Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

Abderrahman the Third

A.D. 850-961

The second Abderrahman died before Eulogius, leaving Spain in disorder, through his weakness as a ruler. He was followed by his son Mohammed; he by his son Mundhir, who was assassinated; and he by his brother Abdallah, who reigned twenty-four years, and died in 912.

During all these reigns the power of the Caliph was gradually dissolving. Almost all Andalusia had risen in revolt and driven out the Caliph's officers. Seville declared its independence. Saragossa defied the Caliph. Jaen was in the bands of the Berbers. Granada was seized by Christians, who challenged the Moors to attack them. Toledo was up in arms again. All Marcia, Estremadura, Algarve, had thrown off the Moorish yoke. In the whole of the empire which had been ruled from Cordova, that city alone obeyed the orders of the Caliph, and there poverty reigned by his side. There was no money to pay troops, and the people had none to buy bread. Meanwhile the new chiefs of cities and provinces made incessant war on each other, and quite often raided the suburbs of Cordova. Matters were in this shocking condition when Abdallah died, and his throne fell to his grandson, Abderrahman the Third, a boy of twenty-one.

Young as he was, he was full of vigor. He called upon the rebels against his authority to lay down their arms, marched against those who hesitated, and beat them in the field. Town after town, district after district submitted. They had tried rebellion for fifty years, and as its chief result had been to hand over their vineyards and orchards and wheat-fields to bands of robbers, who destroyed more than they consumed, they concluded it did not pay. Even the Christians of Granada felt that no caliph could be as bad as the bandit chiefs, who, whenever their purses or their larders were empty, raided the nearest town for fresh supplies. The last place to submit was Toledo, which the young caliph beleaguered and starved into surrender.

Then Abderrahman returned to Cordova, prepared to reign in peace. It had taken him eighteen years to put the rebels down.

But he had other enemies on his hands whom he could not put down; these were the Christians of the North. Portions of the slopes of the Cantabrians, in Galicia, the Asturias, Leon, Old Castile, and Navarre had never been conquered outright by the Moors; here and there bands of Christians, feeding flocks in the mountains, had never surrendered their independence, and fought the Moors whenever they could get at them. They were rude and rough; they could neither read nor write; they gave no quarter in battle; but their courage was dauntless, and their perseverance inexhaustible.

One of these barbarians, whose name was Pelayo, shut himself up in the cleft of a steep mountain in the Asturias, and defied the Moors to take him. He had thirty men and ten women all told; they lived in a cave in the cleft, which could only be reached by a ladder of ninety steps. A Moorish general said:

"What are thirty barbarians perched on a rock? They must inevitably die."

They did die, of course, as all men must; but before they died they gathered round them armies of Christians from the rocky steeps of Northern Spain, poured down under old Pelayo into the valleys of Castile, and when they met the Moors in battle the Crescent was often routed and the Cross victorious. The war began before Abderrahman had been two years on his throne. It lasted, with some intervals of peace, till a few years before his death. It was a shocking and a cruel war. After some years of fighting—neither side asked nor gave quarter—and after each battle women and children were sold into slavery, simply on the ground of their religion. The generals who began the fifty years' fighting on both sides died in the course of nature; but other generals took their place, and the war went on. The net result was that before Abderrahman's death the Christians were masters of all Northern Spain, and had pushed the Moors south of the Guadarrama Mountains. The valleys of the Douro and of the upper Ebro, as well as the cities of Zamorra, Salamanca, Segovia, Tarazona, and Tudela were in their hands, and the great work of the expulsion of the Moors had begun.

I must now tell you something of the city of Cordova in the time of Abderrahman the Third. It was a fine city under Abderrahman the First. But it was the third caliph of the name who made it one of the wonders of the world. According to the ancient historians, it stretched ten miles along the river Guadalquiver, and for this distance the banks were lined with houses of white marble, mosques, and gardens, in which Eastern trees and plants grew luxuriantly, watered by irrigating ditches.


Restoration of the Mosque at Cordova.

It is now a dead town, with about fifty thousand people in it, most of whom are poor and ignorant; it is the chief city of a miserable district. Then it was surrounded by a strong wall, on which square or octagonal towers rose at intervals; parts of the wall still endure, and you can overlook the country from the turf on their top. A thousand years ago, we are told, from the summit of these towers twelve thousand towns or villages could be counted in the valley of the Guadalquivir.

At that time the Arab writers say that Cordova contained a million people, two hundred thousand houses, six hundred mosques, nine hundred public baths, many thousand palaces of the nobility, and a number of royal palaces with poetic names, such as the Palace of Flowers, the Palace of Lovers, the Palace of Contentment. These palaces opened on gardens in front, and on the river in the rear; carpeted passages hung with jewelled lamps connected them with mosques, in which the Sultan and his family paid their devotions to God. The ceilings were supported by pillars of many-colored marble and porphyry, and the floors were mosaic.

The great mosque of Cordova, which devout Moslems from all parts of Asia and Africa came to pray in, was probably the grandest religious temple in the world. Its roof was light and elegant, and was supported by a forest of pillars of different colors. There were over twelve hundred of them, each with silver lamps kept constantly burning, and some with jewelled cornices. When the Catholics took possession of Cordova they pulled down many of the pillars and stripped the others of their lamps and ornaments. But enough remains to show what it was.

The finest of the palaces was built in honor of the CaČliph's pet wife, Ez-Zabra. The Arab writers say that Abderrahman kept ten thousand men and four thousand horses working on the building for twenty-five years. It contained fifteen thousand doors of brass or iron. In the centre of the Caliph's Hall was a lake of quicksilver, which was set in motion by a spring. When it moved it flashed rays of light like lightning, and dazzled the eye. To wait upon the queen in this palace we are told that there were thirteen thousand male servants and six thousand females. The terraces and balls and pavilions and flower-gardens were past numbering. Into one fish-pond it is said that twelve thousand loaves of bread were flung daily to feed the fish. In the main court-room stood a throne glittering with gold and gems. On the mosaic floors were Persian rugs, and silken portieres veiled the bronze doors. I am not sure that you can believe all these stories; but however this may be, you may feel sure that Cordova was the centre of art, science, and industry. It contained doctors who understood anatomy and medical science, astronomers who knew all that was known of the skies before Galileo and Kepler, learned botanists, profound philosophers, exquisite poets. Some of the poetry of the Cordova bards is delightful. In architecture and bronze work the Cordovans of the tenth century have not been surpassed to this day.

The working-men of Cordova were expert silk-weavers and skilled potters. They carved admirably on silver and bronze. They made a steel which was not surpassed at Toledo. In some of the museums in Europe you will see marvellous sword-hilts made at Cordova at a time when our ancestors fought with stone hatchets.

These various attractions drew travellers to Cordova from every part of the world. We hear of an ambassador who was taken by the Caliph to see the Ez-Zabra palace, and who fainted at the sight of such an accumulation of splendors. The great college was thronged with students from every country in Europe; they found professors there who could address each of them in his own language. It was indeed the only place in Europe w here a seeker after knowledge could obtain a good education.


Garden of the Alcazar, Cordova.

Its glories did not last long. Fifty years after the death of Abderrahman the Third an army of Castilians and Berbers stormed Cordova, and pillaged it for several days. Thousands of magnificent buildings were burned, among others the palace of Ez-Zabra, which was thoroughly robbed before it was fired. Nothing was destroyed by the flames except that which could not be carried away. So one generation undid the work of a preceding generation, and after a century or more knowledge and civilization found themselves just where they had been at the beginning.

If you wonder, as perhaps you may, at a nation which had made such progress in art and science being as bigoted in matters of religion as both Moors and Christians were in the time of Abderrahman the Third, you must remember that, in the country of your forefathers, in the very year that the Caliph was putting Christians to death in Northern Spain, an English priest dragged a young king from the altar at which he was being married to the lady of his love, and that this same lady, who was virtuous and beautiful, was shortly afterwards murdered by the order of an archbishop. The bigotry, you see, was not in the race, but in the times.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Flora and Mary  |  Next: The Great Vizier
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.