Blogs > Cliopatria > Cordoba: 1010, in the 20:20 of hindsight

Sep 22, 2010

Cordoba: 1010, in the 20:20 of hindsight

I have had brewing for a while a post about the rhetoric surrounding the proposed Islamic cultural center in New York near the erstwhile site of the World Trade Center.  This takes careful phrasing, because it's absurdly tempting just to give in and call it"The Ground Zero Mosque" so that people will immediately identify what I'm talking about.  This would be wrong because none of the nouns there are true, as UK columnist Charlie Brooker has pointed out in his amazed piece about the way this business is being handled in the British media:

The "Ground Zero mosque" is a genuine proposal, but it's slightly less provocative than its critics' nickname makes it sound. For one thing, it's not at Ground Zero. Also, it isn't a mosque. Wait, it gets duller.

The whole piece is worth reading, especially perhaps from within the U.S., partly for a perspective on what the situation looks like to less involved eyes, partly because of Brooker's especially blunt grade of lampoon, but also because it unwittingly harks back to a golden age in which the popular media's mission was to inform, rather than the opposite, which is as he rightly says exactly what is happening every time someone allows the GZM phrase into print or online.  I'm not sure, especially after this long as a member of Cliopatria, if there ever was such an age, but it's always bracing to meet ideas which you thought were dead, apparently still breathing.

The misinformation has however been much deeper than just the name, and some of it strays into my bailiwick because it's difficult for people to talk about Islam in hate-speech without invoking the Middle Ages.  That genuinely is, after all, when Islam can be fairly described as having been a unified politico-religious entity bent on world conquest and the subjugation of all non-believers.  That time lasted about twenty minutes in the seventh century and then the entity split into differently concerned bits, but it was there.

I mean, it's problematic that, even while their troops were rolling over late Roman North Africa and into Visigothic Spain, the Umayyad Caliphs were failing to enforce religious sanctions on the Christians they'd conquered in the East, and that repressive measures against Christians, much like Christian ones against Jews, only really cropped up when political and military fortune had ebbed again, but there's still enough truth in it to float a newspaper boat.  And it's in that light that Newt Gingrich, a figure of bewildering influence for someone outside the U.S., started talking about what Córdoba could be made to mean in this context.  His piece was ridiculous, of course, even though it didn't use the GZM phrase, and Carl Pyrdrum at Got Medieval took it down all guns blazing (as Ralph notes here) but even for Carl there were problems.  One commentator (among about fifty-fifty applause and wingnuttery) put it like this:

All that matters here is that everyone agrees on the facts, and these facts are just as Newt Gingrich stated them:

1) Cordoba was the capital city of an Islamic theocracy.

2) After their conquest of Cordoba, the Muslims built a Mosque on a site where a Church had previously been.

3) That Mosque came to be the third largest Mosque in the world....
Most of the time you can count on being right just by blindly disagreeing with Newtie. But it takes a real genius like Carl Pyrdum to prove that even that doesn't work 100% of the time.

It should be no surprise that Córdoba, as the capital of an Islamic theocracy that outstripped anywhere in the West for richness and sophistication at exactly the time the Christian countries that became modern Europe were forming up, presents a very complex face to the modern enquirer.  Obviously it can mean many things.  Compare, for example, the different senses you might get from "Venetian"; "Venetian splendor," "Venetian politics," "Venetian gondola" and "Venetian blind" all send the auditory brain to fairly different places, for me being sympathetically impressed, regretfully distasteful, annoyed by cliché and basically neutral.  Similarly we have the Córdoba mosque, but also Cordoban convivencia as picked up by Carl, Córdoba leather and (of course!) the Chrysler Cordoba as ingeniously detected in the plans by Michael Berubé.  But, there is still the basic problem that for people who know only one thing about Muslim Spain, Córdoba is where the Muslims built a mosque over a cathedral (after a century-odd of sharing the space with the Christians), whereas for the Arab world at large, as other commentators at Got Medieval pointed out, it means something quite different:

I've lived and worked in several Arab-Muslim countries in the course of a diplomatic career spanning nearly three decades.  Years before 9/11, much less the plan for this Muslim cultural center, I'd often heard Muslims describe the caliphate in Cordoba as a golden age of scholarly learning, enlightenment, and tolerance among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  In Morocco today, conferences study Maimonides and Averroes together, and celebrate Morocco's Andalusian history and culture.  I agree with one poster above that the subsequent transformation of the Cordoba mosque into a Catholic cathedral is much closer to the type of symbolic conquest gesture that Newt Gingrich wants us to read into the proposed Cordoba House name.

I'm sure this is right myself, but it doesn't stop the person who said that Gingrich is also, in some sense, right, being right too.  A third way to read Córdoba is needed.  So okay, here's one that may be new to you:  ever hear of the sack of Córdoba in 1010?

This is one of the sorrier tales of the Spanish Reconquest, and it's a tale that's very rarely told all together, because it manages to fall across the divide between the historiography of Castile, from which a unified Spain has tended to derive itself historically, and of Catalonia, some of whose inhabitants daub slogans proclaiming that"Catalunya no es Espanya" over any available surface in election seasons.  These two rarely converse historically, and so a battle that was fought between them is hard to find in the textbooks.  Such, however, this was.  By 1010, the Caliphate of Córdoba was not doing well.  Why this was would be a book in itself, but part of an answer might lie in the attempt by the caliphs, who had until 'Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir (ruled 928-961) been emirs, to raise their status and importance and decrease their vulnerability to the noble military aristocracy by their self-promotion to the caliphate, the development of an increasingly elaborate palace ceremonial, and the professionalisation of both administration and army. This had resulted, once it ceased to be superintended by a brilliant, ruthless and adult ruler, in an almost total isolation of the actual caliph from government.  Real power was by now held by military leaders, in charge of a fiscally-funded mercenary army that made itself a total terror in northern Spain for some years under its most successful hajib (roughly 'first minister'), Abu Amir Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Ibn Abi Amir, known as al-Mansur.

This, of course, provoked discontent among the Umayyad royal family (which was large and generously defined) and the traditional military groups, especially the Berber settlers, who were not much loved by the non-Berber population, because they were losing their principal sources of safety and power.  The paradox was, then, that at its military peak in the 980s this state was already becoming brittle at the foundations.  Al-Mansur's son was a fair successor to his power, but his son went one step too far in trying to obtain the succession to the caliphate in 1008; the tattered dignity of the rank was fatally damaged and a number of rival caliphs were set up, each faction raising their own forces wherever they could, and fatally weakening the defences against the state's external enemies.  Enter the Christians.

By 1010, the contendors for the highest office were as follows.  First, there was Hisham II, the leading Umayyad, who had ruled as caliph from 976 (when he was ten) till 1009; it was him whom the hajib 'Abd al-Rahman Sanchuelo had persuaded to name him as heir.  This had caused outrage and a rising by another Umayyad, Muhammad II, in defence of the dynasty.  Muhammad II, who took the title al-Mahdi, was the second contender, and his coup of 1009 had succeeded not only in taking the throne, but also in killing 'Abd al-Rahman Sanchuelo on his return to the capital.  The third would-be caliph was another Umayyad, Sulaiman al-Musta'in, who had entered the fray in 1010 on a legitimist ticket, aiming to restore Hisham but who, having briefly done so, declared the ex-caliph unfit to rule and took his place after only two days.

All these contenders had different support bases.  Sulaiman's army was made up mainly of Berbers on military tenures whom the state had had increasingly little use for, and who felt threatened by this loss of livelihood.  Muhammad II had secured the service of part of the old state mercenary army, but another part remained loyal to Hisham.  No one side had a plausibly conclusive advantage, and for this reason they sought outside help.  Sulaiman's success over Muhammad had been achieved with troops and supplies provided by King Sancho García of Castile.  Perhaps inevitably, therefore, Muhammad turned to the other northern Christian power in any sort of fighting order, the county of Barcelona.  Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell (of Barcelona, Girona and Osona) and his brother Count Ermengol of Urgell negotiated a huge salary for themselves and their troops, arranged to split the proceeds of the trip 1:4, Urgell to Barcelona, and set out.  They, with the largely Slav mercenary troops of Muhammad, met the Castilians and the Berbers loyal to Sulaiman at 'Aqabat al-Bakar north of the city on May 22, 1010, and the Catalans won.  Sulaiman still managed to get most of his troops away, however, and the Catalans promptly held Muhammad's recaptured capital to ransom, so both from outside and inside his position was very far from secure.  The war would go on until a much more serious sack in 1013 that more or less finished Córdoba as a political center, but 1010 is far enough for the point I want to make.

The thing about Córdoba as a symbol is that it doesn't just depend whom you are asking, it depends when you choose to look.  For Christians living under Islam in Iberia in the 860s, Córdoba was perhaps a place where some idiots with a death wish were going to bring down the wrath of the previously tolerant state on their heads and their coffers, but otherwise just a place where the largely-irrelevant kings, to whom the local lord sometimes listened, ruled.  For the world at large in the 950s, on the other hand, Córdoba and its suburban palace of Madinat al-Zahra' were impossibly rich and lofty locations of power where the almost invisible caliph would sometimes deign to let a foreign emissary through the veils of secrecy to make terms with him.  It was widely reported to be the richest city in the dar al-Islam by Arabic writers at this sort of time, and even more so to have been once it had fallen.  For the inhabitants of Barcelona in 986, on a third hand fitted to improve our shadow-boxing, Córdoba was the implacable source of the unstoppable armies that had just sacked their city; it was a place of terror where many of their nearest and dearest were now held prisoner, and many other recently-attacked cities in northern Spain would have held the same view.  The two bishops who died on the Catalan campaign of 1010, at least, must have been old enough to remember this, though the two counts would both have been infants then.  Count Ermengol also died on the campaign; he would go down in history as "el Cordobès," the Cordovan, for his part in cracking the rotten fruit open.  Christians, allied with Muslims on both sides, fought each other for the prize, already bruised by two ineffective and bloody coups in the previous two years. Nobody won except the Catalans who survived.

The ruins of the caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra' outside Córdoba
The ruins of the caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra', outside Córdoba.

Córdoba in 1010 had none of the meanings that Gingrich or his opponents in debate have given it:  in fact, 1010 robbed it of most of its previous meanings and converted this great symbol into a stamped-down boxing arena where the Christians kept running off with the prize money.  In a wider sense, Córdoba in 1010 specifically symbolized the collapse of the Caliphate and of al-Andalus, and the beginning of Christian dominance in Spain.  Gingrich seems to be thinking of Córdoba in the 840s or 850s.  1010 might make him happier; but as long as there was the 720s, 860s and 950s as well, he can't have the symbolism all his way, and neither can the apparently-peaceful group behind the proposed Cordoba House.  History contains multitudes, of perspectives among other things, and very very few of them are right enough to stand unchallenged.

Most of the the political history here can be found in Hugh Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal: a Political History of al-Andalus (Harlow 1996), but my pictures of the court and periphery respectively also rest heavily on Miquel Barceló,"The Earliest Sketch of an 'Oriental Despot'? (A Note on the Exchange of Delegations between the Ottonides and the Caliphes of Qurtuba 338-339/950-367/974)" in L'Histoire à Nice. Actes du Colloque International « Entre l'Occident et l'Orient » (Antibes – Juan les Pins, 29-31 octobre 1981) (Nice 1983), pp. 55-85; transl. as"¿El primer trabazo de un 'despota oriental'? (Una nota sobre el intercambio de delegaciones entre los Otones y los Califas de Qurtuba 338-339/950-367/974)" in Barceló, El sol que salió por Occidente (estudios sobre el estado omeya en al-Andalus) (Jaén 1997), pp. 163-186, and Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991). It's also interesting to see how the two schools of Iberian historiography keep their blinkers: notice how Derek W. Lomax, The Reconquest of Spain (London 1978), covering 1010 at pp. 49-51, omits the Catalans, while Josep María Salrach, El Procés de Feudalització (segles III-XII), Historia de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), p. 296, omits the Castilians.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Jarrett - 9/23/2010

Dammit, it must be true, I read it on the Internet! Sure, I had to get all those lying posts and articles that say it's not true out of the way first but I know truth when I read it! etc.

Chris Bray - 9/23/2010


Jonathan Jarrett - 9/22/2010

Minor corrections of two bits of scrambled grammar...

Jonathan Jarrett - 9/22/2010

That's high praise, I'm humbled! Thankyou.

Chris Bray - 9/21/2010

One of the best posts I've ever seen on a history blog -- a joy to read.