VISIT TO THE TOMB OF AL-MUíTAMID IBN ĎABBAD -
ARAB SPAIN'S POET KING
by Habeeb Salloum
I was barely aware of my fellow passengers, my daughter and I waited near
Jamaa el Fna, Marrakesh's most famous square, for our bus to begin on its way to
Aghmat - a Berber village some 33 km (20 mi) away.
Our goal was the tomb of the Andalusian poet-king al-Muítamid ibn
ĎAbbad located in that town. Unlike
the other passengers, I was in another world.
My mind had strayed back to the 11th century when this Moorish monarch's
court in Seville was the resort of lovers, poets, musicians and all types of
Even as the bus began to move, my thoughts did not stray away from
al-Muítamid's world of love, splendour and tragedy.
In spite of the bus driver's loud playing tape, urging the Arab people to
overthrow their un-Islamic rulers, my thoughts were back in history, to the time
when Arab Spain was at the zenith of its cultural flowering - the era when
al-Muítamid ibn ĎAbbad was Seville's poet-king.
After the fading away of the illustrious Umayyad caliphate in the 11th
century, Arab Spain broke up into two dozen paltry states, dubbed by some
writers as Ďturbaned Italian republicsí.1
They were ruled by petty-monarchs, who came to be known as mukluk
at-tawaíif. Year after year,
they bickered or fought each other in an endless series of trivial wars.
At the same time, the usually quarrelling Christian states in the north
were uniting and beginning to occupy parts of Arab Spain, putting into motion
the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
Strange as it may seem, this did not bring the Arab mini-states together.
Their rulers continued on their merry ways, paying tribute to the
Christians and warring against each other - at times with the help of their
Yet, even with all this turbulence, this was Moorish Spain's finest
cultural era - a time of affluence and literary accomplishments. The rulers of Badajoz, Granada, Zaragoza, Seville, Toledo and
other city-states, who had inherited the grandeur of Umayyad Spain, filled their
towns with majestic palaces and enchanted gardens.
Even when feuding or vying for political dominance, they tried to attract
to their courts the most renowned of entertainers, poets and scholars.
Each state became a little earthly delight, living in a world of
make-believe, unaware of the northern armies pounding at their gates.
Of all these petty kingdoms, Seville, under the ĎAbbadids, was
militarily and culturally the most formidable.
Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Ismaíil ibn ĎAbbad (1013 to 1042 A.D.), the
founder of this dynasty, was noted for his wise rule and literary attributes.
He was succeeded by his son al-Muítadid (1042-68), who was a genuine
patron of literature and the arts, and a poet in his own right.
However, he was feared for his tyrannical ways.
His offspring, al-Muítamid (1068-91), the third and last successor of
the ĎAbbadid dynasty, surpassed his two ancestors in courage, magnanimity and
composition of poetry. Histories of
Moorish-Spain are permeated with praises for this enlightened prince who was to
occupy the throne for 23 event-filled years.
Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn ĎAbbad al-Muítamid (also known as
Muítamid Ďala Allah, al-Zafir and al-Muíayyad Abu al-Qasim), a
contemporary of England's William the Conqueror, was born in 1040 at Beja near
Seville. He became famous for his poetry, especially the love odes to
his wife Iítimad, a former slave girl, once called al-Rumaykiya, who he
showered with love and precious gifts. A
great and tragic figure he surrounded his life with a halo of romance and legend
and tasted both the joys and bitterness of life.
A poet of love in his early years, he went on, in his later days of
exile, to write verses of nostalgia, sorrow, suffering and deep humiliation.
Ibn Bassam, a contemporary Arab bard, describes his poetry as being
sweeter than the blooming calyx of odoriferous flowers and unequalled in
tenderness of the soul.2
When al-MuĎtamid inherited the throne, he became a protector of bards
and men of letters. Besides seeking
the company of musicians and intellectuals, he himself played the lute and
composed delicate poetry. High-spirited
and grand in his way of life, he became an outstanding representative of the
11th century Andalusian-Arab poets and is ranked with the best of Arab
His father, in the early part of his reign, appointed him as governor of
Shalb - today the Portuguese city of Silves.
Here he learned the art of politics while at the same time enjoying life.
He brought to court his childhood companion, Ibn ĎAmmar, a
poet-adventurer whose artful verses had captured al-Muítamid's heart.
Lovers of the fair sex and poetry, they became intimate friends and
enjoyed an adventurous time together.
A story is told that a few years previously when al-Muítamid and his
bosom companion Ibn ĎAmmar, whom he had also made his advisor, were walking in
disguise along Seville's river, Wadi al-Kabir (Guadalquivir), they passed a
number of women washing their linen. Noting
the wind rippling the surface of the river, al-Muítamid improvised a half
verse, challenging his friend to finish the second part:
"Sanaí al-rihu min al-ma'i zarad
(The wind has spun a coat-of-mail of water)Ē,
Noting that Ibn ĎAmmar hesitated, one of
ďAyyu dir`in li-qitalin
(What a shield it would be for battle, if it stiffened)."
Struck by her quick wit and great beauty, al-Muítamid bought her
freedom from her master, the muleteer Rumayk ibn al-Hajjaj, and later married
her. It is said that he adopted the
public name al-Muítamid Ďala Allah (he who counts on God) because of her
name Iítimad (Reliance).3
Al-Muítamid's and Ibn ĎAmmar's relationship was close and moving but
ended in tragedy. When
al-Muítamid became sovereign, he bestowed on his friend many honours, but
Ammar betrayed him by satire, then by rebellion.
Outraged, the king killed him with his own hands.4
As a youth in his father's court and in Shalb, al-Muítamid's foremost
preoccupation was with poetry and the pleasures of friends in the company of
singing girls. He had inherited his
poetical talent from both his grandfather and father, and was later to pass on
this ability to his children. In
this part of his early life, his obsession was majalis al-uns (carefree
gatherings), enlivened by poetical jousts, drink and song.
These sessions inspired him to become an outstanding poet concentrating
on the themes of wine, gaiety and love. Once,
while drinking with his friends, the wine induced him to recite:
"As I was passing by,
A vine, its tendrils tugged my sleeve.
ĎDo you designí, said I,
ĎMy body so to grieve?'
ĎWhy do you passí, the vine
Replied, Ďand never greeting make?
It took this blood of mine
Your thirsting bones to slake.í5
Another time, describing a beautiful concubine, he
"She loosed her robe, that I might see
Her body, lissome as a tree.
The calyx opened in that hour
And oh, the beauty of my flower!"6
In this period of his fun-filled life, beautiful
maidens gave him the inspiration to write ghazal (love poetry).
At times he put in words his ensnarement with the fair sex:
"Her piercing eyes cut my heart in two,
And my eyes wept with longing for her...
And I would kiss the lips behind the veil,
And embrace the pearl necklace above your embroidered sash!"7
After the death of his father in 1068, al-Muítamid,
at the age of 28 ascended the throne. In
the next two decades, besides being a benevolent ruler and an eminent statesman,
he became known for his personal noble qualities.
Historians have written that he was the most chivalrous, courageous,
liberal, high-minded and unselfish of all of al-Andalus's Petty Kings and noted
for his virtues of discretion, generosity and modesty.
Al-Muítamid's court turned into a resort of renowned poets and literary
men. Among those who received his
favours were, besides Ibn ĎAmmar, who some historians call the greatest of the
11th century Andalusian-Arab poets, ĎAbd al-Jabbar ibn Hamdis, who fled Sicily
when the Normans occupied that island, the bard Ibn Lubbana, once one of
al-Muítamid's vizirs, and Bakr ibn ĎAbd as-Samad, a noted poet of that era.
In this early part of his reign, when all that surrounded him were
prosperity and ease, he was content with life and remained devoted to Iítimad.
Submissive to her whims, he sang her verses of passion and tenderness,
which reflected a deep, noble and undying love.
They had a splendid life in court together and he could barely be
separated from her. Once, while he
was away on a military expedition, he wrote a long passionate poem to her in
which he lamented:
"I am pining because of being separated from you,
Inebriated with the wine of my longing for you;
Crazed with the desire to be with you,
To sip your lips and to embrace you! ...
Come to me, dear, fully trusting me,
Believe me: my heart is in your bond!"8
Al-Muítamid had met Iítimad ar-Rumaikiya about 1059 when both were
around 19. She appears to have been
beautiful, capricious, gracious, witty and a good poetess, well versed in
literature. The king's infatuation
with the former slave girl knew no bounds and he attempted to indulge her every
wish. Once, while looking through
the palace window, she saw some old ladies mixing mud in the street.
She exclaimed to al-Muítamid, "If they could do that, why couldn't
I?" And it was for al-Muítamid to order that dirt be mixed with perfumes
so that his beloved and her maids could play in the mud.9
Another story is told of Iítimad watching snowflakes falling - a rare
event in Cordova which hardly knows winter - when she burst into tears calling
al- Muítamid a monster and tyrant for not taking her to some country where she
might see this lovely thing every winter. Wanting
to satisfy her, he had all the surrounding land planted with almond trees, so
that every winter their blossoms would be a substitute for snow.10
Iítimad bore al-Muítamid six sons and a number of daughters - one,
called Zubaydah, married the Christian monarch Alfonso VI who had, besides her,
four other wives.11 Her sons all perished in
battle and it is said that she mourned them until her last days, dying
Even though al-Muítamid was immersed in love and poetry, he did not
neglect state affairs. He enlarged
his kingdom, occupying among others cities, Cordova, Jaťn and Murcia.
Seville's poet-king was in the heart of every battle and proved to be a
great warrior. He is reported to
have told one of his sons who was fighting by his side, "Do not fear, for
death is easier than humiliation and the road of kings is from the palace to the
As a result of his conquests, he became the most powerful monarch among
the Petty Kings. Yet, neither his
kingdom nor any of the other small Muslim states could hold back Alfonso VI,
King of Castile, Leůn and Navarre, who had resolved to conquer the entire
After Alfonso occupied Toledo in 1085, he forced many of the
Andalusian-Arab states, among them Seville, to pay tribute.
The Muslims of Andalusia realized that if they were to survive, they had
to seek help and turned to the Almoravids, the Berber rulers of North Africa.
Some of the Andalusian-Arab rulers were not enthusiastic about this
invitation but Alfonso's conquering legions left them no choice.
Al-Muítamid is reported to have said in response to the criticisms
brought against him by the Petty Kings that he preferred to be a camel driver in
Morocco rather than a swine herder in Castile.13
The Arab kings of Seville, Badajoz and Granada sent a delegation to
Marrakesh, pressing Yusuf ibn Tashufin, leader of the Almoravids, for help.
Ibn Tashufin agreed and in 1086 crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with his
army. At the Battle of Zallakah,
near Badajoz, aided by al-Muítamid and the other Andalusian-Arab princes, he
defeated Alfonso and liberated the Muslims from paying tribute.
Al-Muítamid fought like a lion, having three chargers killed under him
and receiving three severe wounds. Returning
together as heroes to Seville, al-Muítamid and Ibn Tashufin spent some time
together before the latter returned to Africa.
No sooner had Ibn Tashufin reached his capital in Morocco, then the Petty
Kingdoms returned to their squabbling ways, giving the Christians a chance to
renew their attacks. The Arab
kings, among them al-Muítamid, again travelled to Marrakesh seeking the Berber
leader's assistance. At the same
time, the religious leaders of al-Andalus were petitioning Ibn Tashufin to rid
them of their contending Arab monarchs who were unable to cope with the
Ibn Tashufin returned to Andalusia in 1090 and in a short time disposed
of the Party Kings, despoiled their cities and sent the rulers who were not
assassinated into exile in North Africa. Only
al-Muítamid, who had been in the forefront of those asking for Ibn Tashufin's
aid, offered serious resistance. At
the last hour, Seville's king attempted to forge an alliance with Alfonso, but
it was too late. After six days of
onslaught, Seville surrendered in 1091 and al-Muítamid and his family were put
in chains then loaded on black barges. Ibn Tashufin, who had come to rescue Andalusia from the
Christians, instead, led its foremost king into captivity and disgrace.
people of Seville gathered on the banks of their river to view the sad spectacle
of their beloved sovereign and his family being taken into exile.
Ibn Labbana's elegy, well describes this heart rendering scene:
shall forget everything before the morning by the Guadalquivir
when they were in the ships, like dead men in their graves;
The people crowded on both banks, watching how these pearls
floated on the froth of the river.
Veils fell, because maidens no longer cared to cover their faces,
and faces were torn, as mantles were in the old time;
The moment came: what tumult of farewells! Damsels and
Gallants vied in lamentation."14
As the captives were crossing the Strait of Gibraltar
to Tangier, Ibn al-Labbana mused:
"The Mubarak weeps, now that Ibn ĎAbbad is gone,
It weeps over the departed lions and gazelles;"15
The prisoners were initially taken to Meknes, then to Aghmat - the
Almoravids' first capital, located in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains.
During the first two years of exile, though living in utter destitution,
al-Muítamid enjoyed some personal freedom, but poetry was his only solace.
He often reminisced in verse about his beloved Seville.
In one of these poems, he reflects:
"I wonder whether I ever shall spend a night
With flower gardens and water pools around me,
Where green olive groves, far famed, are planted,
Where the doves sing, the warbling of birds resounds."16
As time went on, al-Muítamid mourned his pitiful existence in fine verse, lamenting his cruel captivity. Remorseful, he decried the misery of his family, which had fallen from the pinnacle of happiness and power to the depths of poverty and debasement. During their first 'Id al-Fitr (the Muslim festival of the breaking of the fast) in confinement, tormented by the sight of his wife and daughters spinning wool, he lamented in sorrow:
"You see your daughters in tatters, hungry,
Penniless, they are spinning for other people:...
Treading on hard clay, barefooted, humbled
As if they had never been treading on musk and camphor,
Their hollow cheeks show signs of lack of food,
They sigh, their tears roll down like copious rain."17
When one of al-Muítamid's and Iítimad's last remaining sons, ĎAbd
al-Jabbar, in 1093 revolted in al-Andalus, they greeted the insurrection with
hope and joy. Ibn Tashufin feared
al-Muítamid would try to escape and had him put in fetters.
Al-Muítamid responded to his captor, writing in verse:
"My chains: Do you not know I am a Muslim?
You refuse to pity me, you are unmerciful."18
In the same poem, addressing his son, he bemoaned his
sad condition and that of his family:
"The sound of iron chains rings in my ear
So heavily; its touch fills the eyes with tears:
Your little sisters are dying in grief for you
So is your mother: bereavement sears her heart:
She weeps - no cloud ever shed more copious streams."19
The rebellion was broken after a few months and the son killed. Constantly grieving over the loss of her offspring and the sad condition of life in Aghmat, Iítimad became very ill and died shortly afterwards. In 1095, Al-Muítamid, still in chains and overwhelmed with grief for his beloved, passed away in abject destitution at the age of 55. One of Arab Spain's eminent figures, he has been written about for centuries. Al Marrakushi, a 13th century historian, said of him: "If one wanted to list all the examples of beauty produced in Andalusia from the time of the conquest to the present day, then al-Muítamid would be one of them, if not the greatest of all."20
I was still reminiscing about this poet-prince who represents the epitome of the brilliance of Arab culture, when near 30 km (19 mi) from Marrakesh, we turned to the left on a narrow road. In about 5 minutes we were in the village of Aghmat, boasting in al-Muítamid's time medrasas (schools) and royal tombs. Now, all we could see were the modest reddish adobe homes of the townspeople. As we walked from the bus stop, every one beamed when we asked the way to al-Muítamid ibn ĎAbbad's tomb. Not one person seemed surprised that strangers had come to visit the village's most famous site.
As it has been for many centuries, his mausoleum in Aghmat is still well-known and frequented by travellers. The romantic aura of Seville's virtuous lyricist-king has drawn visitors from the day Ibn Tashufin brought him a prisoner to the city. His first guests were poets like Ibn Labbana and Ibn Hamdis, who visited him while he was still alive.
After al-Muítamid's death, his contemporaries, including friends, fellow poets and even strangers, came to visit his tomb, paying their respects to this proverbial king. Among those were the poet Abu Bakr ibn ĎAbd as-Samad, who visited the grave a few days after al-Muítamid's death and Ahmad Ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari, the 17th century last great historian of the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula who wrote the famous Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain. The paying of homage to this poet-king whose life ended in tragedy has continued until our day.
Standing inside the mausoleum, newly renovated in 1991, I surveyed the three gravestones: those of al-Mu Ďtamid and Iítimad, divided by that of one of their daughters. Turning, I saw tears flowing from my daughter's eyes as she gazed on the graves of the once proud and powerful king of Seville and the ones he loved. I remembered the words of the traveller who wrote, "People weep for him still."21
My eyes watered, recalling the words of Ibn Bakr, who after kissing al-Muítamid's crypt, recited a long poem which included these verses:
"Oh king of kings, do you hear?
May I address you?
Or do these circumstances not allow you to hear?
When your palaces were deprived of your presence,
And you were not there as usual during the feasts,
I humbly came to this ground, my purpose being
At your tomb to recite a poem of praise to you!...
My eyes send forth one stream after another, but
The fire of my heart flames constantly anew."22
Back in Marrakech, the bus let us off besides a mausoleum-like building. Stopping a passer-by, I asked, "What is this structure?" He smiled, responding, "It's the tomb of Ibn Tashufin - the hero of our nation." I could barely hold back the tears. Hero he might be to some people, but to me he was the one who humiliated Arab Spain's most brilliant literary mind and had him die in chains.
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