This is episode 30 called Reforms of Abd al-Rahman II and in this episode you will learn:
- Global context of the first half of the 9th century
- A background of Emir Abd al-Rahman II
- The early dynastic and territorial revolts of his reign
- How Abd al-Rahman II reformed and reorganized the administration of the Emirate of Córdoba, in emulation to the centralized model of the Abbasid Caliphate
- The sophistication of the Cordoban court and the economic and fiscal reforms
- The ambitious civil and religious construction program of Abd al-Rahman’s reign
- How Ziryab transformed the culture of al-Andalus and the cultural, intellectual and artistic changes that were coming from the East
- The foreign policy objective and implementation of projecting the political and commercial power of the Emirate of Córdoba in the Western Mediterranean
- The other foreign policy objective to maintain the supremacy of Córdoba in the Iberian Peninsula
- A reflection on the limits of Abd al-Rahman’s reforms
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 30 called Reforms of Abd al-Rahman II. In this episode you will learn about the early reign and reforms of Abd al-Rahman II of Córdoba, the cultural transformation of al-Andalus and the foreign policy of the Emirate of Córdoba. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
The previous episode was entirely focused on the foundation of new political entities, the Kingdom of Pamplona and the County of Aragon, but we left the narrative of the other Iberian states in the 820s. Let’s start with some global and Iberian context. In northern Europe the Norse Vikings started their expansion, and spoiler alert in 844 they attacked Spain for the first time. During this period Bulgaria was on the rise; the Abbasid Caliphate had had a short civil war that provoked the destruction of palaces and the exile of several leading intellectuals and artists; and it started to become obvious that the Carolingian Empire wouldn’t expand any further. That meant that the Carolingian Empire faced more internal problems and that the objective was not offensive, but defensive. As we will see in the next episode, these problems echoed throughout the Marca Hispanica too.
With this context in mind, I can continue the narrative of al-Andalus with the ascendancy of Emir Abd al-Rahman II. His 30-year rule was marked by administrative reforms, the strengthening of the Emirate of Córdoba from both a domestic and foreign point of view, and the cultural and scientific rise of al-Andalus. Therefore, he was an important ruler of Muslim Spain and I will cover his reign in several episodes. Okay, so to give you a little background about this new emir, if you have listened to previous episodes you know that Abd al-Rahman II was already experienced in political and military affairs. He had governed several cities and regions, and he led the suppression of a few revolts, notably in the Day of the Moat. Abd al-Rahman had inherited a pacified kingdom, with a rising economy and demography, and a progressive conversion of Mozarabs to Islam. Before the death of his father al-Hakam, Abd al-Rahman executed the much-hated leader of the Mutes and gained the favor of the common people. Maybe even more importantly, Abd al-Rahman II ordered the destruction of the wine markets of Córdoba, which earned him the favor and support of the Islamic jurists and scholars, the ulama. For instance, he made the influential Berber qadi Yahya ibn Yahya his close confidant and religious advisor. Because of this alliance between the Emir and the ulama, we see how Muslim chronicles always speak in good terms about the reign of Abd al-Rahman II, referring to it as a “honeymoon for the Andalusis”. However, if we look objectively at the events of his reign, it wasn’t so peaceful and free of opposition.
Following his accession to the throne, Abd Allah the Valencian rebelled again against the ruling Umayyad branch, even though he was ruling the Spanish Levant quite autonomously and his son Ubayd Allah was a successful and loyal general. Abd Allah the Valencian tried to conquer the region of Murcia, but before the Emir could send an army Abd Allah suffered a paralysis and died the following year. These circumstances allowed Córdoba to name a new and loyal governor of Valencia. In Murcia there was factional struggle between Arab families to control the region, an anarchy that lasted seven years. The Emir let them weaken each other until he decided to intervene and crush them. The Emir was decided to control more effectively the southeastern region of Murcia, so he demolished the fortress of Orihuela and founded the new capital of the region, the city of Murcia.
On the other hand, the endemic particularistic revolts of the Lower, Middle and Upper Marches broke out again during the reign of Abd al-Rahman II. I will cover the revolt led by Musa ibn Musa of the Banu Qasi and Íñigo Arista of Pamplona in the next episode, but even the less important revolts of Mérida and Toledo lasted a few years. One rebel leader of Mérida later escaped into Asturias and defended the Christian kingdom from Andalusi raids. In Toledo, a survivor of the Day of the Moat returned to the old Visigothic capital and led a new uprising against Umayyad central authority, that wasn’t suppressed until seven years later. In both cases, the revolts were led by Muladis and Berbers, and in the aftermath the Emir built new fortresses to provide refuge for the Umayyad governor of the city should another revolt occur, which was almost 100% likely to happen. These citadels were known as alcazabas, and the Alcazaba of Mérida was built using parts of the ancient Roman walls. The Roman walls were for the most part destroyed to make the city easier to conquer in case of a new rebellion, and this policy proved to be effective in reducing the level of rebelliousness of Mérida. Nonetheless, it also provoked the political and economic decline of the city.
With the aim to put an end to the endemic revolts of al-Andalus, the new Emir thought that he needed to reform the administration to centralize political and administrative power and strengthen the Emirate of Córdoba. Therefore, the first objective of Abd al-Rahman II was the organization of the Emirate of Córdoba based on the model of the Abbasid Caliphate, which was among the most centralized of its time. That’s right, Abd al-Rahman couldn’t hide his admiration for the administration of the Abbasid Caliphate, even though as an Umayyad he had to hate the Abbasids. The Cordoban emir knew that he could emulate what his archenemies were doing in the East, and he did successfully implant the Abbasid model in al-Andalus. Abd al-Rahman II was determined to build the emirate into a cultural and economic powerhouse. Later Caliph Abd al-Rahman III perfected this model, but the basis for the central administration of Muslim Spanish states kept being that of Abd al-Rahman II, even after the fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba.
To start with, nothing could be decided without his explicit authorization. Abd al-Rahman had all the authority and he was infallible. He had supreme authority over religious matters too, even though it would take another century for the Emirate to become a Caliphate. To make his position more solemn and respected, Abd al-Rahman II established a strict courtesan protocol too. Emir Abd al-Rahman established a clear hierarchy within the central administration, to avoid mixing the functions and responsibilities of public offices and to make communications more effective. Everything became more formal and bureaucratic. With all these measures, Abd al-Rahman II became de facto more autocratic than his father al-Hakam, all while maintaining an image that was neither violent nor tyrannical. Abd al-Rahman was more of a ladies’ man than his father too, having a growing number of concubines and having more than 40 sons and 40 daughters, and he surrounded himself of tens of eunuchs in imitation to the sophisticated courts of the East.
Continuing with the reforms, the Emir of Córdoba put the Chancellery and Treasury under a unified supreme office, known as diwan, under the hajib. As I explained in episode 26 ‘Administration of al-Andalus’, the hajib was like a prime minister, and at first Abd al-Rahman maintained the close adviser of his father in that position. When the veteran died, the incorruptible Isa ibn Shuhayd became hajib. During his rule Abd al-Rahman II met daily with the high-ranking officials to be held accountable and to always have fluid communications with each department of the central state and to communicate with the provinces too. Talking about the provinces, the Emir also reorganized the kuras of the Emirate, but that didn’t serve to substantially prevent particularistic revolts. Furthermore, the Emir was also the mayor of Córdoba, so he had to deal with more and more issues of the growing capital of al-Andalus. On the other hand, Abd al-Rahman II issued economic and fiscal reforms. Under him the Andalusi state assumed the monopoly of coinage and the manufacture of luxury fabrics, which helped to increase state income and boost both domestic and foreign trade, and taxes on dhimmis were increased.
These administrative and fiscal policies produced notorious effects. The minting of new silver and copper coins led to the rise of trade in al-Andalus, which contrasted with the subsistence economies of Christian Spanish kingdoms or the Carolingian Empire. During the reign of al-Hakam the annual income of the state was over 600,000 dinars, while under Abd al-Rahman II that figure surpassed one million dinars. These finances were strong enough to allow for an ambitious civil and religious construction program, with the foundation of Murcia, the building of walls in Seville after the Viking attack, the building of several fortresses and citadels in key cities, the building of the Mosque of Jaén, or the improvement of the Great Mosque of Córdoba. And by the way, the Andalusis didn’t hesitate to plunder Roman remains on a large scale to support this massive construction program. Moreover, with that money the Emir could buy more slaves for his bodyguard and more Slavic eunuchs, organize extravagant feasts and patronage culture.
At the same time, it was becoming obvious that more and more Mozarabs were deciding to convert to Islam, although according to estimations only 20% of the population of al-Andalus was Muslim by the time of the death of Emir Abd al-Rahman. The process of conversions was starting to accelerate for many reasons. Just to name some motives; the ever-increasing taxes, the impossibility to access certain public offices, the building of new mosques, and the new centralizing and Islamic policies of Abd al-Rahman II. However, the process of Arabization and Islamization of Christian Hispano-Goths started to worry some members of the Mozarab Church, but we will see which were the consequences of that in two episodes. What’s clear is that al-Andalus was becoming increasingly Arab. A mix of Arab and native Hispano-Gothic culture emerged, the Andalusi culture. It was neither 100% Arab nor 100% native, it was a new identity, just like new mixed identities emerged in Spanish America.
On another note, Emir Abd al-Rahman II embodied the new Arab masculine ideal. He was a fearless warrior, a tireless lover, a proud and generous man, and he was learned and wit. The Emir studied the Quran, composed poetry and studied astrology. Poetry was important for the Andalusi upper-class, it was the freestyle rapping of the era, while astrology was used to discuss the religious events of the year. Abd al-Rahman looked at the Abbasid Caliphate not only for the politico-administrative model, but to cultivate sciences and arts in al-Andalus. The Islamic Golden Age of Baghdad irradiated the Islamic world, and the Emir of Córdoba eagerly wanted the same prestige that was associated to the sophisticated, refined and cosmopolitan high culture of Baghdad. But as you can imagine, not everyone liked this opulent culture. Puritanical, conservative theologians of the Andalusi ulama, like the Berber Yahya ibn Yahya, despised it. Later the Moorish Almoravid and Almohad Empires precisely used this argument of religious and cultural decadence to impose their fundamentalist regimes, attacking precisely this aristocratic culture that was spreading in the Emirate of Córdoba.
Still, many aristocrats went east on their own account, while others were sent by the Emir with the mission to bring books and knowledge that could only be found in the Abbasid and Byzantine Empires. Travelers carried back works on medicine, astrology, agriculture, theology, history, and literature. The Berber courtier and polymath Abbas ibn Firnas is among the most famous travelers, because when he returned he built bird-like wings to attempt to fly. Of course the attempt almost killed him, but it shows the innovative spirit of the time. Abbas ibn Firnas was more successful building a water clock, manufacturing corrective lenses, or bringing the technique for cutting rock crystal lenses that allowed the Emirate to stop importing crystal luxury items from Egypt. Moreover, not only men travelled, but women, especially concubines, were sent to the East. A slave Basque noblewoman married to Abd al-Rahman II was sent to Medina to learn to sing and play musical instruments. The best concubines were not only sexual objects, but also cultured, skillful and sophisticated companions. It was also around this time that the Arabic numerals arrived in Europe through Muslim Spain and several fruits and improved irrigation techniques arrived as well.
Abd al-Rahman’s patronage became known in al-Andalus and beyond, therefore artists, intellectuals and physicians of the Abbasid Caliphate started to migrate to Umayyad Spain, especially since there was political instability in the Islamic Caliphate. The most prominent cultural figure to arrive was without the slightest doubt Ali ibn Nafi, better known as Ziryab, which means Blackbird. Ziryab is the main responsible of the cultural transformation of al-Andalus. He had been born in the Abbasid Caliphate, but his ethnic origins are disputed, since his nickname, Blackbird, indicates that his skin was dark. Anyway, he first worked in the Abbasid court of Baghdad where he cultivated his excellent musical skills and developed a renowned taste in gastronomy, dressing and courtesan code. As civil war started, Ziryab left the Abbasid Caliphate for North Africa and later the Emirate of Córdoba. As soon as he arrived in 822, Ziryab remained the uncontested arbiter of elegance and noble manners until his death in the 850s. He was an influencer, but a real and learned influencer, not like these pretentious, fake Instagram jackasses.
As a musician, he introduced the singing and instrumental styles of Baghdad, he improved the lute, the ancestor of the guitar, and he founded a musical academy to spread these new styles across al-Andalus. As a fashion influencer, Ziryab popularized the Arab and Iranian dressing and hairstyles, and seasonal clothing too. As a culinary expert, the Blackbird introduced unknown foods and dishes in Spain, such as asparagus and different spices and fruits. He introduced a three-course meal consisting of soup, the main course and a honeyed dessert, and this was not a banal issue. A good diet was regarded as crucial to maintain a good physical and mental health, following the Greek four temperament theory that kept being popular throughout Europe and other continents until modern medicine appeared in the 18 and 19th centuries. Ziryab is also credited with the popularization of crystal cups, ceramic dishes and tablecloths. In general, the Arab high culture and fashion of the Abbasid Caliphate quickly filtered through the Andalusi upper-class and later the lower classes. These changes in tastes and aesthetics were a key step to Arabize and Islamize the society of al-Andalus.
Yet throughout the rest of the 9th century Muslims of the Abbasid Caliphate still regarded Andalusis as uncultured bumpkins, because notice how the development of Andalusi culture was at this stage about copying the Abbasids, so we cannot yet speak about a cultural golden age in al-Andalus. However, the image and influence of the Emirate of Córdoba was improving elsewhere. This was due to the centralizing and economic reforms that were allowing the growth of commerce, urbanization and Islamization. The incorporation and patronage of renowned artists and intellectuals served to exalt the prestige of the court of Córdoba. But more importantly, Emir Abd al-Rahman II made a conscious effort to establish a foreign policy, with two immediate objectives: to project the political and commercial power of the Emirate of Córdoba in the Western Mediterranean and to maintain the supremacy of Córdoba in the Iberian Peninsula.
The first objective was about strengthening ties with the Western North African states. There were mainly three independent Islamic states in North Africa: the Idrisids of Morocco, the Rustamids of Algeria and the Aghlabids of Ifriqiya. The Aghlabids of Ifriqiya gained independence from the Abbasids early in the 9th century, but they still served their interests. Despite this, a group of Andalusi pirates and mercenaries didn’t hesitate to help their fellow believers in the Muslim conquest of Sicily. With the Andalusis assisting, Palermo fell in 831 and the Aghlabids conquered the western half of Sicily. Abd al-Rahman II celebrated the victory of the Ifriqiyans, while feeling a bit anxious seeing the maritime power of the Aghlabids.
Andalusi chronicles show an indifferent attitude towards the Idrisids of Morocco, hostile sometimes, although commercial relations were continuously improving. The Idrisids were the dominant force of Morocco, but there were smaller states as well: one in the Mediterranean coast, the small Emirate of Nekor, one in the Atlantic, the Barghawata confederation, and there were also the Midrarids of Sijilmasa, a key city of the Trans-Saharan trade route. The Emirate of Nekor was a client state of Córdoba, to defend it from annexation of the Idrisids, while the Barghawata didn’t establish formal relations with Córdoba until the reign of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III. The Midrarids of Sijilmasa, on the other hand, sent an embassy to Córdoba during the reign of Muhammad, the successor of Abd al-Rahman II. In general, the strategic goal was to keep Morocco divided, since a strong Morocco could be a real threat to al-Andalus, as it later happened under the Almoravids and Almohads.
Finally, the Emirate of Córdoba maintained closed political ties with the Rustamids of Algeria, based on Tahert. The ruling imam of Rustamid Algeria sent an embassy to Córdoba in 822 with three of his sons, after Emir al-Hakam had sent an uncle to the court of the Rustamids. The aim of the embassy was to establish ties of clientage, with the Rustamids accepting to become vassals of the Umayyads. This way the Rustamids could feel protected from the hostilities that their neighbors the Idrisids and Aghlabids showed towards them. The Emirate of Córdoba greatly benefited from this relationship, both commercially and politically. Cereals from Tahert flowed to the Cordoban granaries and many mercenaries served in the Umayyad army. The relationship was so close that two Rustamid princes served as generals of the Cordoban army, and prince Muhammad ibn Rustam was key to decisively defeat the Vikings in 844.
Overall, the Emirate of Córdoba under Abd al-Rahman II was successful in achieving political and economic supremacy over the Western Mediterranean, and this helped to strengthen the prestige of the Umayyads of Córdoba, so good job Abd al-Rahman. In fact, a Byzantine embassy to Córdoba confirms the improved image of strength of the Emirate. Emperor Theophilos saw how the Byzantine Empire was threatened in two fronts, one in Italy and the other in Anatolia. Remember that even a group of Andalusi pirates had conquered Crete and established an emirate. In Italy the Aghlabids continued to advance while in the east the Abbasid Caliphate waged war against the Roman Greeks. Because of that, Theophilos contacted the Carolingian Empire and Venice for help in 839. Nonetheless, he didn’t ignore that the Abbasids had an existential enemy in Spain, so Emperor Theophilos sent an embassy to Córdoba to make a military alliance. Unfortunately for the Byzantines the diplomatic mission was unsuccessful, but it shows how the strength of the Emirate of Córdoba was recognized by foreign powers, even Christian ones.
The other main objective of the foreign policy of Córdoba was the maintenance of hegemony in the Iberian Peninsula. The greatest obvious threat to the territorial integrity of the Umayyad regime was the Carolingian Empire, that had gained a foothold in northeastern Spain by establishing the Marca Hispanica. The Kingdoms of Asturias and Pamplona were also a problem, but they were more like a visible failure of Córdoba, in the sense that they couldn’t effectively subdue them. The Andalusis launched raids from time to time against them, so the foreign policy actions to maintain their hegemony were mainly military and not diplomatic at all. But even though the relationship between the Emirate of Córdoba and the Carolingian Empire was tense most of the time, with periods of open hostilities, that didn’t stop the Cordobans from sending an embassy in 847 to the weakened and divided Carolingian Empire of Charles the Bald. This embassy tried to establish friendly relations between the two but didn’t achieve anything concrete. However, its sole existence is significative of the foreign policy actions of Córdoba.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the limits of Abd al-Rahman’s reforms. We have seen in this episode that Abd al-Rahman II was a very good monarch, for sure among the top 5 of al-Andalus. He established the foundations for the eventual economic, military and cultural rise of the Caliphate of Córdoba, but at the same time his reforms didn’t solve certain never-ending issues of the Umayyad regime. The most important being the particularistic and separatist threats and related to that the ethnic tensions too. Abd al-Rahman II attempted to centralize the state, and he did strengthen the Emirate, but his success was only partial. The efforts to centralize mostly affected Córdoba and the nearby areas, so the marches that represented around 1/3 of the territory of al-Andalus were de facto outside much of Cordoban control, and that is even more clear when you look at the finances of the Emirate, because the marches barely ever paid taxes. Abd al-Rahman II wasn’t effective in truly implementing a loyal and professional bureaucracy outside of Córdoba. If he had managed to replace the local aristocracies, like Caliph Abd al-Rahman III kind of did a century later, things would have been very different for his successors, who had to face the slow but unstoppable disintegration of the Emirate until Abd al-Rahman III reversed completely the situation. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I will cover the revolts of Musa ibn Musa of the Banu Qasi, the reign of Ramiro of Asturias, and what was happening in the Carolingian Empire and Marca Hispanica. 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!
A HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL SPAIN. Joseph F. O’Callaghan
CALIPHS AND KINGS, 796-1031. Roger Collins
KINGDOMS OF FAITH. Brian A. Catlos
MUSLIM SPAIN AND PORTUGAL. Hugh Kennedy
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA IV. ESPAÑA MUSULMANA (711-1031). Ramón Menéndez Pidal
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. AL-ANDALUS: MUSULMANES Y CRISTIANOS (SIGLOS VIII-XIII). Editorial Planeta
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