A Love of Beauty in Islamic Spain

Apology

Don’t cross me off as fickle


because a singing voice


has captured my heart.



One must be serious sometimes


and lighthearted at other times:



like wood from which come


both the singer’s lute


and the warrior’s bow.



~ Ibrahim ibn Uthman

Olive trees stretched out as far as the eye could see, their scent on the air rose with dawn’s fingers. The sun beat down upon the earth, crisping my skin golden and evaporating the moisture from my body. I have spent two months of this summer in southern Spain, the land of the Moors, fair Andalucía. Chapman art history professor Justin Walsh brought me and four other students with him as workers for the archaeological excavation of Castuló, an Iberian-Roman city. The site itself was not prominent during Islamic occupation, but it placed me in a location accessible to cities that were. On the weekends my friends and I washed off the dirt and dust of 2,000 years, and traveled to Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada.

Islamic architecture survived the devastation of the Reconquista by being absorbed into buildings of Christian purpose, preserving the most beautiful palaces and places of worship I have ever seen. Their tiles bore geometric stars, calligraphy curled up walls and archways, carvings dripped from the ceilings like stalactites, and gardens bloomed forth with glittering fountains and flowers. I fell in love with the art that culture had created, the imagination that brought such beauty into the world. Muslim rule in the south lasted for 700 years in a golden age of religious tolerance that had not been accepted by their enemies in the north. The spread of ideas between the people made it a time of great knowledge and a flourishing age of poetry.

Grain Field

Look at the ripe wheat 


bending before the wind



like squadrons of horsemen


fleeing in defeat, bleeding


from the wounds of the poppies.

~ Ibn ‘Iyad

One of the most memorable names of Andalusian literature was Al-Mu’tamid (1040-1095), the poet-king of Sevilla. He was the last caliph of the Abbadid line, and a benevolent ruler whose court was open to the arts. At the time of his reign, the fall of the Umayyad caliphate had caused a rise of warlords competing for militaristic and intellectual dominance with their ever changing petty kingdoms. The Sevillian dynasty was one of the most glorious in al-Andalus, eclipsing the power of Córdoba, and producing the sumptuous pleasures that would fill up the imagery of Al-Mu’tamid’s poetry. His story is one of great glory and tragedy, from the heights of conquest to the poverty of exile. His life has been called the best metaphor for the rise and fall of Islamic Spain.

Al-Mu’tamid came from a line of illustrious rulers, of the wise Abu al-Quasim Muhammad ibn Isma’il ibn Abbad and the tyrannical Al-Mu’tadid, and would come to surpass them all. When Al-Mu’tamid was a young prince, he and his best friend Ibn ‘Ammar would leave the palace in disguise to have adventures along the al-Wadi al-Kabir, now known as the Guadalquivir river. One day as they were passing by a group of washerwomen on the bank, Al-Mu’tamid composed the beginning of a poetic verse “The wind has turned the water to chain mail…” Ibn ‘Ammar was to finish the line, but before he could improvise one, a young woman spoke up in the correct meter, “What armor for a battle, if it froze!” She was I’timaid, a mule driver known as Rumaykiyya, the slave of Rumaik. The prince was so struck by her wit and beauty, that he bought  her, freed her, and made her his wife.

O RUMAYKIYYA

The heart beats on and will not stop;
passion is large and does not hide:
tears come down like drops of rain;
the body is scorched and turns yellow;
if this is it when she is with me,
how would it be if we’re apart?

By her indifference I am broken:
dark-eyed gazelle among her leafage,
stars that burn on her horizon,
depth of night shining moon,
rock, then jonquil in her garden,
bushes too that spread perfume,
all know me downcast, wasted as a man,
and are concerned by my appearance,
how it mirrors my state of mind;
they ask if I may not be well,
flaming desire might burn me out.

Woman, you do your lover wrong
that he should look as you’ve been told.
You say: “What hurts? What’s going on?
What do you want but cannot wait for?
You’re less than just to doubt my love,
everyone knows it, here or distant.”

God! I am sick, sick with the love
that makes, besides you, others puny.
My body frets. Give thought to this:
I want to see you and I cannot.
Injustice calls to God for pardon:
ask him to pardon your injustice.

~ Al-Mu’tamid

The second year of his reign prospered with military expansion, and Córdoba was annexed into the kingdom of Sevilla. Everything was well for Al-Mu’tamid for several years, but the conflicts between the warlord kings allowed an opportunity for Christian reconquest. Alfonso VI, King of León, Castile and Navarre was determined to take back the Iberian Peninsula. Yusuf ibn Tashufin, the king of the Almoravids of North Africa was called upon to ally against the Christian army. The aid of the nomadic Berbers won the war for Islamic Spain, but the local Muslim rulers proved weak and incapable of defending their people or working together. Yusuf ibn Tashufin was called on again, but this time he was determined to annex Al-Andalus into the Almoravid Empire. Sevilla was heroically defended, but ultimately fell in surrender. Al-Mu’tamid and his family were exiled to the desert village of Aghmat, where his wife and daughters spun wool for a miserable living. The last of the great Andalusian kings died in chains after the death of his beloved I’timad, but lived on in the hearts of his people.

When folk who were about
To implore heaven for rain
Met me, I exclaimed,
“My tears will take the place of showers!”
“Thou sayest truth,” they replied;
“Thy tears would suffice –
But they are mingled with blood!”
~ Al-Mu’tamid

Translations never do justice to the originals they express, but even though these may be diminished versions of the original Arabic, the imagery is strong enough to stir the longing I discovered through sufi poetry. Love is consuming, and death walks with life in every breath. The Caliph died in destitution almost a thousand years ago, the moorish empires drowned in blood, yet their glory still lives on through history. This is what it is to be an artist who has earned immortality for their love, and these romantic notions fill the dreams of writers everywhere. We have the power to transcend time and space, I have fallen prey to wonder, as deeply and fully as blue fills the Spanish sky.

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