February 18th, 2009

Remembering a vanished Caliphate

An anniversary has just gone by and, so far as I can see, almost nobody has noticed. A thousand years ago last Sunday night, a coup d'état took place in one of the main centres of civilisation in Europe. The results of the coup destroyed not only the people it had been launched against but the people who launched it and, over the next few years, the state for control of which the two groups were contending. The city in which the coup was launched would be left in ruins, and the civilisation of which it had been the centre had received a blow from which it would never recover - even though it lasted for several more centuries and had many of its greatest intellectual and artistic achievements to come.

The city was Cordoba, and the coup had two immediate results - the deposition of Caliph Hisham II by his cousin Muhammad, and the complete destruction of the Madinat al-Zahira, one of two large palace complexes just outside Cordoba (and not to be confused with the other, Madinat al-Zahra, which would also be destroyed a few years later but some remains of which still exist today). For anyone who knows Spanish (or, like me, can just about struggle with it), there is a fuller account of that night's events here - one of a series of blog posts that are apparently covering episodes of the story a millenium after they happened.

While the deposition of Hisham was important, it was actually almost a side-issue in terms of the real reasons for the coup - Hisham had reigned for over thirty years but never ruled. For most of this time, the actual ruler had been a man who had risen from a relatively humble background, Muhammad ibn Abi Aamir, better known as al-Mansur, who had died in 1002. al-Mansur had been succeeded in turn by two of his sons - al-Muzaffar who had died the previous October and now Abd al-Rahman, nicknamed Sanchuelo after his maternal grandfather, King Sancho II of Navarre. Since his succession, Sanchuelo had been busy - he had persuaded Hisham to proclaim him as heir apparent to the Caliphate and was now away on a mid-winter jihad against the Christian kingdom of Leon. The coup had been carefully timed to take place as he crossed into Leon - at least to Hisham's Ummayad relatives, the ostensible piety of the jihad was clearly invalidated by his all but blasphemous attempt to become Caliph.

The next post in the Spanish series I mentioned above will presumably appear the week after next - as Sanchuelo hurries back to Cordoba but never reaches it...