Gateway to the Classics: Spain: A History for Young Readers by Frederick A. Ober
Spain: A History for Young Readers by  Frederick A. Ober

The Western Caliphate

Within three years after their first appearance in Spain the Moors had subjected nearly the entire territory, save only a restricted region in the north and west. For about fifty years thereafter they were governed by emirs sent from the califate of Damascus, and the last of some twenty emirs was one Yusef, an Abbasside. To understand the Arab terms which we are now compelled to use in relating this portion of Spain's history, we must transport ourselves once again to the Orient, and glance at the line of califs, or caliphs, successors to Mahomet, or Mohammed, which had carried on his conquests for many years.

The Prophet left no direct heirs, and this led to continual wrangling among the various tribes; even the succession of Abu-bekr, father of Mohammed's favourite wife Ayeshah, did not settle anything, for at his death the question was reopened. Not right, but might, however, prevailed with the Arabs, and about the year 661 the first calif of the Ommiades seated himself at Damascus. One of this line was in power when Spain was invaded, but about the middle of the eighth century three brothers came forward to dispute his rights. The calif was killed, and eighty Ommiades of influence, invited to a feast at Damascus, were murdered in cold blood. Thus arose the line of Abbassides, so called from alleged descent from Abbas, uncle of Mohammed. Like most of the Arab rulers, the Abbassides signalled their rise to power by deeds of blood, their first effort being toward the entire obliteration of the house of Ommiades. But two of this noble house escaped: one fled to Arabia, where his descendants ruled a while; and the other to Africa, where, among the devoted adherents of his line, the Bedouins and the Berbers, he passed several years under their protection.

It happened that most of the Moslem chiefs in Spain were also allied to the house of Ommiades, and when they learned that the young Syrian Abderrahman was wandering in Africa a fugitive, with a price upon his head, they earnestly entreated him to come over and become their ruler. Yusef, the last emir of the Abbassides, was routed in battle and sent away, and Spain at last made independent of Eastern influence under a king of her own—the first of a line which governed, in the main wisely, for nearly three hundred years.

Prince Abderrahman made the city of Cordova the seat of the Western califate, and under him it became a centre of learning as well as prosperity, rivaling all other cities of the peninsula. Magnificent palaces were built, hospitals and mosques, one of the last named being the glorious mosque of Cordova, its site four acres in extent, renowned throughout the world for its beauty. This was begun by Abderrahman in the year 786, and has lasted to our time, with its unrivalled mosaics, tiles, and arabesques, and its thousand columns of porphyry and alabaster.

Then were begun those vast irrigation works which reclaimed the desert plains of the country and made them flourish with vegetation; the immense aqueducts, the bridges, towers, and walls of defence. And yet the reign of Abderrahman was by no means a peaceful one, as he had to placate the many different sects and tribes of his own countrymen on the one hand, and the Jews and Christians on the other. In the north was a turbulent Christian population, ever at war; in the south, a Mohammedan population always quarrelling over the division of spoils, and particularly of the conquered territory.

Toward the last of his reign there appeared in the north a mightier than he—no less than the magnificent Charlemagne, Emperor of the French, who, about the year 778, having been invited thither by a disaffected Arab captain, crossed the Pyrenees and captured several towns. He did not stay long, however, for a rising of the Saxons called him back, after he had taken Saragossa and razed the walls of Pampeluna. Perhaps his brief campaign in Spain might never have been chronicled had it not been for his disastrous rout in the Pyrenean Pass of Roncesvalles, and the death of that hero of early song, the gallant Roland, a semi-mythical figure in history. It was for a long time believed that they were infidel Saracens who attacked and destroyed Charlemagne's rear guard in the Pass of Roncesvalles; but later investigations show them to have been Basques, descendants of the primitive Iberians, who resented this invasion of their territory, even by a grandson of the great Charles Martel, who had beaten back the Moslems in 732 and 937.

Abderrahman died in 788, and was succeeded by Hicham I, and he by others of the line, whose moral tone may be indicated by the remark of one Mohammed, eldest of forty-five brothers, who, when congratulated by a favourite upon his elevation, exclaimed: "What an absurd idea to say this world would be beautiful if there were no death ! If there were no death, should I be reigning ? Death is a good thing; my predecessor is dead; that is why I reign." Another calif before him, who refused to treat Christian and Mussulman alike in the eyes of the law, invited seven hundred citizens of Toledo to a banquet, admitting each one separately within the doorway of his castle, when he was seized and taken to the parapet, where his head was lopped off and thrown into the fosse. But this was only a playful manifestation of power, which caused the calif to be regarded as eccentric, rather than cruel or bloodthirsty.

During the reign of Abderrahman II the Spanish coast was ravaged by the Norman sea-robbers, who even sailed up the river Guadalquivir as far as Seville, and with whom the Arab navy is said to have had a great sea fight; though this is doubtful. One hundred years later—the interim being filled with three inconsequential rulers—another, Abderrahman III, carried Cordova and the califate to the summit of power. He held the government for nearly fifty years, from 912 to 961, and came to be one of the wealthiest rulers in the then known world. The city contained half a million inhabitants, one hundred thousand houses, and twenty-eight suburbs, and the surplus population was urged to dwell in a new city outside the walls, which was called Zahra, after one of Abderrahman's six thousand wives, and which rivaled the finest city of the Orient in the beauty of its palaces.

Material and intellectual growth kept even pace, and Cordova was a torch of enlightenment during that time which in Europe was known as the "Dark Ages." The son of Abderrahman III, who reigned fifteen years as Hacam II, was a gifted bibliophile, if not a scholar, for he collected, read, and annotated (it is said) a library of four hundred thousand. volumes. From distant Cairo, Bagdad, and Damascus he drew the precious books which went to swell his great catalogue of forty-four volumes; and among them, at one time, was the veritable copy of the Koran stained by the blood of Othman, who was beheaded in the year 650. The University of Cordova was known abroad, and hither flocked scholars, poets, and Arab singers, while thousands of students listened to eloquent teachers of theology and law. Of all the cities of Spain, none rivals in interest golden Cordova, on the banks of the Guadalquivir—though Seville, Granada, and Toledo press it close—either in the list of famous Arabs or Romans, born and educated here.

Skilled in astrology and astronomy we know they were, and from Cordova, in the latter half of the tenth century, were obtained the Arabic numerals, which were carried to Rome by Pope Sylvester II, it is said, soon after he had studied at the university; and where, doubtless, he acquired those attainments in mathematics, chemistry, and philosophy which caused it to be said of him that he was in league with the devil.

From the name Cordova, also, we get the term "cordwainer," out of "cordovan," the celebrated leather manufactured there. Many arts and a few sciences flourished in this noble city; and we should not forget our indebtedness to the Spanish Arabs, who kept alight the lamp of learning, and who have left in their architecture, if in nothing else, a memorial of their greatness.

Under another calif, Hicham II, the Moors in Spain reached the zenith of their prosperity; but not through any act of the calif himself, except negatively, when he resigned all power to his hadjib, or vizier, Abou-Amir Mohammed, who under the surname of Almansor Billah—"victorious by help of God"—nearly destroyed the rising Christians of the north. The renowned hero of more than fifty battles, Almansor carried death and destruction to all parts of rebellious Spain. He marched upon and captured the cities of Leon, Barcelona, Pampeluna, Salamanca, and Zamora; but the greatest of his achievements—that upon which he most prided himself—was the sacking of the sacred Shrine of Campostella, and the hanging of its bells of bronze in the great mosque at Cordova, where they were used as lamps.

Campostella, or the Field of the Star, was the holy spot where, according to early Christian legend, the body of Saint James the apostle was found, having been brought here by his disciples. Its discovery, after having been for centuries buried here, was owing to the shining of a star of exceeding lustre above the sacred spot, and hence the name applied to the church subsequently erected here, and which became a shrine for pilgrims from all parts of Christian Spain. As scallop shells are found here imbedded in the rock; a shell of this sort was the pilgrim's badge; but was not, it need hardly be said, respected by the fierce Almansor.

Calif in all save name, Almansor ruled supreme; whenever he went to battle—and which always ended in victory for the Moslem—he took with him forty poets to chant his praises and sing his greatness. Yet he too died, at last; with his departure began the decline of Moorish and the consequent rise of Christian power. But for more than two centuries longer the Moors were to dwell—

"Where Cordova is hidden among

The palm, the olive, and the vine;

Gem of the South, by poets sung,

And in whose mosque Almansor hung

As lamps the bells that once had rung

At Campostella's shrine."

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