n the late 730’s Sara, the granddaughter of Witiza, penultimate king of the Visigoths, fitted out a ship in Seville and sailed downriver to the Atlantic, entered the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar, and sailed east to the Palestinian port of Ascalon. Sara was on her way to the Umayyad court at Damascus.
|Giralda and Torre del Oro at night.
She had obtained an audience with the caliph Hisham to demand restitution of as many as a thousand estates in the environs of her native city that had been confiscated by Ardabasto, one of her three uncles, despite the fact that an earlier caliph had confirmed her right to inherit. Hisham upheld her claim and wrote to his governor in North Africa, ordering him to enforce it and assist Sara in every way. Perhaps to render her position even more unassailable, he married her to one of his freedmen, ‘Isa ibn Muzahim. The couple returned to Seville together.
Sara and ‘Isa had two sons, Ibrahim and Ishaq. It is to the great-grandson of Ibrahim that we owe our knowledge of Sara’s journey to Damascus, for Abu Bakr ibn al-Qutiyyah—“the son of the Gothic woman”—begins his short account of the Muslim conquest of Spain with the story of his great-great-grandmother Sara, of whom he was justifiably proud.
‘Isa died in 755, the very year that the last survivor of the Umayyad dynasty entered Spain and initiated the most brilliant period of Muslim rule in al-Andalus. Sara went from Seville to Córdoba to greet ‘Abd al-Rahman I ibn Mu‘awiyah ibn Hisham, and he reminded her that they had met before: in Damascus, when she had pled her case before Hisham. ‘Abd al-Rahman, Hisham’s grandson, had been but a boy at the time and was still only 25 when he first set foot in Spain.
Sara too must have been quite young when she journeyed to Syria, for on the death of ‘Isa she married again, this time an Umayyad supporter of royal descent, Umayr ibn Sa‘id al-Lakhmi, whose family went back to the pre-Islamic Lakhmid kings of al-Hirah in Iraq.
Sara bore a son to Umayr, and the descendants of this union between a Gothic princess and an Arab aristocrat became known in Seville as the Banu Hajjaj. For several hundred years members of this clan held high office in the city and owned much of the surrounding countryside, rich agricultural land that had once belonged to the Gothic royal family.
|Below: This view of the port and city of Seville near the end of the 16th century is said to be work of Spanish court painter Alonso Sánchez Coello.
Seville was called Spalis by the Visigoths, Hispalis by the Romans who preceded them. The word, whose meaning is unknown, is almost certainly of Semitic origin, for the site upon which Seville is built was occupied by the Carthaginians from at least the seventh century BC. Isidore of Seville, whose Etymologies were written in the sixth century of our era, says Hispalis means “built upon posts,” because his palis in Latin means “these posts.” This is folk etymology, but curiously, a number of pine posts were found earlier this century beneath a building on Seville’s Calle Sierpes, deeply embedded in the earth and probably dating from the birth of the city. They must have been used to consolidate the foundation, for Seville is built on marshy ground and used to be frequently flooded by its two rivers.
The Roman general Scipio had established a military garrison called Italica on a bluff overloading the present city in 206 BC, when Roman arms finally put an end to Carthaginian power. A city grew up eight kilometers (five miles) away, and by 49 BC Hispalis was the largest and most important city in Betica, which corresponded roughly with modern western Andalusia. Not yet a colonia, it was nevertheless walled and possessed a forum and other characteristics of a Roman city. It was already exporting grain, and it is in this year that the name Hispalis first appears in the Roman sources.
Four years later, in 45 BC, Julius Caesar accorded Hispalis the status of colonia; henceforth all free citizens of the city had the same legal rights as Romans and the same political system. Italica continued to be inhabited, probably by the well-to-do, and the city expanded across the river, to the area the Arabs later called Tiryana and which is now known as Triana, after the emperor Trajan. Seville was thus a mini-Rome, divided by its river like the mother city. Triana has maintained a certain independence from the rest of Seville even to this day.
Musa ibn Nusayr ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Zaid al-Lakhmi, Umayyad governor of North Africa, was the grandson of a Christian captured by the great Arab general Khalid ibn al-Walid in the little Mesopotamian oasis town of ‘Ain al-Tamr. His father had been a confidant of the first Umayyad caliph, Mu‘awiyah, and before becoming governor Musa had been a tax-collector in the Umayyad civil service. In 710, almost certainly without informing the caliph al-Walid of his intention of invading Spain, he sent a young Berber officer named Tarif ibn Malik on a reconnaissance. Tarif landed at the town which now bears his name—Tarifa—and made a sortie to Algeciras, returning with rich booty and having met little or no opposition from the Goths.
In the summer of the following year Musa ibn Nusayr sent Tariq ibn Ziyad, his Berber freedman and best commander, across the strait with 7000 Berber troops in ships supplied by the Visigothic exarch of Ceuta, Count Julian. The Arabic sources tell the story—worthy of a romancero, or Spanish ballad—of how Count Julian had left his daughter in the keeping of Roderic, the Visigothic king of Spain, and of how Roderic had ravished her; Julian’s revenge was to help the Muslims invade Spain.
Not only did he lend the Muslims four ships, but he drew them a map of the country, indicating the Gothic weak points, and entered into a conspiracy with two brothers of Witiza, Sisiberto and Oppas, who commanded the right and left wings respectively of Roderic’s army. In the key battle, in a place the Arabic sources call al-Buhayrah, “the lake,” near Algeciras, Sisiberto and Oppas deserted their commander, and Julian’s revenge was complete. When the invaders searched among the dead after the battle for Roderic’s body, they found nothing but his white horse with its golden, jewel-studded saddle, a cloak woven of gold thread and embroidered with pearls and rubies, and one of Roderic’s sandals.
Tariq sent the Greek freedman Mughith to Córdoba (in Arabic, Qurtubah), to secure his rear, while he himself followed the Roman road to the Visigothic capital at Toledo (Tulaytulah), via the old Roman towns of Egabro, Tucci, Aurgi, Salaria, Laminium and Consabura. By the winter, almost all the important urban centers of Visigothic Spain had fallen to the invaders. There was one exception: the large and important city of Spalis.
Musa himself crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in July 712, exactly a year after Tariq. He was accompanied by a number of Gothic nobles, 18,000 troops—largely Arab—and his son ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. They landed at Jabal Tariq—Gibraltar—and then moved on to “the Green Peninsula” as the Arabs called Algeciras. “I don’t want to follow the same route as Tariq,” said Musa to Julian: “I don’t want to follow in his footsteps.” “We will show you a road more noble than that taken by Tariq, and cities of greater importance which will yield more booty, as they have never been conquered,” replied the Gothic nobles.
So Musa and his 18,000 troops took Shadhuna—now Medina Sidonia—and then Carmona, the most heavily fortified city in Andalusia, whose ramparts data back to Carthaginian times. With Carmona in his hands, the way was clear for Seville, “which city,” says al-Maqqari, whose account we are following, “was the most important in Andalusia, with the most wondrous architecture and ancient monuments. Before the coming of the Goths it had been the capital, but the Goths transferred the capital to Toledo, while the ecclesiastical hierarchy remained in Seville.”
The city held out against Musa for several months, then capitulated. The Goths fled to Beja, where they regrouped. Musa entered Spalis with his son ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, who governed the city while Musa pursued the remains of the Gothic army to the north. The Jews of Spalis, who had helped in the conquest, were stationed in the citadel under the command of Arab officers.
Spalis—or Ishbiliyah, as it now came to be called—was the richest city in Andalusia. It is probable that Tariq had been told to leave its conquest to his commanding officer, and that the Goths who helped the Muslim invaders hoped to preserve the city by arranging for it to fall into the hands of Musa ibn Nusayr rather than to Tariq and his Berber troops.
This is partly borne out by the fact that Musa’s son ‘Abd al-‘Aziz married Roderic’s widow, Egilona, called Umm ‘Asim in the Arabic chronicles. Egilona, not comprehending the egalitarian nature of Arab society, was appalled that her new husband did not insist on the trappings of kingship. Why did he not wear a crown? Why did his officers not bow down in his presence? ‘Abd al-‘Aziz told her that these things were forbidden by his religion; one source says that she prevailed on him to make the door leading to his audience chamber very low, so that people entering would at least have to stoop.
These stories are almost certainly apocryphal, but they may well reflect the kind of cultural misunderstanding that arose in early times between conquerors and conquered. These stories about ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and Egilona also contain echoes from the life of Alexander the Great, whose troops grumbled when he began to adopt Persian court ceremonial and became increasingly remote to his men. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, in fact, was assassinated by his troops five years after being appointed.
Ishbiliyah was the capital of al-Andalus for three years, between 713 and 716—the first Arab capital in Spain.
The city Musa conquered was essentially a Roman city. The Vandals, led by Gunderic, had brutally sacked it in 426 and the basilica, which probably occupied the site of the present cathedral or the nearby Patio de las Banderas, was “vandalized” and desecrated. Yet the Vandals only occupied the city for three years before moving to greener pastures in North Africa.
|A view of the Alcázar’s Hall of the Ambassadors.
The Goths arrived in Spain towards the middle of the sixth century, and in 589 the Visigothic king Hermenegild was converted to Catholicism from the Arian heresy. Spalis became, largely through the efforts of Isidore of Seville, the leading intellectual center of Spain—although the barbarous times meant that intellectual activity was of a rudimentary nature. The written language was Latin, but by the eve of the Arab invasion the Hispano-Roman population already spoke a prototype of Spanish, as can be seen from the occasional Romance, or ‘ajami, word in the Arabic chronicles. It is doubtful if Witiza and his family spoke Gothic at all; the language Sara spoke was almost certainly Romance.
Despite Gothic and Christian changes to the Roman city, Spalis, when Musa took it in 712, was in a relatively good state of preservation, with forum, senate, theaters, temples, baths and gymnasiums—these latter in ruins—arcades, grid-patterned streets and aqueducts. The well-to-do classes would have worn the regulation military-style short cloak, the chlamys, clasped at the right shoulder by a fibula. Some old men of the senatorial class may even have still been wearing the toga.
Musa and his Arab troops would have been familiar with Roman cities from Syria and North Africa: They must have ridden through the magnificent ruins of Leptis Magna and Thuburbo Majus. But Spalis would have been the first Roman city the Muslims saw with most of its buildings and even some of its institutions intact.
In the first decades of the eighth century, Islam was still a very recent phenomenon. The characteristic forms of Islamic architecture had not yet been fully elaborated, although the extraordinary building programs of the Umayyad caliphs, particularly al-Walid, Hisham and al-Walid II, were already producing civil, religious and military buildings with features that can be called typically Islamic. Roman forts in the Syrian desert—many of them built by Trajan, most famous native son of Hispalis—as well as Hellenistic and Sassanian models, all influenced the people who were to build the Alcázar of Seville and the Alhambra of Granada.
The early Muslim community thus physically inherited much from late antiquity, as indeed it did intellectually. But Islamic revelation and Islamic law were very different from Christianity and Roman or Visigothic law. At the same time as the shari‘ah, or Islamic law, was being codified and elaborated, Islamic architectural forms took on a specifically Islamic grammar of structure and vocabulary of ornament. At the same time too, the Arabic language itself was being extensively studied by the grammarians of Basra and Kufa so that it might be extended throughout the ummah, the community of believers. The Muslim, and the city he lived in, began to take on a personality that could be confounded with no other. Religious belief and practice, law, dress, language, food, system of taxation and personal relations—all these and a thousand other details began to coalesce and mark off Islamic civilization from any other. But there were strong regional variants of this civilization, and one of these arose in al-Andalus. The Arabs in Span arrived with little more than their religion and their language, and created an enduring civilization.
We know very little of the beginnings of this process, in that period when Ishbiliyah was governed by Umayyad officials under the authority of the governor of North Africa. Musa’s son ‘Abd al-‘Aziz wrote to friends and relations in Syria, and perhaps as many as 13,000 people made their way to al-Andalus as a result, and were assigned estates in and around the city. The process presumably continued after ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s assassination, but it is impossible to form any exact idea of the numbers involved. The vast majority of the local population—its size equally unknown—was Christian, both in Seville and in the countryside. As time went on, many of these became Muslims and were called muwalladun—plural of muwallad, “one born [in Spain]” or “one born [of a mixed marriage],” referring to Muslims of Spanish ancestry—as opposed to the conquerors, who came from without.
|Above: Islamic-style gardens, such as these at the Alcázar, remain popular in Seville, and throughout Spain, to this day. Below: A short section of the old city walls, dating from Almohad times, survives in the Macarena quarter.
Those who remained Christian, with the legal status of dhimmis—members of a protected religious minority with a revealed scripture—were called musta‘ribun, plural of musta‘rib, a word which has gone into Spanish as mozárabe and into English as Mozarab. In Arabic it simply means “arabized,” or “would-be Arab,” for this community, dwelling as it did in what was now a Muslim land, came to share many of the features of the dominant civilization. The Mozarab community retained Latin as its liturgical language and was bilingual in Arabic and Spanish. Its members were under the authority of the bishop, and legal cases within the community came under their own law; cases involving conflict with Muslims were tried under the shari‘ah. The Mozarab community of Seville was large and important, particularly during the first three centuries or so of Muslim rule.
In later centuries, when the Christian reconquista began to roll the frontier back toward the south, the position of the Mozarabs worsened. Under the Almoravids (al-Murabitun) and Almohads (al-Muwahhidun), many crossed into Christian territory, and by the time Ishbiliyah fell to Fernando III in 1248 there were few if any Christians in the city. Yet the Mozarabs still had an important cultural role to play: Their knowledge of Arabic and their familiarity with Muslim society made them ideal purveyors and interpreters of Muslim science and culture to Europe.
The Jewish community in Ishbiliyah was very large too; again it is not possible even to guess at its size. It possessed at least four synagogues when the city fell to the Christians, and by that time its size had been much reduced. The Jews had suffered severely under the Visigoths and welcomed the Muslim conquerors. We have already seen how Musa ibn Nusayr left the city in their hands while he pursued the remains of the Visigothic army to the north. Because of their help, the Jews received very favorable treatment under Muslim rule, rising to high office in the political sphere and, in the intellectual, making important contributions, particularly in medicine.
Like the Mozarabs, the Jews of Ishbiliyah spoke and wrote Arabic as well as Spanish, using Hebrew as their liturgical language. During the 10th and 11th centuries, with the revival of Hebrew studies, original works were even composed in Hebrew, including poetry set to the meters established for classical Arabic. Dhimmis like the Christians, the Jews were ruled by their own law. When Ishbiliyah was taken by the Christians, the Jews were grouped in three or four contiguous barrios, near the Alcázares Reales, or royal palace; there is no real evidence that they were so grouped during Islamic times. Their position, like that of the Mozarabs, worsened with the reconquista and the Christian struggles against the Almoravids and the Almohads, and the Jews were required to wear distinctive clothing, like the Mozarabs, to mark them off from the Muslims.
Jews and Mozarabs partook so largely in the dominant culture of al-Andalus that Jewish and Mozarab poets are included as a matter of course in the Mughrib fi Hula al-Maghrib, the exhaustive anthology of Andalusian poetry and song compiled over a period of 115 years by six different authors and finally “published” in the 13th century. There is no way of telling the religious affiliation of the poets from their verse, which obeys the strict canons of the classical Arabic poem. It is only by delving into the anthology’s editorial notes that we learn these men were dhimmis.
|Seville as viewed from Triana.
The presence of two significant non-Muslim communities in early Ishbiliyah contributed to the complexity of the urban texture. But within the Muslim community itself there was even greater variety. The first wave of conquerors settled on the estates belonging to Sara the Goth, many of which dated back to the Roman latifundia. However, the Arabs of the Arabian peninsula had been divided into northern and southern tribes since pre-Islamic times. Sara’s second husband, of Lakhmid origin, was a southerner—a “Yemeni,” as they were called in Spain, because the tribe of Lakhm was considered to be of Yemeni origin. Although these groupings, with their rather fictional origins, were full of complex internal alignments, they could nevertheless cohere in the face of real or imagined threats from the opposing group. Ishbiliyah was a predominantly “Yemeni” city, and during the early years of settlement there were a number of rebellions against “northern” rule.
Another complication arose in 742, when large numbers of Arab regular soldiers from Syria-Palestine were settled in the major cities of al-Andalus. Syrians from the jund, or military forces, of Hims, ancient Emessa, were allotted to Ishbiliyah and its province. This must inevitably have led to conflicts with the original settlers, but the presence of such numbers of native speakers of Arabic, on the other hand, must also have hastened the process of arabization and helped to repopulate the countryside around Ishbiliyah, depopulated in the terrible famine of the years 708 to 710 in which, the Arab chronicles say, more than half the population perished. Then there were the Berbers who took part in the conquest, men of the Moroccan Rif and the Middle Atlas. Like the Arabs, they were divided into two groups, each with an eponymous ancestor. These groups were called al-Butr and al-Baranis. Modern scholars have suggested that these two words actually refer to the characteristic garb of the two groups, the al-Butr wearing the short cloak still worn by some tribes in the Moroccan highlands and the al-Baranis—the word is the Arabic plural of burnus—wearing the long cloak of that name. The word burnus, like the long cloak itself, is ultimately of Greek origin.
Ishbiliyah’s political dependence on North Africa ended with the great event of the eighth century: the arrival in al-Andalus of the Umayyad prince ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu‘awiyah ibn Hisham on August 14, 755. His family, which had ruled the Muslim world from Damascus since 661, had been overthrown by a revolutionary movement which began in far-off Khurasan and took power in 750; the line of Abbasid caliphs, with their new capital of Baghdad, then began. ‘Abd al-Rahman, who survived the general massacre of his family, fled to the west and succeeded in establishing a dynasty that ruled Spain until 1031.
The Umayyads’ capital was Córdoba, and a number of brilliant rulers established the city as one of the leading centers of Islamic culture in the world. Ishbiliyah, although not the capital, was the richest and most powerful city in Umayyad al-Andalus.
‘Abd al-Rahman I, the founder of the dynasty, had almost impeccable credentials. He was a prince from a dynasty that had ruled—usually well—for almost a century. His daring escape from Abbasid assassins and his journey to the west were the stuff of romance, and his youth added to his luster. By a curious quirk of history, he had Berber blood: His mother was of the Nafza tribe of al-Butr, and ‘Abd al-Rahman was thus a blood relation of Tariq ibn Ziyad, first conqueror of Spain; this Berber connection may have gained him support among the Berbers of the peninsula. Yet Yusuf al-Fihri, the governor of Seville at the time of ‘Abd al-Rahman’s “entry,” resisted him and was driven from the city. He counter-attacked several years later, in 758, but was again defeated. There were a number of other “Yemeni” rebellions against ‘Abd al-Rahman’s attempts to extend his authority over Ishbiliyah: Even at this early date the city had no wish to be dominated by Córdoba, for the heterogeneous elements of the population were beginning to think of themselves as “Sevillians” and to fight to protect their interests. The sporadic rebellions culminated in a joint Berber and Yemeni insurrection in 771. ‘Abd al-Rahman marched against the city with his two sons, Hisham and Sulaiman, and effectively put an end to it. After this date we hear no more of Yemeni rebellions; Ishbiliyah was governed by officials appointed by the court at Córdoba, and for almost a hundred years enjoyed relative peace.
It was during these hundred years that Ishbiliyah began to be transformed from a Roman to an Islamic city. The first congregational mosque was built in Ishbiliyah in 829, and marked the beginning of the transformation. This was the mosque of ‘Umar ibn ‘Adabbas, whose foundation inscription reads: “May God have mercy on ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Hakam, the just prince, the rightly-guided by God, who ordered the construction of this mosque under the direction of ‘Umar ibn ‘Adabbas, qadi of Ishbiliyah, in the year 829….” This is the oldest surviving Arabic inscription from al-Andalus. A copy of it can be seen today above the cloister entrance of the church of San Salvador, which occupies the site of this earliest Sevillian mosque. The cloister itself is bounded on one side by columns and arches from the ninth-century mosque, so deeply imbedded in the ground that only the tops of the columns are now visible. No other site in Seville gives so graphic an idea of how much time separates us from the Islamic past of the city.
‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Hakam ruled al-Andalus from 822 to 852. In 844, only 15 years after the founding of the mosque of ‘Umar ibn ‘Adabbas, the Vikings landed on the coasts of Galicia and Portugal. They had suddenly appeared off the Atlantic coast, with 24 longboats and a large number of supply vessels. During the first days of September, the ships arrived off Cádiz (Qadis); the Vikings then sacked Sidonia and began to sail up the Guadalquivir (al-Wadi al-Kabir) toward Ishbiliyah. They camped at a place called Jazirat Qabtal, probably not far from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, sacking and burning the countryside as they went. By the end of the month they were in the little town of Coria del Rio, only 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Ishbiliyah. The next day they attacked the potter’s quarter outside the city. Mad with bloodlust, they entered Ishbiliyah that night and raped and killed indiscriminately for the next two days. Men, women and children were put to the sword—even domestic animals and pet birds were killed. They tried to set the roof of the mosque of ‘Umar ibn ‘Adabbas on fire with flaming arrows, but lost interest when it refused to catch. A few survivors escaped the massacre by fleeing to Carmona.
‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Hakam sent his best general, Muhammad ibn Rustum, to the relief of Ishbiliyah. After a number of inconclusive battles, including one that took place inside the city, the Vikings retreated. Muhammad ibn Rustum succeeded in cutting them off from their ships, anchored in the river, and the Muslims killed 500 Vikings, and captured four ships laden with booty.
Various Viking contingents had meanwhile scattered through the countryside, looting and killing, particularly in the little agricultural towns of the Aljarafe, the fertile farm land in the hills north of the city. ‘Abd al-Rahman decided to fight them on their own terms, and sent 15 boats downriver to Ishbiliyah. The Vikings fled, ravaging both banks of the river as they went, and vanished as suddenly as they had come.
The Viking attack showed the people of Ishbiliyah how vulnerable they were and led to the fortification of the city. The old Roman walls had long ago crumbled, so ‘Abd al-Rahman built the first Islamic defenses. The circuit of walls and heavily fortified gates was many times extended and rebuilt in the following centuries, and survived until the 1840’s, when the walls were for the most part torn down. A short section, dating from Almohad times, survives in the Macarena quarter, and a number of private homes in modern Seville contain sections of the Islamic defensive walls in their interiors, sometimes exposed to view.
|An illuminated fountain in front of Seville’s Torre del Oro, or Golden Tower. Begun in 1220 and covered with gold luster tiles, it is the last major Almohad work built in Seville.
The wealth of Ishbiliyah was based on the agricultural production of the Aljarafe, especially grain, olive oil, fruit and vegetables, as well as on foreign and domestic trade. The city was thus a rich prize for the ambitious warlords of al-Andalus, and after the century of peace imposed by ‘Abd al-Rahman there were attempts even by groups within the city to wrest control of Ishbiliyah and the surrounding countryside from the Umayyads of Córdoba. We know of one such attempt by the wealthy muwallad leader Muhammad ibn ‘Umar ibn Khattab ibn Angelino, who revolted in 889. As can be seen by his name, he was descended from the pre-Islamic Angelino family.
More powerful were the two Yemeni clans, the Banu Hajjaj and the Banu Khaldun. The Banu Hajjaj, we we have seen, were in part descended from Sara the Goth, and controlled much of the richest land in the province of Ishbiliyah. The Banu Khaldun—from whom the historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun descended—had a well-fortified castle in the Aljarafe, called the Tower of the Banu Khaldun. In the late ninth century, the chief of the clan, Karayb, revolted against the Umayyads. He took Ishbiliyah and put many of the Banu Angelino to the sword. The rebellion was only put down with difficulty.
The Banu Hajjaj and the Banu Khaldun were so numerous and powerful that there was little Córdoba could do but give them de facto authority over Ishbiliyah and let them fight over who would take supreme authority. The Banu Hajjaj prevailed, and for a while governed Ishbiliyah independently of the Umayyads, with every prerogative of royalty but one: They did not strike their own coins. Yet the Umayyad ruler ‘Abd al-Rahman III was no man to trifle with. The last independent governor of Ishbiliyah, Ibn Maslamah, of Lakhmid origin, was reduced to seeking the aid of the rebel and apostate ‘Umar ibn Hafsun, but to no avail: The Umayyad chamberlain Badr entered the city on December 7, 913. He followed a wise and clement policy toward supporters of the Banu Hajjaj—among other measures, he left the gates of the city open and unguarded for a night, so warriors who had taken refuge in the mountains could return unseen to their houses —and during the next few days he enrolled them in the cavalry with pay and pension. ‘Abd al-Rahman personally appointed the high officials who subsequently governed Ishbiliyah, and for almost a hundred years Ishbiliyah again enjoyed peace and tranquility. The Umayyad ruler ensured that this would be so by tearing down the newly-built city walls, making it difficult if not impossible for a rebellious lord to hold the city against the central government.
The last we hear of the Banu Hajjaj and the Banu Khaldun is toward the end of the 10th century; by this time the two leading members of the clans were little more than robber barons. The future lay with an unrelated family, the Banu ‘Abbad. They were of Lakhmid origin, and had entered Spain with the Syrian jund in 743, one branch settling in Seville and the other in the little riverain town of Tocina. The family was not of noble origins, but very rich, and owned one-third of the land in the environs of Ishbiliyah. Isma‘il, the real founder of the dynasty, was one of the most respected men in western al-Andalus; he had protected Ishbiliyah from a Berber assault in the years when the power of the Umayyads was waning. He was a religious scholar and a qadi, or Islamic judge, and so was his son Abu al-Qasim, who inherited his father’s firmness and rectitude. Abu al-Qasim became the supreme authority in Ishbiliyah in 1023, just before the final collapse of the Umayyads and the beginning of the period of muluk al-tawa’if—the faction kings.
This term had great historical resonance for the Arabs. It had long been used by Muslim historians to describe the state of affairs that followed the death of Alexander the Great, when the empire he had founded in so short a time was distributed among this successors. Just as Alexander’s empire had been divided among Seleucids and Ptolemies, al-Andalus shattered into local dynasties, some Arab and some Berber, centered on the cities and each trying to control as much surrounding countryside as it could.
Defense was Abu al-Qasim’s priority. He formed a mercenary corps of Berbers, Arabs, muwalladun and blacks. It was small—no more than 500 cavalry—and at first insuf- ficient to deter a determined foe. Attacked by the Berber chieftain Birzali, Abu al-Qasim was only able to save Ishbiliyah by rendering up his son as hostage—an act that won him great respect, for he had put the safety of his city before that of his family.
The Umayyad caliphate was officially abolished in 1031, and from that date the qadi Abu al-Qasim ruled Ishbiliyah as an absolute monarch. He justified his claim to rule by spreading the rumor that he was governing in the name of Hisham II, legitimate claimant to the Umayyad succession, and that Hisham was hidden in his palace, under his protection. Hisham II had in fact died in mysterious circumstances 20 years before, but the fiction served to rally all the diverse elements of city and countryside to his banner, for in those uncertain times any vestige of continuity with a more stable past was eagerly seized. By the time the ruse was discovered, as it inevitably was, the Banu ‘Abbad were so firmly established in western al-Andalus that it scarcely mattered.
Abu al-Qasim died in 1042 and was succeeded by his son ‘Abbad, who took the throne name of al-Mu’tadid. Ishbiliyah now dominated western al-Andalus—indeed, al-Mu’tadid’s sphere of influence reached to the Atlantic coast of Portugal. An aggressive ruler, al-Mu’tadid’s technique was to eliminate the opposition before it had time to organize, and one by one he absorbed Granada (called Gharnatah in Arabic), Badajoz (Batalyaws) and the little kingdoms of western al-Andalus: Niebla (Lablah), Silves (Shilb) and Huelva (Walbah).
Al-Mu’tadid then turned his attention to the south, annexing Morón (Mawrur), Ronda (Runda), Arcos (Arkush) and Jerez (Sharish) by the simple procedure of inviting their rulers to a banquet and having them suffocated in the bathhouse. In 1067 he finally took Carmona (Qarmuna), one of the most strongly fortified cities in al-Andalus and a perpetual thorn in the side of Ishbiliyah.
|The Spanish mantilla is a reminder of the Muslim veil, and shady patios with fountains and greenery are another legacy of Hispano-Muslim culture.
Al-Mu’tadid was a brilliant, treacherous, highly literate and sadistic ruler. His son Isma‘il, under the influence of an evil counselor, twice rebelled against his father. He was pardoned the first time; the second, his father personally killed him.
Toward the end of his reign the kingdom of Ishbiliyah, now of great extent, was attacked by Fernando i, king of Castile. The Christian armies sacked and burned almost to the gates of the city; their numbers were such that al-Mu’tadid could save his realm only by becoming tributary to Castile; each year thereafter large sums of gold coins were delivered to the Christian monarch. Al-Mu’tadid died in 1069, embittered by this humiliation.
Unusually for the time, the succession was smooth. His son Abu al-Qasim Muhammad, who took the throne name al-Mu‘tamid, was 30 years old and already an accomplished statesman. His father had made him governor of Huelva at the age of 11; at 14 he led an army against Silves, and nine years later he was named that city’s governor. He was perhaps the most accomplished poet of his age. His closest friend was Ibn ‘Ammar, also a fine poet, but an even more accomplished intriguer. Al-Mu‘tamid’s father had disapproved of their friendship and exiled Ibn ‘Ammar. As soon as al-Mu‘tamid came to the throne, he appointed Ibn ‘Ammar prime minister.
Al-Mu‘tamid was just as concerned with expanding the kingdom of Ishbiliyah as his father had been. He succeeded in occupying Córdoba, Ishbiliyah’s ancient enemy, and appointed his son Siraj al-Dawlah, “Lamp of the State,” its governor. He then turned to the rich kingdom of Murcia (Mursiyah), governed by an independent Arab ruler. The sinister Ibn ‘Ammar formed an alliance with the count of Barcelona; the joint armies of Ishbiliyah and Christian Barcelona besieged Murcia. Once it was captured, however, Ibn ‘Ammar made himself master of Murcia, betraying his friend and lord, and made matters worse by circulating a scurrilous poem about al-Mu‘tamid. Then he was betrayed in his turn by one of his generals, and had to seek asylum at the Castilian court, where Alfonso VI was already contemplating the further reduction of al-Mu‘tamid’s territory.
The perfect opportunity to attack presented itself when al-Mu‘tamid killed Ibn Shalib, the Jewish treasurer of Alfonso, sent to Ishbiliyah to collect the annual tribute. Alfonso quickly retaliated, invading the Aljarafe, burning the villages and enslaving the inhabitants. He besieged Ishbiliyah for three days and raided throughout al-Mu‘tamid’s territory. It was now obvious that the faction kings would never be able to bury their differences and unite against the invader. Al-Mu‘tamid and the rulers of Badajoz and Granada agreed that the only way to prevent the Christian takeover of al-Andalus was to seek the help of the powerful Almoravid leader Yusuf ibn Tashufin and his army of veiled Sanhaja Berbers.
These warrior monks belonged to a reform movement that began in Africa, on the Senegal River; their puritan ideals found wide acceptance among the Sanhaja of the Sahara, whom the Arab historians of al-Anadalus referred to as the mulaththamun, “the veiled ones,” from their habit of covering their mouth and nose with their head cloth, as do their modern descendants, the Tuareg.
The fall of Toledo in 1085 made immediate action imperative. The Almoravids crossed into Spain the following year and inflicted a terrible defeat on Alfonso vi at al-Zallaqah. Ishbiliyah no longer had to pay tribute to the Christians, and al-Mu‘tamid’s lands were now protected by Yusuf ibn Tashufin’s superb warriors.
Yusuf ibn Tashufin returned to Morocco soon after the victory of al-Zallaqah. In 1089, al-Mu‘tamid once again solicited his help at the siege of the castle of Aledo, held by the Castilians, and once again Yusuf agreed to help. But the siege was a disaster; the quarrels of the faction kings put Yusuf’s troops in serious danger, while the religious scholars of Ishbiliyah and other cities complained to him of the illegal taxes levied to finance endless wars and of the plight of the common people. Yusuf decided it was time to put an end to the misrule.
In 1091 he captured Córdoba and took its governor, a son of al-Mu‘tamid, prisoner. One by one the castles and fortified cities in al-Mu‘tamid’s domain fell to the Almoravid. Al-Mu‘tamid, desperate, allied himself with Alfonso; the army sent to his aid was routed by the Almoravids. Ishbiliyah was besieged; the walls were breached on September 2, 1091. Al-Mu‘tamid personally fought at the breach. The enemy entered the city on September 7 and Ishbiliyah was sacked. Al-Mu‘tamid and his son al-Rashid held out for a time in the citadel, but finally surrendered.
Al-Mu‘tamid and his family were borne away in black ships down the Guadalquivir. Ibn Labbana, a court poet, wrote a long elegy on his former master:
I will never forget that morning by the river. I saw them herded onto the ships, like corpses on the decks.
People gathered on both banks, sadly watching… It was time to set sail; the women wept And so did the men, calling out, “Goodbye!” So many tears fell into the river, so much Heartbreak sailed with those black ships.
The key to understanding the policies of al-Mu‘tamid and his father is their passion for their native city. Even their constant attempts to enlarge their kingdom can be seen as preemptive strikes against potential aggressors.
Ishbiliyah continued to be the capital of western al-Andalus under the Almoravids, who governed it for 56 years, from 1091 to 1147. By 1094, only three years after taking the city, the Almoravids ruled all of al-Andalus; it was not long before they had extended their sway to most of southern Portugal. Seville was governed during these years by relations of Yusuf ibn Tashufin. The most important of these was the first, Sir ibn Abi Bakr, who had been the general mostly responsible for the defeat of al-Mu‘tamid and who had in turn to face the armies of Alfonso vi. These armies several times laid waste the Aljarafe and threatened Ishbiliyah itself, but the real threat to Almoravid power was another religious-political movement in Morocco: the al-Muwahhidun.
|Fountains, tilework and elegantly carved stucco make a courtyard inviting for humans and cats alike.
Beginning in 1121, the al-Muwahhidun—or Almohads—began dismembering the Almoravid state in the Maghrib. In 1146 they crossed into Spain. They took Seville the following year and made it their capital. It remained so almost until its final conquest by Fernando III, except for a brief interregnum when the administration was removed to Córdoba by the caliph ‘Abd al-Mu’min. His successor, Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf, came to the throne in 1163 and immediately returned it to Ishbiliyah, for he had governed the city years before and fallen in love with it. It is to him that we owe many of the surviving Islamic monuments of Seville.
The Almohad empire was huge, and Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf was unable to stay permanently in Ishbiliyah until 1171. In that year he built a bridge of boats across the river, linking Ishbiliyah to Triana and the Aljarafe. Until that date, everything had been ferried across the river; it was not until much later that stone bridges were thrown across the Guadalquivir. The river was also given to frequent flooding; Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf built a stone retaining wall along the left bank and began construction of the tower now called the Torre del Oro. He improved the water supply by building an aqueduct and made many other improvements to the infrastructure of the city.
But the construction of the Great Mosque and its minaret—now the cathedral and the Giralda—was the major work undertaken by Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf, who began laying it out in the spring of 1172. He had already carried out the restoration of the old mosque of ‘Umar ibn ‘Adabbas and many smaller ones, but wanted a mosque large enough for all the faithful, and an unforgettable symbol of Almohad power. The site he chose probably lay inside the palace precincts at the time: A number of houses and buildings had to be demolished and their owners compensated. A team of craftsmen from every town in al-Andalus and from as far away as Marrakech was assembled, under the authority of the architect and engineer Ahmad ibn Basu. The task of organizing the huge body of workmen and the transportation of materials —much of the latter by ship from Morocco—must have been formidable, for the mosque had 17 naves and five cupolas. The most precious materials were used—marble, sandalwood, ebony, gold and silver. The first khutba, or pulpit address, was pronounced in April 1182, and it was only after the construction of the mosque itself that work began on the minaret.
The last major Almohad work in Ishbiliyah is the Burj al-Dhahab— the Torre del Oro, or Golden Tower—now almost as much a symbol of Seville as the Giralda. Begun in 1220, toward the end of Almohad rule, it was built to protect the bridge of boats built by Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf. A heavy chain was stretched across the river from the base of the tower to prevent enemy ships coming upriver, but this security measure lasted only a generation.
For even as the Torre del Oro was being built, Almohad power was weakening under the constant pressure from Castile, the enormous expense of a large army, a growing dissatisfaction among the people, the anti-Almohad rebellion of Ibn Hud, and then the final siege of Ishbiliyah by Fernando III. The Castilian fleet—using boats fitted with steel saws in their prows—broke through the chain across the Guadalquivir and burned the bridge, isolating the city from the Aljarafe. The people of Ishbiliyah, starved into submission, had no choice but to capitulate. The documents were signed on November 23, 1248; on the 22nd of December the last of the inhabitants left and the king of Castile and León entered Seville.
Five hundred years before, when Musa ibn Nusayr entered Hispalis, he had found himself in a Roman city with some Christian Visigothic additions. The impression the city then made on its conquerors echoed through both popular and learned Arab tradition, so magnificent were the vestiges of antiquity. When Fernando III entered Ishbiliyah in 1248, it had been transformed. Hardly a trace remained of Roman times: He found himself in an enchanted world of palaces, gardens, fountains and mosques, the Torre del Oro still clad in the gold-luster tiles that gave it its name. The Christians, even as they transformed the city in future centuries, would live under its spell. They still do today.
|Paul Lunde, an independent scholar who divides his time between Seville and Cambridge, England, researches and writes about the Middle East. His most recent book is Islam: Culture, Faith and History (2001, Dorling Kindersley).
|Roland and Sabrina Michaud are distinguished photographers and veteran travelers throughout the Muslim world who have published numerous books, including The Orient in a Mirror, The Gold Route of Samarkand, Caravans to Turkey and Afghanistan: Paradise Lost.