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Arab Spain’s poet king

I was barely aware of my fellow passengers as my daughter and I waited near Jamaa el Fna, Marrakesh’s most famous square, for our bus to begin on its way to Aghmat – a Berber village some 33 km (20 mi) away. Our goal was the tomb of the Andalusian poet-king al-Mu’tamid ibn ‘Abbad located in that town. Now on the bus, like the other passengers, I was in Morocco, but unlike the other travellers, I was in another world.

My mind had strayed back to the 11th century when this Moorish monarch’s court in Seville was the resort of lovers, poets, musicians and all types of literary men. Even as the bus began to move, my thoughts did not stray away from al-Mu’tamid’s world of love, splendour and tragedy. My thoughts were back in history, to the time when Arab Spain was at the zenith of its cultural flowering – the era when al- Mu’tamid ibn ‘Abbad was Seville’s poet-king.

After the fading away of the illustrious Umayyad caliphate in the 11th century, Arab Spain broke up into two-dozen paltry states – dubbed by some writers as ‘turbaned Italian republics’. They were ruled by petty-monarchs who came to be known as muluk al-tawa’if. Year after year, they bickered or fought each other in an endless series of trivial wars. At the same time, the usually quarrelling Christian states in the north were uniting and beginning to occupy parts of Arab Spain, putting into motion the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Strange as it may seem, this did not serve as a unifying incentive for the Arab mini-states. Their rulers continued on their merry ways, paying tribute to the Christians and warring against each other – at times with the help of their northern enemies.

Yet, even with all this turbulence, this was Moorish Spain’s finest cultural era – a time of affluence and literary accomplishments. The rulers of Badajoz, Granada, Zaragoza, Seville, Toledo and other city-states who had inherited the grandeur of Umayyad Spain filled their towns with majestic palaces and enchanted gardens. Even when feuding or vying for political dominance, they tried to attract to their courts the most renowned of entertainers, poets and scholars. Each state became a little earthly delight, living in a world of make-believe, unaware of the northern armies pounding at their gates.

Of all these petty kingdoms, Seville, under the ‘Abbadids, was militarily and culturally the most formidable. Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Isma’il ibn ‘Abbad (1013 to 1042 A.D.), the founder of this dynasty, was noted for his wise rule and literary attributes. He was succeeded by his son al-Mu’tadid (1042-68), who was a genuine patron of literature and the arts, and a poet in his own right. However, he was feared for his tyrannical ways. His offspring, al-Mu’tamid (1068-91) the third and last successor of the ‘Abbadid dynasty, surpassed his two ancestors: in courage, magnanimity and composition of poetry. Histories of Moorish-Spain are permeated with praises for this enlightened prince who was to occupy the throne for 23 event-filled years.

Seville's Giralda - Minaret of a former mosque

Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn ‘Abbad al-Mu’tamid (also known as Mu’tamid ‘ala Allah, az-Zafir and al-Mu’ayyad Abu ‘1-Qasim), a contemporary of England’s William the Conqueror, was born in 1040 at Beja near Seville. He became famous for his poetry, especially the love odes to his wife I’timad, a former slave girl called ar-Rumaikiya, who he showered with love and precious gifts.

A great and tragic figure who surrounded his life with a halo of romance and legend he tasted both the joys and bitterness of humankind. A poet of love in his early years, he went on, in his later days of exile, to write verses of nostalgia, sorrow, suffering and deep humiliation. Ibn Bassam, a contemporary Arab bard, describes his poetry as being sweeter than the blooming calyx of odoriferous flowers and unequalled in tenderness of the soul.

When al-Mu’tamid inherited the throne, he became a protector of bards and men of letters. Besides seeking the company of musicians and intellectuals, he himself played the lute and composed delicate poetry. High-spirited and grand in his way of life, he became an outstanding representative of the 11th century Andalusian-Arab poets and is ranked with the best of Arab lyricists.

His father, in the early part of his reign, appointed him as governor of Shalb – today the Portuguese city of Silves. Here he learned the art of politics while at the same time enjoying life. He brought to court his childhood companion, Ibn ‘Ammar, a poet-adventurer whose artful verses had captured al-Mu’tamid’s heart. Lovers of the fair sex and poetry, they became close friends and enjoyed an adventurous time together. However, Ibn ‘Ammar was later to politically double-cross al-Mu’tamid and pay for this betrayal with his life.

A story is told that some years previously when al-Mu’tamid and his bosom companion Ibn ‘Ammar, whom he had also made his advisor, were walking in disguise along Seville’s river, Wadi al-Kabir (Guadalquivir), they passed a number of women washing their linen. Noting the wind rippling the surface of the river, al-Mu’tamid improvised a half verse: “The wind has spun a coat-of-mail of water “, challenging his friend to finish the second part:

Noting that Ibn ‘Ammar hesitated, one of linen-washers intervened: “What a shield it would be for battle, if it stiffened.”

Struck by her quick wit and great beauty, al-Mu’tamid bought her freedom from her master, the muleteer Rumaik ibn al-Hajjaj, and later married her. It is said that he adopted the public name al-Mu’tamid ‘ala Allah (he who counts on God) because of her name I’timad (Reliance), or as she was also known, ar-Rumaikiyya.

After the death of his father in 1068, al-Mu’tamid, at the age of 28 ascended the throne. In the next two decades, besides being a benevolent ruler and an eminent statesman, he became known for his personal noble qualities. Historians have written that he was the most chivalrous, courageous, liberal, high-minded and unselfish of all of al-Andalus’s Petty Kings and noted for his virtues of discretion, generosity and modesty.

In this early part of his reign, when all that surrounded him were prosperity and ease, he was content with life and devoted to I’timad. Submissive to her whims, he sang her verses of passion and tenderness, which reflected a deep, noble and undying love. They had a splendid life in court together and he could barely be separated from her. Once, when he was away on a military expedition, he wrote a long passionate poem to her in which he said:

Mu'tamid Gardens, Seville

“I am pining because of being separated from you,
Inebriated with the wine of my longing for you;
Crazed with the desire to be with you,
To sip your lips and to embrace you!”

Nevertheless, even though al-Mu’tamid was immersed in love and poetry, he did not neglect state affairs. He enlarged his kingdom, occupying among others cities, Cordova, Jaen and Murcia. Seville’s poet-king was in the heart of every battle and proved to be a great warrior. He is reported to have told one of his sons who was fighting by his side, “Do not fear, for death is easier than humiliation. The road of kings is from the palace to the grave.”

As a result of his conquests, he became the most powerful monarch among the Petty Kings. Yet, neither his kingdom nor any of the other small Muslim states could hold back Alfonso VI, king of Castile, León and Navarre, who had resolved to conquer the entire Iberian Peninsula.

After Alfonso occupied Toledo in 1085, he forced many of the Andalusian-Arab states, among them Seville, to pay tribute. The Muslims of Andalusia realized that if they were to survive, they had to seek help and turned to the Almoravids, the Berber rulers of North Africa. Some of the Andalusian-Arab rulers were not enthusiastic about this invitation but Alfonso’s conquering legions left them no choice. Al-Mu’tamid is reported to have said in response to the criticisms brought against him by the Petty Kings that he preferred to be a camel driver in Morocco rather than a swine herder in Castile.

The Arab kings of Seville, Badajoz and Granada sent a delegation to Marrakesh, pressing Yusuf ibn Tashufin, leader of the Almoravids, for help. Ibn Tashufin agreed and in 1086 crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with his army. At the Battle of Zallakah, near Badajoz, aided by al-Mu’tamid and the other Andalusian-Arab princes, he defeated Alfonso and liberated the Muslims from paying tribute.

During the fighting, al-Mu’tamid fought like a lion, having three chargers killed under him and receiving three severe wounds. Returning together as heroes to Seville, al-Mu’tamid and Ibn Tashufin spent some time together before the latter returned to North Africa.

No sooner had Ibn Tashufin reached his capital in Morocco, then the Petty Kingdoms returned to their squabbling ways, giving the Christians a chance to renew their attacks. The Arab kings, among them al-Mu’tamid, again travelled to Marrakesh seeking the Berber leader’s assistance. At the same time, the religious leaders of al-Andalus were petitioning Ibn Tashufin to rid them of their contending Arab monarchs who were unable to cope with the Christian onslaughts.

Ibn Tashufin returned to Andalusia in 1090 and in a short time disposed of the Party Kings, despoiled their cities and sent the rulers who were not assassinated into exile in North Africa. Only al-Mu’tamid, who had been in the forefront of those asking for Ibn Tashufin’s aid, offered serious resistance. At the last hour, Seville’s king tried to forge an alliance with Alfonso, but it was too late. After six days of onslaught, Seville surrendered in 1091 and al-Mu’tamid and his family were put in chains. Ibn Tashufin, who had come to rescue Andalusia from the Christians, instead, led its foremost king into captivity and disgrace.

The prisoners were initially taken to Meknes, then to Aghmat – the Almoravids’ first capital, located in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains in present day Morocco. During the first two years of exile, though living in utter destitution, al-Mu’tamid enjoyed some personal freedom, but poetry was his only solace. He often reminisced in verse about his beloved Seville. In one of these poems, he reflects:

“I wonder whether I ever shall spend a night
With flower gardens and water pools around me.”

As time went on, al-Mu’tamid mourned his pitiful existence in fine verse, lamenting his cruel captivity. Remorseful, he decried the misery of his family that had fallen from the pinnacle of happiness and power to the depths of poverty and debasement. When al-Mu’tamid’s and I’timad’s last remaining son, ‘Abd al-Jabbar, in 1093, revolted in al-Andalus, they greeted the insurrection with hope and joy. Ibn Tashufin feared that al-Mu’tamid would try to escape and had him put in fetters.

Mu'tamid's tomb, Aghmat

The rebellion was broken after a few months and the son killed. Constantly grieving over the loss of her offspring and the sad condition of life in Aghmat, I’timad became very ill and died shortly afterwards. In 1095, Al-Mu’tamid, still in chains and overwhelmed with grief for his beloved, passed away in abject destitution at the age of 55.

I was still reminiscing about this poet-prince who represents the epitome of the brilliance of Arab culture, when approximately 30 km (19 mi) from Marrakesh, we turned to the left on a narrow road. In about 5 minutes we were in the village of Aghmat, boasting in al-Mu’tamid’s time medrasas (schools) and royal tombs.

Now, all we could see were the modest reddish adobe homes of the townspeople. As we walked from the bus stop, every one beamed when we asked the way to al-Mu’tamid ibn ‘Abbad’s tomb. Not one person seemed surprised that strangers had come to visit the village’s most famous site.

As it has been for many centuries, his mausoleum is still well known and frequented by travellers. The romantic aura of Seville’s lyricist-king has drawn visitors from the day Ibn Tashufin brought him a prisoner to Aghmat.

Standing inside the mausoleum, newly renovated in 1991, I surveyed the three gravestones: those of al-Mu’tamid and I’timad, divided by that of one of their daughters. Turning, I saw tears flowing from my daughter’s eyes as she gazed on the graves of the once proud and powerful king of Seville and the ones he loved. Seeing her tears, I remembered the words of the traveller who wrote, “people weep for him still.”

A few moments later, my own eyes watered, recalling the words of the poet Ibn Bakr, who after kissing al-Mu’tamid’s crypt, recited a long poem which included these verses:

“Oh king of kings, do you hear? May I address you?
or do these circumstances not allow you to hear?

Back in Marrakesh, the bus let us off besides a mausoleum-like building. Stopping a passer by, I asked, “What is this structure?” He smiled, responding, “It’s the tomb of Ibn Tashufin – the hero of our nation.” I could barely hold back the tears. Hero he might be to some people but, to me, he was the one who humiliated Arab Spain’s most brilliant literary mind and had him die in chains.

Some years later inside Seville’s Alcázar, once al-Mu’tamid’s palace, the city put on a week of entertainment, honouring its poet king. After the entertainment, like al-Mu’tamid must have done many times, I rested under the garden’s shady trees and thought of the sad fate of that poet-king. He might not be honoured in the land in which he is buried, but here in his city he is still fondly remembered.

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