Arab Spain's Poet King
A VISIT TO THE TOMB OF AL-MU’TAMID IBN ‘ABBAD
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
I was barely aware of my fellow passengers as my daughter and I waited near Jamaa el Fna, Marrakesh’s most famous square, for our bus to begin on its way to Aghmat – a Berber village some 33 km (20 mi) away. Our goal was the tomb of the Andalusian poet-king al-Mu’tamid ibn ‘Abbad located in that town. Unlike the other passengers, I was in another world. My mind had strayed back to the 11th century when this Moorish monarch’s court in Seville was the resort of lovers, poets, musicians and all types of literary men.
Even as the bus began to move, my thoughts did not stray away from al-Mu’tamid’s world of love, splendour and tragedy. In spite of the bus driver’s loud playing tape, urging the Arab people to overthrow their un-Islamic rulers, my thoughts were back in history, to the time when Arab Spain was at the zenith of its cultural flowering – the era when al-Mu’tamid ibn ‘Abbad was Seville’s poet-king.
After the fading away of the illustrious Umayyad caliphate in the 11th century, Arab Spain broke up into two dozen paltry states, dubbed by one writer as ‘turbaned Italian republics’.1 They were ruled by petty-monarchs, who came to be known as mukluk at-tawa’if. Year after year, they bickered or fought each other in an endless series of trivial wars. At the same time, the usually quarreling Christian states in the north were uniting and beginning to occupy parts of Arab Spain, putting into motion the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Strange as it may seem, this did not bring the Arab mini-states together. Their rulers continued on their merry ways, paying tribute to the Christians and warring against each other – at times with the help of their northern enemies.
Yet, even with all this turbulence, this was Moorish Spain’s finest cultural era – a time of affluence and literary accomplishments. The rulers of Badajoz, Granada, Zaragoza, Seville, Toledo and other city-states, who had inherited the grandeur of Umayyad Spain, filled their towns with majestic palaces and enchanted gardens. Even when feuding or vying for political dominance, they tried to attract to their courts the most renowned of entertainers, poets and scholars. Each state became a little earthly delight, living in a world of make-believe, unaware of the northern armies pounding at their gates.
Of all these petty kingdoms, Seville, under the ‘Abbadids, was militarily and culturally the most formidable. Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Isma’il ibn ‘Abbad (reigned 1013 to 1042 A.D.), the founder of this dynasty, was noted for his wise rule and literary attributes. He was succeeded by his son al-Mu’tadid (reigned 1042-68), who was a genuine patron of literature and the arts, and a poet in his own right. However, he was feared for his tyrannical ways. His offspring, al-Mu’tamid (reigned1068-91), the third and last successor of the ‘Abbadid dynasty, surpassed his two ancestors in courage, magnanimity and composition of poetry. Histories of Moorish-Spain are permeated with praises for this enlightened prince who was to occupy the throne for 23 event-filled years.
Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn ‘Abbad al-Mu’tamid (also known as Mu’tamid ‘ala Allah, al-Zafir and al-Mu’ayyad Abu al-Qasim), a contemporary of England’s William the Conqueror, was born in 1040 at Beja near Seville. He became famous for his poetry, especially the love odes to his wife I’timad, a former slave girl, once called al-Rumaykiya, whom he showered with love and precious gifts. A great and tragic figure he surrounded his life with a halo of romance and legend and tasted both the joys and bitterness of life.
A poet of love in his early years, he went on, in his later days of exile, to write verses of nostalgia, sorrow, suffering and deep humiliation. Ibn Bassam, a contemporary Arab bard, describes his poetry as being sweeter than the blooming calyx of odoriferous flowers and unequalled in tenderness of the soul.2
When al-Mu‘tamid inherited the throne, he became a protector of bards and men of letters. Besides seeking the company of musicians and intellectuals, he himself played the lute and composed delicate poetry. High-spirited and grand in his way of life, he became an outstanding representative of the 11th century Andalusian-Arab poets and is ranked with the best of Arab lyricists.
His father, in the early part of his reign, appointed him as governor of Shalb – today the Portuguese city of Silves. Here he learned the art of politics while at the same time enjoying life. He brought to court his childhood companion, Ibn ‘Ammar, a poet-adventurer whose artful verses had captured al-Mu’tamid’s heart. Lovers of the fair sex and poetry, they became intimate friends and enjoyed an adventurous time together.
A story is told that a few years previously when al-Mu’tamid and his bosom companion Ibn ‘Ammar, whom he had also made his advisor, were walking in disguise along Seville’s river, Wadi al-Kabir (Guadalquivir), they passed a number of women washing their linen. Noting the wind rippling the surface of the river, al-Mu’tamid improvised a half verse, challenging his friend to finish the second part:
“Sana’ al-rihu min al-ma’i zarad
(The wind has spun a coat-of-mail of water)”,
Noting that Ibn ‘Ammar hesitated, one of linen-washers intervened:
“Ayyu dir`in li-qitalin law jamad
(What a shield it would be for battle, if it stiffened).”
Struck by her quick wit and great beauty, al-Mu’tamid bought her freedom from her master, the muleteer Rumayk ibn al-Hajjaj, and later married her. It is said that he adopted the public name al-Mu’tamid ‘ala Allah (he who counts on God) because of her name I’timad (Reliance).3
Al-Mu’tamid’s and Ibn ‘Ammar’s relationship was close and moving but ended in tragedy. When al-Mu’tamid became sovereign, he bestowed on his friend many honours, but later Ibn Ammar betrayed him by satire, then by rebellion. Outraged, the king killed him with his own hands.4
As a youth in his father’s court and in Shalb, al-Mu’tamid’s foremost preoccupation was with poetry and the pleasures of friends in the company of singing girls. He had inherited his poetical talent from both his grandfather and father, and was later to pass on this ability to his children. In this part of his early life, his obsession was majalis al-uns (carefree gatherings), enlivened by poetical jousts, drink and song. These sessions inspired him to become an outstanding poet concentrating on the themes of wine, gaiety and love. Once, while drinking with his friends, the wine induced him to recite:
“As I was passing by,
A vine, its tendrils tugged my sleeve.
‘Do you design’, said I,
‘My body so to grieve?’
‘Why do you pass’, the vine
Replied, ‘and never greeting make?
It took this blood of mine
Your thirsting bones to slake.’5
Another time, describing a beautiful concubine, he wrote:
“She loosed her robe, that I might see
Her body, lissom as a tree.
The calyx opened in that hour
And oh, the beauty of my flower!”6
In this period of his fun-filled life, beautiful maidens gave him the inspiration to write ghazal (love poetry). At times he put in words his ensnarement with the fair sex:
“Her piercing eyes cut my heart in two,
And my eyes wept with longing for her…
And I would kiss the lips behind the veil,
And embrace the pearl necklace above your embroidered sash!”7
After the death of his father in 1068, al-Mu’tamid, at the age of 28 ascended the throne. In the next two decades, besides being a benevolent ruler and an eminent statesman, he became known for his personal noble qualities. Historians have written that he was the most chivalrous, courageous, liberal, high-minded and unselfish of all of al-Andalus’s Petty Kings and noted for his virtues of discretion, generosity and modesty.
Al-Mu’tamid’s court turned into a resort of renowned poets and literary men. Among those who received his favours were, besides Ibn ‘Ammar, who some historians call the greatest of the 11th century Andalusian-Arab poets, ‘Abd al-Jabbar ibn Hamdis, who fled Sicily when the Normans occupied that island, the bard Ibn Lubbana, once one of al-Mu’tamid’s vizirs, and Bakr ibn ‘Abd as-Samad, a noted poet of that era.
In this early part of his reign, when all that surrounded him were prosperity and ease, he was content with life and remained devoted to I’timad. Submissive to her whims, he sang her verses of passion and tenderness, which reflected a deep, noble and undying love. They had a splendid life in court together and he could barely be separated from her. Once, while he was away on a military expedition, he wrote a long passionate poem to her in which he lamented:
“I am pining because of being separated from you,
Inebriated with the wine of my longing for you;
Crazed with the desire to be with you,
To sip your lips and to embrace you! …
Come to me, dear, fully trusting me,
Believe me: my heart is in your bond!”8
Al-Mu’tamid had met I’timad ar-Rumaikiya about 1059 when both were around 19. She appears to have been beautiful, capricious, gracious, witty and a good poetess, well versed in literature. The king’s infatuation with the former slave girl knew no bounds and he attempted to indulge her every wish. Once, while looking through the palace window, she saw some old ladies mixing mud in the street. She exclaimed to al-Mu’tamid, “If they could do that, why couldn’t I?” And it was for al-Mu’tamid to order that dirt be mixed with perfumes so that his beloved and her maids could play in the mud.9
Another story is told of I’timad watching snowflakes falling – a rare event in Cordova which hardly knows winter – when she burst into tears calling al- Mu’tamid a monster and tyrant for not taking her to some country where she might see this lovely thing every winter. Wanting to satisfy her, he had all the surrounding land planted with almond trees, so that every winter their blossoms would be a substitute for snow.10
I’timad bore al-Mu’tamid six sons and a number of daughters – one, called Zubaydah, married the Christian monarch Alfonso VI who had, besides her, four other wives.11 Her sons all perished in battle and it is said that she mourned them until her last days, dying broken-hearted.
Even though al-Mu’tamid was immersed in love and poetry, he did not neglect state affairs. He enlarged his kingdom, occupying among others cities, Cordova, Jaén and Murcia. Seville’s poet-king was physically in the heart of every battle and proved to be a great warrior. He is reported to have told one of his sons who was fighting by his side, “Do not fear, for death is easier than humiliation and the road of kings is from the palace to the grave.”12
As a result of his conquests, he became the most powerful monarch among the Petty Kings. Yet, neither his kingdom nor any of the other small Muslim states could hold back Alfonso VI, King of Castile, León and Navarre, who had resolved to conquer the entire Iberian Peninsula.
After Alfonso occupied Toledo in 1085, he forced many of the Andalusian-Arab states, among them Seville, to pay tribute. The Muslims of Andalusia realized that if they were to survive, they had to seek help and turned to the Almoravids, the Berber rulers of North Africa. Some of the Andalusian-Arab rulers were not enthusiastic about this invitation but Alfonso’s conquering legions left them no choice. Al-Mu’tamid is reported to have said in response to the criticisms brought against him by the Petty Kings that he preferred to be a camel driver in Morocco rather than a swine herder in Castile.13
The Arab kings of Seville, Badajoz and Granada sent a delegation to Marrakesh, pressing Yusuf ibn Tashufin, leader of the Almoravids, for help. Ibn Tashufin agreed and in 1086 crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with his army. At the Battle of Zallakah, near Badajoz, aided by al-Mu’tamid and the other Andalusian-Arab princes, he defeated Alfonso and liberated the Muslims from paying tribute. Al-Mu’tamid fought like a lion, having three chargers killed under him and receiving three severe wounds. Returning together as heroes to Seville, al-Mu’tamid and Ibn Tashufin spent some time together before the latter returned to Africa.
No sooner had Ibn Tashufin reached his capital in Morocco, then the Petty Kingdoms returned to their squabbling ways, giving the Christians a chance to renew their attacks. The Arab kings, among them al-Mu’tamid, again travelled to Marrakesh seeking the Berber leader’s assistance. At the same time, the religious leaders of al-Andalus were petitioning Ibn Tashufin to rid them of their contending Arab monarchs who were unable to cope with the Christian onslaughts.
Ibn Tashufin returned to Andalusia in 1090 and in a short time disposed of the Party Kings, despoiled their cities and sent the rulers who were not assassinated into exile in North Africa. Only al-Mu’tamid, who had been in the forefront of those asking for Ibn Tashufin’s aid, offered serious resistance. At the last hour, Seville’s king attempted to forge an alliance with Alfonso, but it was too late. After six days of onslaught, Seville surrendered in 1091 and al-Mu’tamid and his family were put in chains then loaded on black barges. Ibn Tashufin, who had come to rescue Andalusia from the Christians, instead, led its foremost king into captivity and disgrace.
The people of Seville gathered on the banks of their river to view the sad spectacle of their beloved sovereign and his family being taken into exile. Ibn Labbana’s elegy, well describes this heart rendering scene:
“I shall forget everything before the morning by the Guadalquivir
when they were in the ships, like dead men in their graves;
The people crowded on both banks, watching how these pearls
floated on the froth of the river.
Veils fell, because maidens no longer cared to cover their faces,
and faces were torn, as mantles were in the old time;
The moment came: what tumult of farewells! Damsels and
Gallants vied in lamentation.”14
As the captives were crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, Ibn al-Labbana mused:
“The Mubarak weeps, now that Ibn ‘Abbad is gone,
It weeps over the departed lions and gazelles;”15
The prisoners were initially taken to Meknes, then to Aghmat – the Almoravids’ first capital, located in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. During the first two years of exile, though living in utter destitution, al-Mu’tamid enjoyed some personal freedom, but poetry was his only solace. He often reminisced in verse about his beloved Seville. In one of these poems, he reflects:
“I wonder whether I ever shall spend a night
With flower gardens and water pools around me,
Where green olive groves, far famed, are planted,
Where the doves sing, the warbling of birds resounds.”16
As time went on, al-Mu’tamid mourned his pitiful existence in fine verse, lamenting his cruel captivity. Remorseful, he decried the misery of his family, which had fallen from the pinnacle of happiness and power to the depths of poverty and debasement. During their first Id al-Fitr (the Muslim festival of the breaking of the fast) in confinement, tormented by the sight of his wife and daughters spinning wool, he lamented in sorrow:
“You see your daughters in tatters, hungry,
Penniless, they are spinning for other people:…
Treading on hard clay, barefooted, humbled
As if they had never been treading on musk and camphor,
Their hollow cheeks show signs of lack of food,
They sigh, their tears roll down like copious rain.”17
When one of al-Mu’tamid’s and I’timad’s last remaining sons, ‘Abd al-Jabbar, in 1093 revolted in al-Andalus, they greeted the insurrection with hope and joy. Ibn Tashufin feared al-Mu’tamid would try to escape and had him put in fetters. Al-Mu’tamid responded to his captor, writing in verse:
“My chains: Do you not know I am a Muslim?
You refuse to pity me, you are unmerciful.”18
In the same poem, addressing his son, he bemoaned his sad condition and that of his family:
“The sound of iron chains rings in my ear
So heavily; its touch fills the eyes with tears:
Your little sisters are dying in grief for you
So is your mother: bereavement sears her heart:
She weeps – no cloud ever shed more copious streams.”19
The rebellion was broken after a few months and the son killed. Constantly grieving over the loss of her offspring and the sad condition of life in Aghmat, I’timad became very ill and died shortly afterwards. In 1095, Al-Mu’tamid, still in chains and overwhelmed with grief for his beloved, passed away in abject destitution at the age of 55. One of Arab Spain’s eminent figures, he has been written about for centuries. Al Marrakushi, a 13th century historian, said of him: “If one wanted to list all the examples of beauty produced in Andalusia from the time of the conquest to the present day, then al-Mu’tamid would be one of them, if not the greatest of all.”20
I was still reminiscing about this poet-prince who represents the epitome of the brilliance of Arab culture, when near 30 km (19 mi) from Marrakesh, we turned to the left on a narrow road. In about 5 minutes we were in the village of Aghmat, boasting in al-Mu’tamid’s time medrasas (schools) and royal tombs. Now, all we could see were the modest reddish adobe homes of the townspeople. As we walked from the bus stop, everyone beamed when we asked the way to al-Mu’tamid ibn ‘Abbad’s tomb. Not one person seemed surprised that strangers had come to visit the village’s most famous site.
As it has been for many centuries, his mausoleum in Aghmat is still well-known and frequented by travellers. The romantic aura of Seville’s virtuous lyricist-king has drawn visitors from the day Ibn Tashufin brought him a prisoner to the city. His first guests were poets like Ibn Labbana and Ibn Hamdis, who visited him while he was still alive.
After al-Mu’tamid’s death, his contemporaries, including friends, fellow poets and even strangers, came to visit his tomb, paying their respects to this proverbial king. Among those were the poet Abu Bakr ibn ‘Abd as-Samad, who visited the grave a few days after al-Mu’tamid’s death and centuries later, Ahmad Ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari, the 17th century last great historian of the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula who wrote the famous Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain. The paying of homage to this poet-king whose life ended in tragedy has continued until our day.
Standing inside the mausoleum, newly renovated in 1991, I surveyed the three gravestones: those of al-Mu ‘tamid and I’timad, divided by that of one of their daughters. Turning, I saw tears flowing from my daughter’s eyes as she gazed on the graves of the once proud and powerful king of Seville and the ones he loved. I remembered the words of the traveller who wrote, “People weep for him still.”21
My eyes watered, recalling the words of Ibn Bakr, who after kissing al-Mu’tamid’s crypt, recited a long poem which included these verses:
“Oh king of kings, do you hear? May I address you?
Or do these circumstances not allow you to hear?
When your palaces were deprived of your presence,
And you were not there as usual during the feasts,
I humbly came to this ground, my purpose being
At your tomb to recite a poem of praise to you!…
My eyes send forth one stream after another, but
The fire of my heart flames constantly anew.”22
Back in Marrakech, the bus let us off beside a mausoleum-like building. Stopping a passerby, I asked, “What is this structure?” He smiled, responding, “It’s the tomb of Ibn Tashufin – the hero of our nation.” I could barely hold back the tears. Hero he might be to some people, but to me he was the one who humiliated Arab Spain’s most brilliant literary mind and had him die in chains.
Arberry, A.J., Aspects of Islamic Civilization as Depicted in the Original Texts, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1964.
Arberry, A.J., Moorish Poetry – a translation of The Pennants, an Anthology compiled in 1243 by Ibn Sa`id, The Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1953.
Burkhardt, Titus, Moorish Culture in Spain, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1972.
Chejne, Anwar G., Muslim Spain Its History and Culture, The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1974.
Huart, Clément, A History of Arabic Literature, William Heinemann, London, 1903.
Hole, Edwyn, Andalus: Spain Under the Muslims, Robert Hale Ltd., London, 1958.
Imamuddin, S.M., Muslim Spain 711-1492 A.D., E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1981.
al-Makkarí, Ahmed, Ibn Mohammed, Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, Vol. I & II, translated by Pascual de Gayangos, Johnson Reprint Corp., New York, 1964.
Nykl, A.R., Hispano-Arabic Poetry and Its Relations with the Old Provençal Troubadours, J.H. Furst, Co., Baltimore, 1970.
Wasserstein, David, The Rise and Fall of the Party-Kings – Politics and Society in Islamic Spain 1002-1086, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985.
Watt, Montgomery, W., A History of Islamic Spain, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1967.
Whishaw, Bernhard and Ellen, M., Arabic Spain, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1912.