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‘Abd al-Rahman


decided to send a return legation to the

Viking camp. It was this mission that was headed by Al-

Ghazal, since, according to Ibn Dihya, he had “a sharp mind,

and a quick inventiveness; he was savvy at replying, he was

brave, had perseverance, and knew how to cross all doors.”

The account begins just as Ibn Hayyan’s story of the Constan-

tinople embassy begins: a storm delayed Al-Ghazal upon setting

out in the company of a foreign ambassador. Then he arrived

at the Viking camp “on an island or peninsula” that scholars of

Norse history have identified as possibly Denmark’s Jutland Pen-

insula, but more likely it was Ireland. Although some Vikings had

recently become Christians, Ibn Dihya described them as pagan

devotees of fire cults, using for them the name


, or Mag-

ians, the same given to fire-worshipping Zoroastrians and the

word from which English gets



In what may be the clearest of Ibn Dihya’s alleged plagia-

risms, Al-Ghazal told his hosts he would not kneel before any

sovereign but his own, and yet, as in Constantinople,

the door to the Viking throne room was of low clear-

ance, so that this time he scooted in feet first, sitting,

so that the soles of his shoes approached closest to the

king. If true, it was another quick-thinking but plau-

sibly deniable gesture to gain the upper hand; if false,

it was merely a cut-and-paste of the Constantinople

account to a more exotic locale.

Having delivered ‘Abd al-Rahman’s letter and

trunks of luxurious gifts, he is said to have again exer-

cised arts of seduction on his host’s royal consort, in

this case the Queen Nud. Ibn Dihya recounted the

poet’s version of the encounter: “I swear that she had

certain charm, but I won her favor by talking to her in

a way so that I got more than I wanted.” He goes on

to say that Al-Ghazal’s Arab companions had to inter-

vene to silence the poet, lest the indiscretion go too far.

Despite the similarities, one reason to think

Ibn Dihya’s version was at least based on a now-

lost contemporaneous account is that some of

Al-Ghazal’s poems here are not found in other

chronicles, and they read as if they were written

specifically for the moment at hand. At one point

the Viking queen suggests that her guest darken

his white hair with dye so as to look younger. His

answer could not have been more sharply put:

Do not disregard the shine of white hair!

It is the flower of understanding and intelligence

I have now what you’ve longed for from your

own youth,

Good manners and education.

He returned to Córdoba after an absence of 20

months, in the summer of 846, when he was more

than 70 years old. While some authors say he reached

94, the most accurate source may be one of his own

verses, written not long before he died:

I have lived thirty years and some more,

Plus thirty-two.

The first third part of them flirting

The second part living in sin,

And the third part deep in an abyss

Where my pity and faith are lacking.

But how finally might one settle the question whether

Al-Ghazal headed one or two ambassadorships—the one to

Constantinople, and the other, possibly, to Ireland? There

may be a hint in a bite of Spain’s tastiest variety of fig. It’s

called the


, and it is said to have been introduced

to Al-Andalus by Al-Ghazal—from Constantinople. But

why use that name? “Donegal” is an Old Irish word mean-

ing “fort of the foreigners.” What, we might wonder today,

would the Gazelle say about that?

March/April 2015


“Travelers of Al-Andalus” is a six-part series selected and adapted from

the original 41-part series “El Viajero Histórico,” an idea and production

by Ana Carreño Leyva in

El Legado Andalusí: Una Nueva Sociedad


, the magazine of the Andalusian public foundation El

Legado Andalusí, based in Granada, Spain, from 1990 through 2010.

This article appeared in issue number 20, titled “

Al Gazal: De Bizancio

al País de los Vikingos




Jesús Cano

is a writer living in Spain.

Louis Werner

([email protected] is a writer and filmmaker living in New York.

Belén Esturla

([email protected]

) is an artist and illustrator in Granada, Spain.