This is episode 46 called al-Hakam II, the cultivated caliph, and in this episode you will learn:
- Recap and the succession of Count Fernán González and García Sánchez of Pamplona
- The disunity of Christian Spain and the evidence of autonomist tendencies in the Kingdom of León
- The potential problem of the succession of al-Hakam II and his homosexuality or bisexuality
- A general overview of the reign and personality of Caliph al-Hakam II, including his passion for knowledge and literature
- Introduction to the two key men of al-Hakam II: Ghalib ibn Abd al-Rahman and Jafar ibn Uthman al-Mushafi
- The new wave of Viking attacks in al-Andalus and Galicia
- A detailed account of the Umayyad-Fatimid conflict during the reign of al-Hakam II and its aftermath
- The campaign of the siege of Gormaz of 975
- A reflection on how gossips are used against powerful people
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 46 called Al-Hakam II, the cultivated caliph. In this episode you will learn about the reign of the second Caliph of Córdoba, al-Hakam II. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast!
In the previous episode I covered the late reign of Abd al-Rahman III, the history of the Christian states of that period, and how during the early reign of al-Hakam II the supremacy of Córdoba over all Spain was confirmed. In this episode I will talk less about the politics of the Christian kingdoms, because there is not much to say, and instead it will be quite focused on the political events of the reign of al-Hakam II, although I’m not going to talk about the crucial succession of the second Caliph of Córdoba. Remember how the Kingdom of León suffered a series of civil wars that others exploited to their benefit, and the very weakened authority of León passed into the hands of a minor, Ramiro III of León. The nun and sister of Sancho the Fat, named Elvira Ramírez, ruled as regent and displaced the mother of Ramiro from power until 975, when the disastrous siege of Gormaz costed Elvira her position. The support of the monarchy of Pamplona was key to keep Ramiro on the throne, and the influence of Pamplona was also quite strong in Castile.
More changes happened soon, since there was a sort of generational change with the death of Fernán González of Castile and García Sánchez I of Pamplona in 970, who were respectively succeeded by García Fernández and Sancho Garcés II. In fact, García Sánchez subdivided the Kingdom of Pamplona, with his son Ramiro ruling a portion of La Rioja, what was called the Kingdom of Viguera, and the eldest son Sancho having the overall supremacy. The short-lived Kingdom of Viguera was created to better defend the frontier of Pamplona and maybe to satisfy the desire of autonomy of Ramiro, but it was not very different from the administrative situation of the County of Aragon. By the way, I want to highlight that Sancho Garcés II has been known by 19th and 20th century historians by the nickname Abarca, but recent investigations show that the nickname Abarca was actually the nickname of Sancho Garcés I, the founder of the Jimena dynasty. Abarca is a type of traditional Spanish sandal, and it’s said that Sancho Garcés I got that nickname because he wore abarcas in a battle against the Banu Qasi Lubb ibn Muhammad. Unlike the founder of the Jimenas, Sancho Garcés II didn’t have a good military record, that’s why he never earned a cheerful but glorious nickname like Abarca.
Focusing on what’s important, the supremacy of the Caliphate of Córdoba in Spain was uncontested during the reign of al-Hakam II. Envoys from León, Pamplona, Castile, Barcelona, and other parts of the Christian kingdoms kept coming to Córdoba with pledges of lasting friendship. It’s remarkable how frontier lords of the important linages of the Kingdom of León sent embassies to al-Hakam on their own, without the intervention of the central government led by the nun Elvira Ramírez. We see embassies from the Counts of Portugal, Galicia, Salamanca, or the Counts of Monzón and Saldaña, and al-Hakam must have been very happy to see how the Christian states were breaking up into smaller lordships, easier to influence from Córdoba. The Caliphate also kept receiving embassies from distant Christian powers, like the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, a proof of the power and prestige of the Umayyads.
From an early age, Abd al-Rahman III had been preparing his son al-Hakam to succeed him one day, because he was the son of the favorite concubine of Abd al-Rahman, the Machiavellian confidant Marjan. The best teachers of al-Andalus educated al-Hakam, and thanks to that education he grew up to become a cultivated prince, a lover of culture and good literature. Obviously, the second Caliph of Córdoba was trained in the affairs of state and war, a bit like Emir Abd Allah had done with Abd al-Rahman, and al-Hakam sometimes substituted his father in his absence, while sometimes he accompanied Abd al-Rahman in his famous campaigns. Since his father allowed al-Hakam to have more influence in the governance of the Caliphate as his reign progressed, it’s not surprising that al-Hakam’s reign was marked by continuity in key people and policies. However, for reasons that we will never know for sure, Abd al-Rahman III took a decision that would prove disastrous for the continuity of the Umayyad dynasty: he forbade the crown prince from marrying and having descendants as long as he was alive. Since Abd al-Rahman’s reign was surprisingly long, that was a problem, because when al-Hakam became Caliph of Córdoba he was 46 or 47 years old and childless.
Apart from the potential problem with the succession that that supposed, rumors circulated throughout al-Andalus and the rest of Europe about the homosexuality, or rather bisexuality, of Caliph al-Hakam II. The Christians also attacked Abd al-Rahman III with that, as it’s reflected in the story of the young martyr Saint Pelayo, who was executed after refusing to sexually please Abd al-Rahman, but we don’t know if the story is true. Nonetheless, there were more rumors about the male harem of al-Hakam and how his favorite concubine, a Basque woman named Subh, pleased the sexual preferences of al-Hakam by dressing like a man. Take these rumors with a grain of salt because we are not 100% sure, but yeah, it’s very likely that al-Hakam II had sexual relationships with both men and women, because among the Andalusi elite that was normal, as it’s demonstrated in the homoerotic poetry of that period.
Conservative members of the ulama, the Islamic theologians and judges, considered this behavior of the Andalusi elite degenerate and decadent, and we will see a kind of reaction against these attitudes during the dictatorship of Almanzor. As it’s customary in Arabic chronicles, we have a description of the looks of al-Hakam, and the new Caliph doesn’t come off very well. Al-Hakam II had a reddish blonde hair, big black eyes, an aquiline nose, short legs like his father, and excessively long arms. Al-Hakam was liberal-minded, but he was also a pious ruler, maybe more than his own father. He expanded and embellished the Great Mosque of Córdoba, he liberated slaves, he donated money to fund schools for poor children, and he reduced the fiscal pressure by eliminating and reducing extracanonical taxes. Al-Hakam even tried to ban the production and consumption of wine, but advisors told him that this policy would be extremely unpopular.
Caliph Al-Hakam II was guided by the classic ideas of legitimacy of the Umayyads and of any good caliph. That means that he had to preserve the message of the Prophet Muhammad without innovations, unlike the Abbasids or Fatimids had done, and he had to serve the public interests of the Muslims. We see how al-Hakam II served the public interest on many occasions, such as when he expanded the zoco of Córdoba, that’s the commercial area, or when he uncovered and punished corrupt public officers several times. In the very beginning of his reign he made a great purge of crooked courtiers, mainly because of corruption and power abuses, and partly because al-Hakam distrusted the traditional great Arab families of al-Andalus that occupied key public roles. The Caliph substituted these Arab families as much as he could, and instead he formed a hard core loyal only to him, made of slaves, freedmen, and people of obscure and humble origins.
However, if al-Hakam II is remember for something, it’s because he was a cultivated caliph and a bibliophile. Al-Hakam allegedly collected 400,000 works of very diverse nature, including philosophy, religion, medicine, astronomy, astrology, engineering, geography, history, poetry or botany. The library of al-Hakam for sure was among the largest of the world, and it included books of the Hispano-Gothic tradition, learning from Ancient Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Persia, India, and other parts of the Islamic world. The caliphal library was not merely a place to hold books, but also an academy where scholars, scribes and translators gained and produced knowledge. The seeds of high culture planted in the early 9th century by Emir al-Hakam I and Abd al-Rahman II had finally produced results. Aristocrats and scholars imitated the caliph by founding their own private libraries, and thanks to the economic and cultural levels of development of al-Andalus of this period, original Andalusi literature flourished during the Taifa period.
Apart from the Caliph, during the reign of al-Hakam II the two most important men of the Caliphate were Ghalib ibn Abd al-Rahman and Jafar ibn Uthman al-Mushafi. Ghalib was a European slave of the saqaliba guard of Abd al-Rahman III, but sometime he was freed and as freedmen usually did he adopted the name of his former owner as his surname. Ghalib already rose to prominence during the 940s, as he was given the task to reconstruct Medinaceli and protect the Middle March from there, and he also participated in multiple campaigns against the Christians and the Fatimids. Throughout the episode, I will have to mention Ghalib several times because al-Hakam constantly relied on him, and his military skills and loyalty earned him riches and honors. After being named governor of Medinaceli and the Middle March, he was promoted to the rank of vizier, and then in 972 to the even more important distinction of supreme commander.
On the other hand, Jafar ibn Uthman al-Mushafi became the hajib or prime minister of al-Hakam II because they had developed a friendship thanks to the father of Jafar, who was a teacher of al-Hakam. Al-Mushafi belonged to a humble Berber family of Valencia, and he was an excellent poet and cultivated man like his friend al-Hakam. Already in 947, he was appointed governor of Majorca, and when al-Hakam acceded to the throne al-Mushafi became the trustworthy statesman that the Caliph needed. As an outsider and Berber of humble origins, some ancestral Arab clients of the Umayyads hated Jafar, but nothing bad happened to him as long as his patron was alive.
On another note, after decades without attacking Spain, in the late 10th century and early 11th century there was a new wave of Viking raids in Spain. It’s worth to mention that the scale and success of these incursions cannot be compared with the two attacks of the 9th century, except for Galicia. The network of spies and communications and the military and naval capabilities of the Caliphate of Córdoba were much stronger now, that’s why al-Andalus easily drove them off. In 966 some 28 Viking ships showed up in the coasts of Alcácer do Sal and Lisbon, in Portugal, and to fight them al-Hakam II mobilized the Caliphal army and the fleets of Seville and Almería. Five years later Norman ships were sighted again, and al-Hakam quickly ordered admiral Ibn al-Rumahis to depart from Almería with the royal squadron, while supreme commander Ghalib also headed westwards. Apparently, there was no combat worth to mention, and the Vikings couldn’t disembark nor sack anything. The mobilization of resources might have been excessive, but the Caliph had to deal with the threat before it became serious, to show his power and prove how he was the legitimate leader and protector of the Muslims.
The Kingdom of León didn’t handle the new Norman incursions so well. In 968 100 ships of the Viking warlord Gunderedo invaded Galicia, sacking and devastating the region. In the Battle of Fornelos Gunderedo killed the man in charge of the defense of the region, the bishop of Iria Flavia, and for two years the Normans continued to sack Galicia, kill its inhabitants, and enslave many of them with impunity. The continuous presence of the Vikings in Galicia and the lack of military aid from other parts of the Kingdom of León is a symptom of the weakness of the central government, and instead the Galicians had to defend themselves. In 970 a man recorded as Guillermo Sánchez and the bishop Saint Rosendo managed to kill Gunderedo, massacre the troublemakers, and burn their ships. It has been proposed that Guillermo Sánchez might be the Duke of Gascony, who might have been making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and he got caught in this situation, or otherwise he might have been a Galician count named Gonzalo Sánchez. In any case, the devastation caused by the Viking incursions and later the campaigns of Almanzor was felt in Galicia for decades.
Moving on to the Umayyad-Fatimid conflict for the Maghreb, in the late reign of Abd al-Rahman III the Fatimids had launched a campaign that had left Algiers and Morocco under their sphere of influence, except for the key coastal strongholds of Ceuta and Tangiers. Al-Hakam continued the same tactics of his father, consisting in sending generous perks to the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar to regain the lost influence there. After some years without any relevant progress, the interests of the Umayyads in North Africa were favored by an external event of the utmost importance: in 969 the Fatimids conquered Egypt and founded El Cairo, and soon the Fatimid court was moved from Ifriqiya to Egypt. For the Fatimids, spending more resources in controlling a poor region like the Maghreb would be unwise, so basically the Umayyads got the leftovers of the Fatimids.
But the Fatimids didn’t completely leave their ambitions in Morocco and Algiers, rather they left Ifriqiya and the mission to expand westward to a dynasty of Sanhaja Berbers, archenemies of the traditional allies of the Umayyads, the Zenata Berbers. The dynasty I’m talking about are the Zirids, and the man who governed Ifriqiya and Algiers was named Buluggin ibn Ziri. His brother Zawi ibn Ziri would serve as general of Almanzor and would later establish his own ruling branch in the Taifa of Granada, but that’s another story. To combat the Zirids and reestablish his influence in the Maghreb, al-Hakam II sent large sums of money to a Zenata chief named Muhammad ibn al-Jayr to convince him to raise an army against the vassals of the Fatimids. In 971 Buluggin ibn Ziri crushed the army of Muhammad ibn al-Jayr, to the point that, seeing how the battle was lost, Muhammad ibn al-Jayr used his sword to commit suicide.
This battle supposed a bitter setback for the Umayyads, but the father of Buluggin ibn Ziri was defeated and killed by Zenata Berbers of northeastern Algiers and a local ruler of Andalusi origins. The allies of the Caliphate of Córdoba brought the head of the Ziri leader to the capital, and al-Hakam II was very pleased for this victory. Nonetheless, Buluggin ibn Ziri launched a bloody campaign against the Zenata, until the Fatimids recalled him to name him viceroy of Ifriqiya. The retreat of the Fatimids and Zirids from Morocco left the Umayyads a free hand there, but soon a prince of the Idrisid dynasty revolted. Prince al-Hasan ibn Gannun wasn’t willing to let neither the Fatimids nor the Umayyads keep intervening in Morocco, and he extended his influence to the point of taking Tangiers from Umayyad hands.
Al-Hakam II couldn’t ignore the threat of an Idrisid resurgence anymore, so in 972 he assembled a large army led by a general named Ibn Tumulus to land on Ceuta, and the army was supported by a fleet from Seville and Almería commanded by a man named Ibn al-Rumahis. The admiral Ibn al-Rumahis recovered Tangiers, and Ibn Tumulus and his army chased Prince al-Hasan ibn Gannun with some success. But the Idrisids didn’t give up, and in December al-Hasan overwhelmingly defeated the Caliphal army, inflicting 1,500 casualties, including the general Ibn Tumulus. Admiral Ibn al-Rumahis informed the Caliph that al-Hasan ibn Gannun had asked to negotiate peace, but al-Hakam prohibited them to have any conversation with the rebel, as he wanted to continue the war until the rebellion was suppressed.
To avenge this disaster and crush the Idrisids once and for all, al-Hakam II recalled Ghalib ibn Abd al-Rahman from Medinaceli and prepared a relief army. An army from the Upper March was sent later too, and it was commanded by the Banu Tujibs, something that indicates that al-Hakam II was trying to integrate the frontier lords into the elites of the central government. Anyway, with the military ability of Ghalib, the large army gathered for the occasion, and the gold spent in buying loyalties from Idrisid supporters the victory was easy. After months suffering a siege, al-Hasan ibn Gannun surrendered, and Ghalib returned victorious to Córdoba, accompanied by the defeated Idrisids, who would never rule again Morocco, even though they eventually moved to the court of the Fatimids to ask for their help. There was a pompous military parade, and the citizens of Córdoba acclaimed the unbeaten Ghalib as a war hero.
Some weeks after that, Ghalib ibn Abd al-Rahman received two gilded swords and the honorific title Dhu-l-Sayfayn, meaning Lord of the Two Swords, an honor that never had any other Andalusi received. Around this time the Caliph al-Hakam fell gravely ill, and his statesman Jafar ibn Uthman al-Mushafi had to deal with everything, including the North African policy. Maintaining Caliphal armies in Morocco was extremely expensive, so al-Mushafi decided to call them back home and instead relied on a loyal local chief to rule in the name of the Umayyads and recruit a Berber army. The war in North Africa had been expensive, but it helped to improve the prestige of Córdoba, increase the influence of the Umayyads, expand the Maliki Sunni orthodoxy, recruit the respected Berber soldiers and horsemen, and secure the inflow of gold from Africa, absolutely necessary to fuel the economy of al-Andalus.
However, the real winner of the war in Morocco was Muhammad ibn Abi Amir, better known as Almanzor. The soon real ruler of the Caliphate of Córdoba was appointed qadi, that is, governor with judicial powers of the Moroccan possessions of the Caliphate. This helped him build relationships with Berber chiefs that would be key for his meteoric rise to power. In the Palatine annals of Isa al-Razi we have many accounts of receptions of Berber chiefs at Medina Azahara, and among the Berbers who pledged allegiance to the Umayyads we find the Banu Birzal, a famous Zenata family who killed the father of Buluggin ibn Ziri. They were followers of the Kharijite sect, but despite being considered heretics by Sunnis like the Andalusis, they were allowed to settle in al-Andalus and practice their faith. The Banu Birzal eventually founded their own kingdom, the Taifa of Carmona, and like many other Berber families that entered Umayyad service, they proved difficult to integrate into the state apparatus and Andalusi society, even more than Jews or Christians.
But back to the aftermath of the war in Morocco, when Ghalib and his Caliphal army returned to Córdoba triumphantly, they had little time to rest, since the Count of Castile García Fernández took the castle of Deza, in Soria, and he killed a frontier lord. The Count of Castile was taking advantage of the absence of the bulk of the army of Ghalib in Medinaceli, all while he was also sending diplomats, that’s why al-Hakam felt enraged and betrayed. At the end of 975, al-Hakam suffered an ictus, and maybe because of that García Fernández managed to convince León, Pamplona, and the counts of Monzón and Saldaña to support him against the Caliphate and conquer the largest castle of Europe, the impregnable Castle of Gormaz. The ill Caliph al-Hakam immediately ordered Ghalib to go back to the frontier, and since all Cordobans and Andalusis respected Ghalib, many volunteers joined the expedition, as well as troops from the frontier, the Arab junds, and slave saqaliba armies.
Despite that, the expedition ran short of men, and just like in North Africa the problems with recruitment and logistics evidenced the need for a military reform. In Córdoba news of the siege of Gormaz caused commotion, and people prayed to request Allah to protect the Muslims of Gormaz. King Ramiro III and Sancho Garcés II were there along several counts, and although he was still a minor, Ramiro III ordered a frontal attack against Gormaz. Anyone who knows the topography of Gormaz will realize that the offensive was crazy, because the attackers had to climb a steep hill to then deal with a very solid garrisoned fortification. The garrison of Gormaz easily defeated the Christian coalition and chased them down outside the walls, without the help of the relief armies. A day later Ghalib arrived and he continued the campaign against Castilian lands.
The unexpected end of the siege of Gormaz allowed the Caliphate to save a key strategic enclave, but it also evidenced the weaknesses of Córdoba. The reception of Christian embassies and their apparent vassalage was little more than a fiction, since the northern Christians broke their allegiance as soon as they perceived an opportunity to get rid of Umayyad influence. The siege of Gormaz also showed the difficulties that the Caliphate of Córdoba had to maintain a two-front war in the peninsular north and Maghreb. It wasn’t easy to mobilize and recruit relief troops, and the chronicles also show how the Christians didn’t doubt to raid the Muslim borderlands. Because of that, the Caliphate needed to completely rely on frontier lords like the Banu Tujibs to defend the frontiers from these attacks.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss how are gossips used against individuals in power. Rumors can be spread very deliberately by people with very specific interests, sometimes to improve someone’s image, but most of the times to harm someone’s reputation. The sexual preferences of al-Hakam II or the succession were always object of hearsays to undermine his legitimacy, to the point that it was rumored that the mother of the heir, Subh, was having an affair with Almanzor. That was a very serious slander, in the context of a patriarchal Islamic society like that of al-Andalus. The governor of Córdoba even had to put in jail some notable poets and public officers who publicly ridiculed the Caliph, so it was a pretty serious problem.
Another historical example is how the powerful Castilian magnate Juan Pacheco spread the nickname the Impotent for Enrique IV. Pacheco also spread the rumor that the daughter of Enrique, Juana, was not really his daughter, but the daughter of his right hand, Beltrán de la Cueva, that’s why Juana was nicknamed la Beltraneja. The doubts surrounding the paternity of Juana were so serious that Isabel of Castile was named heiress to the Crown of Castile, so yeah, gossips can make a lot of harm in politics, because people believe that there is no smoke without fire, or as we say in Spanish, cuando el río suena agua lleva. And with that, The Verdict ends.
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