An Ornament, Tarnished
It was the evening of December 30, 1066—the ninth of Teveth, 4827, by the Hebrew calendar, and the year 459 of the Hijra, on the tenth day of Safar, a month characterized in Arabic folklore by calamity. It would have been a quiet Saturday night in Granada, a city of mazelike alleys huddled against the northern face of the Sierra Nevada. Perhaps a few white flakes blew down from the mountains. The only sounds to be heard, aside from the barking of stray dogs, would have been the voices of the city’s muezzins, calling out in near unison from their minarets, “Allahu akbar! God is most great! Allahu akbar! God is most great!” and sending the most faithful grimly shuffling through the dusky, unlit streets to salat al-‘isha, the evening prayer. The Sabbath would be drawing to a close, and the city’s Jewish inhabitants would be preparing for the start of the new week. Light from the waxing crescent moon may have reflected off the snow-covered peaks above, and between the mountains and the city, Granada’s residents would have seen the flickering yellow of oil lamps outlined by the shutters along the walls of al-Hamra’.*
This, the “Red Palace,” named after the hillside on which it stood and separated from the main part of the city by the creeklike River Darro, was the home of a Jew, Yusuf (“Yehosef” or “Joseph”) ibn Naghrilla, who had recently been deposed as wazir, or prime minister, of the Muslim Kingdom of Granada. On this evening, inside his palace, Yusuf and a band of his most trusted confederates were feasting in celebration of what they were sure would be the ex-wazir’s imminent coronation as king. As the guests ate and drank, listened to music, and recited poetry, an army led by Ibn Sumadih, the king of Almería, was on the march. In exchange for a declaration of submission, he would place Yusuf on the throne of Granada. As the story goes, a combination of overabundant wine and overconfidence led Yusuf to boast to his ‘abid, his African-born slaves, of the estates and honors that he would grant them once he was king. One of these slaves demanded to know whether the current king, Badis al-Muzaffar, had been killed. When he was rudely silenced, he burst out of the palace in a fit of panic and outrage, shouting, “The Jew has betrayed al-Muzaffar; Ibn Sumadih is about to enter the city!” Hearing his cries, the city’s Muslims poured out of their homes and rushed to al-Hamra’, where they stormed the banquet hall and pillaged the palace. Even the appearance of Badis, still very much alive, could not calm them, and Yusuf, attempting to flee the city in a blackened cloak, was cornered and killed. Next the mob turned on the Jewish inhabitants of the capital, putting them to the sword and plundering their homes.
As dawn rose on the city the king was safe and the armies of Almería had turned back. At least this is the tale as it has been told. It seems both incredible and predictable: a Jew very nearly became king of a Muslim kingdom in medieval Spain, and a community of innocents was massacred. And it has long appeared to represent a turning point in Jewish-Muslim relations in Islamic Spain and beyond. But was it? To understand the events of that December night in 1066 we must go back to the turn of the millennium, to the collapse of the Caliphate of Córdoba and the founding of the Kingdom of Granada.
THE CALIPHATE IN THE WEST
In the tenth century, Islamic Spain—al-Andalus—developed into the greatest economic and cultural power in the West. In the early 900s under the amir ‘Abd al-Rahman III, a long period of upheaval, civil war, and foreign attacks came to end. ‘Abd al-Rahman subdued the ever-rebellious Arab elite of al-Andalus—the descendants of the warriors who conquered Visigothic Hispania in the early eighth century—forced the small Christian principalities that dotted the mountainous north of Spain to submit to his authority, and undertook the conquest of northwest Africa. With that campaign Córdoba gained access to gold that originated on the far side of the Sahara, in the Niger Delta and the Akan Forest farther beyond. Intrepid Muslim merchants began to take cloth and salt across the vast desert and trade them pound for pound for high-quality gold, as well as ivory, pelts, and slaves. Much of this gold found its way into the royal treasury, funding a navy with which the amir controlled the Western Mediterranean, and a new army that soon had no serious adversary on the Iberian Peninsula. Up to this time, the Arab tribal elite of al-Andalus had dominated the army of a relatively united Umayyad Spain, and ‘Abd al-Rahman’s predecessors could not rule without their consent. But now, with a new army made up largely of Berber mercenaries recruited from Tunisia and Morocco and paid for with African gold, ‘Abd al-Rahman cowed both the tribal elite and his Christian tributaries, some of whom were his own kin. The submission of these tributaries to Córdoba was so complete that the Muslim court became a center of Christian diplomacy and intrigue, and its harem a destination for their daughters.*
The African gold also inaugurated a time of unprecedented prosperity in al-Andalus, and a cultural and scientific renaissance. Córdoba became the center of both trade and culture. The city’s population swelled to nearly half a million, making it, alongside Constantinople and Cairo, the largest metropolis west of Baghdad. The streets were paved, and unlike the filth, squalor, and danger of the stunted and primitive cities of Northern Europe, the capital had a working sewage system, a police force, and street lighting. On those streets peoples from across the Mediterranean and beyond rubbed shoulders: most of the city’s inhabitants were Muslims, but there were also many Christian Mozarabs and Jews, who were all but indistinguishable in language, dress, and habits from one another and from their Muslim neighbors. The strange accents and languages of foreign visitors could also be heard: merchants and scholars from the expanse of the Islamic world, and not a few Latin foreigners, as well as slaves imported from the “land of the Blacks” and pagan Eastern Europe or captured in raids on Christian lands, and even the occasional Byzantine Greek. These peoples were joined by an increasing number of new arrivals from North Africa, Berber warriors and their families who were looked down on by the native Andalusis for being dark-skinned, and—as they saw it—rude and uncultured.* The city was a tumult of workers and craftsmen, traders and merchants, stern royal officials, veiled courtesans, haughty slaves, beggars, soldiers, scholars, and holy men. The aromas of Africa and India wafted from the covered market northeast of the royal fortress, where cloth merchants hawked silks and linens and where gold- and silversmiths’ hammers added to the din caused by the braying of donkeys, the bellowing of camels, and the chatter of townsfolk, visitors, officials, and charlatans of all kinds.
Next door to the market sprawled the majestic Great Mosque, which ‘Abd al-Rahman renovated, doubling its size to accommodate the city’s burgeoning population. Outside of the magnificent structure, scribes-for-hire wrote petitions, contracts, and letters for all and sundry. Within the stone walls, a broad patio, shaded by orange trees and cooled by sprinkling water fountains, served as a public park and gathering space. Near the doors to the prayer hall, the qadi, or magistrate, held court and passed sentence on cases both mundane and sensatio