Islamic Iberia

The Umayyad Empire

At first, the newly conquered lands were administrated from Ifriqiya as a province of the Umayyad Empire, and its governors were appointed by the emir of Kairouan rather than the emir in Damascus. The conquerors renamed Iberia al-Andalus, and settlers began to flood in to occupy the relatively fertile land and establish a regional capitol in Córdoba.

The Visigoth Dukes who recognised the authority of their new masters were allowed to keep their lands, creating areas around Murcia, Galicia and the Ebro valley where little changed. Those who could not live with the Muslims formed a refuge in the inaccessible Cantabrian highlands where they re-grouped and defended their Kingdom of Asturias.

Having consolidated their gains in al-Andalus, the governors of the province sent Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi to make raids into the lands beyond the eastern Pyrenees, but he was driven back by Duke Odo the Great of Aquitaine. Undeterred, he crossed the mountains further west and attacked again, this time defeating the duke. He pushed further east into the old Roman province of Septimania, capturing Arles and Avignon and probing north following the river Rhone before he was stopped by a stronger Bergundian force led by Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. A coalition of Lombardians and Bergundian armies drove Al Ghafiqi back to the Pyrenees before finally expelling them from Gaul by 739.

The Mulsim invasion forces had been drawn from African Berbers with some Arabs of Ifriqiya and the Levant, but relations between the different cultures was strained in the years following the invasion. The Berbers had borne the brunt of the fighting to capture Iberia and vastly outnumbered the Arabs from the Levant, who now flooded in and took key posts in the administration, forcing the Berbers into a secondary, subservient role. Some of the new Arab governors began to mistreat their Berber counterparts, and before long, the Arabs had a Berber revolt on their hands. The Berbers had railed against their Arab overlords before in 729 and had even managed to carve out their own rebel state in Cerdanya, but the big revolt started in the Maghreb in 740. 

Berber rebels who were tired of the arrogance of their masters rose up against them, and to put down the uprising, the Umayyad Caliph, Hisham, sent a large Syrian army to Morocco. At the Battle of Bagdoura, the Syrians were soundly defeated by the Berbers. The news of their brothers’ success traveled to northern Iberia, where the mistreated Berbers also mutinied and deposed their Arab commanders. They formed a rebel army and marched against the Arab administrative centres of Toledo, Cordoba, and Algeciras.

In response, the caliph in Damascus rallied his armies and sent 10,000 troops across the straits to help the governors of al-Andalus regain control. They crushed the uprising after a series of ferocious battles culminating in the Battle of Aqua Portora in August 742. However, the prejudice between the haughty Syrian commanders of the occupation, and the original Arab al-Andalus governors erupted as another uprising, which was put down in 743 by the Syrians led by the new governor of al-Andalus, Abū l-Khaṭṭār al-Husām.

How to control Iberia

The Great Mosque, or Mesquita of Córdoba, was founded in 742 and was greatly enlarged during Islamic rule. The original mosque was built on top of the remains of the Saint Vincent basilica, a Christian Visigothic church.


Caliph Hisham’s army was drawn from far-flung parts of his caliphate and were organised into junds under their regional commanders, so al-Ḥusām assigned each of the junds a region to administer. The Egypt jund was split and given Tudmir (Murcia) in the east and Beja (Alentejo) in the west. The Jordan jund, Rayyu, (Málaga and Archidona). The Damascus jund was established in Elvira (Granada). The Filastin jund, Medina-Sidonia and Jerez. The Emesa (Hims) jund, Seville and Niebla and the Qinnasrin jund, Jaén.

Instead of solving the problem of controlling of the new lands, it made things worse. The Regional commanders began a reign of autonomous feudal anarchy, severely destabilizing the authority of the governor of al-Andalus.

During this time of instability, the Berber garrisons holding the northern borders had deserted their posts to aid their brothers’ rebellion against the Syrians. The Christians in Asturias under their king, Alfonso I, swarmed out of the highlands and took control of the empty lands, quickly adding the provinces of Galicia and León to his kingdom. He evacuated the River Duero valley, bringing the people north within his kingdom and leaving a wide empty buffer zone between Asturias and the lands ruled by the Arabs.

With al-Andalus practically out of control, the Caliph in Damascus found that he had other problems on his doorstep. The expanding Abbasid Caliphate was pressing on the eastern borders of the Umayyad Empire. The Abbasids were named after their founder, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. They eventually founded the city of Baghdad as their capital, and were a much more dangerous threat than the problems in Iberia. Caliph Hisham’s attention shifted eastwards, and Iberia was left to solve its own problems.

When the Umayyad caliph lost interest in al-Andalus, the opportunistic Fihrid Arab family seized power in the western Maghreb under Abd al-Rahman ibn Habib al-Fihri, whilst his son Yūsuf al-Fihri, took control of al-Andalus. The demise of the Umayyad caliphate allowed the Fhirids to seek an alliance with the Abbasids against them, but they rejected the offer and demanded that they submit to their rule. The Fihrid family defiantly declared independence from all outside control.

The war went badly for Hisham, and the Abbasids controlled all the Muslim lands by 750 creating thousands of homeless Umayyad refugees. In a generous gesture, the Fihrids welcomed them and allowed them to settle in al-Andalus. These were the sons and grandsons of Caliphs, and had a more valid claim to al-Andalus than the Fihrid family. They aligned themselves with the disenchanted lords under Fihrid rule and rose up against them. In 756, led by the Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman I, overthrew the Fihrid family and the prince established himself as Emir of Córdoba. He held the title for thirty years despite his rule being challenged by the al-Fihri family and the Abbasid Caliph. His descendants ruled from Córdoba for another century and a half, though not always in full control of the many competing factions. 

The Caliphate of Córdoba

It was al-Rahman III in 912 who elevated the caliphate to its greatest level restoring by Umayyad control over all al-Andalus and North Africa. He proclaimed himself Caliph of al-Andalus in 929 and his power was equal to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad and the Fatimid caliph in Tunis.

This period is now known as the golden age of al-Andalus. Orange and lemon trees had been introduced, along with the cultivation of olive groves and pomegranate trees. Grain crops flourished in the rich soil making the lands around Córdoba, the most advanced agricultural area in Europe. Irrigation and the use of the water-wheel turned al-Andalus into a fertile paradise which in turn generated a rich economy and supported a growing population.

Rice, coffee, coriander, basil were introduced as crops, and the working of metal for cutlery and ornaments. The working of glass became common, and ceramic glazed tiles reached a zenith in design and production.

This impetus of sufficiency generated a scholar class, and Córdoba became renowned as learning and teaching centre which was equal the universities of Italy. The libraries of al-Andalus grew in the major cities, and the ones in Córdoba alone held ten thousand books.

Astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, games and music were encouraged, and though Islam forbade alcohol, they invented sherry and perfected its production. One of the founding pillars of the Islamic faith was the development of the mind, and Córdoba became the Versailles of Iberia.

With a population of around five hundred thousand people, Córdoba overtook Constantinople as the largest, most prosperous city in Europe, and its fame spread throughout the medieval world. The transmission of ideas generated by al-Andalus during the al-Rahman caliphates generated the impetus for the European Renaissance. 

The Shining City

It was during the reign of al-Rahman III that the beautiful estate of Medina Azahara, meaning The Shining City, was built. This was a tour de force of opulence and majesty in the early medieval world. With ceremonial reception halls, offices, gardens, workshops and baths supplied by aqueduct with clear water and a barracks for the palace guards, Azahara was a self-contained palace.

The Shining City was extended during the reign of Abd ar-Rahman III's son, Al-Hakam II, between 961 and 976, but after his death it soon ceased to be the main residence of the Caliphs. In 1010 it was sacked in a civil war, and thereafter abandoned, with much masonry re-used elsewhere.

It was a statement of power and wealth for the entire world to see and aimed at impressing his rivals in the Muslim world, the Ifriquian Fatmids and the Abbasids in Baghdad. The ruins were first excavated in 1910 and even now, only ten percent has been uncovered. There is a large cinema in the museum which shows the busloads of visitors a virtual reality tour of the city in its heyday.  




Joan Fallon has published 15 books, many of which are set in the time of the Muslim occupation of Iberia. They are the best way to understand the society of the era. The Shining City tells of the day-to-day lives of the people who lived in this fabulous city.

Omar Ibn Hafsun

The final years of his reign must have been bitter for Al Rahman III. He faced rebellion from all quarters, not least from a new adversary who had none of the lineage of centuries of rule in the lands of the bible that the caliph had. Ibn Hafsun was born near to Parauta in the mountains near in what is now Málaga sometime around 850. His origins are obscure. One of his contemporaries refers to him as a descendent of black Africans, but another historian writing a hundred years later claims that his lineage went back to Visigoth kings. It is entirely possible that the second version was invented by Ibn Hafsun himself and passed on to posterity. 


Hafsun was an unruly boy, and soon involved himself with the wrong kind of people. He joined a group of brigands, and soon gained notoriety among the criminal and disaffected elements of the area. He had a violent temper, and he settled his disputes with the sword or knife. Before he was 30 he had become a murderer, and was arrested along with a group of other brigands in the Málaga area. The governor of Málaga was unaware of the murder charge, and fined him and the other thieves. They were released, and Hafsun fled to Morocco on the first ship. When the authorities found out, the governor was dismissed from his post. Hafsun laid low for a while working as a tradesman, and it was during this enforced hiatus that (according to the legend) he met an old man who told him to return to al-Andalus, where he would  become a king and a leader of armies.


In 880 he did return to Málaga, and aided by his uncle, he joined a group of 40 other Christians, muladíes and Berbers, who were prepared to fight against their haughty Arab overlords. They decided to hide in the mountains and gorges of Alto Guadalhorce near to the town of Ard-Allah. (Ardales)  It was here, in a place that was almost inaccessible, that they built Bobastro as their base from which to conduct guerrilla warfare against the forces of the caliph. They enlarged their domain by fortifying Ard-Allah and then capturing or inciting rebellion in local strongholds and towns.


At first, the caliph considered them nothing more than a group of bandits, but in 882 when Hafsun formed an alliance with the King of the Basques, García Íñiguez, in a revolt against him, he realised that Hafsun was a man to be reckoned with. He was forced to send an army to Pamplona to put down the rebellion, and the armies met in battle near the town of Lumbier. The result was a crushing defeat for the rebels. Hafsun escaped and returned to Bobastro, but Íñiguez was killed.


When the caliph realised that Hafsun controlled towns and swathes of land around Cádiz, Jaén, Seville and Granada, and had allied himself with the populations of Archidona, Baeza, Úbeda and Priego, he began to pay careful attention to Hafsun and his followers. He sent his generals out to hunt him down, and eventually large force of the caliph’s army caught up with Hafsun and his men.  


Hafsun saw a likely defeat and began negotiating a truce with al-Rahman. In return for the acknowledgement of the rights of his followers, and permission to live in peace with respect, he promised his obedience to the caliph. Hafsun fought several battles with the emir’s general, Hashim ibn Abd al-Aziz, and won the respect and praise of the caliph’s soldiers with his intelligence and courage. When he rode through Córdoba he was cheered by the crowds and the caliph granted him the governorship of the Cora province with its capital in Archidona.  Al Rahman invited him back to Córdoba and asked him to be his bodyguard.  His loyal followers were to be the caliph’s guard of honour.


Things were going well for Ibn-Hafsun, but there is a saying that you can take the boy out of the gutter, but you can’t take the gutter out of the boy. The haughty Syrians who had elevated themselves to high positions in the governance of al-Andalus were not about to let this near barbarian and his crowd of rabble-rousers take over the city. Hafsun and his men were snubbed, humiliated, cheated and ridiculed. Everything that they were promised by the caliph was denied them.



The ruins of Bobastro

In disgust and anger, Hafsun and his men returned to Bobastro and renewed their battle against their Arab lords. He seized the fortresses of Comeres, Mijas and Autha and formed alliances with other rebel groups which gave him control of a large part of southern al-Andalus. Al-Rahman now realised that he must quell Hafsun’s rebellion. He gave his sons, al-Mundhir and Abd Allah, command of his army and sent them out to put an end to his rampage. In 885 Hafsun moved his headquarters 80km north of Bobastro to the town of Poley, so that his forces could respond quickly to any threats.


The following year, (886) al-Mundhir surrounded Hafsun and his followers, who had allied themselves with another band of rebels, the Banu Rifá, in the town of Alhama, near to Granada, where he laid siege to them. The siege was beginning to take its toll on the rebels’ troops when news came that al-Rahman III had died. Al-Mundhir was forced to return to Córdoba to take over running al-Andalus. But Hafsun was not off the hook.

Al-Mundhir wasted no time in organising successful assaults against Hafsun’s strongholds. His army drove Hafsun back and took Archidona, where the caliph ordered that the chief of the Christian rebels be crucified alongside a pig and a dog.


Luck was with Hafsun again in June 888 when he was besieged at Bobastro by the two brothers who had cut off all supply routes to the citadel. The siege was taking effect when al-Mundhir died. His brother, Abd-Allah, concealed his death for three days hoping that Hafsun would capitulate, but he had to raise the siege and return to Córdoba to take control of the caliphate. The retreat by Abd-Allah was now effectively a funeral cortege as they took the body back to Córdoba.


When Hafsun learned of the death, he sent his men out to loot the camp of his besiegers and chase the caravan of mourners. Abd-Allah sent the rebel leader a message to respect his dead brother, and to his surprise, Hafsun called his men off. The new caliph sent a train of 50 mules loaded with food and finery to Bobastro in gratitude, but Hafsun took the presents and continued his war against the new caliph. A furious Al-Mundhir sent back the message that he would be proclaimed caliph over al-Andalus over the dead bodies of the rebels at Bobastro.

Hafsun strengthened his alliances with other disaffected groups around Córdoba, Seville and Jaén. He captured Estepa, Osuna and Ecija in 889. At Baena he massacred the defenders causing Priego and all the towns around to surrender without a fight. By 891 the land under his control stretched from Jaén in the east to Seville in the west. To seek official legitimacy he began to collect taxes and sent emissaries to the Tunisian Aglabis who recognized the Baghdad caliph and then, when they were ousted, with their conquerors the Fatimíes, even though they were they were Shiites and most of al-Andalus were Sunnis. To show that the part of al-Andalus that he controlled was open to all religions he allowed Shiite imams to preach from Mosques controlled by Hafsun.


Hafsun suffered a crushing defeat in 981 when the lost a crucial battle against the caliph, al-Mundhir (now Abdullah ibn Muhammad al-Umawi) at Poley. Hafsun escaped, but the caliph ordered the massacre of all the Christians in Poley, and Hafsun was forced to move his headquarters back to Bobastro.

In 899 Hafsun made a mistake that lost him much of his support. In an effort to ally himself with the Caliphate of Córdoba’s biggest enemy, the Asturian King Alfonso III, Hafsun converted to Christianity and was baptised, taking the name of Samuel. He converted the small mosque at Bobastro into a Christian church and installed a Bishop.


Immediately, he lost around half of his supporters. The Berbers and Arabs, his strongest followers, abandoned him. His respect and fame allowed him to continue for a few years more, but his hoped for ally, King Alfonso III, capitalised on Hafsun’s losses and made pacts with those disaffected with him. At the same time, the caliph of Córdoba was relentlessly eating into lands and towns under Hafsun’s control.


In 917 Hafsun died and was interred at Bobastro. His coalition crumbled and for a while his sons tried to maintain resistance, but Bobastro fell in 928 and the troops who had fought for Hafsun were absorbed into the armies of the caliph and sent to fight against the Galicians.


Hafsun’s remains along with the bodies of his dead sons were crucified and put on display outside the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

The golden age of al-Andalus was about to reach its glorious zenith. The first stones were being laid for the Shining City, which would become the cultural masterpiece of al-Andalus; but it was built on sand. Medina Azahara would only last for 70 years before it was sacked, abandoned and destroyed. Disputes within the caliphate led to civil wars, and caliphs came and were deposed or died with astonishing regularity, some of them only lasting a year. There were 16 caliphs between 929 and 1023. While the Caliphate struggled with internal problems, a greater threat was growing from the Catholic Church.