A new dynasty came to the throne of the caliphs of Damascus in 750. The line of the Ommeyades, who had held the throne since the days of the Prophet Mohammed, was overthrown, and the line of the Abbassides began. Abdullah, the new caliph, bent on destroying every remnant of the old dynasty, invited ninety of its principal adherents to a banquet, where they were set upon and brutally murdered. There followed a scene worthy of a savage. The tables were removed, carpets were spread over the bleeding corpses, and on these the viands were placed, the guests eating their dinner to the dismal music of the groans of the dying victims beneath.
The whole country was now scoured for all who were connected with the fallen dynasty, and wherever found they were brutally slain; yet despite the vigilance of the murderers a scion of the family of the Ommeyades escaped. Ahdurrahman, the princely youth in question, was fortunately absent from Damascus when the order for his assassination was given. Warned of his proposed fate, he gathered what money and jewels he could and fled for his life, following little-used paths until he reached the banks of the Euphrates. But spies were on his track and descriptions of him had been sent to all provinces. He was just twenty years old, and, unlike the Arabians in general, had a fair complexion and blue eyes, so that he could easily be recognized, and it seemed impossible that he could escape.
His retreat on the Euphrates was quickly discovered, and the agents of murder were so hot upon his track that he was forced to spring into the river and seek for safety by swimming. The pursuers reached the banks when the fugitives were nearly half-way across, Abdurrahman supporting his son, four years of age, and Bedr, a servant, aiding his thirteen-year-old brother. The agents of the caliph called them back, saying that they would not harm them, and the boy, whose strength was giving out, turned back in spite of his brother's warning. When Abdurrahman reached the opposite bank, it was with a shudder of horror that he saw the murder of the boy, whose head was at once cut off. That gruesome spectacle decided the question of his trusting himself to the mercy of the caliph or his agents.
The life of the fugitive prince now became one of unceasing adventure. He made his way by covert paths towards Egypt, wandering through the desert in company with bands of Bedouins, living on their scanty fare, and constantly on the alert against surprise. Light sleep and hasty flittings were the rule with him and his few attendants as they made their way slowly westward over the barren sands, finally reaching Egypt. Here he was too near the caliph for safety, and he kept on westward to Barca, where he hoped for protection from the governor, who owed his fortunes to the favor of the late caliph.
He was mistaken. Ibn Habib, the governor of Barca, put self-interest above gratitude, and made vigorous efforts to seize the fugitive, whom he hoped to send as a welcome gift to the cruel Abdullah. The life of the fugitive was now one of hair-breadth escapes. For five years he remained in Barca, disguised and under a false name, yet in almost daily peril of his life. On one occasion a band of pursuers surrounded the tent in which he was and advanced to search it. His life was saved by Tekfah, the wife of the chief; who hid him under her clothes. When, in later years, he came to power, he rewarded the chief and his wife richly for their kindly aid.
On another occasion a body of horse rode into the village of tents in which he dwelt as a guest and demanded that he should be given up. The handsome aspect and gentle manner of the fugitive had made the tribesmen suspect that they were the hosts of a disguised prince; he had gained a sure place in their hearts, and they set the pursuers on a false scent. Such a person was with them, they said, but he had gone with a number of young men on a lion hunt in a neighboring mountain valley and would not return until the next evening. The pursuers at once set off for the place mentioned, and the fugitive, who had been hidden in one of the tents, rode away in the opposite direction with his slender train.
Leaving Barca, he journeyed farther westward over the desert, which at that point comes down to the Mediterranean. Finally Tahart was reached, a town within the modern Algeria, the seat of the Beni Rustam, a tribe which gave him the kindliest welcome. To them, as to the Barcans, he seemed a prince in disguise. Near by was a tribe of Arabs named the Nefezah, to which his mother had belonged, and from which he hoped for protection and assistance. Reaching this, he told his rank and name, and was welcomed almost as a king, the tribesmen, his mother's kindred, paying him homage, and offering their aid to the extent of their ability in the ambitious scheme which he disclosed.
This was an invasion of Spain, which at that time was a scene of confusion and turmoil, distracted by rival leaders, the people exhausted by wars and quarrels, many of their towns burned or ruined, and the country ravaged by famine. What could be better than for the heir of the illustrious house of Ommeyades, flying from persecution by the Abbassides, and miraculously preserved, to seek the throne of Spain, bring peace to that distracted land, and found an independent kingdom in that western section of the vast Arabian empire?
His servant, Bedr, who had kept with him through all his varied career and was now his chief officer, was sent to Spain on a secret mission to the friends of the late dynasty of caliphs, of whom there were many in that land. Bedr was highly successful in his mission. Yusuf, the Abbasside emir, was absent from Cordova and ignorant of his danger, and all promised well. Not waiting for the assistance promised him in Africa, the prince put to sea almost alone. As he was about to step on board his boat a number of Berbers gathered round and showed an intention to prevent his departure. They were quieted by a handful of dinars and he hastened on board,—none too soon, for another band, greedy for gold, rushed to the beach, some of them wading out and seizing the boat and the camel's-hair cable that held it to the anchor. These fellows got blows instead of dinars, one, who would not let go, having his hand cut off by a sword stroke. The edge of a scimitar cut the cable, the sail was set, and the lonely exile set forth upon the sea to the conquest of a kingdom. It was evening of a spring day of the year 756 that the fugitive prince landed near Malaga, in the land of Andalusia, where some prominent chiefs were in waiting to receive him with the homage due to a king.
Hundreds soon flocked to the standard of the adventurer, whose manly and handsome presence, his beaming blue eyes, sweet smile, and gracious manner won him the friendship of all whom he met. With steadily growing forces he marched to Seville. Here were many of his partisans, and the people flung open the gates with wild shouts of welcome. It was in the month of May that the fortunes of Abdurrahman were put to the test, Yusuf having hastily gathered a powerful force and advanced to the plain of Musarah, near Cordova, on which field the fate of the kingdom was to be decided.
It was under a strange banner that Abdurrahman advanced to meet the army of the emir,—a turban attached to a lance-head. This standard afterwards became sacred, the turban, as it grew ragged, being covered by a new one. At length the hallowed old rags were removed by an irreverent hand, "and from that time the empire of the Beni Ummeyah began to decline."
We may briefly conclude our tale. The battle was fierce, but Abdurrahman's boldness and courage prevailed, and the army of Yusuf in the end gave way, Cordova becoming the victor's prize. The generous conqueror gave liberty and distinction to the defeated emir, and was repaid in two years by a rebellion in which he had an army of twenty thousand men to meet. Yusuf was again defeated, and now lost his life.
Thus it was that the fugitive prince, who had saved his life by swimming the Euphrates under the eyes of an assassin band, became the Caliph of the West, for under him Spain was cut loose from the dominion of the Abbassides and made an independent kingdom, its conqueror becoming its first monarch under the title of Abdurrahman I.
Almansur, then the Caliph of the East, sought to recover the lost domain, sending a large army from Africa, but this was defeated with terrible slaughter by the impetuous young prince, who revenged himself by sending the heads of the general and many of his officers to the caliph in bags borne by merchants, which were deposited at the door of Almansur's tent during the darkness of the night. The finder was cautioned to be careful, as the bags contained treasure So they were brought in to the caliph, who opened them with his own hand. Great was his fury and chagrin when he saw what a ghastly treasure they contained. "This man is the foul fiend in human form," he exclaimed. "Praised be Allah that he has placed a sea between him and me."