The Europeans, no 22: Abd al-Rahman I

The ‘immigrant’ from Syria set up a Muslim dynasty that ruled for three centuries


Abd al-Rahman I, the founder of the Umayyad emirate of Córdoba in Spain, was born to a Berber mother and an Arab father in 731 in Damascus in Syria. He was forced to flee the city when his family was overthrown as the ruling dynasty there by the rival Abbasids in 750.

With a few followers he escaped to Egypt before moving westwards across North Africa, eventually arriving in 755 near Ceuta, today a tiny Spanish possession carved out of Moroccan territory. From there, he sent emissaries across the strait to investigate what his reception might be were he to arrive in al-Andalus (as the country we call Spain was known to the Arabs) and bid for power.

The answer he received was sufficiently encouraging for him to make the short voyage to Europe.

Having gathered allies and exploited pre-existing rivalries and tensions in the south of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman, known in his lifetime as al-Dakhil (the immigrant), established his local dominance with a military victory at the Battle of Musarah, outside Córdoba, in 756.

Over the next 25 years he brought all of al-Andalus under his rule, while initiating the building programme that was eventually to make Córdoba Europe’s pre-eminent centre of learning and culture. By 1000, it had a population of perhaps half a million, which probably made it the most populous city in the world.

During the reign of Abd-al-
Rahman’s successor, Caliph al-Hakam II, Córdoba had 3,000 mosques, 300 public baths, 27 free schools and the largest library in the world, including many books – works that might otherwise have been lost – translated from Greek and Latin under the auspices of an academy formed by the caliph from scholars of Islamised non-Arab (Muladi) and culturally Arabised Christian (Mozarab) backgrounds.

Muslims, Christians and Jews lived for the most part peaceably side by side in medieval Córdoba, although non-Muslims, as the price of tolerance, were subject to taxation.

Astronomy, astrology, law and mathematics were highly valued, as were the practical arts. Horticulture thrived on the back of advances in irrigation. Viticulture – Spanish wine had been highly valued by the Romans and widely exported – did not entirely wither. Although strict Muslims would not countenance alcohol use, the sale of wine to those who appeared to need it was tolerated – and taxed.

The exiled ninth century Persian scholar Ziryab, who ended up in Córdoba, is credited with introducing the notion that instead of piling everything into a single bowl – strawberries with lamb with pigeon with yoghurt – one might classify foods according to type and eat them in courses.

The great Córdoban doctor known to the Latin world as Abulcasis compiled a 30-volume medical dictionary; he was the first to describe an ectopic pregnancy and the first to notice the hereditary nature of haemophilia. He also used an early form of tranquilliser (“the bringer of joy and gladness”), developed vast numbers of surgical instruments, stressed in his teaching the importance of dialogue with the patient, and emphasised that doctors have a duty to care for the poor as well as the rich.

In 1492 the Arabs were expelled from Spain after almost 800 years. What modern “Europe” is and where its borders lie is not as simple a matter as it might seem; nor is the present always a reliable guide to either the past or the future.

What to read
Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World, by John Freely, is published by Vintage

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