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The Muslim Warlord Still Haunting Spain by Alberto M. Fernandez

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Essay

The Muslim Warlord Still Haunting Spain

The Statue of Almanzor is a 2002 statue by Mariano Roldán depicting the medieval Islamic Spanish ruler Almanzor. It depicts Almanzor with a Qur'an in his right hand and a sword in the left. It originally sat in what are now believed to be Christian ruins in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras. It was removed in 2013 and has yet to be reinstalled.

Photo: Falconaumanni—Creación Propia, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia.

The bronze statue was installed in 2002 in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras. It commemorates a great Spanish historical figure, particularly famed on the battlefield, who was born near the city long ago. But this was not a great conqueror of the New World like Hernan Cortes or Pizarro or a famed commander of Spain’s Golden Age, like Don Juan of Austria or the Great Captain Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba. His name was Abu Amr Muhammad Ibn Abi Amr who took the name Al-Mansur (the Victorious) and who is known in Spanish history as Almanzor. The sculpture was placed in the Archeological Park of the Marinid Walls which preserves what remains of the city’s Islamic walls from the 14th century. The statue installed on the one thousandth anniversary of Almanzor’s death and sculpted by Mariano Roldan, shows the Muslim leader standing and holding a Qur’an in his right hand and a sword in his left.

Almanzor was certainly a great figure in his way, today little remembered outside Spain (there was a Syrian Arabic-language television serial about him in 2003). His controversial career embodies perhaps many of the contradictions and nuances of Islamic rule in Spain which, for very different reasons, are often obscured by both Muslims and Christians.

His was very much a character to be found in history, in both East and West, a man with a will to power who overcomes many obstacles on his way to (near) supreme authority. Born to a family of relatively humble means but claiming an ancient Arab pedigree dating back to the original conquest of Al-Andalus in 711, he had a religious legal training and entered the civil administration in Cordoba, in what was the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba. The Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba had existed for almost two centuries but it was only in 929, in the decade before Almanzor’s birth, that Abdel Rahman III had declared himself a Caliph. 

Almanzor proved an able civil servant and maneuvered into increasingly important positions eventually securing the position of Hajib (Chamberlain or Chief Minister, Al-Andalus’s equivalent of Wazir in the East) ruling in the name of a weak boy Caliph, Hisham II, who he controlled. Almanzor plotted and killed his rivals to gain power, supposedly scheming with Hisham’s mother Subh, a Basque slave girl who had become a royal wife. Most of Hisham’s ancestors were the sons of Spanish (originally non-Muslim and often fair-haired) slave girls or concubines. Hisham’s grandfather, the first Umayyad Caliph Abdel Rahman III, dyed his light-colored beard black to make him look less like the Christians of the North whose descendant he was, on his mother’s and grandmother’s side.

For 24 years Almanzor would wield supreme power in Al-Andalus. In a regime whose leadership was composed of Umayyad Arab nobility, with an army made up increasingly of imported Berber tribesmen and Slavic slave soldiers, Almanzor burnished his credentials through war. Muslim chronicles document 56 military campaigns led by Almanzor in person during that quarter century, most of them waged against the warring and divided Christian kingdoms and principalities of the northern Iberian peninsula—Leon, Castile, Navarre/Pamplona and Catalonia.

The Spanish polymath, Professor Ramon Grande del Brio, in his excellent 2016 book Las campañas de Almanzor notes that Almanzor’s military campaign “carried with them a devastation and death never known in the Iberian peninsula since the Islamic invasion.” For the Christians, Almanzor would be known as the “Scourge of God” or the “whip of the wrath of the Lord over the Christians.” 

Almanzor’s motivations were multi-faceted. Jihad against the infidel was a source of political and religious legitimacy (assuming one was successful in battle and he was). It is said that he never went into battle without the Qur’an he had transcribed by his own hand with him. There was also considerable loot and wealth to be acquired and distributed. It kept the Caliphate’s army, made up of rival factions, busy. And it weakened the Spanish Christian states of the North, particularly Leon, which had expanded south into the Duero valley after the defeat of the Caliph Abdel Rahman III at Simancas in 939 by King Ramiro II.

Almanzor almost never lost (in 982 he had to retreat from the gates of the city of Leon because of a fierce hail storm). Some of these many campaigns were mere raids, while others demolished cities. They often involved long trains of cavalry, camel caravans, incendiaries and siege weapons traveling long distances, a marvel of military logistics for the age. In his most celebrated (for the Muslims) victory, in 997 he led an army deep behind enemy lines—borders were not fully defended on both sides and so relatively porous—more than 900 kilometers (620 miles) to the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela. He sacked the town and destroyed its cathedral, sparing only the underground crypt containing the relics of Saint James the Great (Santiago). The cathedral’s bronze bells were taken as booty on the backs of Christian captives back to Cordoba. 

The act horrified Western Christendom as the church had already become an important medieval European pilgrimage site. Almanzor’s court poet, the celebrated Ibn Darraj al-Qastalli versified the triumph: 

Now that you have finished with the Holy Places of the Christians, now is the moment that you accompany, triumphantly, all the Muslims to the Holy Places of the East. Egypt and Kairouan await you and Hejaz longs for your arrival.

So far this narrative could be that of any Muslim conqueror and similar tales could be told of famed medieval rulers like Saladin or Baybars. But beneath the tales of Almanzor’s campaigns is an intriguing subtext which seems to subvert preconceived modern Muslim and Christian notions of what medieval warfare between the two great religions was actually like in Al-Andalus. Almanzor was a champion of Islam and wrapped himself in the mantle of jihad but he also worked with Christians—as subordinates—repeatedly when it suited him, a pattern seen on both sides of the Muslim-Christian divide in Spain for centuries, since the first decades of the Islamic presence in Iberia. 

Almanzor also warred against Muslims, including his own rebellious son Abdullah who he put to death after forcing the Christian ruler who had given Abdullah refuge to surrender him. Three of Almanzor’s early campaigns were against the veteran Muslim general, a political rival and Almanzor’s own father-in-law, Ghalib al-Siklabi (of Slavic slave soldier origin). Losing the political struggle in Cordoba, Ghalib had to switch sides and ally himself with the very Christians he had once fought in a common front against his ambitious son-in-law. After Ghalib’s death, his head was taken by Almanzor’s soldiers and nailed to a gate at Cordoba.

Some contemporary Muslims, often nationalists or Islamists, decry a history of Muslims fighting each other rather than fighting their enemies (a 2011 Al-Jazeera television documentary on “Why the Muslims Lost Al-Andalus” made this very modern point) but in Spain both Christians and Muslims fought each other and among themselves early and often. It was in 777—only 66 years after the arrival of the first Muslim army in Al-Andalus—that Muslim envoys from Islamic Zaragoza and Barcelona went to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne imploring him for help against the Umayyads. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Muslim rulers in what are now Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia regularly hired Spanish Christian knights to use as shock troops and palace guards, using Christians against Muslims. 

Almanzor’s celebrated raid on Santiago de Compostela included Christian knights, both client Christians and rebel Leonese nobles, in his ranks. Motivated by fear or greed, or both, these Christian allies accompanied him on other campaigns against their own co-religionists. Emulating the Spanish Caliphs, Almanzor took a Christian wife of noble birth, marrying the daughter of King Sancho II of Pamplona. King Sancho had been defeated in battle several times by Almanzor and despite becoming the Hajib’s father-in-law, he would be the victim of future raids. Both Sancho and his son Gonzalo personally made embassies to Almanzor in Cordoba to desperately secure a truce. Almanzor also made and unmade Christian kings, installing Bermudo II of Leon as ruler in place of his cousin.

One other unappreciated aspect for moderns about Almanzor and Cordoba, the much-lauded fabled Cordoba of coexistence between the three religions, is that in addition to being a great military leader, Almanzor was a slaver on a massive scale. Those fifty raids he led brought back wealth in the form of gold and silver, silk and brocade, looted marble, but especially many slaves. Almanzor’s army traveled with cavalry, 4,000 transport camels, and six catapults; they also traveled with manacles for the many captives taken. Some nobility and persons of note were taken to be held for ransom. But according to the Muslim chronicles, most of the captives were sabaya, women and girls.

The reported numbers are astonishing. The chronicle Dhikr bilad al-Andalus details about 233,000 slaves taken by Almanzor. Some Spanish chroniclers speak of closer to 300,000 taken. While some scholars consider those numbers, like numbers of soldiers given for specific battles in such chronicles, exaggerated there is little doubt that 10th century Umayyad Cordoba was an important slave power. Slavery existed, of course, throughout the medieval world—in Muslim, Christian, and pagan ruled states—but the slave trade was a major source of wealth in Islamic Spain. In Cordoba, there were slaves taken in Africa and also Slavic slaves trafficked by Jewish merchants across Christian Europe from what is now Ukraine. But under Almanzor the principal source of slaves, especially slave girls, was the Christian kingdoms of Northern Spain.

The flood of Christian slave girls had an unexpected but unsurprising knock-on effect on Muslim family life in Almanzor’s Al-Andalus. Men stopped marrying free Muslim women and preferred to purchase an inexpensive Christian captive as a concubine. A beautiful slave girl, from a noble Christian family, who used to cost fifty or sixty dinars now sold for only twenty dinars. If the captive was pleasing, she could be freed and married. Muslim families facing such competition had to offer richer dowries, even real estate, to secure suitable husbands for their daughters. The super abundance of slaves in Cordoba also fueled a trade extending to other parts of the Muslim world.

After two decades of victories, an aging, gouty Almanzor barely defeated a united Christian army at Cervera in 1000 A.D. Some of the Christian nobles opposing him there had once been his allies. Almanzor died two years later. The details of his death, whether or not it was after another battle that he may have lost, are poorly documented. He was succeeded by his son Abdel Malik al-Muzaffar who was succeeded in turn by his brother Abdel Rahman. In the end, the Christians had their revenge. While brave warriors, neither brother was as successful as his father. All the disputed territory regained from the Christians was quickly lost. The Spanish slave girl trade dried up, much to the despair of the flesh merchants of Cordoba.

This younger son Abdel Rahman, dubbed Sanchuelo (little Sancho), was supposedly the spitting image of his Christian grandfather, King Sancho of Pamplona. More ambitious and reckless than his father and brother, the irreligious, wine-swilling Sanchuelo was not content to rule through a puppet Caliph but sought to become Caliph himself, even though he was not of the proper Al-Quraysh lineage. He was overthrown and put to death by partisans of the Umayyads, ushering in years of civil wars among the Muslims who now called upon (and paid) Christians to help them against their Muslim rivals. Cordoba was sacked by both Christians and Muslims, Catalans and Berbers sharing in the spoils. 

That statue of Almanzor in Algeciras was removed for restoration in 2013. Not surprisingly in today’s Spain, the statue’s status became part of the domestic political debate. In 2017 Leonor Rodriguez, a city council member for the far-Left Podemos party demanded the return of the statue, accusing the ruling conservative Partido Popular in Algeciras of hiding a statue that “recalls an important part of the history of Algeciras which should form part of the life of all of the city’s inhabitants.” The local Spanish Socialists (PSOE) later claimed to have found the statue in a warehouse covered with a plastic tarp. 

One right-wing columnist in 2012 wrote of the left-wing “cult of the criminal Almanzor or the metaphor of a dead people celebrating its executioners instead of its heroes.” Another commented in 2020 that Spain shouldn’t have any statues to slavers and invaders, not just Almanzor but also the several monuments that commemorate Umayyad emirs and caliphs. He contrasted the leftist zeal for Almanzor’s statue with the progressive fervor in the wake of the George Floyd killing seeking the removal of monuments to slave owners in the United States and England. Still others noted sarcastically that the same Podemos advocating for Almanzor’s statue is zealous about trying to remove crosses in Spain and wants Christians to apologize to Muslims for the taking of Granada in 1492. In 2021, Isabel Franco, a Podemos deputy from Seville, received much media scorn when, defending multiculturalism, she called the fall of Al-Andalus, a “genocide” perpetrated by Spain’s Catholic Monarchs. Trending on Twitter, some critics called on her to “read a biography on Almanzor. You’ll be surprised.”

That polemical statue of Almanzor in the place he was born is still under wraps but there is actually a second, less known, bust of the Islamic conqueror in Spain, at a tiny hamlet (2021 population of 49 people) called Calatañazor in central Spain. That is the purported site of a legendary last battle of Almanzor, supposedly a rare defeat, if such a battle ever actually took place.

Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.

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