Caliphate of Córdoba

Alex Rover | July 1, 2023


The Caliphate of Córdoba, formerly the Emirate of Córdoba, was a Sunni Muslim state in the Muslim-dominated part of the Iberian Peninsula (Arabic: al-Andalus). It was founded in 756 by a descendant of the Umayyad dynasty, whose successors held the territory, with minor interruptions, first as emir and then as caliph from 929 until 1031. The Umayyad state of Córdoba was the first principality to permanently break away from the caliphate that ruled the whole Islamic world. In parallel with its long decline, in the early 11th century, various Arab and Berber warlord families founded independent states, known as the Taliphates.

The conquest

The Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula began in 711.

In 719, Arab-Berber troops crossed the Pyrenees and invaded Gaul. The Gallo-Romans, who were in a numerical majority in and around Narbonne and to the north of it, welcomed the conquerors as liberators and opened their cities to them, as did their Hispanic cousins. However, they failed to gain territory to the west: they were routed by Odo I of Aquitaine and the Basque prince of Aquitaine (henceforth known as Odo the Great) at the Battle of Toulouse in 721.

In the 720s, the Moors built a series of forts – Narbonne, Montfrin, Avignon, Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Béziers, Nîmes, Agde – in the territories they had occupied, and in 732 launched a new offensive northwards against the Frankish Empire. Charles Martel, however, joined forces with his old enemy, Odo I, and defeated the Arabs decisively at the Battle of Poitiers. This battle is regarded by many historians as a turning point in European history. Charles then recaptured all the Gallic territories except Septimania and Provence from the Moors. In 736 he also recaptured Provence, from which the Moors had withdrawn their meagre forces. In 737, the emirate launched another major invasion of Gaul, but Charles Martel crushed the Arab army at the Battle of the Berre and then overran Septimania, sacking Nîmes, Agde, Béziers and Maguelonne. However, he did not attempt the siege of Narbonne – presumably because Odo’s son Hunald threatened his supply lines.

In 739, the Gallo-Romans of Provence revolted once more against Frankish rule, but Charles Martel inflicted another heavy defeat on the Moors who came to the aid of the rebels.

Narbonne was finally taken by the armies of King Pipin III of France after a seven-year siege in 759.

The creation of the state

The isolation and remoteness of the region, far from the central Muslim areas, provided the right conditions for the establishment of an independent state, which finally took place after the fall of the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphate (750). The new rulers, the Abbasids, who had migrated to Iraq, wiped out the Umayyad family, but one of the grandsons of Caliph Hizam (724-743), Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muaviya, managed to escape to North Africa, first to Ifrikiji in what is now Tunisia and then to the Berber tribes of Morocco, where he fled from its governor. From there, his loyal freedman Badr crossed into Spain, where he made contact with the opponents of the governor, Yusuf ibn Abd ar-Rahman al-Fihri, and in the summer of 755 crossed into Almuñécar and went to the mountainous Torrox. The governor decided to winter his troops before confronting his opponent, which proved to be a mistake, as Abd ar-Rahman had amassed a considerable army in the meantime. The pretender eventually defeated al-Fihri’s troops and marched on Córdoba on 14 May 756. Abd ar-Rahman, who took the title of emir, normally reserved for governors, was able to maintain his conquest until his death in 788, but only at the cost of a constant battle with his opponents: al-Fihri’s supporters, the rebellious Berbers, the Abbasids’ supporters and the people of Córdoba. His main tool in this was his army of freed slaves, which replaced and supplemented the previous Arab army.

In 760, he attacked Asturias, but was defeated by King Fruela I (the Cruel) of Asturias, who then extended his father’s conquests to Galicia. Count Cassius, the taifa emir of Banu Qasi, recognised him as his vassal and in return was allowed to retain his semi-independent position, but three emirs (former governors) appealed to the Frankish emperor Charlemagne for help. In 778, the Franks crossed the Pyrenees, and one of their armies marched solemnly into Barcelona, while the other sacked Pamplona, an emirate but inhabited by Basques. The two columns met in Zaragoza to receive Charles’ vassal oaths of allegiance to Soloman ibn al-Arabi, Kasmin ibn Yusuf and the emirs Abu Tavr, but the rebel emirs changed their minds and turned against Charles. After a long siege, the city fell, but Charles had to withdraw his unsupplied fighters from the peninsula. The rearguard and the army were destroyed in the first battle of Roncesvalles by the Basques, who were enraged by the sack of Pamplona.

After the failure of the campaign, the Iberian Christians who had supported Charles fled en masse to the Frankish-held territories north of the Pyrenees. As a result, in 781, Count (or already Duke) Chorso of Toulouse incorporated Pallars and Ribagorça, between the Pyrenees mountain ranges, into his countdom. By 785, Frankish influence had extended to Gerona and nearby Besalur, and shortly afterwards to the entire Urgell-Cerdanya region, where Moorish rule was already more or less formal. These Frankish ambitions were actively supported by the Gothic counts of Septimania.

Charlemagne then entrusted this front to his son, Louis Jambor, while he fought on other frontiers of his empire. Louis invaded Gerona in 785 and extended Frankish power to northern Catalonia.

Consolidation of power

Despite the founder’s struggle for thirty-two years, the position of his successors was not secure. He was succeeded on the throne not by his eldest son, Sulayman of Toledo, but by Hisham I of Mérida, more than ten years his junior (about thirty years old). At the time of the change of throne, Sulaiman and his brother Abdallah of Valencia also rebelled, but Hizam defeated them and exiled them to Ifrikia. Hizam then had to face several minor rebellions, such as the revolt of Husayn ibn Jahya, governor of Zaragoza, who declared himself emir in 788, taking advantage of the confusion of the change of power – but Hizam put down this revolt in 789. In these struggles, he received considerable help from two Visigothic lords:

Their rise to prominence indicates that the Umayyads filled the places of the declining Arab families with Visigoth and Hispano-Roman nobles who had converted to Islam. In a clear sign of Muslim-Christian rapprochement, Hizam’s heir, al-Hakam’s mother (Zukhruf – a.m. “Golden Jewel”), was a woman of Christian descent (probably a Frankish noblewoman) who was introduced to him when Hizam’s father Abd-ar Rahman met King Khared the Great to sign the peace treaty.

In Córdoba, Hisham restored the Roman stone bridge over the Guadalquivir (Arabic for al-Wadi al-Kabir – The Great River), consisting of seventeen arches, each fifty arches wide, which had partially collapsed under Visigothic rule. He also ordered the construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba.

In 791 he took the initiative and attacked Asturias. He defeated the troops of Bermudo I; the king then abdicated the throne in favour of Alfonso II. Alfonso proved to be a much better statesman and commander than his predecessor and defeated the Moors in 794, 811, 812, 816 and 825.

The Muslim leaders of northern Hispania were constantly rebelling against the Córdoban authority and were eager to help the Franks. The Catalan front therefore moved slowly but surely southwards: by 795, Osona and Urgell had fallen.

Hisham died in 796 and was succeeded on the throne by his son, al-Hakam I. The exiled Sulaiman and Abdallah then returned, and a four-year civil war began

Also in 796, Toledo’s mostly Islamised native inhabitants chased their haughty governor, Bahlul ibn Marzúq, out of the city. The Basque-born ibn Marzúz then went to the northern frontier of Andalusia, proclaimed himself emir of Zaragoza and waged war against the Taifas Banu Qasi and Banu Salama, who were loyal to the central government. Embroiled in civil war, he, like al-Hakam’s father, entrusted Amrus ibn Yusuf with the task of restoring order. Amrus put down the rebellion with a few swift and decisive actions and then fortified the strategic points in the area. After his success, al-Hakam then led him to Toledo, and Amrus quelled the citizens’ discontent with unusual and unexpected cruelty. He was then forced to move north again, where Banu Qasi was rising up, relying on the support of the Christian counts of nearby Pamplona, Álava and Cerdanya.

In 797, Barcelona, the largest city in northern Iberia, temporarily fell to the Franks because Zeid, the city’s governor, rebelled against Cordoba.

In 798, the civil war ended with the defeat of the rebels again. Sulaiman fell, but Abdullah proved more adroit and saw in time that the war was unfavourable to the rebels. After the loss of Valancia and Zaragoza, he approached Charlemagne at his court in Aachen and offered him an alliance, but he was unable to win the Frankish monarch’s support. He therefore began to negotiate with [al-Hakam, and halfway through the cessation of resistance he became governor of Valencia until the end of his nephew’s reign. To confirm the treaty, he married his two daughters to one of al-Hakam’s sons, in accordance with Arab custom. One of the two sons, Ubajd Allah, became one of al-Hakam’s best generals.

In 799, the Moors recaptured Barcelona. Louis then crossed the Pyrenees with his entire army and in the winter of 800-801 retook the city, which remained in Christian hands throughout.

Al-Hakam’s policies were particularly unpopular with the urban population. In 800, a group of leading Cordoban officials and jurists secretly tried to persuade the emir’s nephew Muhammad ibn Qasim to stand up to al-Hakim and become emir – but Muhammad refused the offer and gave up the plotters. The Emir executed 22 conspirators, including the famous Ulema Jahja ibn Mudar, who had learned the science from the great Malik ibn Anas himself. Fearing further intrigue, the emir had the capital’s fortifications and garrisons fortified and executed in prison two of his uncles, Maslama and Umayya, who had been arrested earlier as a precaution. In 805 he executed several others for conspiracy. He reorganised his personal bodyguard, which he filled in 793 with captured prisoners of war at Narbonne and Christian mercenaries from the north. He made a visigoth count named Rabi ibn Teodolfo his chief confidant: he became the commander of the bodyguard and also of the mercenaries.

Tarragona fell in 809, followed by the well-fortified Tortosa in 811, but the other strongholds of the Ebro valley – Lérida, Huesca and Zaragoza – remained in Moorish hands. The Franks managed to continue their conquest mainly in the Llobregat valley and Urgell. Eventually, they conquered the whole Ebro estuary and invaded Valencia, forcing (in 812) the emir al-Hakam I to acknowledge their conquests.

In 813, the Frankish fleet under the command of Ermengard of Empur defeated the Moorish fleet. The Balearic Islands were thus in Frankish hands, and the Emirate of Córdoba was forced to recognise this in the peace treaty of 815.

Further problems were caused by the discontent of the inhabitants of the capital: in 818, it took great efforts to put down the rebellion in the suburbs. Afterwards, hundreds of townspeople were executed and the suburbs destroyed.

In the three provinces of the northern border region (headquartered in Mérida, Toledo and Zaragoza), it also had to fight hard against secessionist efforts.

The first flowering

Symbolically breaking with his father’s policy, Abd ar-Rahman II, who came to the throne in 822, executed his father’s Christian bodyguard commander, Rabi comes, who was also responsible for taxes, as one of his first acts. This succeeded in pacifying most of his subjects, and his long reign was relatively peaceful – apart from the usual attempts at self-government on the frontier and the surprise Norman raid on Seville in 844. He took advantage of this to launch regular raiding and punitive raids into the Christian territories to the north, and to make the state more organised. He finalised the court order and modernised the central administration. As a result, the prince’s revenues increased significantly.

Muhammad I (852-886), the son of Abd ar-Rahman II, also remained on the throne of Cordoba for a long time. During this time, he faced only one major rebellion: as soon as Toledo ascended the throne, he revolted and defeated the army sent against him. It was only in 853 that the resistance was crushed by a large military force. This restored peace for a time, but as the influence and military power of local potentates grew in the outlying regions, rebellions broke out.

Collapse and recovery

The short reign of Muhammad’s successor, al-Mundzir (886-888), was spent fighting Ibn Hafsun, who held the southeastern countryside, but his successful advance was halted by his unexpected illness and death. His brother Abdallah (888-912), unable to hold his brother’s army together despite his best efforts, retreated to Córdoba, while his power in much of the emirate collapsed: his entire reign was spent playing off rival warlords who had taken control of the country against each other, and trying to consolidate his own power by defeating the weakest. In the process, he had to deal with family intrigues, resulting in the execution of two sons and several brothers.

Abdallah was succeeded on the throne by his executed son Muhammad, Abd al-Rahman III. He found himself in an extremely difficult position at the beginning of his reign, hampered by the aggressive conquering policies of King Ordoño II of León and the famine that had plagued the region for years. Nevertheless, the emir immediately set about reconquering his principality, reclaiming the smaller towns in the area one by one. Nowhere did he resort to violent reprisals, but to make later rebellions more difficult, he destroyed the city walls everywhere. By 928, he had also succeeded in finally defeating the son of Ibn Hafsun, who had died ten years earlier, and consolidated his rule over the southern part of al-Andalus. After that, the border regions, weakened by Christian attacks but still not recognising Córdoba’s sovereignty, were added: Mérida in 928, Badajoz in 930, Toledo in 932 and the most distant Zaragoza in 937. In Andalusia, in 930, Zaragoza, in 937, in the last of Spain, in 930, in the last of Spain, in the last of Spain, in 937, the city of Zaragoza, in the last of Spain, the city of Andalusia, was restored.

Age of Light

In 929, Abd ar-Rahman, who had consolidated his position, took the title of caliph – and the epithet “Triumphant” (an-Nasir) – making him the third claimant to the title, alongside the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Fatimids who had set foot in Ifrikia in 909. The latter had become the focus of his policy, as they had established a foothold in Morocco, which had hitherto been under the weak and fragmented rule of the Idrisids, and their declared aim was to gain control of the entire Muslim community. Thus, almost two hundred years after the state was founded, the Umayyads of Córdoba first turned their attention southwards. Until it had consolidated its power over the Andalusian region, it could at most support local states and tribes that resisted the Fatimids. In 931, he took the city of Sabta (Ceuta) on the southern coast of the Strait of Gibraltar, but neither he nor his immediate successors thought of further conquest, instead seeking to place local forces under their patronage as a buffer zone against the Fatimid threat.

The reign of the second caliph, al-Hakam al-Mustansir (961-976), marked the heyday of the Hispanic caliphate. As in his father’s reign, raids for plunder continued in the north, but Christian principalities posed no threat to the powerful and prestigious caliphate. Morocco was the only foreign policy problem, for from 958 onwards, the Idridean ruler of Tangier and the surrounding Rif region, al-Hasan II, swore allegiance to the Fatimids, who were again invading the area. In 972, the Umayyads launched a counterattack with the general Galib, who by 974 had finally crushed the Idrissid resistance, and the captured members of the family were deported to Córdoba. At the same time, the mass influx of Berber mercenaries into Andalusia, which Abd ar-Rahman was still recorded as opposing, began. Caliph al-Hakam is also known for his magnificent court and his generous cultural patronage, founding numerous schools and amassing a vast library, while continuing to expand and beautify the imperial city of ‘The Flowering City’ (al-Madína az-Zahrá, now Medina Azahara), which his father had begun to build near Córdoba. (The city, which housed the court and state offices, was burnt and deserted during the fighting that accompanied the fall of the dynasty.)

Military dictatorship

On the death of al-Hakam al-Mustansir, his only son, Hizam al-Muayyad, who was a minor, ascended to the throne, and the victor of the court intrigues, the chamberlain (Hajib) Muhammad ibn Abi Amir, who gained full power, took the imperial adjective al-Manchur. ) Above all, Ibn Abi Amir made his name as a warlord: records show that he led more than fifty campaigns, sometimes unusually deep, against the Christian kingdoms of the north, defeating them and capturing large amounts of booty – though this time no conquest was ever made. During a quarter of a century of rule by a chamberlain with unlimited power over the military, peace prevailed within the borders of the empire and the North African acquisitions were not threatened. On his death in 1002, his son Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar succeeded him as caliph, but died prematurely in 1008. The position of chamberlain was taken over by his brother Abd al-Rahman, who alienated his subjects within six months through his tyrannical behaviour, and appointed himself heir to the throne with the marginalised caliph Hizam, further fanning discontent.


Abd al-Rahman was away on a northern campaign when a rebellion broke out in Córdoba led by an Omayyad prince calling himself al-Mahdi, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Jabbar, descended from Abd al-Rahman III. The rebels captured and killed the Umayyad chamberlain, who had been abandoned by his troops, and then deposed Hizam. But this was not the end of the series of civil wars that ended with the destruction of the dynasty and the caliphate. Al-Mahdi’s caliph had alienated the Berbers, who now made up a significant part of the military, by a series of measures that helped a noble, also from Abd al-Rahman III, Sulayman ibn al-Hakam, to the throne in November 1009. The struggle did not end there: al-Mahdi returned in 1010, but was killed that same year. Hizam al-Muayyad was then restored to power for three years, but he was overthrown by Sulayman al-Musayn in 1013. Further rebellions began in the name of Hizam, and Sulayman had the ruler executed, whereupon his former followers, the Hammudids, a branch of the Idrisids, finished him off, and ruled Cordoba themselves from 1016-1023, bearing the title of caliph (except for a brief interlude in 1018 by Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammad, who proclaimed himself al-Murtada).

The Hammudids, ousted in September 1023, were succeeded once again by an omayyad, Abd ar-Rahman ibn Hisham al-Mustazhir, but he was killed in 1024 and Muhammad ibn Abd ar-Rahman al-Muktafi took the throne until 1025, when he was assassinated. After two more years of Hammudid rule, another Umayyad became caliph in the person of Hizam al-Mutadd, but the people of Córdoba had had enough of the long civil war, the abuses of various nationalities of the army and the tyranny of the rulers and warlords, and, in response to public opinion, the respected vizier Abu Hazm Jahwar ibn Muhammad decided to exile the Umayyads and declare them unfit to rule, establishing a short-lived dynasty of Jahwarids who ruled without formal office. The Caliphate of Cordoba, which had already broken up into sub-principalities (taifas) during the civil war, was thus finally dissolved.

Because of their isolation, the history of the Andalusian territories has always received only very limited coverage in the flourishing historiography of the East, and much of the much more modest local material has been sadly lost. Both the earlier sources for the history of the Caliphate of Córdoba and his own experiences were put down on paper by Ibn Hajjan, an eyewitness to the fall of the Caliphate who died in 1076, in two of his most important works: al-Muktabis (‘The one who takes the embers out of the fire’) is a careful compilation of earlier historical works, now mostly lost, in which the author identifies his sources. In contrast, al-Matín (‘The Solid’) is a stand-alone work summarising the events of the author’s time. Although both works have survived only in fragments, abstracts and quotations, they are essentially the fundamental and primary sources for the history of the Umayyad of Córdoba. Of lesser value, the collection of anecdotes al-Ikd al-farid (‘The Unique Necklace’) by Ibn Abd Rabbihi (d. 940) provides additional information.


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  11. Mais provavelmente 100 000.
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