This is episode 25 called Emirate of Córdoba and Abd al-Rahman and in this episode you will learn:
- Opposition of former wali Yusuf and Syrian commander al-Sumayl
- Revolts of Yusuf’s family, local particularistic revolts and Abbasid-backed conspiracies
- The last stand of Emir Abd al-Rahman in Carmona’s fortress
- The autonomy of Muslim cities far from Córdoba and the fall of Narbonne in 759, marking the end of Muslim presence in France
- Charlemagne’s first campaign in Spain, resulting in a complete failure and the disaster at the Pass of Roncesvalles
- The organization of an Andalusi standing army, improvement of infrastructure and transformation of the capital of the Emirate, Córdoba
- Start of the building of the Great Mosque of Córdoba
- Analysis of the legacy of Abd al-Rahman I of Córdoba
- How interfaith marriages between Muslim men and Christian women were used to pacify and colonize the Iberian Peninsula
- Status of concubines of the Umayyad court and why concubines were useful to preserve the royal dynasty
- My two cents on interfaith relations during the centuries of Islamic hegemony
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 25 called Emirate of Córdoba and Abd al-Rahman. In this episode you will learn about the reign of the first Emir of Córdoba, the slow consolidation of his authority throughout al-Andalus, and the role of interfaith relationships during the centuries of Islamic hegemony under the Umayyads. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
We left the narrative of al-Andalus with the foundation of the Emirate of Córdoba in 756. But as I said then, the exiled Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman was far from having his power consolidated. He only controlled the Guadalquivir Valley when he assumed the title of Emir of Córdoba, and he had yet to crush pretenders such as former governor Yusuf or al-Sumayl, not to mention numerous local rebels that had yet to recognize the authority of Abd al-Rahman. But these obstacles didn’t terrify nor stop Abd al-Rahman. After all, the exiled prince had faced worse odds escaping from the assassins that the Abbasids sent to chase him down and assassinate him. He was now in a better position, he was in a region far from Baghdad, the new caliphal capital, he ruled over the capital of al-Andalus and other parts of southern Spain, and he had some supporters. Among these, there were descendants of the leaders of the original conquest, clients that had been close to former Umayyad caliphs, people that had nothing to lose and much to gain, and also a few survivors of the Umayyad dynasty, including his cousin who became a reliable general of Abd al-Rahman and governor of Seville. He had supporters of both Syrian and Yaman origin, so he was able to overcome this ancient Arab conflict, something that his rivals Yusuf and al-Sumayl could never achieve.
Going back to the narrative, Abd al-Rahman and his troops entered triumphantly in Córdoba, while Yusuf and al-Sumayl had to flee with their weakened army. They planned a counterattack, but before the two armies clashed, both sides decided to solve the issue by diplomatic means. Abd al-Rahman granted the respect of the private property of Yusuf and al-Sumayl, in exchange of not being allowed to leave Córdoba and of turning over some sons and daughters as hostages. However, many former supporters of the two weren’t happy about their current situation and wanted to keep fighting. Yusuf felt too tempted and escaped from Córdoba, to raise an army in Mérida mainly made up of Berbers and inexperienced men. The Umayyad forces easily defeated them in Mérida, and then chased them down and crushed the rebel army in Toledo. Yusuf’s head was sent to Córdoba, while al-Sumayl hadn’t taken up arms against the Emir, but was killed anyway, just in case. In general, the rule of Abd al-Rahman involved chopping many heads off.
Anyway, the death of Yusuf and al-Sumayl didn’t put an end to the revolt, and Yusuf’s family was powerful enough to keep the rebellion going. Toledo remained at the hands of Yusuf’s family until 764, when the right-hand of Abd al-Rahman, his Greek freedman Badr, bribed a faction of the city to betray their rebel leaders and hand them over to the Umayyads. This time these rebels hadn’t had their heads cut off. They were crucified. But even after this, the family of Yusuf made two other isolated bids for power, in 779 and 785, although as you can imagine these attempts were crushed too.
Nonetheless, Yusuf’s family was far from being the only challenge to Umayyad authority in al-Andalus. On one hand, we have those local rebels that didn’t intend to overthrow Abd al-Rahman, but to preserve their local influence. Since Abd al-Rahman wanted to strengthen central power, it’s not surprising that many opposed him, especially some Syrian self-governing military colonies. Moreover, there were those alienated because they felt that they hadn’t been properly rewarded. A few other surviving members of the Umayyad dynasty and their supporters arrived in the Emirate of Córdoba, and Abd al-Rahman offered them generous estates and positions. That alienated some early supporters of the Emir, such as a few Yaman Arabs, and he also alienated some important Christian Hispano-Goths, because he confiscated some of their estates to hand them to his surviving family members and clients. Among the confiscated estates, there are territories of the Treaty of Theodimir that were given to supporters of the Umayyads, so by this time it’s clear that many treaties of capitulation from the conquest were not respected anymore. The emir’s policy of putting trusted clients in power had the great cost of alienating some of his early supporters, but it paid off.
On the other hand, the Abbasids of Damascus still wanted all the Umayyads dead. It’s logical, since even one surviving male member could threaten the very existence of the Abbasid Caliphate. If he or one of his descendants had a chance, it’s obvious that the Umayyads could one day overthrow the Abbasids. So, the Abbasids kept sending assassins every now and then, or funding revolts to install a governor loyal to the Abbasid Caliphate in al-Andalus. The Abbasid attempt of 763 was probably the most serious of all. The Abbasids recognized a leader of the Syrian military colony of Beja, in modern Portugal, as emir of al-Andalus. This leader was able to gather a large number of supporters, and Abd al-Rahman himself was forced to leave Córdoba to confront the rebel pro-Abbasid army. He stationed the Umayyad army at the fortress of Carmona, because his army was inferior in size, and the pro-Abbasid army besieged Carmona for more than 2 months. Just imagine how desperate the situation was, with the emir himself in a besieged fortress. This example also gives us an intuition of how fragile the authority of Abd al-Rahman was, maybe that’s why he knew he had to be ruthless when it was needed. Abd al-Rahman knew that if he just waited, he would lose. Food and water were becoming scarce, the morale of the troops was diminishing, and his leadership was being questioned. The emir had to act quickly and boldly if he wanted to keep being emir. So, Abd al-Rahman picked his 700 most loyal soldiers and led them to the main gate of Carmona. He started a fire there and ordered his soldiers to throw the scabbard of their swords into the flames, so that they would not be able to sheath their swords. The emir reportedly said, “come out with me against this crowd, determined never to return!”. In a desperate sally, the 700 loyal soldiers of Abd al-Rahman fell upon the pro-Abbasid army, that didn’t expect such an audacious attack. Caught off guard, the enemy was defeated, and the existence of the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba was saved, at least for now. In the usual Abd al-Rahman style, the heads of the rebel leaders were cut off and sent to Kairouan. When the Abbasid caliph heard about this, he was outraged, but at the same time he couldn’t hide his admiration for the determination of Abd al-Rahman.
Despite this victory, Abd al-Rahman could barely rest. He had to face other revolts and local opposition, for instance a Berber revolt in central Spain that lasted 10 years due to its guerrilla nature, or two different revolts of Syrian military colonies that took Seville before being crushed. Somehow, with a mix of political cleverness and luck, Abd al-Rahman managed to put all revolts down. Yet, even though the emir was progressively consolidating his authority over southern and central Spain, the most northern regions of Spain remained out of Abd al-Rahman’s control, including the most important city of the Ebro Valley, Zaragoza, or the key city to control the Basques, Pamplona. Modern Catalonia remained at the hands of Muslim autonomous groups, but more worrisome was the situation beyond the Pyrenees. The first King of the Carolingian dynasty, Pepin the Short, took advantage of the chaotic situation of al-Andalus and launched an attack on Septimania. The Hispano-Goths of Septimania had refused Frankish rule before, but after the devastating campaigns of the 730s and 740s, and seeing how weak Muslim rule was there, the native magnates handed over to the Franks the key cities of the region. Muslim control was stronger in Narbonne, so a long siege started in 752 that only finished in 759, and with that, Muslim presence in modern France ended.
Despite their great achievement, the Franks weren’t satisfied with only Septimania. Their ambition grew as their power grew under Pepin and then Charlemagne. And meanwhile, the independent Muslim rulers of Zaragoza, Huesca, Barcelona and Girona feared that the ambitious and ruthless Abd al-Rahman would come to demand their submission. Because of that, those independent rulers of northeastern Spain agreed to send an envoy in 777 to the powerful ruler of France, Charlemagne. Fresh from the successful campaigns in Italy and against the Saxons, Charlemagne had a veteran army with no immediate objective, so they were willing to accept new adventures. The Muslim representatives probably agreed to become vassals and pay tribute to Charlemagne, in exchange for the military support of the Franks. However, once the armies of Charlemagne arrived at Zaragoza, the Muslim lord of the city refused to let them in. Since Charlemagne arrived with no siege engines and he received news of a rebellion in Saxony, the Franks were forced to withdraw.
Charlemagne was heading his army home through the Pass of Roncesvalles, in Vasconia, when a Basque army, possibly aided by the local Muslim forces, attacked his rearguard by surprise. The Basques wanted to take revenge because Charlemagne had destroyed the walls of Pamplona and possibly razed many Basque towns. In the surprise attack, the Basques killed notable men such as the warden of the Breton march, the Mayor of the Palace, and the military leader Roland. This disaster inspired the oldest surviving work of French literature, the epic poem The Song of Roland, that greatly influenced the chivalry culture of later centuries. It was one of the very few defeats that Charlemagne suffered, and I don’t know if after that he was too afraid, but the King of the Franks never returned to Spain in person.
In the aftermath, Abd al-Rahman managed to subdue modern Aragon and Catalonia, although central control remained weak and these cities far from the center of power of al-Andalus revolted every now and then. The weak control of the Emirate over the Ebro Valley and beyond is exemplified with the fall of Girona to the Carolingian soldiers of the successor of Charlemagne and ruler of Aquitaine, Louis the Pious. Other Muslim lords of the northeast sometimes formed alliances with the Christian Franks, which is yet another example of how different religious affiliations didn’t impede the formation of political alliances.
However, not everything about the rule of the first emir was about putting down revolts and consolidating his rule. Abd al-Rahman knew very well that he couldn’t trust the Syrian military colonies or the tribes. He needed an army he could trust, if the Umayyad dynasty was to survive in al-Andalus. To achieve that purpose, he organized a large standing army, made up of thousands of mercenaries and slaves that ultimately responded to the personal command of the emir. Most of them were Berber mercenaries with no previous local ties with al-Andalus, but there were also Hispano-Gothic, Slavic and Frankish slaves.
Apart from reforming the military, Abd al-Rahman prioritized the improvement of the infrastructure of the Emirate, including road networks, public baths, and aqueducts. Moreover, one of the priorities of the Emir was to transform Córdoba into the capital that the Umayyad Emirate deserved. As the capital of al-Andalus, the population and economic power of Córdoba was quickly growing. Soldiers, slaves, administrators, builders, merchants, artisans, and craftsmen were all settling in the capital. A large market was built in the center of the capital and new suburbs outside the ancient Roman walls sprout up. Outside the city, Abd al-Rahman built the al-Rusafa, a country estate that also served as garden-palace. Al-Rusafa was a magnificent villa, with exotic plants that came from his lost homeland, Syria. Popular legend goes as far as to say that the Emir was the first to bring palm trees to the Iberian Peninsula. While contemplating his palm trees, Abd al-Rahman is reported to once have said that “you grow in a land to which you are a stranger, we are alike in our distance from home; may the rain clouds water you and nourish you in your exile”. The Emir certainly felt nostalgic for his old home.
But more importantly, the Emir pushed for the building of mosques, most notably the Great Mosque of Córdoba. The capital needed a mosque to show clearly that the Muslims were there to stay and to display the power of the Emirate of Córdoba. According to traditional accounts, a Christian church stood where the mosque stands today, and this church was shared by Christians and Muslims until 784, when the Emir decided to buy it to build his magnificent mosque. You see, this story is similar to that of the building of the Mosque of Damascus, so this story may have been made up to make a parallelism with the original Umayyads. The Mosque of Córdoba honors the Romans, Visigoths and Arabs by mixing architectonical styles and elements, such as recycled columns from ruined Roman temples, or the Visigothic horseshoe-style arches. The main hall is an open space that was used for communal praying, and it’s decorated in an austere manner, to reinforce the notion of equality among Muslim believers. The Mosque of Córdoba was an open public space to socialize too, so in that sense it was similar to the Greek agora or Roman forum, and there were areas of the Mosque where Sharia law was taught or enforced in trials. Finally, it’s worth to mention a nostalgic element that Abd al-Rahman left. The mihrab, that is the niche in the wall that points towards Mecca to indicate the direction Muslims must pray, points to an unusual direction. Instead of correctly pointing southeast, it points south, and that could be either a mistake, or we can believe the more romantic explanation that it points south as if the Mosque of Córdoba was in Damascus instead, the old Umayyad capital of the caliphate.
As you have seen in this episode, the rule of Abd al-Rahman and the consolidation of the Emirate of Córdoba was far from easy. If Abd al-Rahman had died sooner, it’s entirely feasible that al-Andalus may have disintegrated much earlier. Abd al-Rahman laid the foundation for the next centuries of Islamic rule in Spain, and his reign was not one of war against the Christians, but one to forge and consolidate a new kingdom. Prior to his reign, the central administration was hardly developed, and local magnates and clan leaders dominated al-Andalus. Abd al-Rahman had the difficult task to undermine the power of local leaders, reorganize the army, develop the bureaucracy, rebuild infrastructure and found mosques. Obviously, these changes were resisted and challenged, but he overcame and controlled those challenges, even though some outlasted Abd al-Rahman and revived during the reigns of less-able emirs.
After all this political history talk, I want to talk about a topic that I find very interesting to study the complexities of Medieval Spain, that is interfaith relations. Simon Barton’s book ‘Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines’ deals with this matter, since it investigates how sexuality and power intertwined in Medieval Spain, and how the Muslim-Christian dynamics evolved. I already mentioned in the episode on the Muslim conquest of Spain that one of the main drivers of men to go on conquering other places is sexual desire. This is a common feature of all conquests, but perhaps is more notorious in conquests such as the Mongol conquests or the Spanish conquests in America. The Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula wasn’t different, and the conquerors intermarried with the indigenous Christian women. The most powerful among the Arab elite got married with Christian noblewoman to seal alliances or took Christian Hispano-Gothic women as concubines. Nonetheless, even though marriage and sexual intercourse between a Muslim man and a Christian or Jewish woman was entirely permissible, the contrary was banned and punished in al-Andalus. The same had happened in Visigothic Spain, where marriage between Jewish men and Christian women was outlawed. In the end, sex is a form of power.
Following the Muslim conquest, interfaith marriage between Muslim men and Christian women became a significant tool to pacify and colonize the Iberian Peninsula. For the Muslims, it was a way to legitimize and consolidate Islamic rule by allying and intermixing with the Hispano-Gothic population, and it provided means to incorporate Visigothic properties into Muslim ownership. On the other hand, for the Hispano-Gothic aristocratic class, interfaith marriage was useful to keep their wealth, social status, and power, although the price to be paid was that their descendants would be raised as Muslims. However, it’s difficult to calculate to what extent interfaith marriages happened, especially at low levels of society. Some sources point to the direction that interfaith marriages became quite common, between Christian women and either Arab, Berber or Muladi men, while other sources say that the Muslim Arab and Berber settlers usually wanted to preserve their linage pure and maintained the traditional endogamous marriages.
Let’s see some specific examples of interfaith relations. When Abd al-Rahman conquered Córdoba, he somehow met a woman that was a Hispano-Gothic slave. This woman converted to Islam and became the mother of Hisham, who would succeed Abd al-Rahman in 788. The Emir wouldn’t be the first to take a native woman as concubine, and it’s very interesting because it shows how the Umayyads only cared about the paternal ancestry to label themselves as Arabs, as Hisham and other emirs had very few actual Arab blood running through their veins. Hisham for instance is described as being of fair complexion and having blue eyes, while the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III had blue eyes and red hair. As in many other monarchies, intermarriage was also used to seal alliances or prove submission. The latter was the case of the marriage between Emir Abdullah of Córdoba and the Basque princess Onneca Fortúnez, who would be the grandmother of Abd al-Rahman III. The King of Pamplona, his father, was captured by the Muslims, and as a way to pledge his loyalty he was forced to send his daughter to marry the emir. So again, this is a manifestation of sex as power.
Another issue I find interesting to explore is the status of the concubines of the court. Most Christian women taken as sexual partners by the Umayyad and other Islamic rulers were not legally their wives. Instead, they were concubines that were taken based on their beauty or abilities such as singing, dancing, or reciting of poetry. A concubine that bore a child to her Muslim master enjoyed special rights compared to other slaves. Such concubines couldn’t be sold, and their children were free and equal in legal and social status to that of the legitimate offspring. Concubines usually enjoyed a comfortable or even luxurious life, but others suffered a tragic fate, such as some that were executed or abused by their masters, or that were raped during the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba. As for how they ended up as concubines, in most cases, Christian women were enslaved in the military expeditions that al-Andalus launched against the Christian states of the north, and later sold in the huge slave markets of Muslim Spain. Remember that when someone talks about the convivencia or how peaceful the Muslims of al-Andalus were. Captives were usually taken in relatively small numbers, but so many people were enslaved in the campaigns of the fearsome Almanzor in the late 10th century that prices in the slave markets collapsed.
For the ruling Umayyad dynasty, Christian concubines served a variety of functions. The most important one being the defense of the dynasty. Let me explain this. Marrying a Muslim woman from a noble family required the payment of a dowry and the family of the wife may ask favors too. More dangerous though was the fact that the wife’s clan may eventually compete with the Umayyads for the throne. Marrying a Christian princess or bearing children with a concubine prevented that danger. There’s no doubt that the Umayyads followed this logic, as it’s corroborated by the fact that all the Umayyad emirs and caliphs were born to slave consorts, not to Muslim wives. Interestingly, the Abbasids and the Ottomans did exactly the same. Procreating with Christian concubines served other purposes for the Umayyads, such as a tool of diplomacy to confirm the status of submission of the Christian kingdoms of the north, or as a tool of propaganda to show the Islamic dominance over the Christians. In a way, sex is perhaps the ultimate gesture of colonization and domination.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to leave my two cents on this issue about interfaith relations during the centuries of Islamic hegemony. It’s clear that conquerors spread their culture and religion through sex, that’s why you will see how men of the winning side took the women from the conquered side, but not the other way around. It’s harsh to say this, but conquerors see women as a prize for their conquest, similar to lands or war booty. As professor Ruth Mazo Karras puts it: “Penetration symbolizes power. For men of one group to have sex with women of another is an assertion of power over the entire group.” This is vital to understand not only history, but also the opposition of many men today towards immigrants, that many times are single young men. Believe me, if immigrants were overwhelmingly single young women, few men would complain. But this is a natural instinct of men, we are tribalistic, so we don’t want to see how women that belong to our group, be it race, nationality or family, engage in sexual relationships with men that are foreign to our group. Yeah, I know, you can say that it’s a primitive and definitely sexist way of thinking, but that simple and primitive instinct explains many historical and current social phenomena. The sexual dominance of Muslim men over Christian women symbolized Islamic hegemony over the Christians, and as a humiliating reminder to the Christians of their subordinate status. However, this humiliation was never forgotten by the Christians, who seized their opportunity for revenge when they had the chance. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I will cover the reign of Hisham and the contemporary Christian kings, and aspects such as the administration, territorial division, tax system and justice of the Emirate of Córdoba. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, that has a fantastic store with merchandising, history books, travel guides, books and material to learn Spanish, and more. If you love the podcast, you may want to support it by becoming a patron or making a donation, but there are other non-financial ways to support the show, like reviewing the podcast or spreading the word. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, YouTube and more and follow the social media accounts of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
KINGDOMS OF FAITH. A NEW HISTORY OF ISLAMIC SPAIN. Brian A. Catlos
MUSLIM SPAIN AND PORTUGAL. Hugh Kennedy
HISTORIA DE LA ESPAÑA DE LA EDAD MEDIA. Vicente Ángel Álvarez Palenzuela
A HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL SPAIN. Joseph F. O’Callaghan
THE ARAB CONQUEST OF SPAIN, 710-797. Roger Collins
NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license