 134, and in the resulting battle 580,000 Jews perished, with many more dying later of hunger and disease. Many Judean war captives were sold into slavery and the Jewish communities of Judea were devastated to an extent which some scholars describe as genocide. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea or Ancient Israel, Emperor Hadrian wiped the name Judea off the map and replaced it with Syria Palaestina. He further barred Jews from entering Jerusalem, and from then on they were a people without a homeland and were scattered to every part of the known world.

But amidst all this warfare, the seeds had been sown for a better future. The Caliphate of Córdoba had been the centre of learning and culture for around 100 years, far outshining any other European city. Its libraries were full of the books of Greek, Egyptian and Arabic knowledge, and for a while, it was the envy of the world. There were other centres of learning in Iberia which were gathering a reputation, too.  Toledo and Granada had several libraries each, which in total contained some 3,000 books. In the century to come, Toledo would become a centre for the translation of the books written in Arabic and Greek into the new language that was forming from this mix of old-world tongues; Castilian.

The establishment of the first dedicated higher learning institution for teaching and study was to be in a very unlikely place. Initially founded as a madrasa or mosque in 879, Al-Karouine in the ancient walled city of Fez, attracted mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers and religious leaders to teach or study. The 12th century cartographer, Mohammed al-Idrisi lived in Fez around 1130 and travelled throughout the whole of the Mediterranean area. It was Idrisi’s maps that aided European exploration for the next 200 years.


Bologna established its university 1086 followed by Oxford, England in 1096 and the competition to attract the finest minds to teach became fierce. The earliest Christian centre for teaching and study in Iberia was the Studium Generale in Palencia in 1212. It was endorsed by King Alfonso VIII of Castile, who was one of many kings who would encourage the translation of the abandoned Arabic libraries. In the first centuries of the new millennium, copies of Ptolomy’s star catalogue, the Almagest which had been lost to Christendom, turned up written in Arabic with corrections and additions by Al-Sufi, possibly the greatest of the Islamic astronomers. Al-Sufi's treatise on star cartography, or uranography, (published in 903) was called The Book of Constellations of the Fixed Stars (Kitab Suwar al-Kawakib al-Thabita) and became a classic of Islamic astronomy. It was al-Sufi who gave all the stars in the constellations the Arabic names they still bear today.

 With the encouragement of subsequent popes other Studiums opened in Alcalá de Henares and Valencia, and masters who taught in one could go to any of the others and teach or study. But the most important thing about the Studiums, was that they were open to Christians, Jews or Muslims, without prejudice. In fact, all three aided in the translation of books left by the Moors. In the new Iberia, the Jews became leaders in medicine, and some of the Arabic legal statutes were adopted by Christian kings. Finally, it was an Arab, Hasan al-Rammah, a chemist and engineer working in the Mamluk Sultanate, who around 1250 made the first drawings of weapons which used gunpowder.

We all know that the lands around the Mediterranean have been a source of ambition, warfare and slavery, with empires rising and falling and constant bloodshed. But the most lasting impression of these times is in the architecture the Arabs left behind. The beauty of their buildings is beyond doubt, and even more impressive considering that most of Northern Europeans at this time lived in primitive huts. Perhaps with a little more time, peace could have been the outcome.

Even in the present day, there are those who are trying to bring about peace. The king of Morocco and the Junta de Andalucía came together 1998 to create a religious forum based on the principles of peace, tolerance and dialog. There are few organizations in the world that represent the three Mediterranean cultures of Islam, Catholicism and Judaism. Their aim is to find common ground for stability between these religions and they pursue it with dedication and openness. The Foundation has been endorsed by the Peres Centre for Peace, the Palestinian National Authority and other individuals and institutions in Israel, committed to promote understanding resolve conflict. They also have the support of the European Union, but clearly, this is an enormous task given present day tensions.

Their base is in Seville amidst the now disused Expo ‘92 exhibition buildings on La Isla de La Cartuja. At first sight, it looks as though it is put together haphazardly, as though the Lego that it was built from was a mix of two different building sets. But it is what is inside that is important.

The building itself is designed to recreate the Islamic influence evident all over Spain, but to modern standards. There is no thousand years of wear and tear here. It’s all brand new. The first view of the interior is very impressive, with a highly polished marble floor and a huge grey, eight pointed star inlaid with ceramic tiles in the centre of the room. Around the marble fountain are glass panels set into the floor admitting light to the floor below and permitting a view of the marble circular pool directly below the star. 

The first floor is where the women would pray unseen from the men below. The women´s gallery is an illustration of the finest carpentry and painting as practiced by the artisans of antiquity.

Above this, is a wooden dome composed of beautifully painted timbers and highly polished panels.

Looking down from the woman's gallery, you can see the intricate and beautiful design of the ground floor mosaic and the glass panels designed to give the impression of still water. Below the glass, is the basement level, with a crystal stalactite dribbling water into a still pool. In a circle around this tranquil scene are beautifully decorated arches leading to side rooms for private prayer or meditation.

By comparison, the Alhambra and The Mesquite in Cordoba are undeniably impressive, but dulled by 700 years of use, the paint and carvings bearing the patina of smoky candles and oil lamps. The colours here are bright, clear and vibrant.

On the first floor, in corners off from the woman's gallery are carved ceilings with delicate painted scenes in astounding detail showing the mastery of Islamic art.

The foundation has a high ideal, but it’s in the right place. The straits have always been the hotspot for immigration or invasion, and if some respect and tolerance can be taught here, then the next thousand years might be better.

See much more about the history of Spain on my website at:




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The warrior saint
05 September 2020

The north of Iberia had evaded the Islamic invasion primarily because of its mountainous terrain, which afforded the Christian defenders a wealth of hiding places and ambush traps for invading troops. Also, in winter, many of the high passes were closed by snow, and there were easier gains for the Moors and better pastures in the lowlands. The Romans thought pretty much the same, and they left the north west of Iberia alone, too. In fact, the Romans had called Galicia the “finis terrae” or the end of the world. To them, the Atlantic Ocean stretched off into infinity, and they believed that Galicia was where the souls of the dead rested before making the long journey to the afterlife. The encirclement by the Moors served to concentrate those of the Christian faith and strengthen their traditions and folklore. They were isolated, whilst Islam dominated most of Iberia and the holy land, the home of their faith. The future looked pretty bleak for Christians, and they needed something to rally around closer to home.

The Moorish forces led by Musa ibn Nusayr had already swept past the old kingdoms. Abd al-Rahman I took control of Arab forces in al-Andalus in 756 and consolidated his grip after his coup. The kingdom of Asturias was the strongest force in the Christian zone, and when its king, Alfonso I, conquered León and Galicia in 754, it became a safe haven for all the dispossessed Christians from the south. It was Alfonso who created the Desert of the Duero, a depopulated buffer zone between Muslim and Christian lands, so that invading armies would have to carry their supplies instead of looting them, and it was Alfonso who began the enormous task of taking back those lands that the Moors had captured.

The first mention of Santiago was in a poem or song written around 783, but little is known about it. The name itself is a hint. Saint James in Vulgar Latin is, Sanctus Iacobus, which, when corrupted by the local Galician dialect Comes out as Santiago. St. James was beheaded in Jerusalem the year 42 on the orders of Herod, and the legend tells that his body was transported from the Holy Land to Galicia in a miraculous ship made of stone. Most historians consider this to have been a local home-grown legend.

It was during the reign of King Mauregato, around 820, that the legend gained momentum. In a hermitage called Peleo in the forest of Libradón, a group of devotees saw miraculous lights in the sky which seemed to fall to earth over a hillock in nearby woods. When the abbot of the hermitage reported this to his bishop, Iria Flavia, the bishop told his superior, Teodomira, who came with an entourage of clerics to witness the events for himself. Over a number of nights, they all watched the stellar display. They cleared the forest over the hillock and began excavating and soon found a stone sepulchre containing three bodies. Teodomira immediately rushed away to tell King Alfonso II about the miracle that he had seen and the bodies that he had found.

Alfonso was a shrewd king, and he saw the potential for a god given icon that his armies could unite under and fight for. He ordered the bishop to build a small church next to the tomb and use this as his seat of office. It was to be called Compostella, from the Vulgar Latin for burial ground, compostia tella, though there is another theory that the name is derived from campus stellae, “field of the star” but this is an unlikely corruption from Latin to medieval Galician. Whatever the name, it attracted the devoted in their droves, and they made pilgrimages to see the tomb of St. James from all four Christian kingdoms and as far away as Gaul. Coincidentally, Alfonso led several successful campaigns against the Moors after the discovery, which gave weight to the idea that St. James was aiding the Christians.

This is where the truth becomes entangled with myth. Alfonso died in 842 and his successor, Ramiros I, continued the fight against the Moors.  According to the legend, Emir Abd al-Rahman II demanded a jizya (a tribute) of 100 virgins, and Ramiros refused to comply.  This resulted in the two armies supposedly meeting at Clavijo, where the Christians were outnumbered, but fought valiantly. Before the battle began, Ramiros prayed for victory, promising to give a part of the booty from the battle to the hermitage of Santiago, along with the first fruits of the harvest each year.

St. James Matamoros, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

In truth, neither Christian nor Moorish records contain any mention of the battle. The legend was first written down about 300 years after the supposed event. Another embellishment that was added to the fictitious battle at an unknown date was that at the peak of the battle, when defeat seemed imminent, some of the soldiers reported seeing a vision of St. James on a white horse brandishing a raised sword leading them to victory. The year and date of the conflict is different depending on which account you read, and the history of the cult of Saint James is rich in such errors. But it doesn’t matter if it was true or not; the Christians had an icon to follow. The reconquesta continued, but what had been a war of conquest for gain through looting and slavery had become a religious war.

This was not lost on the leaders of the Muslim caliphate in Córdoba. The Shining City was nearly complete, but its penultimate patron, Emir Al-Hakam II, died in 976 and Hisham II became the ruler of al-Andalus. Hisham was a child when he took over a civilisation that was at its peak, and his regent, al-Mansur, who was caliph in all but name, took control. After around 200 years of nearly constant incursions the caliphate from Asturius, al-Mansur decided to take the battle to the Christians. This was not altogether a religious or ideological assault, though he knew as well as the Christians did that the symbolism of a strike deep into Christian lands would bolster his support.

The cost of building Madina al-Zahira, and the bribes in land and gold that he had to give in order to maintain his position as caliph, plus the rising cost of the army that he needed to defend his northern borders required that he raise some money from somewhere, and the growing prosperity of the Catholic Church and the population of the four northern Christian kingdoms were a possible source.

Over the next twenty years, he made around 56 assaults during 9 campaigns on the kingdoms, primarily to deter and weaken the Asturian king, but also to return with as much booty as his troops could carry. In modern day values, they were little more than well organised bank raids.

One of them was on the church of Santiago de Compostella, which had grown over the centuries to be a rich area by virtue of the peregrinos, who had brought what was in reality medieval tourism into the area from Northern Iberia and France. The caliph’s troops would never have found the church had it not been for their hired Christian mercenaries who led him to the town. According to history, the caliph rode his horse into the church and allowed it to drink holy water from the font. The captive Christians of Santiago could only watch in horror as he ordered the church burned to the ground.

Hisham’s troops found little of real value, but the church had expensive cast bells in the belfry. They were removed and carried the 860km back to Córdoba, where they were melted down and cast into lamps to be hung in the Great Mosque. Two and a half centuries later, in 1236, the Castilian King, Ferdinand the Third ("The Saint") reconquered Córdoba. His first action was to avenge the humiliation caused by Al-Mansur. He had the lamps carried back to the shrine of Saint James, where they were melted down again to make a new set of bells.

The not so golden age of al-Andalus was coming to a close, and the turn of the century would see the beginning of a thousand years of religious intolerance and warfare. It was never really the peaceful Camelot that the wistful dream about, but it was a good try. By the end of the first century, Christian troops were blessed and said mass before going into battle to slaughter and loot. Popes, Bishops and even one of the disciples of Jesus would lead armies and carry a sword.

As a final irony, when the conquistadores invaded the Americas, they carried banners and icons of St. James Matamoros to rival the indigenous gods and to protect and sanctify the Spanish troops as they robbed the entire continent of its gold and enslaved or murdered the population.

This is not on my website yet, but it will be soon. To see more of the history of Spain please visit:   The website is now smartphone friendly.




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Omar ibn Hafsun
29 August 2020

The final years of his reign must have been bitter for Al Rahman III. He faced rebellion from all quarters, not least from a new adversary who had none of the lineage of centuries of rule in the lands of the Bible that the caliph had.

Omar Ibn Hafsun was born near to Parauta in the mountains near in what is now Málaga sometime around 850. His origins are obscure. One of his contemporaries refers to him as a descendent of black Africans, but another historian writing a hundred years later claims that his lineage went back to Visigoth kings. It is entirely possible that the second version was invented by Ibn Hafsun himself and passed on to posterity. 

Omar ibn Hafsun.

Hafsun was an unruly boy, and soon involved himself with the wrong kind of people. He joined a group of brigands, and soon gained notoriety among the criminal and disaffected elements of the area. He had a violent temper, and he settled his disputes with the sword or knife. Before he was 30 he had become a murderer, and was arrested along with a group of other brigands in the Málaga area. The governor of Málaga was unaware of the murder charge, and fined him and the other thieves. They were released, and Hafsun fled to Morocco on the first ship. When the authorities found out, the governor was dismissed from his post. Hafsun laid low for a while working as a tradesman, and it was during this enforced hiatus that (according to the legend) he met an old man who told him to return to al-Andalus, where he would  become a king and a leader of armies.

In 880 he did return to Málaga, and aided by his uncle, he joined a group of 40 other Christians, muladíes and Berbers, who were prepared to fight against their haughty Arab overlords. They decided to hide in the mountains and gorges of Alto Guadalhorce near to the town of Ard-Allah. (Ardales)  It was here, in a place that was almost inaccessible, that they built Bobastro as their base from which to conduct guerrilla warfare against the forces of the caliph. They enlarged their domain by fortifying Ard-Allah and then capturing or inciting rebellion in local strongholds and towns.

The ruins of Bobastro.

At first, the caliph considered them nothing more than a group of bandits, but in 882 when Hafsun formed an alliance with the King of the Basques, García Íñiguez, in a revolt against him, he realised that Hafsun was a man to be reckoned with. He was forced to send an army to Pamplona to put down the rebellion, and the armies met in battle near the town of Lumbier. The result was a crushing defeat for the rebels. Hafsun escaped and returned to Bobastro, but Íñiguez was killed.

When the caliph realised that Hafsun controlled towns and swathes of land around Cádiz, Jaén, Seville and Granada, and had allied himself with the populations of Archidona, Baeza, Úbeda and Priego, he began to pay careful attention to Hafsun and his followers. He sent his generals out to hunt him down, and eventually large force of the caliph’s army caught up with Hafsun and his men.  

Hafsun saw a likely defeat and began negotiating a truce with al-Rahman. In return for the acknowledgement of the rights of his followers, and permission to live in peace with respect, he promised his obedience to the caliph. Hafsun fought several battles with the emir’s general, Hashim ibn Abd al-Aziz, and won the respect and praise of the caliph’s soldiers with his intelligence and courage. When he rode through Córdoba he was cheered by the crowds, and the caliph granted him the governorship of the Cora province with its capital in Archidona.  Al Rahman invited him back to Córdoba and asked him to be his bodyguard.  His loyal followers were to be the caliph’s guard of honour.

Things were going well for Ibn-Hafsun, but there is a saying that you can take the boy out of the gutter, but you can’t take the gutter out of the boy. The haughty Syrians who had elevated themselves to high positions in the governance of al-Andalus were not about to let this near barbarian and his crowd of rabble-rousers take over the city. Hafsun and his men were snubbed, humiliated, cheated and ridiculed. Everything that they were promised by the caliph was denied them.

In disgust and anger, Hafsun and his men returned to Bobastro and renewed their battle against their Arab lords. He seized the fortresses of Comeres, Mijas and Autha and formed alliances with other rebel groups which gave him control of a large part of southern al-Andalus. Al-Rahman now realised that he must quell Hafsun’s rebellion. He gave his sons, al-Mundhir and Abd Allah, command of his army and sent them out to put an end to his rampage. In 885 Hafsun moved his headquarters 80km north of Bobastro to the town of Poley, so that his forces could respond quickly to any threats.

 The following year, (886) al-Mundhir surrounded Hafsun and his followers, who had allied themselves with another band of rebels, the Banu Rifá, in the town of Alhama, near to Granada, where he laid siege to them. The siege was beginning to take its toll on the rebels’ troops when news came that al-Rahman III had died. Al-Mundhir was forced to return to Córdoba to take over running al-Andalus. But Hafsun was not off the hook. Al-Mundhir wasted no time in organising successful assaults against Hafsun’s strongholds. His army drove Hafsun back and took Archidona, where the caliph ordered that the chief of the Christian rebels be crucified alongside a pig and a dog.

Luck was with Hafsun again in June 888 when he was besieged at Bobastro by the two brothers who had cut off all supply routes to the citadel. The siege was taking effect when al-Mundhir died. His brother, Abd-Allah, concealed his death for three days hoping that Hafsun would capitulate, but he had to raise the siege and return to Córdoba to take control of the caliphate. The retreat by Abd-Allah was now effectively a funeral cortege as they took the body back to Córdoba.

When Hafsun learned of the death, he sent his men out to loot the camp of his besiegers and chase the caravan of mourners. Abd-Allah sent the rebel leader a message to respect his dead brother, and to his surprise, Hafsun called his men off. The new caliph sent a train of 50 mules loaded with food and finery to Bobastro in gratitude, but Hafsun took the presents and continued his war against the new caliph. A furious Al-Mundhir sent back the message that he would be proclaimed caliph over al-Andalus over the dead bodies of the rebels at Bobastro.

Hafsun strengthened his alliances with other disaffected groups around Córdoba, Seville and Jaén. He captured Estepa, Osuna and Ecija in 889. At Baena he massacred the defenders causing Priego and all the towns around to surrender without a fight. By 891 the land under his control stretched from Jaén in the east to Seville in the west. To seek official legitimacy he began to collect taxes and sent emissaries to the Tunisian Aglabis who recognized the Baghdad caliph and then, when they were ousted, with their conquerors the Fatimíes, even though they were they were Shiites and most of al-Andalus were Sunnis. To show that the part of al-Andalus that he controlled was open to all religions he allowed Shiite imams to preach from Mosques controlled by Hafsun.

Hafsun suffered a crushing defeat in 981 when the lost a crucial battle against the caliph, al-Mundhir (now Abdullah ibn Muhammad al-Umawi) at Poley. Hafsun escaped, but the caliph ordered the massacre of all the Christians in Poley, and Hafsun was forced to move his headquarters back to Bobastro.

In 899 Hafsun made a mistake that lost him much of his support. In an effort to ally himself with the Caliphate of Córdoba’s biggest enemy, the Asturian King Alfonso III, Hafsun converted to Christianity and was baptised, taking the name of Samuel. He converted the small mosque at Bobastro into a Christian church and installed a Bishop.

Immediately he lost around half of his supporters. The Berbers and Arabs, his strongest followers, abandoned him. His respect and fame allowed him to continue for a few years more, but his hoped for ally, King Alfonso III, capitalised on Hafsun’s losses and made pacts with those disaffected with him. At the same time, the caliph of Córdoba was relentlessly eating into lands and towns under Hafsun’s control.

In 917 Hafsun died and was interred at Bobastro. His coalition crumbled and for a while his sons tried to maintain resistance, but Bobastro fell in 928 and the troops who had fought for Hafsun were absorbed into the armies of the caliph and sent to fight against the Galicians.

Hafsun’s remains along with the bodies of his dead sons were crucified and put on display outside the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

 The golden age of al-Andalus was about to reach its glorious zenith. The first stones were being laid for the Shining City, which would become the cultural masterpiece of al-Andalus; but it was built on sand. Medina Azahara would only last for 70 years before it was sacked, abandoned and destroyed. Disputes within the caliphate led to civil wars, and caliphs came and were deposed or died with astonishing regularity, some of them only lasting a year. There were 16 caliphs between 929 and 1023.

But the doom of al-Andalus was decreed by an event in the homeland of its Arab rulers. In 1070 the Seljuk Turks had taken Jerusalem and began a systematic torture of the Christians who lived there. By 1095, the situation had become so bad that Byzantine Emperor Alexios I sent his envoys to Pope Urban II with an urgent message, asking for help from western Christians to liberate the region from the infidels. The pope gave a historic sermon at the Council of Clermont and urged the knights, princes and people of the Western Roman Empire to take up arms and to embark on the journey to "liberate" Byzantines or Eastern Christians from the "pagan race."

He said that "whoever for devotion alone, not to obtain honour or money, sets out to liberate church of god in Jerusalem, this will be counted for all his penance." The appeal by the Pope marked the beginning of the First Crusade. The incentive to drive Islam from Iberia had become a holy war.

This post and many others are on my website, which is now smartphone friendly at:  








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Uneasy lies the head.
22 August 2020

The Abbasids had taken control of all the Muslim lands along the southern shores of Mediterranean by 750, creating thousands of homeless Umayyad refugees. In a generous gesture, the Fihrid family welcomed them and allowed them to settle in al-Andalus. These were the sons and grandsons of Caliphs, and had a more valid claim to al-Andalus than the Fihrids. The ingrate newcomers aligned themselves with the disenchanted lords under Fihrid rule and rose up against them.

In 756 the Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman I overthrew the Fihrid family and established himself as Emir of Córdoba. He held the title for thirty years, despite his rule being constantly challenged by the al-Fihri family and the Abbasid Caliph. It was Abd al-Rahman I who ordered the conversion of the Visigoth church in Córdoba into a mosque and laid plans for further construction and enlargement. The mosque was considerably extended by his successors over the next hundred years to become the Great Mosque of Córdoba that we know today.

When he died in 822 his son became Emir of Córdoba as Abd al-Rahman II. His reign was far from peaceful, and from the first day, King Alfonso II of Asturias began a campaign against the new emir that lasted 23 years. After many costly battles, he finally halted the advance of Alfonso by building the citadel of Murcia and populating it with loyal Arabs. He had to do the same at Mérida in 835 to hold down a revolt there. In 837 he suppressed an uprising of Christians and Jews in Toledo using the same measures.

As if this was not enough to contend with, in 844 he had to fight off an invasion by Vikings, who had taken the harbour at Cádiz (though not the fortress), and marched on to take Seville. He only managed to drive them back when they were at the gates of Córdoba. From then on, he had to strengthen his navy and patrol the entire west coast of Iberia to counter the Vikings, who continued making raids through the straits and as far as the Balearics. They also attacked North Arica, and he was obliged to protect his assets there, too.

Under Muslim rule, Christians could retain their churches and property on condition of paying a tribute (jizya) for every parish, cathedral, and monastery. But the ruling Arabs were not without compassion. The Christians and Jews found themselves beneficiaries of a society that supported the old and infirm, as well as the blind, crippled and those forced to live on the streets begging. The Jews had suffered persecution under the Visigoths for centuries, and now they were free to worship as they wished, sharing equal rights with the Christians. Many of the Christians converted to Islam simply to avoid paying the jiya.

But there were a few caveats to Muslim rule that the Christians were unhappy with. They and the Jews had to abstain from any public displays of their faith in the presence of Muslims, as such an act was considered blasphemy under Islamic law and punishable by death. They were also forbidden to actively try to convert Muslims to another faith. The unrest of the Christians erupted into civil disobedience in early 851. The emir at first ordered the arrest and detention of the clerical leadership of the local Christian community.

When the riots had subsided later in the year, the clergy were released. One of the bishops initially imprisoned by al-Rahman was called Eulogius, and during his imprisonment he read the bible to the other Christian prisoners to maintain morale. After their release, the persecution of Christians was renewed, causing many of them to leave and travel north to the Christian kingdoms of León, Navarra and Aragon.

For a while things remained quiet, but several months later there was a new wave of protests, and the emir turned to the Christian leaders as the ones most capable of controlling their own community. Instead of imprisoning them, he ordered them to convene a synod in Córdoba to review the matter and develop some strategy for dealing with the dissidents internally. He gave the bishops a choice: Christians could stop the public dissent or face harassment, loss of jobs, and economic hardship. He issued a decree by which the Christians were forbidden to seek martyrdom in fighting Islam. Unfortunately, the dissenters had drawn attention to themselves, and the Christian persecution escalated, as did Christian resentment and resistance. Finally, al-Rahman II ordered the first of a series of executions for sedition.

The old emir died in 852, but his son al Rahman III intensified the pressure on the Christians to conform. Tension escalated when the King of Asturias died and was replaced by his son, Ordoño, who, after he had put down a rebellion by the Basques, had to face an attack on his southern borders by al-Rhaman. Ordoño defeated the Moors, but in subsequent battles was beaten back. He offered support for the rebels in Toledo, which led to further defeats at the hands of the Moors. Finally, he encouraged the Christian settlement of the buffer zone, the “Tierra de Nadie,” which brought the Christian border closer to Toledo, the stronghold of the Muladi (Muslims of ethnic Iberian origin) and Mozarabs (Christians living in the Muslim controlled areas.)

To deal with this encroachment into his territory, al-Rahman dispatched troops under the command of his brother, el-Hakam. In the summer of 853, they met the rebel army near Andújar, but were led into an ambush and defeated. Initially the rebels were elated because they had captured many weapons and valuable baggage which el-Hakam’s troops dropped when they fled.  Even though they had won a victory, the rebels knew that sooner or later they would face the full might of the emir’s army. Later that year, al-Rahman sent a stronger force, which met the combined forces of Asturia and the rebels of Toledo near the rio Guazalete. The battle was horrific even by the standards of the time. Twenty thousand rebels were killed, and in triumph, the soldiers of the emir cut off the heads of the fallen and piled them on the battlefield to deter others.

Meanwhile, in Córdoba, the unrest of the Christians was still causing problems for the emir. Forty eight people had been executed in Córdoba up to the year 857, most of whom were monks. Distrust of the Christians prompted the emir to remove all Christian officials from their palace appointments. Eulogius was still there and was working with the remaining Christians. It was during this period that he is believed to have been the first person to translate parts of the Quran into a language other than Arabic. He had been selected to be Archbishop of Toledo, but before he could take up his new post, events overtook him with disastrous consequences. 

A young Muslim girl called Leocritia had converted to Christianity against the wishes of her parents. She came from a noble Muslim family and she begged Eulogius to hide her amongst his friends. For a while she was concealed in safety, but eventually she was discovered, and both Eulogius and Leocritia were arrested and sentenced to death. Eulogius was beheaded on March 11, 857 and Leocritia, four days later on March 15, 857. All 48 of the people that successive emirs had executed were canonised by the Catholic Church.

The execution of Eulogius. Photo: Biblioteca de Córdoba.

Al-Rahman III now had to contend with betrayal from his own Arabic people. A powerful Muladi overlord formed an alliance with the Arista family of the Kingdom of Navarre and rebelled, proclaiming himself "The third King of Spain" (after al-Rahman III and Ordoño I of Asturias). A rebel Umayyad officer, Ibn Marwan, also rose up against the emir who, unable to quash the revolt, allowed him to found the free city of Badajoz, in what is now the Spanish region of Extremadura in 875.

The rule of the Arab emirs had brought many benefits, but to gain power they had trampled on the Berbers and the Visigoths. Al-Rahman III had encouraged and supported the arts and under his reign and those before him, the Caliphate of Córdoba had become a centre of learning. Córdoba overtook Constantinople as the largest, most prosperous city in Europe, and its fame spread throughout the medieval world. But while al-Rahman III was building the Shining City outside Córdoba, others were plotting his downfall. The man who would be greatest challenge to his rule was hiding in Morocco after narrowly escaping execution for murder.

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Damascus robs the Berbers
15 August 2020

Last week’s post told of the invasion of Iberia by Musa bin Nusayr, the governor of the Arab province of Ifriqiya. At first, the newly conquered lands were administrated from Ifriqiya as a province of the Umayyad Empire, its governors appointed by the emir of Kairouan rather than the emir in Damascus. The conquerors renamed Iberia al-Andalus, and settlers began to flood in to occupy the relatively fertile land and establish a regional capitol in Córdoba.

Those Visigoth Dukes who recognised the authority of their new masters were allowed to keep their lands, creating areas around Murcia, Galicia and the Ebro valley where little changed. Those who could not live with the Muslims formed a refuge in the inaccessible Cantabrian highlands, where they re-grouped and defended their Kingdom of Asturias.

Having consolidated their gains in al-Andalus, the governors of the province sent Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi to make raids into the lands beyond the eastern Pyrenees, but he was driven back by Duke Odo the Great of Aquitaine. Undeterred, he crossed the mountains further west and attacked again, this time defeating the duke. He pushed further east into the old Roman province of Septimania, capturing Arles and Avignon and probing north following the river Rhone before he was stopped by a stronger Bergundian force led by Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. A coalition of Lombardians and Bergundian armies drove Al Ghafiqi back to the Pyrenees before finally expelling them from Gaul by 739.

The Mulsim invasion forces had been drawn from African Berbers with some Arabs of Ifriqiya and the Levant, but relations between the different cultures was strained in the years following the invasion. The Berbers had borne the brunt of the fighting to capture Iberia and vastly outnumbered the Arabs from the Levant, who now flooded in and took key posts in the administration, forcing the Berbers into a secondary, subservient role. Some of the new Arab governors began to mistreat their Berber counterparts, and before long, the Arabs had a Berber revolt on their hands. The Berbers had railed against their Arab overlords before in 729 and had even managed to carve out their own rebel state in Cerdanya, but the big revolt started in the Maghreb in 740.

To put down the uprising, the Umayyad Caliph, Hisham, sent a large Syrian army to Morocco. At the Battle of Bagdoura, the Syrians were soundly defeated by the Berbers. The news of their brothers’ success travelled to northern Iberia, where the mistreated Berbers also mutinied and deposed their Arab commanders. They formed a rebel army and marched against the Arab administrative centres of Toledo, Cordoba, and al-Jazeera. (Algeciras)

In response, the caliph in Damascus rallied his armies and sent 10,000 troops across the straits to help the governors of al-Andalus regain control. They crushed the uprising after a series of ferocious battles culminating in the Battle of Aqua Portora in August 742. However, the prejudice between the haughty Syrian commanders of the occupation, and the original Arab al-Andalus governors erupted in another uprising, which was put down in 743 by the Syrians led by the new governor of al-Andalus, Abū l-Khaṭṭār al-Husām.

Caliph Hisham’s army was drawn from far-flung parts of his caliphate and were organised into junds under their regional commanders, so al-Ḥusām assigned each of the junds a region to administer. The Egypt jund was split and given Tudmir (Murcia) in the east and Beja (Alentejo) in the west. The Jordan jund, Rayyu, (Málaga and Archidona). The Damascus jund was established in Elvira (Granada). The Filastin jund, Medina-Sidonia and Jerez. The Emesa (Hims) jund, Seville and Niebla and the Qinnasrin jund, Jaén. Instead of solving the problem of controlling of the new lands, it made things worse. The Regional commanders began a reign of autonomous feudal anarchy, severely destabilizing the authority of the governor of al-Andalus.

During this time of instability, the Berber garrisons holding the northern borders had deserted their posts to aid their brothers’ rebellion against the Syrians. The Christians in Asturias under their king, Alfonso I, swarmed out of the highlands and took control of the empty lands, quickly adding the provinces of Galicia and León to his kingdom. He evacuated the River Duero valley, bringing the people north within his kingdom and leaving a wide empty buffer zone between Asturias and the lands ruled by the Arabs.

With al-Andalus practically out of control, the Caliph in Damascus found that he had other problems on his doorstep. The expanding Abbasid Caliphate was pressing on the eastern borders of the Umayyad Empire. The Abbasids were named after their founder, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. They eventually founded the city of Baghdad as their capital, and were a much more dangerous threat than the problems in Iberia. Caliph Hisham’s attention shifted eastwards, and Iberia was left to solve its own problems.


When the Umayyad caliph lost interest in al-Andalus, the opportunistic Fihrid Arab family seized power in the western Maghreb under Abd al-Rahman ibn Habib al-Fihri, whilst his son Yūsuf al-Fihri, took control of al-Andalus. The demise of the Umayyad caliphate allowed the Fhirids to seek an alliance with the Abbasids against them, but they rejected the offer and demanded that they submit to their rule. The Fihrid family defiantly declared independence from all outside control.

The war went badly for Hisham, and the Abbasids controlled all the Muslim lands by 750 creating thousands of homeless Umayyad refugees. In a generous gesture, the Fihrids welcomed them and allowed them to settle in al-Andalus. These were the sons and grandsons of Caliphs, and had a more valid claim to al-Andalus than the Fihrid family. They aligned themselves with the disenchanted lords under Fihrid rule and rose up against them. In 756, led by the Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman I, overthrew the Fihrid family and the prince established himself as Emir of Córdoba. He held the title for thirty years despite his rule being challenged by the al-Fihri family and the Abbasid Caliph. His descendants ruled from Córdoba for another century and a half, though not always in full control of the many competing factions. It was al-Rahman III in 912 who elevated the caliphate to its greatest level restoring by Umayyad control over all al-Andalus and North Africa. He proclaimed himself Caliph of al-Andalus in 929 and his power was equal to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad and the Fatimid caliph in Tunis.

This period is now known as the golden age of al-Andalus. Orange and lemon trees had been introduced, along with and the cultivation of olive groves and pomegranate trees. Grain crops flourished in the rich soil, making the lands around Córdoba the most advanced agricultural area in Europe. Irrigation and the use of the water-wheel turned al-Andalus into a fertile paradise which in turn generated a rich economy and supported a growing population. Rice, coffee, coriander and basil were introduced as crops, and the working of metal for cutlery and ornaments. The working of glass became common, and ceramic glazed tiles reached a zenith in design and production.

This impetus of sufficiency generated a scholar class, and Córdoba became renowned as learning and teaching centre which was equal the universities of Italy. The libraries of al-Andalus grew in the major cities, and the ones in Córdoba alone held ten thousand books. Astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, games and music were encouraged, and though Islam forbade alcohol, they invented sherry and perfected its production. One of the founding pillars of the Islamic faith was the development of the mind, and Córdoba became the Versailles of Iberia.

With a population of around five hundred thousand people, Córdoba overtook Constantinople as the largest, most prosperous city in Europe, and its fame spread throughout the medieval world. The transmission of ideas generated by al-Andalus during the al-Rahman caliphates were like water to the seeds from which grew the European-wide Renaissance.

It was during the reign of al-Rahman III that the beautiful estate of Medina Azahara, meaning The Shining City, was built. This was a tour de force of opulence and majesty in the early medieval world. With ceremonial reception halls, offices, gardens, workshops and baths supplied by aqueduct with clear water and a barracks for the palace guards. Azahara was a self-contained palace.

Photo: By Wwal 

The Shining City was extended during the reign of Abd ar-Rahman III's son Al-Hakam II between 961 and 976, but after his death it soon ceased to be the main residence of the Caliphs. In 1010 it was sacked in a civil war, and thereafter abandoned, with much masonry re-used elsewhere. It was a statement of power and wealth for the entire world to see and aimed at impressing his rivals in the Muslim world, the Ifriquian Fatmids and the Abbasids in Baghdad. The ruins were first excavated in 1910 and even now, only ten percent has been uncovered. There is a large cinema in the museum which gives the busloads of visitors a virtual reality tour of the city in its heyday.

Learning about the history of Spain is one of the themes of this blog and website, and one of the best ways to discover the past is to live there for a while. Medina Azahara is the setting for one of the 15 books of Joan Fallon. The shining City is set in this opulent epoch, and tells a story of love, family, and the choices that face ordinary people during difficult times.

Other books and articles relating to this epoch can be found on my website at:  by clicking on page 8.



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The Islamic invasion
08 August 2020

When the Romans left Iberia, the Visigoth tribesmen once more had control over their own lands.  Over two centuries, the fierce Visigoth tribesmen had become rich farmers then powerful noblemen, who owned huge swathes of land. Provinces were established and inevitable rivalries grew amongst their rulers. After a string of attempted coups, a duke named Roderick persuaded some of the other noble families and the Catholic Church to back his attempt to take control and unite all the provinces.

Duke Roderic

In 710, he made his move by killing King Wittiza and taking control of the provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginensis. The king’s son, Achilla, held the rest of the country and mounted a counter attack. Many of the other provinces and their dukes remained neutral during the battles between the warring rival kings, and for a while control of Iberia swung between the two.

Visigoth Iberia

Meanwhile, on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, greedy eyes were watching the events in Iberia.  Musa bin Nusayr, the governor of the Arab province of Ifriqiya, comprising western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria had been receiving intelligence reports about the war between the Visigoth kings.

Musa was already a powerful leader amongst his own people. His parents had been slaves in Egypt, but had been given their freedom, and they returned to Syria where Musa was born. His father had risen to a position of power, and his patron Abd al-Malik, took a shine to Musa and guided his early career, making him co-governor of Iraq.

Around the year 700 the governor of Ifriqiya, Hasan ibn al-Nu’man, had been charged with expanding Arab control westward to take all of Morocco. Hasan was intolerant of the Berber Moroccans and had allowed his command to be weakened by constant attacks from the sea by Byzantine forces.  In 698 he was relieved of his command and replaced by Musa, who showed respect to the Berber tribes. They returned his respect with their trust, and many converted to Islam voluntarily to join his forces. Using a mix of generosity, force and guile, he extended his master’s realm to include Tangir and all the Maghreb. He became the first governor of Ifriqiya who was not subservient to Egypt.  Musa built a navy to defend his shoreline, which now extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Nile, but at this moment, like a cat stalking a mouse, he was carefully watching events unfold just across the straights from Tangir.

It was not long before he saw his chance.

Julian, the Count of Ceuta, sent word to Musa asking for his help to fight the injustice caused to his people by Roderic. Julian claimed that his daughter had been raped by the evil king and promised rich pickings in Iberia if he would help him defeat him. Musa sent a small party of men under the leadership of Tariq ibn Ziyad to Tarifa to scout the land. They returned with booty, and the news that the south of Iberia was undefended.

In 712 Musa supplied Tariq an army of some 7,000 men, composed of both Arab and Berber soldiers. Tariq was a Berber soldier, who had converted to Islam, and with the help of Julian, who lent him the ships and guides he needed, he landed on the southern coast of Spain in mid-June of 712. He soon occupied the defenceless coast, but before moving inland he secured his supply port at the old Roman town of Iulia Traducta built at the mouth of a small river known as the river of honey.

Tariq did not know the name of the port, so he re-named it the outpost, or al-Jazeera in Arabic. Across the bay from al-Jazeera, the huge outcrop of rock that was visible for twenty miles in any direction was the first place that he landed, and his men soon named this massif Jabal al-Tariq … Tariq’s mountain. He consolidated his forces around al-Jazeera and then moved inland, guided by Julian’s men.

Roderick received news of Tariq’s invasion whilst he was fighting in the north of Iberia and quickly disengaged his forces to turn them south and defend his rear. On the way, he dispatched riders to ask the local dukes to provide fighting men and join him to repel the Moors. In his desperation, he sent a messenger to his arch enemy Achilla to send troops to help him.  Achilla demanded a levy for his assistance, but eventually sent troops to join Roderick’s army.

Three weeks after landing, and several indecisive skirmishes, Roderick confronted Tariq with an army of 20,000 men between the coast and a town called Assidonia (Now Medina Sidonia.) Tariq had been supplied with battle hardened troops by his master Musa, but Roderick had been fighting with farmers who had been hastily summoned and poorly equipped. Some of his Dukes turned traitor and offered Tariq bribes if they would spare them in the coming battle. In the event, it seems that one wing of his army fled during the battle, allowing Tariq to come close enough to unhorse Roderick. With their king down, the battle turned to a rout, and Tariq pursued the Visigoth army to the banks of the River Guadalete where many were drowned. Roderick’s body was never found.

Musa, learning of Tariq’s success at the Battle of Guadalete, followed him leading another 18,000 troops. The Muslim invasion gathered pace as Tariq besieged Córdoba which soon fell and he promptly turned it over to the Jewish population who had suffered terribly under the yoke of centuries of Visigoth rule. They held the city while Tariq moved on to Toledo. Meanwhile, Musa besieged Hispalis, (Sevilla) which fell after three weeks and then moved on to Lucitania to take Mérida its capitol. Over the next few years, the two leaders conquered all the lands as far north as the Bay of Biscay and the south eastern regions of Baetica and Carthaginensis.

Musa died naturally while on the Hajj pilgrimage with Sulayman around the year 715/716. He had been disgraced, and the misfortunes of his sons had brought him into disrepute. Some medieval historians now attribute his deeds to another general, but the Moroccan peak Jebel Musa is named after him, and is perhaps his only recognition for the conquest of Iberia.

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Del Prado's secret lady
01 August 2020

 In 2011 restorers began work on a painting that had been hanging in the Museo Del Prado in Madrid for just over 180 years. During all this time, it had been considered one of many copies of a much more famous painting hanging in the Louvre; La Gioconda. Preliminary infra-red photos and X-rays of the copy revealed that they were dealing with something more than just a copy. The background to the painting in the Prado was black, but the infra-red photos revealed a landscape just like the da Vinci painting. Not unsurprising in a suspected copy, but when the restorers compared the x-ray photos with the existing ones for the da Vinci original, they discovered that the charcoal drawings beneath the two paintings were identical, including parts where Leonardo had erased and started again.

The painting in Del Prado before restoration.

A radiocarbon test was carried out on the walnut panel that the copy was painted on and it was discovered that the dates were the same as the original in the Louvre, which was also painted on a walnut panel. A chemical analysis on the pigments of the two paintings showed close similarities, and the restorers came to the conclusion that whoever painted the copy had been looking over Leonardo’s shoulder when he painted the original. Other clues confirmed the similarities. The frames of both paintings were also made from walnut, a very expensive material at that time, but one favoured by da Vinci.

Leonardo is believed to have started the Gioconda in October 1503 in Florence, and was the portrait of a Florentine lady by the name of Lisa del Giocondo, who was a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany, and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo.  The painting is thought to have been commissioned for their new home, and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. La Gioconda (the Italian name for the painting) means 'jocund' ('happy' or 'jovial') or, literally, 'the jocund one', a pun on the feminine form of Lisa's married name, Giocondo.

Although Leonardo began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503, experts on his work have suggested that the style is more representative of the later years of his life. He seems to have been working on the portrait for 4 years, and it is possible that he did not finish the painting in Florence. Thirteen years after he started the Mona Lisa, he was invited by King Francis I to paint at Clos Lucé near the Château d'Amboise in France. It seems that he took the painting with him and continued working on it until 1516 when Leonardo lost the use of his right arm. He died in 1519 leaving the painting unfinished.

The restored Gioconda with the black layer removed.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Prado Mona Lisa is less clear. The first record of the painting was when it appeared in the 1666 inventory of in the Galleria del Mediodia of the Alcazar in Madrid as Mujer de mano de Leonardo Abince (Woman by Leonardo da Vinci's hand). The black layer covering the landscape background was added sometime after 1750. It is still unknown when the painting entered the Spanish Royal Collection, but it could have already been in Spain from the early 17th century, and when the Prado was founded in 1819, the painting was already listed in its collection.

The big question now is who painted it?

When Leonardo was working in Florence he had several pupils.  Salaì or Francesco Melzi are the most plausible authors of the Prado’s version, though other experts are of the opinion that the painting could have been executed by one of Leonardo’s Spanish students.

Let’s take a look at the two most likely culprits.

Salaì was taken into Leonardo’s studio in 1480 at the age of 10. He was the son of Pietro di Giovanni, a tenant of Leonardo’s vineyard near the Porta Vercellina, Milan. He was described at the time as “a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted.”

Sali, as sketched by Leonardo.

Leonardo himself described the boy as “A liar, a thief, stubborn and a glutton.” He stole from Leonardo several times, but Leonardo kept him in his household for more than 25 years. Da Vinci is thought to have used Salaì as the model for several of his works, specifically St. John the Baptist and Bacchus. Leonardo’s sexual orientation is still unclear, but it seems that Salaì got away with many things that would have resulted in dismissal for others. For instance, Salaì was responsible for Monna Vanna, a nude version of the Mona Lisa which may be based on a charcoal sketch by Leonardo.

Mona Vanna

The other candidate is much more plausible than Salaì. During Leonardo's second stay in Milan, he took another young pupil, Francesco Melzi. Unlike Salaì, Francesco was a son of a nobleman. When Leonardo travelled to Rome in 1513 and to France in 1516, Salaì and Melzi both accompanied him. As an adult, Melzi became secretary and main assistant of Leonardo, and undertook to prepare Leonardo’s writings for publication. Vasari says that Melzi "at the time of Leonardo was a very beautiful and very much loved young man".

In France, Francesco Melzi was greeted as "Italian gentleman living with master Leonardo" and granted donation of 400 ecus, while Salaì, 36 years old, was described as "servant" and granted a one-time donation of 100 ecus. Salaì left Leonardo and France in 1518, and later returned to Milan to work on Leonardo's vineyard, previously worked by Salaì's father, half of which was granted to him by Leonardo’s will. Leonardo left all personal belongings, paintings, drawings and notes to Francesco Melzi in his will, but it is unclear whether this included the Mona Lisa.

Whoever did paint it has left us with a beautiful duplicate of one of the most famous paintings in the world, and greatly increased the value of the Prado collection.

To see more on the art and history of Spain go to For this story go to the bottom of page 15



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A final act of heroic defiance, and the glory that was Rome.
24 July 2020

We have arrived at the end of the Numantine War at last. The Siege of Numantia is where the trumpets sound and the crowds cheer for the glory of Rome and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost over the previous 46 years are forgotten. Rome was stuck with a seemingly unwinnable war and they needed a heroic figure to end it. They say cometh the hour, cometh the man. Well, as if Rome didn’t have enough problems, an argumentative senator decided to start another war, the outcome of which gave Rome the hero it needed.

Although Rome had defeated Hannibal, Carthage was re-asserting itself both militarily and commercially. In 157 BCE the senator Marcus Porcius Cato was part of a group sent to negotiate a peaceful settlement to a dispute between the Carthaginians and Massinissa, King of Numidia. The boarders of Carthage were constantly being eroded by the Numidian king, and in desperation, Carthage asked for an aspiring 35 year-old man to mediate for them with the Numidians.

Publious Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (above) had a glorious lineage, and was to have an even more glorious name in Rome. He was the adopted grandson of the great Africanus, who had defeated the Carthaginian army at Zama, and the biological son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, who shattered the Macedonians’ power at the battle of Pydna in 158 BCE.

Alarmed by the resugence of Carthage, Cato began a relentless campaign to wage a war of total annihilation against Carthage when he returned to Rome. Regardless of the topic, every speech that he gave to the senate ended with the words “Carthago delenda est;” Carthage must be destroyed.

His rhetoric swayed the senate, and with the backing of Massinissa the power plays led to a conclusion in 149 BCE, when Rome declared war on Carthage for the final time and sent an army to invade the city.

At first, the Romans suffered repeated defeats, but during these early stages Scipio, who was then a military tribune, (senior officer) distinguished himself repeatedly in battle. In 147 BC he was elected consul, even though he was under the minimum age required by law to hold the office. During the year it took to defeat the Carthaginian army, Scipio had risen through the ranks, and at the end of the war he was in command of Rome’s forces when they captured a city as old as Rome itself.

The fighting had been desperate and heroic, and only 50,000 survivors, one tenth of the population of the city, remained at the end. Scipio’s orders were to evacuate the city and raze it to the ground. The land that it stood on was ploughed under, and all trace of one of the earliest cities in the world was erased. One historian recorded that Scipio wept as Carthage was destroyed. On his return to Rome, Scipio received a Triumph, and a personal claim to his grandfather’s title of Africanus.

The defeat of Carthage left only one problem on Rome’s agenda. The painful thorn in its side called Celtiberia. Everybody in Rome knew that something would have to be done about the problems in Iberia, but few were willing to deal with it. Scipio could have chosen his own cosy posting. There were some quiet little rebellions in Macedonia which would have barely used Scipio’s enormous talents, but he surprised the senate by asking to be sent to Iberia to deal with the Celts. After two heartbeats of shock, they gladly handed the decades-long disaster to him. In 134 BCE he left for Iberia, and what he found when he joined his army appalled him.

The health and fitness of the men was far below that needed for a soldier to march and fight. Scipio set them a tough physical training regime and stopped all the luxuries that they had allowed themselves to become accustomed to. He enforced a new rule for the Roman army that required each man to carry his own equipment and arms. When Scipio was satisfied with his army, he marched it north into the lands of the Celtiberians. The walled city of Numantia had resisted all attempts by the Romans to subdue it for nine years, and had cost tens of thousands of Roman lives. This was the focal point for the rebellion by the tribes, and he knew that he must break Numantia or fail.

He was attacked several times by the Celtiberians, who had learned to be masters of debilitating hit-and-run tactics, but he finally made camp near the city and gathered his forces to attack. He made peace with the Caucaei, who had broken their treaty with Rome, and assured them that there would be no reprisals later if they stayed out of the fight with Numantia. He marched on the Vaccaei, who were selling food to the Numantines, defeating them after several arduous battles. Then he led his men back to his camp beside Numantia and was joined by Jugurtha, the son of the king of Numidia, with cavalry, archers, slingers, and twelve elephants. Scipio toured the area and asked the other allied Rome-friendly tribes in Hispania to donate troops for the coming siege.

He ordered his men to construct a palisade around the city that was nine kilometres long and three meters high. He built towers on either side of the River Douro to stop the Numantians from paddling boats or swimming through covertly. His men built another embankment and dammed the river to create a moat around his palisade to stop the Numantians from sending out raiding parties and he split his first camp into two, one on either side of the city. Seven towers were erected along the palisade, from where his archers could fire into the city. He had no intention of fighting the Numantians; his plan was to starve them into submission.

The Celts sent a force by night to try to escape and bring help, but they were captured and executed. Rhetogenes, their fiercest and bravest warrior, led a second group which successfully escaped by the river and reached the nearby Arevaci tribe who wanted nothing to do with the Numantians. He next tried the Lutians, whose young men were fired up by the pleas of their fellow tribesmen, and 400 of them pledged to fight the Romans. The elders of the tribe feared reprisals and betrayed their own sons. They sent a message to Scipio who dispatched his soldiers to intercept them. All 400 had their hands cut off. 

When Scipio came back to his camp, the Numantine leader Avarus, asked for terms for surrender. His negotiator was allowed to talk to Scipio and pleaded for the liberty of the city in return for complete surrender. Scipio refused and sent the delegation back to Avarus. The population believed that they had made a deal with the Romans to guarantee their own safety and promptly killed them. The population refused to surrender to the Romans and during the coming months starvation reached the point where cannibalism began, and many Numantians took poison or killed their own families and then themselves. Those who were left alive at the end set fire to the city so that Scipio and his men would have nothing to loot but ashes. Scipio took what was left of the city in the summer of 133 BC. Like Carthage, he had the city levelled and ploughed into the soil.

The painting above is by Alejo Vera y Estaca who studied at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Later in life he held a position in the Academia de España en Roma, where he painted this picture entitled, The Last Day of Numantia, which won him the first prize in the National exhibition of 1881.

Another legacy of Numantia is a play by Spain’s most famous author, Miguel de Cervantes. In four acts, it dramatizes the events leading to the mass suicides and final collapse of Numantia. There is more about Cervantes and his works on Page 19 of my website.

The fierce defiance that had cost so many Roman lives over decades was never forgotten. Even Roman historians praised the spirit and courage of the Numantians, who were outclassed and outnumbered, yet faced down the most sophisticated army in the world. For his success, Scipio Aemilianus received the additional agnomen of "Numantius."

The Celtiberian wars are on page 4 of my webpage.




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