Linking al-Andalus: approaches separated by a millennium

I started working on Catalonia mainly because it was a frontier zone, and though I identify as a Carolingianist if I can get away with it, it has to be said that the reason I knew anything about the area at all was because of having done a paper on Muslim Spain as an undergraduate. I don’t read Arabic (a salutation here to the friend and Arabist who occasionally helps me with it) but it is, all the same, important to have some kind of idea what the other side of the frontier was like, especially given that what first interested me in the area was the space in between the two sides, which could therefore be some of either. So I read stuff about al-Andalus, which you probably know is the Arabic name for Muslim Spain, when it passes my way.

the first Cordoban Caliph

Cover of Maribel Fierro's 'Abd al-Rahman III: the first Cordoban Caliph

So recently I’ve just finished Maribel Fierro’s cAbd al-Rahman III: the first Cordoban Caliph (Oxford 2005), which is a slim little biography in a series called Makers of the Muslim World. It does the man reasonable credit, as far as I’m any judge. The narrative sections are a little awkward, but not at all bad when you consider the author was writing in at least her second language. Only twice, both in the same chapter, is the grammar or syntax anything less than fine, and there I think bad editing had lost words. The thematic chapters are stronger, though, quite subtle settings-out of the propaganda war with the rival Fatimid caliphs in what is now Tunisia that provided the context for cAbd al-Rahman’s adoption of the caliphal title in 929, of the differing currents of religious opinion, and of how the ruler operated so as to maintain his position and reputation (his rule, from 912-961, was one of the longest of any medieval Islamic ruler). This means that the cultural sphere is treated rather better than the political one, but for that there are better books (which Fierro’s bibliography directs you to).

I spent most of the first half of the volume twitching every time I came across the phrase “the sources tell us…” though. The sources for the Umayyad court are as or more problematic as those for the Carolingian court, in that they were mostly generated by or for that court, and therefore give us very little sense of what the opposition thought they were doing; also, in the Andalusi case, the key ones largely exist only in much later manuscripts or extracts, less faithful than is sometimes claimed, by other authors. The former problem, Fierro does address in an appendix, though not so as to solve it (no-one else has, after all) ; the latter one she doesn’t really touch. In the end, one has to reach the appendix before we know that she knows the problems and has made her decision about what can be used, but the keen critic might wish that she explained the basis for this decision in a few more places in the text. That, and a rather butterfly touch in arrangement which repeatedly sidetracks the reader somewhere unhelpful before resuming a theme, are the only criticisms I’d really raise against a neat little book that does a reasonable job of explaining why cAbd al-Rahman III al-Nasir and the title he took mattered in his world.

The ruins of Abd al-Rahmans palace city at Madinat al-Zahra

The ruins of 'Abd al-Rahman's palace city at Madinat al-Zahra'

Actually, the two things I was most interested to learn (though, you know, I did know some of it) were not so much to do with his actions. Firstly, something I had read before but I’d forgotten, his mother was a Basque princess, so this leader of the Arabic world was blond and fair-skinned. The only reason that this mattered to anyone was that the Fatimids could claim descent from Arabian caliphs on both sides of their family; the Christian mother was no greater a stigma than a fully-Islamic woman from Egypt would have been. Skin colour just wasn’t the issue. It’s always timely to be reminded that some parts of the medieval world really didn’t bother with ethnicity-by-birth the way we have been trained to avoid.

The other thing was nothing to do with him at all, but with his son al-Hakam, who eventually succeeded him as caliph, but in his considerable adult life as heir apparent mainly busied himself with books. He was a great patron of learning, much treated therefore in poetry and history especially by Ahmad and Isa’ al-Razi, father and son chroniclers. His library was immense, and so since we know that a copy of Orosius’s Histories against the Pagans was brought to al-Andalus and translated by his order into Arabic so that he could read it, it has been suggested that the surviving Arabic text that we have of Orosius, which adds a short chronicle about Visigothic Spain, was al-Hakam’s own work. (Fierro mentions the possibility, which is why it comes up now). It sounds bizarre, but he did collect the sort of texts that might have enabled him to do it. And one of them was Catalan. (This is the point at which Simon MacLean, with whom I’ve been discussing this text by e-mail, can stop reading, because he saw this musing already…)

In 940, you see, Bishop Godmar II of Girona was part of an embassy sent by his master Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona to negotiate peace with the caliph now that a rebellion in Saragossa was over that had permitted Sunyer to start taking tribute from a couple of Andalusi cities. That stopped, though as I’ve mentioned this didn’t stop them taking over Tarragona as soon as cAbd al-Rahman III took the pressure off. But in 940 it was important to win favour, and so among the gifts that were taken south Godmar added a work of his own, a Book of Histories of the Kings of the Franks. Unfortunately a very garbled list of kings given by the Iraqi traveller and historian al-Mas cUdi, who died in 957 and so must have seen a copy very close to al-Hakam’s own, is all that remains of it. (The article on him in Wikipedia says he saw it in Egypt, but also thinks Godmar was an Andalusi, so I doubt its fact-checking.) This is immensely frustrating, because I (and probably others) would absolutely love to know how a Catalan bishop in the days of early seigneurial takeover saw his notional royal masters. Alas, it is lost.

The improvements made by al-Hakam II (as Caliph) to the Mosque of Córdoba

The improvements made by al-Hakam II (as Caliph) to the Mosque of Córdoba

Just take one more moment to tease out the implications, though. Godmar presumably thought that such a present wouldn’t be considered a snub, but would instead be greeted with interest. Al-Hakam’s reputation must therefore have been known in Catalonia; was Godmar in touch with scholars in Córdoba? Whom did he meet when he went there? Did this amateur historian meet the professionals like the Razis? Could they converse? Was his Arabic or their Latin good enough? Did he see the embassy more as a chance to meet scholars, or was he trying to show that he was good enough to walk into a court he knew was full of them? And bear in mind too, that al-Hakam wasn’t caliph yet, his father would rule for twenty more years. So if someone brings a present that al-Hakam will love (and apparently allow to be copied), does that mean that the son has his father’s especial ear, or that cAbd al-Rahman himself was an antiquarian of sorts, or that Godmar was just touchingly naïf? So many little possibilities hang off this book that, like Fierro’s, tried to translate one culture for the enlightenment of its neighbours…

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2 responses to “Linking al-Andalus: approaches separated by a millennium

  1. How the hell is it that you have time to post stuff like this when I can’t even find my damned lecture notes? *headdesk* And could you please re-send you e-mail about Leeds? I can’t find it. Cheers!

  2. You shall have the mail; as for the time, well, truth be told I don’t really have it, or at least, there are certainly other things I should do with it. But, especially after reading something difficult or exciting, writing something about it for general consumption turns out to be a useful way of verbalising and therefore completing my understanding of it.

    What this means, however, is that the readership is about to get a bit deluged in “Jon’s been reading again” posts… When I have the time to write them, anyway!

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