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Volume 27, Number 5September/October 1976

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The Ripening Years

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

Although its history includes times of turmoil and upheaval, as well as periods of glory, Seville was the most important kingdom and city of Spain from the fall of the Cordoban Caliphate until it was conquered by Ferdinand III in 1248.

Seville's history got off to a bad start—under its first independent ruler, the cunning, cruel al-Mutadid, who took control of the taifa or little kingdom, and extended it during his reign from 1042 to 1069. But fortunately, he was succeeded by a son, al-Mutamid, a gifted statesman, intellectual and poet. Under the poet-king al-Mutamid, Seville achieved a brief respite from struggle and some moments of beauty that have passed into legend.

Before al-Mutamid became king he met Ibn Ammar, an itinerant and brilliant poet, forged a friendship with him and, when he gained the throne, made him vizier of the kingdom. Together one evening, al-Mutamid and Ibn Ammar were strolling along the banks of the Guadalquivir, bantering and improvising poetry. Al-Mutamid started off with a line—"The wind scuffs the river and makes it chain mail..."—which Ibn Ammar was supposed to complete. For once, however, Ibn Ammar was at a loss for words to end the couplet and a slave girl nearby overheard them and completed the rhyme: "Chain mail for fighting could water avail."

The girl was al-Rumaikiyya, a lovely and charming muleskinner. (For some reason mule drivers often seem to be romantically associated with poetry in Spain.) Al-Mutamid instantly fell in love with her, later married her and, eventually, when war again engulfed the taifa, romantically sailed with her into exile.

Another charming story is told about them. They were standing side by side one morning looking at a very rare sight in Andalusia: the plains were covered with snow. Al-Rumaikiyya sighed and told al-Mutamid how much she hoped to see this lovely scene another time. To please her, al-Mutamid had the plains planted with almond trees and to this day, seen from a distance, parts of Andalusia in early spring look snow-covered because of the groves of white blossoms.

Such idyllic interludes, however, were short-lived in al-Andalus. There was constant intrigue in the court, intermittent feuding among the various Moorish taifas and a growing menace from the Christian kingdoms in the north: Castile, Leon and Galicia.

Although Castile, Leon and Galicia— united under Ferdinand I in 1037—had broken apart again after Ferdinand's death, Castile and Leon were temporarily reunited under Alfonso VI and Christian raiders were reaching farther and farther south. At last they reached Tarifa—where the first Muslim raiders had come ashore more than three centuries before. In 1085, the Christians retook Toledo, a key Muslim city in the heart of Spain. The road was now open to the underbelly of al-Andalus.

The taifa kings of Spain suddenly realized that they were in serious trouble. Because of their quarrels they had waited too long to join forces against the Christians. Now it couldn't be done without outside help and the kings knew that asking for help in the one quarter in which it was available was like choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea.

In North Africa some Berber tribes, the Almoravids (in Arabic al-Murabitun, Those Who Live in Religious Retreats) had recently embraced Islam. They were undoubtedly strong, and certainly eager to defend the faith in a new holy war, but they also, al-Mutamid thought, might pose more of a threat to Seville than to the Christians. In the end, of course, he knew that he could only make one decision, and he eventually made it. As he wrote, "I do not want a curse to be leveled against me in all the mosques of Islam, and faced with the choice, I would rather drive the camels of the Almoravids than be a swineherd among Christians."

In 1086, therefore, the Almoravids, led by Yusuf ibn Tashafin, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. Marching on Toledo, they encountered the Christians at Sagrajas, near Badajoz, and defeated them soundly. The Christians fell back, but due to problems at home the Berber army failed to exploit its victory. It returned to North Africa and, as so often in the history of Spain, the campaign ended inconclusively.

Al-Mutamid's fears, however, were not groundless. Within four years the Christians were again on the march and the Almoravids again crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. This time, however, Yusuf ibn Tashafin came not to help the Moors of Spain, but to add to his own North African empire. In quick succession he seized the kingdoms of Granada, Cordoba and Seville.

For a few years the Almoravids were held in check by a great Spanish warrior who fought fiercely all over the country, inspiring countless poets and writers with his exploits. He was Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar—better known as El Cid, a name derived from the Arabic sayyed, originally "lord." El Cid was actually a free lance who fought for both Christian and Muslim rulers. But his basic loyalty was to King Alfonso VI—though Alfonso did nothing to deserve it—and when the Almoravids came the second time it was El Cid who stemmed the Berber tide, winning battle after brilliant battle for the Christians and earning the title Campeador, or Champion. But when El Cid died, in 1099, the Almoravids swept over all of southern Spain and present-day Portugal.

In Seville, meanwhile, the poet-king al-Mutamid had fallen on bitter times. His great friend and fellow-poet Ibn Ammar had ambitiously attempted to establish himself as an independent ruler of the kingdoms of Murcia and Valencia. After his treasonous plans failed, Ibn Ammar and al-Mutamid were reconciled briefly. But again Ibn Ammar enraged al-Mutamid and the king went at him with a flashing axe. Ibn Ammar fell to his knees and begged for mercy, but al-Mutamid's patience had run out.

But so had his luck. Taken captive by the Almoravids, the poet-king al-Mutamid and his love al-Rumaikiyya were sent into exile and poverty in North Africa, an event described by the poet Ibn al-Labbana:

Never will I forget that morning by the Guadalquivir
When they were thrown into ships like corpses into graves.
Along both banks the people crowded
To see those pearls cast into the foam of the river.
Maidens had no wish to cover themselves, they dropped their veils.
Clothes were rent and faces torn with anguish.
The moment came—what a tumult of farewells,
Maidens and young men outdoing one another in lamentation!
The ships gathered way, the sobbing mounted,
Like the driver urging forward his slow caravan.
How many broken hearts those merciless galleys took!

To the newly-converted, zealous Almoravids, the poet al-Mutamid and the other Moorish kings of al-Andalus seemed decadent and slack in their faith. Perhaps they were. But lush Andalusia was seductive, and it was not long before the kind climate, the easy living and the refinements of life softened the crusading fervor of the Almoravids too. Gradually Almoravid rule began to crumble in as great a confusion of rebellions and intrigue as that of the taifa kings before.

In North Africa, in the meantime, the Almoravids' homeland had been taken over by an even more zealous Berber group from the Atlas mountains. These were the Al-mohads ("Asserters of the Unity of God"), whose founder, Ibn Tumart, was a sophisticated theologian who had studied in Baghdad, Mecca, Alexandria and Cordoba. And as earlier factions had invited the Almoravids to Spain, now new factions invited the Al-mohads to come and protect al-Andalus from the ever-present Christian threat.

Again, North Africans swept into Spain. Again, al-Andalus was unified and the Christians were pushed back. But except for the tiny Kingdom of Granada, which miraculously endured three centuries after their fall, the Almohads were to be the last Muslim rulers of Spain.

The final years were a period of confusion, corruption and violence. Yet, paradoxically, even as military and political affairs went badly, the economic and cultural life of the Moors reached new heights. In Seville trading ships came up the Guadalquivir from the Atlantic Ocean and ferryboats hustled back and forth across the river. In the shade of the Great Mosque, several Christian churches raised their spires. Through open doorways along the streets craftsmen of every imaginable kind could be seen at work, and in the market areas hawkers, beggars, veiled women and tradesmen shouted and whispered over bread, meats, fish, olive oil, melons, figs, oranges, grapes, spices and herbs piled in the stalls. It was a city of smells, ranging from orange blossoms and myrtle to more earthy odors.

Cultural, intellectual and scientific life also flourished as the towering intellects of al-Andalus soared into new realms of thought and experiment in theology, philosophy, mysticism, medicine, astronomy and geography. It was not uncommon for one man to make great strides in several fields, and there were many such men: al-Idrisi, who wrote the most accurate and detailed account of the world available to man at his time, as well as impressive works on botany and medical remedies; and Ibn Rushd, or Averroes as he is known in the West, a distinguished Aristotelian philosopher, whose writings later helped spark a scholastic revival in the rest of Europe and who, in addition, wrote a seven-book medical encyclopedia. Among his insights in medicine: no one is taken ill twice with smallpox.

Another of the period's outstanding intellectuals was Ibn Tufail, a writer, physician and astronomer from Guadix near Granada. His allegorical tale, Hayy ibn Yaqsan, The Living One, Son of the Vigilant, anticipated the literature of the Age of Reason and it is said that the 1708 English translation of this book, titled The Improvement of Human Reason, influenced Rousseau and Voltaire, and possibly Kipling and Daniel Defoe too. The tale, about a boy brought up by a gazelle and isolated from human beings, raised the philosophical question of whether the child by his own reasoning and intuition would find truth and God. The answer in the tale: he would.

Out of the confused last days of Seville also came the mystical and inward-looking Sufis, whose purist thought dominated the last of the Almohad period. Although Sufism had numerous adherents, many fundamentalists in Islam objected. As Jan Read says in his excellent book, The Moors in Spain and Portugal, Sufism, "directed as it was, inwards and to the individual... did nothing to restore the spirit of the jihad. The holy war now became the prerogative of the Christians, and in the hands of the Crusaders and the Inquisition it was to prove a weapon as blunt and brutal as it was essentially irreligious."

The decline in the spirit of the jihad among the Almohads, plus their preoccupation with affairs back in North Africa, promoted still another series of taifa secessions, and still more intra-Muslim strife just as, in the Christian north, King Alfonso VIII of Castile and the Archbishop of Toledo were working to reconcile their kingdoms. Their efforts were successful and in 1212 the united forces of Castile, León, Navarre and Aragon at Las Navas de Tolosa delivered Andalusia's death blow. As the taifa kings even then continued fighting among themselves, their final downfall was not long in coming. In 1236 Cordoba fell—and its Great Mosque was converted into a cathedral. In 1238 the Balearic Islands were conquered. In 1246 Jaen fell and in 1248 Seville was occupied, with the help of Muslim forces from the taifa Kingdom of Granada, where the final—and some believe the finest—chapters of Islam in al-Andalus would be written.

This article appeared on pages 18-21 of the September/October 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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