Abd Al-Rahman I - The Architect Of Moorish Spain
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
“Away! Away with thee, O brother! For yonder black banners are the banners of sons of Abbas.”
These must have been chilling words which Abu al-Mutarrif Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu`awiya heard from his younger brother as they surveyed the horsemen galloping toward their hiding place near the Euphrates River.
A short time before, Abu al-Abbas, the newly proclaimed caliph based in Kufa, had overthrown the Damascus Umayyad Caliphate whose members had aroused popular discontent by their appetite for luxurious and soft lifestyle. He then rooted out and methodically exterminated most of the adults of the fallen dynasty.
Eighty had been tricked into surrendering with a promise of amnesty, then after being dined they were butchered. Some historians say that leather cloths were spread over the bodies of the dead on top of which the Abbasids feasted. After giving Syria nearly a century of splendour and prosperity, which was never to be repeated, the Umayyads were almost totality erased from the face of the earth.
That is except for Abd al-Rahman I, the grandson of the Umayyad Caliph Hisham, who, by a hair’s breadth, escaped this terrible massacre. He was barely 20 years old when, after the defeat of his relative the Caliph Marwan II in January 750 A.D., the dynasty had been overthrown. Now he was a fugitive, relentlessly pursued by the agents of Abu al-Abbas.
Hearing the words of danger, he quickly made his way to the Euphrates River with a younger brother and a faithful servant. According to J. Read in The Moors in Spain and Portugal what followed is related in a contemporary chronicle Akhbar Majmu`a, which describes in the words of the prince his narrow escape:
“Joined by my freed man Badr, we reached the bank of the Euphrates, where I met a man who promised to sell me horses and other necessities; but while I was waiting he sent a slave to find the Abbasid commander. Next we heard the noise of troops approaching the farmhouse; we took to our heels and hid in some gardens by the Euphrates, but they were closing in on us. We managed to reach the river ahead of them and threw ourselves into the water. When they got to the bank they began shouting: ‘Come back; you have nothing to fear’. I swam and my brother swam; I was a little ahead of him. Half way across, I turned to encourage him; but on hearing their promises he had turned back, afraid of drowning. I shouted to him ‘come back beloved’; but God did not will that he heard me. I swam on the opposite bank. Then I saw that some of the soldiers were undressing to swim after me. They stopped, caught the boy and cut off his head in front of me. He was thirteen years old.”
A man of sound judgment and vast learning, Abd al-Rahman was noted for his reckless courage. After his narrow escape, he had no means of support except his sagacity and a great natural instinct for survival. With cunning, determination and an immense will he succeeded in eluding his pursuers.
His goal was the homeland from where his mother, a Berber captive from the Nafza, a branch of the powerful Zenete tribe in the furthest west of North Africa, hailed. An outcast and vagabond, he wandered incognito for four dangerous years across North Africa, only accompanied by Badr and another faithful retainer. By a series of miracles he eluded many times his would-be executers until he reached his mother’s land. From the refuge of her tribe he wrote al-Sumayl ibn Hatim, his kinsmen in Al-Andalus (Arab Spain), asking for assistance in regaining his birthright.
After the Iberian Peninsula had been conquered by the Umayyads many of its members and their clients followed the victorious armies to that land. Al-Sumayl was one of these clients and Abd al-Rahman believed that he had an obligation to the family to continue the relationship. Receiving a favourable reply, he sent his faithful servant, Badr, in 754 A.D. on a reconnaissance mission and to plea his master’s cause in Spain.
From the time the Arabs had conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 711-712 A.D., civil wars had raged incessantly. Al-Sumayl was a powerful chieftain of one of the warring factions and his help was essential if the Syrian prince was to win back some of his dynasty’s domain.
Badr did his job well. Besides winning over al-Sumayl and a number of other chieftains, he returned with a pledge of support by the recently defeated Yemenite faction in the Peninsula. With this encouraging news, Abd al-Rahman and a few followers from his mother’s tribe embarked for Spain. He landed at the town of Almuñécar north of Málaga in September 755 A.D.
Still a young man of 25 years when he first set foot in Spain, he was full of dash and daring. Fair, tall and stately in his bearing, he wore his hair in two long ringlets, had a large moustache and always dressed in white. J. Conde in the History of the Dominion of the Arabs in Spain describes him in detail at the time of his arrival:
“Abd al-Rahman was himself at that time in the very flower of his youth; his deportment was graceful, his aspect noble and beautiful, his complexion of clear white and red, fairly mingled; the eyes were large and fine, of a bright blue, and highly animated, — his countenance was at once friendly and majestic; he was of good stature, and his form was slight; at a word, the beauty and grace of his person increased the satisfaction generally expressed at the arrival of Abd al-Rahman.”
As he travelled inland, people flocked to his banner. When Al-Sumayl saw the popularity of the Umayyad fugitive he became jealous and threw in his lot with Yusuf al-Fihri, his nominal overlord and foe, to oppose the newly arrived prince. After occupying Cordova, Abd al-Rahman defeated them near the city. They subsequently rebelled a number of times until both were eventually killed.
In 756 A.D., Abd al-Rahman declared Al-Andalus independent from Abbasid rule, but feeling that it was too small a province of the Muslim Empire he did not take on the title of caliph. Rather, he established it as an independent emirate based on true justice and toleration for all religions and ethnic groups – a stand which gave him a popular base among the heterogeneous population of the peninsula. The emirate was laid on such a solid foundation that it lasted for a near 300 years – until 1031 A.D. when it broke up in civil wars.
After establishing his free Umayyad emirate, he first repelled the invading Christians from the north then turned his attention to consolidating his power. With an army of 40,000, largely made up of freed slaves of foreign origin and North African Berbers, he subdued, after years of intermittent campaigning, the dissident Muslim overlords. To stamp out this anarchy and the recurrent rebellions inside his kingdom and defend its borders against the encroaching Christians, he had to employ draconian measures, which eventually made him many enemies. To the Abbasids of the east he became known as the ‘Falcon of Quraish’ (the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad to which both the Abbasids and Umayyads belonged) due to the rapid subjection of Al-Andalus to his rule.
The greatest threat he overcame was the Abbasid attempt to reclaim their western outpost. For years he had to defend his emirate against their efforts. In 763 A.D., one of their appointed governors, Al-Ala’ ibn Mughíth, succeeded in besieging Abd al-Rahman at Carmona near Seville. However, after a two-month siege he broke out and routed Ibn Mughíth’s forces. All the leaders were caught and decapitated. Their heads were pickled and placed in sacks with black Abbasid flags.
Some writers state that these were sent with a travelling merchant to Kairouin, the Abbasid capital in North Africa, and thrown in the town’s square. Other historians claim that the sacks were placed at the tent door of Abu Ja’far al-Mansur, the Abbasid caliph who was on a pilgrimage to Mecca. In any case, when the caliph heard the news, he is reported to have exclaimed: ‘Praise be to God for placing the sea between me and such a demon’.
After vanquishing and subduing all those who opposed him, Abd al-Rahman laid the base for making Al-Andalus an earthly paradise – a land of prosperity and flowering culture. His policy of moderation and magnanimity earned him respect and admiration from friend and foe alike. An offspring of a princely race used to wielding secular power, he established a mode of government that on the whole was not resented by his subjects.
In spite of being almost continuously engaged in warfare, arts and letters flourished in his domain. Himself a man of letters, he was eloquent in speech and often dabbled in poetry. According to Al-Maqqari in The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, nostalgic about his country of birth, Abd al-Rahman is reported to have said this verse at the sight of one solitary palm-tree growing in his garden:
“In the centre of al-Rusafah grows a palm-tree,
born in the West, away from the country of palm-trees.
I once exclaimed, ‘Thou art like me; for thou resemblest me in wandering and peregrination,
and the long separation from relatives and friends.
Thou [also] didest grow in a foreign soil, and, like me, art far
away [from the country of thy birth].
May the fertilizing clouds of morning water nourish thee in
May the beneficent rains, which the poor implore, never
Kind-hearted, generous and well-disposed to mercy Abd al-Rahman was an unselfish and munificent prince, extremely accessible to the people. He introduced into court the somewhat bohemian simplicity and informality of his Damascus ancestors, which allowed great freedom of access to the sovereign. Chroniclers have written that he used to visit the sick and dying, attend funerals and perform his devotions in the mosque alongside his people. Only near the end of his life when there were several attempts to assassinate him did he discontinue these practices.
Throughout his domain, long neglected roads were repaired, postal services were organized, and baths, bridges and castles were erected. The advanced Syrian art of irrigation was introduced and new vegetables and fruit trees, like the peach and a type of pomegranate called in Spanish safarí, were imported from the East. This set in motion a process which, in the subsequent years, was to make Al-Andalus the richest country in Europe.
However, his crowning achievement was to begin, in 786 A.D. – the construction of the Grand Mosque of Cordova. He purchased the city’s church from the Christians and began a magnificent structure, which later became a model for future mosques.
Besides a number of other religious buildings, he adorned Cordova with palaces, public buildings and delightful gardens filled with fruit trees and ornamental shrubs. On the outskirts, in the centre of one of these gardens, overflowing with flowers of which he was passionately fond, he built a splendid palace embellished with every luxury which wealth could procure. He nostalgically called it Munyat al-Rusafah after his ancestral palace located between Palmyra and the Euphrates where he had lived as a youth. He personally supervised the building of an aqueduct to supply with water this superb creation along with the city of Cordova. The palace became the wonder of his day and was talked about for centuries.
All during his rule, he was stern yet gentle. Aided by able and trustworthy governors, he saved Al-Andalus from disintegration. After pacifying the country, he displayed great ability and statesmanship in making it one of the most advanced nations in that era.
In 788 A.D., after a prosperous reign of 33 years, Abd al-Rahman died and was buried in his palace. From a family of 11 sons and nine daughters, he chose his second son, Hisham, as the new ruler of a now strong and powerful Al-Andalus.
The saga of this prince, also known as al-Dakhil (the Immigrant), who was to unite Arab Spain is as romantic and exciting as could be dreamed up by the best of novelists, yet more stunning in its reality. No one summed up his life better than, ironically, his contemporary enemy, the Abbasid Caliph, Abu Ja’far al-Mansur.
A story is told by a number of chroniclers that one-day al-Mansur asked his assembly, “Who is the Falcon of Quraish?” Some replied that it was himself because he organized the Empire, put down revolts and gave peace to men’s minds. Others mentioned Mu’awiya and Abd al-Malik, both great Umayyad Caliphs.
However, al-Mansur said, “It is Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu’awiya, who first by cunning escaped from among the spears and swords of his enemies, traversed the desert and crossed the sea, entered a land of ‘Unbelievers’, founded cities, gathered armies and with his good government and firmness of character built an empire in a lawless country.”
Mu’awiya (first Umayyad caliph) rode a steed which Umar and Uthman (the first two Islamic caliphs) had made ready for him; and Abd al-Malik, proclaimed before he succeeded, also had the support of family and partisans; but Abd al-Rahman was alone, with nothing to aid him but his wits, and no support but his unshakeable will.”
Nicknamed by his partisans as `Umayya the Sacred’, Abd al-Rahman is regarded by historians as one of the greatest Muslim rulers. His exploits for centuries have been, in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the bases of myths and legends – an endless source of inspiration for poets and storytellers.
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