This is episode 38 called Umayyad Resurgence and in this episode you will learn:
- Who Abd al-Rahman III was and the difficult situation that he faced in 912
- How could the Emir suppress the revolts that plagued al-Andalus, including his political strategy and the recruitment of mercenaries and slaves
- An example of the diplomatic approach of Abd al-Rahman
- The bitter Monteleón campaign against Umar ibn Hafsun and the reconquest of Seville
- The sudden and tragic end of Alfonso III’s reign and his legacy
- The transition from the Kingdom of Asturias to the Kingdom of León
- The brief reign of García I and the first campaigns of King Ordoño II of León
- The 915 famine and the surrender of the old Umar ibn Hafsun, as well as other victorious Umayyad campaigns
- The first jihad of Abd al-Rahman III against the Kingdom of León, ending up in the disastrous Battle of San Esteban de Gormaz for the Umayyads
- A comparison between Abd al-Rahman I and Abd al-Rahman III
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 38 called Umayyad Resurgence. In this episode you will learn about the transition from the Kingdom of Asturias to the Kingdom of León and the early years of Abd al-Rahman III’s reign. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast!
After a disastrous reign, in October 912 the Emir Abd Allah died and he was succeeded by his favorite grandson, Abd al-Rahman III. Due to this almost providential decision of Abd Allah, the fortunes of the Umayyads of Córdoba took a dramatic turn for the better almost immediately, thanks to three factors. The first two are the exceptional skills of Abd al-Rahman III and the fact that he reigned for half a century, which allowed him to develop a coherent policy. The other factor is the increasing social homogenization of al-Andalus, with a very Arabized and Islamized society and also a more urban society, hence less dependent on feudal relationships between lords and serfs. But as for now, let me briefly introduce you the last Emir of Córdoba. Abd al-Rahman III had been born in 891, and some days after his birth his grandfather Abd Allah supported the assassination of his father Muhammad. As other Umayyads, Abd al-Rahman III had fair hair and dark blue eyes, inherited from his Basque mother and grandmother. It’s not surprising to find out that he spoke both Arabic and the Mozarabic Romance tongue, as many other Andalusis, although that’s because the society was still in transition, since Mozarabic would essentially disappear in the 12th century.
The 14th century historian Ibn Idhari described him as “good looking, although somewhat sturdy and stout. His legs were short, to the point that the stirrups of his saddle were mounted just one palm under it. When mounted, he looked tall, but on his feet he was quite short. He dyed his beard black”, and he did so to look more Arab. He was not an experienced general, but he was raised and educated to become one day the Emir who would restore the Umayyad power and prestige. Despite the fact that four sons of Abd Allah were alive, the succession was made without any opposition, as the Umayyad family members and clients recognized the 21-year-old Emir. After the funerary ceremony of his grandfather, Abd al-Rahman III organized a ceremony to secure the oath of fidelity of the townspeople in the Great Mosque of Córdoba, which lasted several days. The young Emir needed as many supporters as possible, because the situation was extremely adverse for the Umayyads, and he needed to inspire hope among his subjects, something that he clearly achieved. In fact, just like there have been prophecies circulating throughout al-Andalus claiming that Abd Allah would be the last Umayyad Emir of Córdoba, there were predictions that said that Abd al-Rahman III would restore the power and prosperity of the Umayyads, like Abd al-Rahman I had done. So, at least according to chronicles written during his reign, Abd al-Rahman III seemed predestined to be successful.
But when he assumed the throne, the authority of the Emir scarcely extended beyond Córdoba itself, the bureaucracy had been reduced as there wasn’t much to administer, and the Umayyad army wasn’t even the largest army of the Iberian Peninsula and it was rather like a band of gangsters living off from whatever they pillaged. Abd al-Rahman III had to revert the situation and turn the downward spiral into an upward one. The restitution of central authority and pacification of al-Andalus was a very arduous and complicated job, as you have learned in the previous episode ‘Umayyads in peril’, and in fact, Abd al-Rahman III spent the first 25 years of his reign suppressing the revolts of the unfaithful regional and local lords and tribes. And how could the Emir achieve so with very limited financial resources and manpower? In terms of political strategy, he vigorously reimposed Umayyad authority with a combination of brute force and diplomacy. The Emir couldn’t launch expeditions far from the capital, so he gradually and carefully expanded the area under his control, firmly submitting one region before moving to another. He was basically following Abd al-Rahman I’s footsteps.
Abd al-Rahman III approached the task of reunification systematically, keeping his armies continually circulating through his territory, removing unfaithful dynasties from governorships, and replacing them with his own men or families that showed loyalty. It’s also noteworthy that, as his reign progressed and his power became more absolute and uncontested, Abd al-Rahman III put more conditions to the former unfaithful families who had surrendered, with the aim to eliminate local dynasties. He was partly successful in achieving such an ambitious objective, naming and removing governors from their positions every year or every two years, although he wasn’t able to do so in some territories of the marches. But while many of these new local and provincial governors were Arab and Berber, the indigenous families and Berbers were incorporated into the central bureaucracy and religious elite to undermine the power of the Arabs.
As his territories expanded, so did his revenues. The lack of manpower was tackled with the recruitment of mercenaries and slaves, with Berbers, Black Africans and saqaliba. The saqaliba were slave soldiers of European origin, some of whom had been taken in the raids against the northern Christians, while other Europeans were bought in international slave markets, like Verdun in France or in Viking trading ports. The saqaliba had been employed by the Umayyads since al-Hakam I formed his slave army known as ‘the Mutes’, but it wasn’t until the reign of Abd al-Rahman III that they became a prominent force in both the administration and military, much like the role of the mamluks in other parts of the Islamic world. The Emir heavily relied on them to neutralize the rivalries among rival Arab and Berber clans, and to have a force very loyal to him. Some saqaliba were castrated, mainly those who served in the administration as eunuchs, but it’s clear that some were not, because when the Caliphate of Córdoba fell some dynasties of former saqaliba emerged. On the other hand, the reign of the last Emir of Córdoba supposed the revival of a large-scale Berber migration for the first time since the early 8th century, although these migrations were even more important during the dictatorship of Almanzor in the late 10th century. Like the saqaliba, they too established their own Taifa kingdoms when the Caliphate fell, but what’s important to understand is that under Abd al-Rahman III the army and the central administration were progressively de-Arabized.
Going back to the narrative, it’s clear that the Emir Abd al-Rahman III had his grand strategy worked out in advance, because he vigorously attacked within the first month of his reign the Berbers of the mountains to the north of Córdoba and near Toledo, in Calatrava la Vieja. The Umayyad troops defeated the Banu Di-l-Nun and their leader had his head chopped and exhibited in Córdoba, the first rebel head of many more that followed. Three months after the enthronement of Abd al-Rahman III, the most trusted eunuch and hajib of the Emir, Badr ibn Ahmad, led the Cordoban army south to conquer Écija, a city that surrendered without bloodshed. Écija was the first stronghold under the control of the rebel Umar ibn Hafsun to fall. Its inhabitants received an amán, meaning that they were pardoned, but the walls of Écija were demolished, a tactic already used by his ancestors to reduce the chances of new rebellions and in case of new revolts make the suppressions easier. The alcázar, the citadel of the governor, was left intact with an Umayyad garrison and men from Écija joined the Umayyad army in exchange of attractive concessions and perks. This diplomatic approach was the most common policy used to reimpose central authority. Abd al-Rahman III analyzed each particular situation and he negotiated surrenders in exchange of privileges, perks and political and military posts. Nonetheless, he adopted a carrots and sticks approach, and when he used the stick he could be an extremely cruel and fearsome ruler, as we will later see.
On April 913 the Emir meticulously prepared an expedition called Monteleón campaign that he would lead himself against Umar ibn Hafsun in Eastern Andalusia, specifically in the provinces of Jaén and Granada. The troops of the Emir conquered fortress after fortress, and surrenders followed one after another, many without opposition because the local leaders only wanted their authority to be recognized. To guarantee the loyalty of those who surrendered, Abd al-Rahman III only demanded hostages to be sent to Córdoba, the payment of taxes, and to place his own men in the garrisons. The young Emir took hundreds of fortresses and he regained control over Baza and Málaga, that Ibn Hafsun tried to reconquer without success. Abd al-Rahman adopted a kind of total war approach against certain towns, for instance he set on fire the suburbs of Fiñana, in the province of Almería, and the Umayyad troops devastated the countryside of Alpujarras, a region of Sierra Nevada, a mountain range of Granada. He even bombarded with catapults Alpujarras and cut the water supply to force the surrender of its Muladi defenders, most of whom were pardoned while a few, mostly Christians, were beheaded. Within just three months, Abd al-Rahman III managed to reconquer a great part of the principality of the most dangerous enemy of the Emirate, Umar ibn Hafsun.
But even of more significance is the reconquest of Seville in December 913. After the death of their patriarch that same year, the undisputable lords of Seville, the Banu Hayyay clan, started to fight among themselves. The family quarrels of the Banu Hayyay favored the interests of the Emir, so he negotiated to gain the support of the Banu Hayyay who controlled the stronghold of Carmona. The lord of Carmona also gathered troops from the cities of Niebla and Medina Sidonia, and he had the ambition to be appointed governor of Seville as a reward once the conquest finished. However, Abd al-Rahman had other plans. The Banu Hayyays of Seville sued for the aid of Umar ibn Hafsun, but the Muladi rebel was defeated and he went back to Bobastro. In the end, Seville had to surrender and a few thousand soldiers were incorporated into the ranks of the Umayyad army, respecting their hierarchy. The Emir appointed a trusted member of the royal family to rule Seville, and the lord of Carmona wasn’t happy about that. He revolted at first, but he was defeated and Abd al-Rahman decided to name him vizier, a position that was of lower-ranking than the hajib and that could have very different functions. The lord of Carmona participated in an expedition against Ibn Hafsun with the Emir, but he later decided to rebel again. Abd al-Rahman III could pardon someone once, he believed in second chances, but he didn’t believe in a third or fourth chance. The Emir stripped him of his rank and had this member of the Banu Hayyay arrested, dying a year later in prison, although Carmona wasn’t yet conquered.
On May 914 Emir Abd al-Rahman III launched a new campaign against his most hated enemy, Umar ibn Hafsun. The strategy was to maximize the economic damage caused to the lands of the insurgents, isolate them from one another, and strengthen the defenses of his loyal vassals. The Umayyad troops destroyed several castles close to Málaga, that served as first line of defense of the epicenter of the rebellion, Bobastro. The Cordobans led by the Emir later attacked the naval base of Algeciras, near Gibraltar, where they captured and burned ships that supplied the Muladi rebel from North Africa, from where the newborn Fatimid Caliphate could provide aid to Andalusi rebels or even launch an expedition to conquer al-Andalus. The young Abd al-Rahman realized then the importance of dominating the seas. The historian Ibn Hayyan summarizes this event: “From Málaga, Seville, and other loyal cities he had ships with loyal crews brought to the harbor of Algeciras, with all kinds of weapons and supplies, equipping them with Greek fire and maritime weaponry and having them manned by expert and skilled sailors, audacious tamers of the sea.” With the Umayyad fleet, the Emir managed to impose a naval blockade to cut the maritime supply lines of Umar ibn Hafsun and other rebels, from Algeciras to Murcia. The initial objectives of the expedition had been accomplished, and the rebels of the heart of al-Andalus, in southern Spain, were now in a much worse situation, with Ibn Hafsun confined to the mountainous areas around Bobastro where his revolt had begun.
Meanwhile, you may be wondering what was happening in the Kingdom of Asturias. To summarize it, problems and changes. The main mistake of King Alfonso III was to place his sons governing the different regions of the Kingdom of Asturias, like the Carolingians had done with catastrophic results. This practice wasn’t something new among the Asturian dynasty, but as the family and royal domains expanded, conspiracies and revolts to depose the King became more frequent. The brothers of Alfonso had already tried to seize power, although they failed, but his sons did not fail. After an expedition to collect tribute around Toledo, Alfonso III discovered a conspiracy to depose him. He arrested his eldest son, García, but his father-in-law, a Castilian nobleman, took arms against the King of Asturias. Alfonso expected that his other sons would defend him, but to his shock that wasn’t the case. Such ungrateful kids. Extremely disappointed, the once fearsome and respected Alfonso III felt now powerless. He had no alternative other than to de facto abdicate, although he still preserved his title of King, while his three sons distributed the inheritance among themselves. Dethroned and in his mid-50s, he made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and then with the permission of his eldest son García he made a last incursion into Muslim territory before dying in December 910.
It’s a shame to see how his glorious reign ended, but his legacy earned him the nickname the Great. He greatly expanded the Kingdom of Asturias and colonized new lands, continuing the legacy of his father Ordoño I. Moreover, he was a tireless warrior who legitimized his conquests in al-Andalus as a duty of any good Catholic, a crusade. A contemporary monk wrote that Alfonso III was notorious for his desire to please God, and his profound piety drove his repopulations, fights against the Muslims, the erection of fortresses, and the donations to found churches and monasteries. He was also a literate who loved to read the Bible, the Etymologies of Saint Isidore of Seville, and several history books. In fact, he wrote himself one of the chronicles of this period, that other monks perfected with other versions. A good administrator, a prestigious military leader, a pious ruler, and a cultivated man. Alfonso III had all the characteristics of the perfect Medieval king, and despite his deposition, he will always be remembered as Alfonso the Great.
And what happened to the Kingdom of Asturias in 910? The Kingdom of Asturias continued to exist, but the realm of Alfonso III was divided among his three sons. It’s in this moment when the Kingdom of León and the Kingdom of Galicia were born, with the Kingdom of León having the hegemonic status, while Asturias and Galicia were vassal states. In this case, the Kingdom of León included the lands south of the Cantabrian Range and Castile and Álava. Alfonso’s eldest son, García, became King of León, while his brothers Fruela and Ordoño respectively ruled Asturias and Galicia, the same regions that they were already ruling under his father Alfonso but this time with weaker ties between regions. This is similar to how the House of Barcelona distributed Old Catalonia among themselves, although soon the Kingdom of León was unified under one ruler. What you need to understand is that the establishment of the Kingdom of León meant that the center of political life moved from Oviedo, in Asturias, to León, but that didn’t suppose a dynastic change or a substantial transformation of the structure of the state, at least for the moment. The monarchs and magnates felt confident enough to transfer the capital outside of the safe Cantabrian Mountains, but it also showed their need to be closer to the expanding southern frontiers of the kingdom, to control the autonomist tendencies of these regions. León was far more exposed to Muslim raids than Oviedo, but it wasn’t the southernmost outpost, as Zamora, Simancas or Toro were important strongholds to defend the southern frontier. You need to consider that it was dangerous to keep the capital in Asturias because magnates and comital dynasties were starting to establish themselves in the border regions, although as we will see throughout the history of the Kingdom of León its kings had many problems to prevent the emergence of independent kingdoms, like Castile, Galicia or Portugal.
Unfortunately, the descendants of Alfonso III didn’t promote the writing of detailed chronicles to inform us better about the history of the Leonese kingdom. We know that King García I of León launched a raid against Toledo in 911, where he sacked the countryside and captured a few thousand slaves. Meanwhile, García I ordered the Castilian counts of Castile, Burgos and Álava to take advantage of this still favorable moment to move the limits of Castile along the Duero river, repopulating towns like Roa, Osma and San Esteban de Gormaz. This was a transcendental moment for Castile, since this frontier was a front line of resistance for over 100 years. As a fun fact, it was in this moment when the concept of Extremadura emerged, meaning land of the extremes or borderland. As the Christian-Muslim border changed over time, what the Christians called Extremadura changed too, until the modern region of Extremadura in south-western Spain preserved its name. Anyway, García I favored the pretensions of the Castilians to conquer and colonize the region of La Rioja, a region that was desired by the Pamplonese too, that’s why he attacked the Muslims of La Rioja in 914. Suddenly, the monarch fell ill while besieging the castle of Arnedo and he died in Zamora.
Upon the death of García I, his brother Ordoño II, King of Galicia, became King of León too, because his eldest brother didn’t leave any descendants. The proclamation of Ordoño II as King of León was received with enthusiasm, because before his accession to the Leonese throne, Ordoño stood out fighting the Muslims of present-day Portugal and Extremadura, against the descendants of the Muladi rebel Ibn Marwan. Ordoño managed to occupy Évora, the capital of the region of Alentejo, in the southern half of Portugal, where hundreds of men were killed and 4,000 women and children were enslaved. According to the Anonymous chronicle of al-Nasir: “There was no memory in al-Andalus of a disaster for Islam more shocking and terrible than this one.” The Muslims of the marches must have experienced during these years the feeling of insecurity that the Christians usually had, that’s why they started to pay more attention to their defenses. It’s also interesting to see how deep the Galician forces managed to penetrate into al-Andalus, and that reinforces the idea that the interior of the Iberian Peninsula was very sparsely populated.
When he became King of León, Ordoño II prepared an ambitious expedition to conquer Mérida, the depopulated capital of the Lower March. The Leonese army first subdued Medellín, the later birthplace of Hernán Cortés, and then the Muslim guides intentionally mislead the Christian army because they feared the destruction of Mérida. Although the actions of these Muslims were laudable from the point of view of the Andalusis, that costed them their lives. Their sacrifice was worthy, because the inhabitants of the area had enough time to take refuge inside the alcazaba of Mérida. Apparently, the Leonese army camped in front of the alcazaba but didn’t attack it, because the lord of Mérida decided to shower with gifts Ordoño II to make him leave. He then returned to León victorious and with a great booty, that he spent erecting new temples and palaces. Ordoño II of León worked closely with Sancho Garcés I of Pamplona to conquer some strongholds of the Banu Qasi of La Rioja, who were once again infighting. Sancho managed to conquer the castle of Arnedo and capture the Lord of Tudela of the Banu Qasi, and he freed him in exchange of a few villages and two hostages, one being a woman named Urraca, who became the second wife of King Fruela II of Asturias and later León. Nonetheless, they would face serious reverses in the future because the Emir Abd al-Rahman III was successfully reestablishing central authority over al-Andalus.
In 915 a severe drought razed the crops of the Iberian Peninsula and provoked a widespread famine, that’s why neither the Leonese nor the Andalusis launched new expeditions that year. Because of that, the Emir couldn’t continue his devastating campaigns against Umar ibn Hafsun, but this situation forced them to sit and talk. With the intercession of the bishop of Bobastro Ibn Maqsim, the aged rebel sued for peace and he agreed to end his rebellion, and although the terms are not clear Umar and his supporters kept many fortresses without the effective intervention of the Emir. Some of the supporters of Ibn Hafsun were unhappy about this surrender. But the exhausted Umar only wanted peace. He appointed his eldest son Jafar as his heir, and another son named Suleyman got the support of the malcontents to revolt against his father’s will in the stronghold of Úbeda. To prove his loyalty, Umar ibn Hafsun attacked his own son Suleyman, and after forcing him to surrender Ibn Hafsun retired to Bobastro. Ill and old, Umar died there in early 918.
The Umayyads interpreted this as a divine signal and omen that announced the eradication of the seditions throughout al-Andalus. Nonetheless, the descendants of the Muladi rebel continued their struggle during one more decade, but without a charismatic leader like his father, the rebels were on the defensive. Meanwhile, there were two successful expeditions, one eastward to subdue the province of Murcia and possibly around this time the merchant Republic of Pechina, and another westward led by the hajib Badr to subdue Carmona, Niebla, Medina-Sidonia and Santarém. To put that in perspective, within just 5 years Abd al-Rahman III had managed to reimpose central authority in most of southern Spain, the heart of the Emirate, from present-day southern Portugal to Murcia. The exceptions were the mountainous domains left in the hands of the sons of Umar ibn Hafsun, the Muslim marches, the Balearic Islands and Valencia.
With his victories in the south, Abd al-Rahman III felt confident enough to resume jihad against the infidels of the north, who had been freely raiding the Muslims of the marches with impunity. The purpose of the jihad under Abd al-Rahman III wasn’t to conquer the Christian kingdoms, and he didn’t attempt to settle and garrison Muslims along the Christian-Muslim border. You may remember from episode 21 ‘Formation and society of al-Andalus’ that it was profitable to leave the Christians independent, because that meant that the Andalusis were legitimized to call for a jihad and capture booty and slaves, something that they couldn’t do in the dar al-Islam, the territories that had already submitted to Islam. It was also a way to increase the prestige of the monarch, to protect the Muslim communities on the frontiers, and to remind the Muslim lords of the marches who was the real and legitimate ruler.
The first jihad was launched in 917 and it was led by the veteran general Ahmad ibn Abi Abda, one of the responsible of the survival of the Umayyad dynasty during the reign of Abd Allah. Abi Abda attacked Castile, specifically a frontier town that had been recently repopulated, San Esteban de Gormaz. The general put the town under siege, but King Ordoño II quickly reacted and the Leonese army was able to come to the town’s aid. In what has been known as the Battle of Castromoros or San Esteban de Gormaz, the Leonese chronicles say that they caused so many casualties that “the number of their corpses exceeded the number of stars, because from the banks of the Duero river to the castles of Atienza and Paracuellos, the whole territory was covered with corpses.” Obviously this is an exaggeration, but it was an important victory, because Ahmad ibn Abi Abda was captured and beheaded, and his head was put on display in the town’s walls along the head of a wild boar. The King of León was sending a clear message, this was the fate that many Muslims would face if they dared to attack. Nonetheless, this humiliation would not be forgotten and left unanswered.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the similarities and differences between Abd al-Rahman I and Abd al-Rahman III. Both Umayyad rulers managed to skillfully navigate the turbulent political situation of their times, against all odds. The first Emir of Córdoba was an Umayyad prince who sought refuge in the edge of the Islamic world, to survive the persecution of the Abbasids after the destruction of the Umayyad Caliphate. He traveled to al-Andalus with nothing but his lineage, and through years of hard work he managed to establish his authority over al-Andalus. On the other hand, Abd al-Rahman III at least inherited a state and an Arabized and Islamized society, so that’s one difference, but at the same time it’s true that the situation for the Umayyads looked quite hopeless once again. Al-Nasir controlled the greatest city of al-Andalus at that time, but that was pretty much all, and as an inland city Córdoba was surrounded by enemies. Both Abd al-Rahman I and III were clever rulers, both had to impose their authority using standing armies made up of mercenaries and slaves, both ordered new constructions and expanded Córdoba, and both developed the central state bureaucracy. However, I think that a key difference is that Abd al-Rahman I had absolutely nothing and he had to fight tooth and nail to establish the Emirate of Córdoba and ensure the survival of the Umayyad dynasty. Of course, that doesn’t take away any merit from Abd al-Rahman III, but they faced quite different situations. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I’m going to talk about the proclamation of the Caliphate of Córdoba in 929 and the wars between the Umayyads and León and Pamplona. 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 materials 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, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
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‘ABD AL-RAHMAN III. THE FIRST CORDOBAN CALIPH. Maribel Fierro
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