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

The Great Vizier

A.D. 961-1002

Abderrahman the third was succeeded as Caliph by his son Hacam, who was a scholar. He reigned fifteen years, but these years he devoted to study to the neglect of his empire; thus, though he collected a library of four, or, as some say, six hundred thousand manuscripts, at a time when other libraries were thought rich with five hundred; and though he established schools everywhere, so that every Andalusian could read and write, he was not a successful ruler. At his death his son, Hisham the Second, a boy of twelve, became caliph; and the real power passed into the hands of his mother, Aurora, and an exceedingly able minister of hers, who is known in history as Almanzor.

This was the son of a Cordova lawyer. He had studied at the college, and on graduating became a letter-writer for the court. Sultana Aurora took a fancy to him, and through her favor and his own address he rose from post to post until, at the age of thirty two or three, he was prefect of Cordova and general in the army. He had had no training in arms, but luck favored him, and he conducted two successful campaigns against the Christians of the North. On his return he was so strict in enforcing the law as prefect that when his own son committed a crime the stern father had him beaten to death with rods. It did not take him long to convince the Caliph that he would be far happier among the ladies of the harem than at the Council Board; and then Almanzor became ruler of Spain.


The archway of St. Mary at Burgos.

He was the most vigorous and unscrupulous ruler that country had had for many, many years. Those who stood in his way mysteriously died. He made himself friends with the high-church party by burning books which in the smallest degree questioned the Moslem faith. He kept the working-class quiet by giving them employment on new buildings. He endeared himself to the army by giving then full license to plunder the enemy; thus he always had full ranks, and many Christians served under his flag. He became popular with the people by winning victories and extending the empire. He conquered a large piece of Northern Africa, and during his time the Christians of Northern Spain were pushed back again towards the Cantabrians and the Bay of Biscay.

Twice a year, spring and fall, he made war on the Christians. He took Leon, and pulled down its walls and towers. He captured Barcelona. He defeated the Christians at Castile and Navarre. He even seized Santiago in Galicia, where the famous shrine of St. James of Compostella was. When his army reached the shrine they found the church empty. Only a single monk was seen, kneeling.

"What dost thou here?" said a Moorish officer. "I pray," said the old monk.

And they spared him.

His soldiers had absolute trust in him. At a battle they were driven back, with the Christians at their heels; Almauzor leaped from the high seat he had occupied, and bending head to earth, covered his hair with dust, in token of shame and sorrow; at which sight the troops turned on the enemy, attacked them furiously, and routed them.

Another time the Christians cut off his retreat, and made sure of his surrender. He coolly collected lumber and farm tools, built houses, and began to plant seeds. When the Christians inquired what this meant, he told them that he intended to stay where he was, and to intrench, as the next campaign would begin in a few weeks. Upon which the men of the North, not being minded to encourage so uncongenial a neighbor, made haste to open the way for his retreat south.

The Christians learned to fear him. In the Kingdom of Navarre was a Moslem woman who was kept a prisoner. Almanzor sent word to the king that she must be given up, and instantly. The king did not lose a day in setting her free, with many apologies.

Almanzor was a man of iron nerve. When he was sitting at the council-chamber one day the councillors noticed the smell of burning flesh, and looked round inquiringly.

"It is nothing," said Almanzor; "my surgeon"—pointing to a man kneeling at his feet—"is cauterizing my leg with a red-hot iron."

If Almanzor had lived, and had been succeeded by men of his fibre, I am afraid that the Christians would have found the expulsion of the Moors more difficult than they did. He was a born soldier, and a statesman of genius; but such men do not often bequeath their qualities to their successors.

A day came when Almanzor was taken ill on one of his campaigns and died. A monk, who wrote the history of these times, disposed of the event in few words. He wrote: "In 1002, Almanzor died, and was buried in hell."

At his death a son of his took the title of Vizier, and tried to rule; then another son tried, in his turn, with no better success. The people, dreading the old troubles which racked Spain before Abderrahman the Third, dragged the Caliph Hisham out of his harem and insisted that he should exert his authority. He was no longer young, and had been living thirty years among women and eunuchs. He entreated them to let him alone, protesting that he knew nothing about government, and only wanted to lead a quiet life with his ladies and his books and his music. I am afraid that the poor old creature was roughly handled by some of his Moorish friends, who thought that vigorous measures might restore his energy; but it was all to no purpose. The caliph was like a baby.

He was allowed to return to his harem, where he remained several years, while caliph succeeded caliph, and each was murdered in turn. One of them, whose name was also Hisham, had a very sad fate. He was dragged from his throne by the guards and thrust into a dark dungeon under the mosque, with his wives and his only child. Sometimes the jailers forgot to bring him food. When the council of the chiefs had decided what was to be done with him, their messenger found him clasping his little child to his breast, with his wives all in rags and shivering with cold standing round him. At sight of the jailers he begged piteously for bread. Food was brought, and he was told that he was to be removed to a fortress in the mountains. He made no objection. "But I hope," he said, "that there will be a window, or at least a candle, in the prison. It is dreadful to he in the dark."

After many changes the people of Cordova remembered old Hisham the Second, and they pulled him out of his harem and told him he must be caliph once more. But the old man's mind was quite gone; he could only laugh in a half-witted way, and say he would do whatever they wanted. So they locked him up in a prison, and whether he died there or escaped, as one story says, and lived out his life in some friend's house, I do not know.

The Empire of Cordova ended with Abderrahman the Third and Almanzor. After them no Moor could control he quarrelsome chiefs, and the history of Spain for nearly live hundred years is an endless story of war.

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