Travel Blog

The Ummayad dynasty in al-Andalus
22nd June 2021

Reign of the Andalusian Umayyads
ʿAbd al-Rahman I
The ascent of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān assured the survival of Muslim power in Spain. Confronted by the intrigues of the ʿAbbāsids, by the jealousy of the earlier Muslim settlers, who opposed his appointments, and by the uncertain situation on the Frankish frontier, he nevertheless succeeded in establishing himself in Córdoba, setting up an Umayyad administration, and introducing the elements of Syrian culture into Al-Andalus. Supported by his standing mercenary army, he temporarily repressed the rivalries of the Arab aristocracy. In 763 he defended his territories against an invasion organized by al-Manṣūr, the ʿAbbāsid caliph of Baghdad. After defeating the ʿAbbāsid force, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān executed its leaders and sent their preserved heads to Baghdad as a gesture of defiance. The ʿAbbāsids were subsequently unable to effectively intervene in Spain and never succeeded in recovering northwest Africa.

ʿAbd al-Raḥmān introduced internal reforms to Al-Andalus, which included the formation of a council of state, the reorganization of the judiciary under a senior qadi (judge), and the division of Spain into six military provinces. His embellishment of Córdoba included the construction of a spectacular mosque, schools, and hospitals, and he was noted for his clemency toward Spain’s Christian population. The Frankish annexation of Narbonne and of the hitherto independent duchy of Aquitaine further weakened the Pyrenean frontier, and, when a dissident governor of Zaragoza appealed to the Franks, their king, Charlemagne, invaded Spain, only to find the gates of Zaragoza shut against him. He was defeated by a combination of Basques and Muslims as he retreated through the Pyrenees at Roncesvalles (778).

After this failure, Charlemagne realized that he could not win Spanish support for his designs without the favour of the Spanish church. He intervened in the adoptionist controversy in order to discredit the metropolitan of Toledo and to separate the church of the small independent kingdom of Asturias. He succeeded in undermining the authority of Toledo, and the creation of the kingdom of Toulouse enabled his frontiersmen to conquer Barcelona (801), which was placed under a Gothic governor. The imperialism of the Franks soon led to a revival of localist sentiment, however, and, after Charlemagne’s death in 814, the Basques and other Pyrenean peoples broke away from Frankish rule. In the Asturias, the peace with the Muslims had ended as the authority of Toledo was rejected, and armies from Córdoba advancing up the Ebro began to raid Álava and Castile. The young Alfonso II withstood these attacks for 10 years, until a succession crisis in the emirate of Córdoba gave him some respite.

Challenges to the Umayyad emirate
ʿAbd al-Raḥmān had designated his second son, Hishām I (788–796), to follow him, but this was challenged by his elder son, Sulaiman, governor of Toledo. The standoff was resolved when Sulaiman accepted a pension in Africa. Hisham was succeeded by his young son al-Ḥakam I (796–822), but again the succession was disputed. The rebellion of Toledo, savagely repressed by the murder of many of the Gothic inhabitants, obliged the emir to engage large numbers of professional soldiers, often Slavs or Berbers, and to levy new taxation to support them. When the population of Córdoba rebelled, the uprising was put down with great bloodshed, and the suburb of Secunda was razed.

Under ʿAbd al-Raḥmān II (822–852), the urban rebellions were stilled, as the Muslim garrisons protected themselves in inner fortresses. Frankish pressure, after the fall of Barcelona and Tarragona, was relaxed, and the Muslims left the northeast to the mawālī Banū Qāsī family, whose influence was for a time so great that they were called the “Third Kings of Spain.” The court of Córdoba, now prosperous, cultivated Arabic literature and the refinements of Eastern life. The tranquility of Al-Andalus was shaken in 844 when the Norsemen sailed down the Atlantic seaboard and forced their way into the Guadalquivir, raiding Sevilla.

In the north, Alfonso II’s small Asturian kingdom had allied itself with its Basque neighbours and repopulated the frontier of Castile. It occupied the new capital of Oviedo and attracted the bishops of Galicia, where the discovery of the supposed tomb of St. James at Padrón had turned the nearby town of Santiago de Compostela into a significant Christian religious centre.

In the south, the Christians of Córdoba, now obliged to use Arabic or be excluded from the business of the state, again became restless. When ʿAbd al-Raḥmān II was succeeded by his son Mohammed I (852–886), some of these Mozarabs (Spanish Christians who retained their faith but adopted the Arabic language) protested by seeking out martyrdom. This movement, led by Eulogius (died 859), ultimately collapsed, and many Christians subequently converted to Islam. Finding themselves still discriminated against, they joined the great rebellion of the crypto-Christian chief ʿUmar ibn Ḥafṣūn, which raged from 880 until 928. ʿUmar’s rebellion grew under a pair of weak emirs—al-Mundhir (886–888) and ʿAbd Allāh (888–912)—and for a moment ʿUmar threatened Córdoba itself.

ʿUmar’s contemporary, Alfonso III (866–910), king of Asturias, supported the cult of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in an effort to energize his Christian kingdom. He authorized Vimara Peres to set up the county of Portugal, and claimed that his goal was the restoration of the Visigothic monarchy in Spain. Alfonso styled himself as emperor, but his aspirations were quashed when he was deposed by his sons, and his dream of a reborn Visigothic kingdom died with ʿUmar. Instead, the new ruler of Córdoba, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III (912–961), outplayed the Christians with a shrewd combination of diplomacy and aggression.

The Golden Age of Muslim Spain
ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III would prove to be the greatest of the Spanish Umayyad rulers. His grandfather was the emir ʿAbd Allāh, and his father, Muhammad, was assassinated when ʿAbd al-Raḥmān was still an infant. Gifted with charm and a keen intellect, the young prince quickly became ʿAbd Allāh’s favourite, and he was selected as the emir’s heir apparent over a number of other contenders. ʿAbd Allāh died in October 912, and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ascended the throne when he was just 21 years old. He would govern Muslim Spain for nearly half a century.

Madīnat al-Zahrāʾ
Madīnat al-Zahrāʾ
The restored gate to the palace at the ruins of the royal city of Madīnat al-Zahrāʾ, built by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III.
Daniel Villafruela
The first 10 years of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III’s reign were spent in restoring central authority, the rest in defending his northern borders against the inroads of the Leonese and in stemming the westward advance in North Africa of the Fāṭimids. Almost from the moment he assumed the throne, he campaigned against ʿUmar, reducing the warlord’s sphere of influence and capturing his strongholds. ʿUmar died in 917, and, although his sons resumed their allegiance to the rulers of Córdoba, the rebel fortress of Bobastro would not fall until 928. In 929 ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III declared himself caliph, and under his rule Córdoba grew to become the largest and most cultured city of Europe. The seat of Europe’s first academy of medicine and a centre for geographers, architects, craftsmen, artists, and scholars of every kind, Córdoba rivaled for a brief period the splendour of Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad. He also built the opulent royal city of Madīnat al-Zahrāʾ (Medina Azahara) some 5 miles (8 km) west of Córdoba. The city was abandoned after the unrest that consumed the Umayyad caliphate in 1009, and the ruins of Madīnat al-Zahrāʾ would remain undiscovered until the early 20th century. In 2018 Madīnat al-Zahrāʾ was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site as an outstanding example of the arts and architecture of Muslim Spain.

For a time ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III’s navy mastered the western Mediterranean, and he maintained diplomatic relations with the Byzantine emperor and with the princes of southern Europe. He also dominated northwest Africa, which supplied him with Berber troops. These forces would prove vital for his struggle against the Christian kings of Leon and Navarre. The Leonese had tested ʿAbd al-Raḥmān in the first year of his reign by driving deep into Umayyad territory and slaughtering the Muslim population of Talavera de la Reina. Beginning in 920, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān led a series of campaigns that culminated in the sacking of the Navarrese capital at Pamplona in 924. This brought a period of stability to the Christian frontier, but the ascent of Ramiro II to the Leonese throne in 932 ushered in an era of renewed hostility. Skirmishes along the frontier led to a clash at Simancas in 939, where the Muslims were soundly beaten and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān himself narrowly escaped death. A growing Castilian separatist movement within his own domains rendered Ramiro unable to capitalize on this victory, however, and he negotiated a five-year truce with the caliphate in 944.

After Ramiro’s death in 950, the Christian kingdoms descended into civil war, and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān was quick to recover that which had been lost. By the end of the decade, Muslim domination of Spain was virtually complete. The king of Navarre, Garcia Sánchez, was ʿAbd al-Raḥmān’s cousin, and he owed his throne to the caliph’s support. Sancho I, the king of Leon, was deposed by his own nobles but regained the crown in 960 entirely as a result of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān’s intervention. By the time of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān’s death in 961, the Christian kingdoms had been thoroughly subjugated. Ambassadors from Leon, Navarre, Barcelona, and Castile all traveled to Cordóba to pledge homage and pay tribute to the caliph.

The decline of the Spanish Umayyads
ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III was succeeded by his son, al-Ḥakam II (961–976), a lover of learning who gave protection to writers and thinkers who were not strictly orthodox. During his largely peaceful reign, the library of Cordóba boasted a collection of more than 400,000 books. Al-Ḥakam came to the throne relatively late in life, and his heir, Hishām II (976–1013), succeeded him at age 12. The young caliph would spend his reign as a puppet; his mother had supported the rise of Abū ʿĀmir al-Manṣūr (Almanzor), a courtier who could trace his descent to the initial Muslim conquest. Manṣūr possessed keen political instincts and, with skill, tact, and efficiency, came to establish himself as the de facto ruler of the caliphate. With his father-in-law, the general Ghālib, he overthrew the previous ḥajib (chief minister) in 978. A rupture with Ghālib led to the latter’s defeat and death in battle in 981, and that year Manṣūr adopted the honorific al-Manṣūr bi-Allāh (“Made Victorious by God”).

Manṣūr gave the African territories local independence under Umayyad suzerainty, maintaining the caliphate’s influence in the Maghreb while reducing the drain on his own treasury. He introduced military reforms that professionalized the army, and he recruited a new cadre of skilled Berber troops. Manṣūr showed no hesitation about using this force, and he carried out dozens of punishing campaigns against the Christian states of northern Spain. He sacked the capitals of virtually every Christian kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula, and in 997 he razed Santiago de Compostela. Although Hishām II retained the nominal title of caliph, in 994 Manṣūr began to style himself as al-Malik al-Karīm (“Noble King”) as a reflection of the power he wielded. He died at Medinaceli on August 10, 1002, while returning from a campaign.

Manṣūr’s eldest son, ʿAbd al-Malik al-Muẓaffar, continued the so-called ʿĀmirid dictatorship, ruling for six years before his premature death in 1008. His younger brother, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Sanchuelo, lacked the political skill to operate the delicate machinery that his father had constructed. He lost control of the Berber generals and angered the Arab aristocracy by having himself proclaimed successor to the caliph. In 1009 a revolution in Cordóba led to the deposition of Hishām II and murder of Sanchuelo. No Umayyad could control the Berbers, who sacked the capital and began to demand land in Al-Andalus. The uprising would usher in some 20 years of unrest.

In 1016 the Ḥammūdids of Ceuta intervened and set up their own caliphate but spent nearly a decade fighting among themselves. Finally, in November 1031 the leading families of Cordóba abolished the caliphate and declared a republic. The provinces of Al-Andalus became independent taifas (principalities) whose rulers pretended to be ḥajibs of a no-longer existent caliphate.