Poetry flourished exuberantly in 11th century al-Andalus. Verse was the common expression of the day, an arabesque of words and meaning the language of love, diplomacy and satire. Andalusians loved poetry and virtually everyone composed it.
No poet so embodied the spirit of this brilliant poetical age as did al-Mu'tamid, the poet-king of Seville, who lived from 1040 to 1095. Al-Mu'tamid is considered one of the most outstanding Andalusian poets of his age. "He left," wrote literary historian Ibn Bassam, "some pieces of verse as beautiful as the bud when it opens to disclose the flower."
The dramatic twists of al-Mu'tamid's life, which took him to triumphant kingship in Seville and then to the bitterness of African exile, are legendary, and they remain a poignant metaphor for the spectacular rise and fall of al-Andalus. The historian al-Marrakushi wrote of al-Mu'tamid, "If one wanted to list all the examples of beauty produced by al-Ahdalus from the time of the conquest to the present day, then al-Mu'tamid would be one of them, if not the greatest of all...."
The collapse of the Andalusian Umayyad caliphate in 1031 diminished the illustrious capital city of Córdoba to a mere provincial town, and splintered al-Andalus into some 23 petty principalities and locally ruled kingdoms. The disarray left by this disintegration unified the feuding Christian states of Galicia, León, Castile, Navarre, Aragón and Barcelona with visions of reconquest. This period became known as the era of the "party kings" or petty monarchs - muluk al-tawa'if in Arabic, reyes de taifas in Spanish.
Once-glorious Córdoba was soon eclipsed by the flourishing dynasties of Seville, Badajoz, Granada and Toledo. Yet apart from brief coalitions against their common Spanish-Christian enemy, the kingdoms were constantly dividing and realigning themselves through feuds and treaties, their rulers vying not only for political dominance, but also attract the greatest poets and scholars of the day their respective courts.
Of all these rival kingdoms, the most formidable militarily and the most scintillating artistically was undeniably the kingdom of Seville, ruled by the 'Abbadids. Al-Mu'tamid inherited not only the reins of power from his ancestors but their poetical talent as well.
Al-Mu'tamid's grandfather Abu al-Quasim Muhammad ibn Isma'il ibn Abbad, the founder of the ‘Abbadid dynasty, was renowned for his justice and wise rule, while his son al-Mu’tadid, al-Mu’tamid’s father, was feared for his tyranny and fierce cruelty. Nonetheless, poets and scholars gravitated to al-Mu’tadid’s court, for he was also known as a great patron of literature and the arts, as well as a poet in his own right.
Abu al-Qasim Muhammad II ibn ‘Abbad al-Mu’tamid was the third and last of the ‘Abbadid dynasty. His reputation as an enlightened, benevolent ruler and gifted poet soon surpassed that of his forebears. The biographer Ibn Khallikan described al-Mu’tamid as “the most liberal, hospitable, munificent and powerful of all the princes ruling Spain. His court was the haling place of travelers, the rendezvous of poets, the point to which all hopes were directed and the haunt of men of talent.”
Al-Mu'tamid's life story, dramatic enough in its facts, was immortalized by his verse and the intimate revelations it provided of his soul. His youthful works show his preoccupation with pleasure and friendship, and mirror the popular themes of love, nature and sensual beauty:
She stood in all her slender grace
Veiling the sun’s orb from my face:
O may her beauty ever be
So veiled from times inconstancy!
It was as if she knew, I guess,
She was a moon of loveliness;
And may aught else the bright sun veil
Except the moon's own lustre pale?
During these early years, a young, penniless, poet-adventurer was drawn to the court of Seville to prove his talent and reap his reward. Ibn 'Ammar's artful verse captured the fervent admiration of the young prince al-Mu'tamid, who aspired to model himself after the poet. Lovers of pleasure, high adventure and - above all - poetry, the two became inseparable companions. When al-Mu'tamid's father appointed him governor of Silves (in present-day Portugal) at age 23, the prince named Ibn 'Ammar his vizier, and later, when he ascended the throne, his prime minister.
The two friends often sallied forth in disguise to the banks of al-Wadi al-Kabir, now the Guadalquivir River, to amuse themselves. On such an outing, al-Mu'tamid supposedly met his future bride. While strolling along the river's Bank where some young women were washing linen, the legend has it, al-Mu'tamid improvised a half verse, challenging Ibn 'Ammar to supply the second verse on the spot:
Sana’a ‘r-ribu min al-ma i zarad…
[The wind has turned the water to chain mail...]
Ibn 'Ammar's brilliant wit had never failed him in this, their favorite pastime. But this time, before he could take up the rhyme, one of the linen-washers unhesitatingly replied:
Ayyu dir'in li-qitdlin law jamad!
[What armor for a battle, if it froze!]
Captivated by her beauty and cleverness, al-Mu'tamid had the young poet brought to the palace. Her name was I'timad; she was commonly known as Rumaikiyyah, the slave of Rumaik, for whom she drove mules. Al-Mu'tamid purchased I'timad's freedom and married her. It is said he adopted the public name al-Mu'tamid 'ala Allah - "He Who Relies on God" - after his wife's name I'timad, or "reliance."
The second period of al-Mu'tamid's poetical work is dominated by themes of war and rulership, expansion of the kingdom of Seville, his deep love for his wife and their splendid life together at court. Al-Mu'tamid expressed his feelings for I'timad in an acrostic rhapsody that he composed while separated from her:
Invisible to my eyes, thou art ever presentto my heart.
Thy happiness I desire to be infinite, as are mysighs, my tears, and my sleepless nights!
Impatient of the bridle when other women seek toguide me, thou makest me submissiveto thy lightest wishes.
My desire each moment is to be at thy side.
Speedily may it be fulfilled!
Ab! my heart's darling, think of me, and forgetme not, however long my absence!
Dearest of names! I have written it, I have now traced that delicious word – I 'timad!
I'timad's extravagant whims were infamous, but al-Mu'tamid attempted to indulge her every wish and remained devoted to her throughout his life.
The story is told of a wintry February day when snowflakes gently fell on Córdoba. Watching this rare spectacle from a palace window, I'timad suddenly burst into tears. She sobbed to her husband that he was cruel not to provide her such a lovely sight every winter. In response, al-Mu'tamid ordered the Sierra of Córdoba to be planted thick with almond trees, whose delicate white blossoms each spring would simulate the snowflakes so admired by I'timad.
Although not overly concerned with state affairs, al-Mu'tamid succeeded in annexing Córdoba to the kingdom of Seville - a campaign initiated by his grandfather - and this in only the second year of his reign. The royal poet lauded his own conquest in verse:
I have won at the first onset
The hand of the lovely Córdoba;
That brave Amazon who with sword and spear
Repelled all those who sought her in marriage.
And now we celebrate our nuptial in her palace,
While the other monarchs, my baffled rivals,
Weep tears of rage and tremble with fear.
With good reason do ye tremble, despicable foemen!
For soon will the lion spring upon you.2
The four or five years following the conquest of Córdoba were indeed joyful for al-Mu'tamid and his family, but their joy was to be short-lived. Constant feuding among the party kings provided an opportunity for Christian reconquest, and successful encroachment forced some Andalusian kings to become tributaries to Christian suzerains. Meanwhile, Alfonso VI, King of León, Castile and Navarre, had resolved to conquer the entire peninsula. "Biding his time," the Dutch historian Reinhart Dozy wrote, "he crushed the treasuries of the Muslim kinglets as in a wine-press, till they poured forth gold."
On May 25, 1085, Alfonso VI forcibly annexed Toledo, a great center of Muslim scholarship. In a panic, the Andalusians realized that, relying on their own resources, they had but two alternatives: submit to the Christian king, or emigrate. The scholar Abu Muhammad al-'Assal sounded the alarm in verse: "Men of al-Andalus, put spurs to your horses! Delay at this time is idle folly."
Their very existence threatened by Christian ascendancy, the Andalusian kings called upon the Muslim Almoravids of North Africa for reinforcements, despite the fact that these stern Berber nomads from the Sahara seemed more likely rivals than allies.
When al-Mu'tamid's son Rashid advised against introducing the Almoravids into Spain, al-Mu'tamid reportedly replied: "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."
Thus, the kings of Seville, Granada and Badajoz sent envoys to Yusuf ibn Tashufin, king of the Almoravids, pressing him and his army to come immediately to their aid, without, however, encroaching on their sovereignty in al-Andalus. Yusuf ibn Tashufin agreed, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain, and defeated Alfonso VI in the brilliant strategic battle of al-Zallaqah (Sagrajas), a few kilometers north of Badajoz, in 1086. Hailed as the savior of all al-Andalus, Ibn Tashufin and his piety, valor and military skill were extolled throughout Muslim Spain.
Alfonso Vl's defeat liberated the Andalusian kings from the humiliation of paying annual tribute. Yet, despite the brilliance of the victory, it was not a decisive one; the Andalusians remained incapable of defending themselves, and the Castilians began focusing their attacks on the eastern part of al-Andalus. Unable to cope with the increasing raids in the eastern provinces of his kingdom, al-Mu'tamid himself traveled to Morocco, once again seeking the aid of Ibn Tashufin.
By this time an air of growing discontent had permeated the petty kingdoms. Their rulers were too weak to protect their subjects even from neighboring Muslim kingdoms, much less from the Christian invaders. While citizens cried out against the kings' extortionate taxes for their opulent courts, the kings themselves bickered and denounced each other to the Almoravid ruler.
The disaffection of the Andalusian populace reached the ear of Ibn Tashufin. With the encouragement of his advisors, he again responded to the pleadings of the petty kings, this time with the intention of adding al-Andalus to the Almoravid empire, which already stretched from Senegal to Algiers.
The kingdoms of Granada and Malaga were the first to fall to the raiding Almoravid armies. Learning of Ibn Tashufin's betrayal, al-Mu'tamid attempted to forge an alliance with Alfonso VI, but it was too late. The Berbers stormed the fortifications of Seville and sacked the city. Al-Mu'tamid defended his citadel heroically, finally surrendering only to spare his family. In his grief, he wrote:
When my tears cease to flow,
And a calm steals over my troubled heart,
I hear voices crying "Yield! That is true wisdom!"
But I reply, "Poison would be a sweeter draughtto me
Than such a cup of shame!"
Though the barbarians wrest from me my realm,
And my soldiers forsake me,
My courage and my pride remain steadfast.
When I fell upon the foe, I scorned a breastplate,
1 encountered them unarmed;
Hoping for death, I flung myself into the fray;
But alas, my hour had not yet come!2
Many of the Andalusian kings, dethroned and their cities despoiled, were assassinated. For al-Mu'tamid, Ibn Tashufin decreed deportation. A vast, grief-stricken crowd thronged the banks of the Guadalquivir to bid the royal family farewell; black barges ferried the exiles from their beloved al-Andalus across the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa. When the barge carrying al-Mu'tamid docked in Tangier, the poets of the land sought him out, even then seeking patronage. To them, al-Mu'tamid gave the last of his money, stained with his own blood.
So began the third and final chapter of al-Mu'tamid's life. From the pinnacle of happiness and power to the depths of poverty and humiliation, al-Mu'tamid poured out his deep sorrow in poetry unparalleled in Arabic literature. En route to Meknes, encountering a procession walking to the mosque to pray for rain, he mused:
When folk who were about
To implore heaven for rain
Met me, I exclaimed,
"My tears will take the place of showers!"
"Thou sayest truth," they replied;
"Thy tears would suffice -
But they are mingled with blood!"
The poet-king was banished to the arid desert village of Aghmat, near Marrakech, situated in the most elevated and dramatic mountain range of the High Atlas. There, al-Mu'tamid dragged out a pitiful existence in utter destitution, tormented by the sight of his wife and daughters spinning wool for paltry sums.
Poetry was his only solace. The elegies written at Aghmat recall his former greatness, his massacred sons and his splendid palaces and court life. Al-Mu'tamid admitted that he had erred in summoning Ibn Tashufin to al-Andalus. "In so doing,” he said, "I dug my own grave." On his first ‘Id al-Fitr in captivity, he wrote, in abject misery:
In days gone by the festivals made thee joyous,
But sad is the festival which findeth thee a captiveat Aghmat.
Thou seest thy daughters clothed in rags and dying of hunger;
They spin for a pi
ttance, for they are destitute.
Worn with fatigue, and with downcast eyes,they come to embrace thee.
They walk bare-footed in the mire of the streets,
Who once trod on musk and camphor!
Their hollow cheeks, furrowed with tears,attest their poverty....
Just as on the occasion of this sad festival—
God grant that thou mayest never see another! –
Thou hast broken thy fast, so has thy heart broken hers:
Thy sorrow, long restrained, bursts for afresb.
Yesterday, when thou spakest the word all menobeyed;
Now thou art at the beck of others.
Kings who glory in their greatness are dupesof a vain dream!
Al-Mu'tamid greeted rumors of insurrection in al-Andalus with hope and joy, but they earned him only the additional humiliation of chains.
Strange that these irons do not glow
And singe the hands of these villains,
For fear of him, upon whose grace
Courageous men depended, and whose sword
Sent some to heaven and some to hell.
Languishing in fetters, forgotten and ill, al-Mu'tamid was finally overwhelmed with grief after the death of his beloved I'timad. In 1095, at the age of 55, he succumbed, dying in exile at Aghmat. He was the last of the native-born Andalusian kings, and he brilliantly represented a magnificent culture. His chivalry, liberality and courage endeared him to succeeding generations. "Everyone loves al-Mu'tamid," wrote historian Ibn al-Abbar more than a century later, "everyone pities him, and even now he is lamented."
Rose M. Esber is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.