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The Emperor’s New Corpse: an odd tale of political intrigue from Medieval Spain

August 28, 2022

This is intended to be a fairly lighthearted blogpost about a sequence of historical events that vividly illustrate the stupidity of greed, the weakness of power, and the unpredictable course of history. It takes place in Medieval Spain during Muslim rule, and involves Muslims, Christians and Jews. It is not, however, intended to surreptitiously make any kind of general point about any of these particular religious groups or cultures. It is only written for historical interest, and maybe a few laughs about human nature.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the once resplendent and widely celebrated Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba suddenly descended into chaos. Chaos then turned into slapstick, with at one point, three caliphs, two of whom were fighting each other, and one who was pretending to be dead.

This is their story…..

After flourishing for a couple of centuries in southern Spain, and even outclassing Baghdad as a cultural center, things started to go downhill for the caliphate in 976. The last of the great caliphs, Hakam II, died, having named his only son, Hisham II, as successor. Unfortunately Hisham was only ten years old at the time.

The child’s mother was a former Christian slave who had been an inmate in the caliphal harem. She had built up considerable political power for herself and formed an alliance with the caliph’s chief advisor, Ibn Abi Amir (later known as Almansor). When a conspiracy to usurp the throne and hand it over to a favoured Umayyad prince was discovered, Hisham’s mother turned to Almansor to prevent it. He did this by simply having the prince assassinated.

Almansor then took over the rulership himself, while he educated the young Hisham. Under Almansor’s tutelage, the young caliph learned nothing but utter submission to Almansor, and otherwise to do nothing and bother no one. As one subsequent chronicler noted, “none feared the slightest evil from him, nor expected the slightest benefit.”

Almansor, on the other hand, proved to be a successful and skillful leader. Everything went well for the next twenty years or so until 1002, when Almansor died. He had named one of his sons as his own successor in the role of chief advisor to the useless Caliph. Again, things ran fairly smoothly until 1008 when this son died, apparently poisoned by his own younger brother.

At this point things start to get interesting.

This younger brother, known as Sanjul, lacked discretion and common sense. He disastrously overplayed his hand by convincing the ever pliant Hisham to name him as successor to the caliphal throne. He knew this was a dangerous move — Hisham of course belonged to the esteemed Umayyad lineage of the original caliphate in Damascus. Thus the centuries old Umayyad caliphate would simply be handed over to an undistinguished member of a rebellious Berber clan.

The Umayyad elites acted swiftly. They forced the weak-willed Hisham to abdicate, and the wannnabe-caliph was assassinated. His corpse was trampled by horses and then crucified, and his head was stuck on a spike outside the city gates. The disgraced Hisham was replaced with Muhammed II, (the son of the prince who 30 years earlier had been assassinated by Almansor).

Given the volatility of the situation and his poor political skills, the new caliph Muhammed began to feel uneasy in his new role. He was especially worried that people might start missing the useless but harmless Hisham.

Assassinating the former caliph would be risky, but fortune presented Muhammed with a safer, though highly unusual alternative. A man who closely resembled Hisham had just died. Muhammed acquired the corpse and displayed it to courtiers with the news that Hisham had sadly passed away.

No one believed him.

A solemn funeral was held and the corpse was interred in the caliphal tomb, (despite the fact that the deceased man was Jewish).

Still no one believed him.

Then things got even more complicated for Muhammed. His Berber enemies found another member of the Umayyad clan who was sympathetic to their cause, and simply declared that this person and not Muhammed was now the caliph.

So now there were two caliphs, plus one supposedly deceased ex-caliph who was probably hiding in a closet somewhere.

The neighbouring Christian states looked on with interest.

This newest caliph, named Sulayman, gained the support of a Christian leader with a powerful army in Castile.

Sensing imminent defeat, Muhammed tried to cut his losses with another of his unconventional solutions. He publicly announced that Hisham II was in fact still alive after all, and therefore he, and not Sulayman, must be the rightful caliph.

The resurrected Hisham’s second stint as caliph didn’t last long. Sulayman summoned the Christian army from Castile, which attacked Cordoba. Hisham was forced to abdicate for a second time. Muhammed fled, while marauding Christians sacked the city.

While on the run, Muhammed decided to try one of Sulayman’s tactics, and recruited Christian support. Two rivals of Sulayman’s Castilian allies, Count Borell I of Barcelona, and Count Armegnol of Urgel, were quite happy to try their hand at bringing down a ruling caliph. They also demanded the right to pillage Cordoba, as the Castilians had done. The desperate Muhammed promptly agreed. So attractive was this offer that numerous bishops and high ranking priests signed up for military service, as did even the finance minister of Barcelona. Even Count Armegnol himself joined in the fighting, but got himself killed before he could grab any loot.

The campaign was successful: Sulayman’s forces were defeated, and Muhammed was reinstated as caliph. And of course Cordoba was sacked by marauding Christians for a second time, at the invitation of a ruling caliph.

Muhammed’s second stint on the throne didn’t last long either. After two months he was assassinated, and the long-suffering and ever pliant Hisham became caliph again.

But ex-caliph Sulayman hadn’t given up that easily, and soon forced Hisham to abdicate yet again — his third abdication in as many years.

The caliphal revolving door continued in this manner, with six different caliphs in the next decade or so, until the Cordoban elites got so annoyed that they simply dissolved the caliphate. Muslim Spain devolved into a group of competing petty kingdoms.

The unfortunate Hisham died in prison in 1030.

But surprisingly, that wasn’t the end of his career.

Despite his own death and the absence of a caliphate, in 1031, Hisham II became caliph again for a fourth time. Given Hisham’s previous record as a resurrectee, it was widely believed that he wasn’t dead this time either. Rumours of his survival circulated until the ruler of Seville, (Abu l-Kasim ibn Abbad), spotted an opportunity. He discovered that there was a poor labourer in the city who closely resembled the deceased caliph. Seville’s status and power would be greatly enhanced if it could be declared the center of a new caliphate. All that it needed was a plausible caliph. And all that this labourer had to do to gain his spectacular promotion was wear the caliphal clothes and show himself to be passive and clueless about matters of state. It was a spectacular success. Abu l-Kasim managed to outflank his enemies and impress his allies with Seville’s new-found status, until his death in 1042. (The fate of the second Hisham II is unknown.)

Perhaps it’s worth noting a little of the subsequent history of al-Andalus, with a few more unexpected twists.

Increasing political fragmentation invited increasing attacks by neighbouring Christian states. Lacking the unity to organise an effective defense, the petty kings of al-Andalus recruited support from the newly arisen Almoravid regime in North Africa. This fanatical and militaristic clan swiftly drove back the Christian armies. While doing so, they also noticed that southern Spain is indeed quite nice, so they decided to stay on and claim it for themselves.

The Almoravids settled into their new home, but a few decades later they were themselves defeated by an even more fanatical and militaristic sect, the Almohads. These fellows were so convinced that they had the correct version of Islam that even the strictest theologians and legal scholars were persecuted for harbouring excessive diversity of opinion. However, while theology was barely tolerated, philosophy and reason were considered necessary tools for the personal quest for spiritual and worldly truth.

A golden age of philosophy ensued.

Comments welcome, but please try to address the issues raised in the article!

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