Timeline: Umayyad in Spain {711-1031}

After the initial years of the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula between 711-714/92-95 AH, the two successful conquerors of the campaign, Ṭāriq b. Ziyād (d. 720/101 AH) and Mūsā b. Nuṣayr (d. 716/97 AH), were summoned back to Damascus by the Umayyad Caliph Walīd b. ‘Abd al-Malik. After their departure, starting with Mūsā’s son, ‘Abd al-‘Azīz, a period of rapid governorships arose, in which the newly conquered territory was in a state of political confusion. After the assassination of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz, almost no governor stayed in power for more than one or two years. The appointment of these early governorships was either by the governor of Qayrawān or the caliph himself in Damascus; however, due to its distance from Damascus, al-Andalus was not subject to an established central rule. Rather, the early governors of al-Andalus were undermined by local rulers who were usually descendants of the initial conquerors who had assumed control over different lands. The revenues of these new provinces were at their disposal and they used them as they saw fit. These lords opposed central government control or any loss of their own revenue, and therefore, early governors of the newly-conquered land were often kept at their bidding. In these years, the Muslim armies pushed northward into unconquered Christian territory where they continued raids. However, after suffering a bitter defeat at the hands of Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers in 732 the northern advancement and continuous raids of the Muslims for booty in the Christian territories came to a halt.

Thus, the Muslim armies, consisting of both Berber and Arab populations began to settle the cities and rural areas of the conquered areas of Spain leading to more upheaval and feudal strife for control over the resources and revenues remaining within the newly defined boundaries of al-Andalus. In addition, in 740/122 AH an uprising of North African Berbers occurred when the financial administrator of Egypt, ‘Ubayd Allāh b. al-Ḥabḥāb, in attempt to increase revenue, levied the kharāj (land tax) on them, thus reducing them to a subordinate status within the Muslim community. Thus, this factor as well as other resentments led the Berbers to adopt Kharijite beliefs and ultimately defect from Umayyad rulership. The Umayyads in Damascus lost control of their North African provinces as the Berber Revolt continued. ‘Ubayd Allāh b. al-Ḥabḥāb also employed his strict fiscal measures in  al-Andalus at the hands of the appointed governor, ‘Uqba b. al-Ḥajjāj al-Salūlī. In fear that the Berber movement should spread into Spain, the Andalusi Arabs removed al-Salūlī and replaced him with ‘Abd al-Malik b. Qaṭan al-Fihrī.

This did not, however, stop the Berbers from revolting and in 741/123 AH an uprising of Berbers occurred in the north-west and the Arabs were driven out. The Berbers marched on to Cordoba and ‘Abd al-Malik looked for reinforcements from North Africa. He summoned Balj b. Bishr, a leader of the Syrian jund, and his men who had unsuccessfully been fighting the Berbers in North Africa. The Syrian army arrived in al-Andalus in 742/124 AH. Balj’s army, along with the Andalusi Arabs, were successful in defeating the Berbers in a battle near Toledo, however, rather than return to North Africa as they had originally agreed, the Syrian jund decided to remain in the rich new territory. Balj assumed power from ‘Abd al-Malik who was killed in a coup. Therefore, the Andalusi population was fragmented between the Baladiyyūn, established Arabs of the new province, and the Shāmiyyūn, the newly arrived Syrians. al-Andalus now consisted of a population of the early Arab settlers and the newly arrived Syrian jundīs, of whom many were bound by loyalty to the Umayyads in Damascus. Furthermore, several mawālī (clients) of the Umayyads, also were among the settlers. These events were an important factor for the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty in Spain.

The Umayyad Amirate (756-912/138-299 AH)

 From 661-750/40-132 AH the Umayyad clan were the rulers of the early medieval Islamic world which stretched from Sind in the east to al-Andalus in the west. However, between 747-750/129-132 AH the ‘Abbasid revolution took place in which the Umayyads were removed from power and most of the members of the ruling family were executed. However, the grandson of the caliph Hishām (r. 724-743/105-125 AH), ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Mu’āwiya, was able to escape and took refuge with his mawālī in Ifriqīya where he was not thoroughly welcomed by the governor, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Fihrī and had to flee again. He then proceeded among the tribes of the Nafza Berbers who were relatives of his mother. From here he sent his most trusted mawlā, Badr, to al-Andalus to make contact with they Syrian junds who been long-standing and loyal clients of the Umayyads. After being a fugitive for almost five years, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān was finally able to come to al-Andalus and entered Almuñecar in the year 755/137 AH.

The leaders of al-Andalus at the time, chiefly the governor, Yusuf b. ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Fihrī, and the leader of the powerful Qaysī tribe, al-Ṣumayl b. Ḥātim al-Kilābī, were not in favor of ‘Abd al-Rahmān’s arrival in fear of him gaining support among the local populace and losing their own power over the peninsula. This fear was  not misplaced, since after initially being given refuge among his loyal mawālī, by 756/138 AH ‘Abd al-Raḥmān had succeeded in assembling an army of 2000 Umayyad mawālī and jundīs. He marched on Cordoba and defeated the armies of Yusuf and al-Ṣumayl. He was proclaimed the Amīr of al-Andalus in the Great Mosque of Cordoba on 14 May 756/10 Thw al-Hijjah 138 AH. As ‘Abd al-Raḥmān assumed temporal power over Spain, he gave rise to a new Umayyad dynasty which would rule and bring everlasting change to al-Andalus for the next 275 years.

 ‘Abd al-Raḥmān spent the next thirty-three years of his long rule consolidating power throughout al-Andalus and overcoming his adversaries. With threats from both within the peninsula and abroad from the Abbasids, he maintained power and spread his rule over the Muslim occupied territories. During this time, he also firmly established Cordoba as the central capital of al-Andalus. Hardly any material culture besides a few coins minted by the early governors exists from the pre-Umayyad period. However, after ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s arrival in Cordoba, there are some architectural features attributed to his reign. Although the early governors of Cordoba and the Umayyad amīrs lived in the appropriated Visigothic palace,  the Qaṣr (Alcazar), at the southwest corner of the city adjacent to the congregational mosque, Abd al-Raḥmān additionally built the country palace of al-Ruṣāfa at the 3 kilometers north-west of Cordoba on the edge of a stream. This palace is reported to have had wonderful plants and trees brought in from all parts of the world, including a Syrian palm, which served the Amīr as nostalgia for his distant homeland. The walled and gated Qaṣr, which underwent continuous developments throughout the Amirate period, ultimately consisted of the Amīr’s palace, reception halls, administrative offices, and various gardens. However, his most remarkable achievement in the sphere of architecture was the beginning of the construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba which he began in 785/168 AH nearly thirty years after proclaiming himself as the Amir.

Following ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s death in 788/172 AH. the Amirate of Cordoba continued for well over a century on the peninsula. During this time several changes took place in Al-Andalus. Hishām I (r. 788-96/172-180 AH) was responsible for the introduction of Mālikism in the peninsula and this legal system later spread to the rest of the western Islamic world. The reign of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II (r. 822-852/207-238 AH) was also marked with increased military concentration on the emerging Christian kingdom of the North as well as internal revolts. The Vikings also attacked al-Andalus in 848/234 AH during his reign which led to the walling of Seville and the construction of an arsenal for naval protection. He also made several significant additions to the Great Mosque of Cordoba.

During his reign the court of Cordoba became even more bureaucratic and the administration formalized. For instance, at its head was the ḥājib (originally meaning chamberlain), who acted much like a prime minister and held court at the palace gates. Under the ḥājib was the office of the wuzurā (viziers) whose offices were reportedly salaried at 300 dinārs. Along with these offices the institutions of the coin mint, the diwān for tax collection, and the royal ṭirāz (imperial textile workshops) also became part of the Cordoban court. More importantly, ’Abd al-Raḥmān II also fostered a literary culture within the court and many scholars and poets arrived in Cordona.  Due to the civil war which broke out between al-Amīn and al-Ma’mūn between 811-819/195-203 AH in the Abbasid court in the east, many poets found a new home in the new Umayyad capital. Notably among them was the famed singer Ziryāb whose arrival in Andalus was a moment of great excitement in Cordoba since he brought with him the cultural elitism of the east, including new methods of singing poetry and techniques for cooking, makeup, dining etiquette, and fashion.  By the time of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II’s death in 852/237 AH the Umayyad’s of Spain had become a distinct power within the Mediterranean with a thriving court culture.

The Golden Age of The Umayyad Caliphate 929-976/317-365 AH

The following reigns of the sons and grandsons of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II were spent in aiming to consolidate power and help restore the weakened power of the central government after several regional feuds and uprisings. The amriate had lost its initial prowess and different areas of al-Andalus were split amongst various local lords. When  ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (r. 912-961/299-350 AH) ascended on the throne in 912/299 AH, Cordoba was in a weakened state and barely extended any actual political control beyond its own walls. In the early years of his reign, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III had to slowly retake the several castles, fortresses, and cities being occupied by independent rulers. He organized successful military expeditions and employed tactical plans and engineered technology in his sieges such as cutting fruit trees, siege engines, and mangonels. At many places, such as Bobastro, he left siege camps with their own markets to ensure that these areas remained under Cordoba’s control. On the other hand, he politically maneuvered surrenders of areas by offering their lords and rulers positions at his court or in the army. He reinstated the policy of military raids into the Christian territories of the north. By 929/317 AH he had reconquered the peninsula and reestablished a kingdom similar to his grandfather ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II.

Subsequently, in order to symbolize his triumph and to challenge the rising Shi’ī dynasty of the Fatimids who had established a rival caliphate in Ifrīqīya in 909/296 AH, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III publicly assumed the title of Amīr al-Muminīn (Commander of the Faithful) in his Qāḍī Aḥmad b. Bāqī's Friday khuṭba in 929/317 AH. Letters were sent around the provinces announcing the new caliphate and for the first time in two centuries gold dīnārs were minted in al-Andalus. The Cordoban court of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān engaged in the world platform through the exchange of embassies with the courts of the German emperor, Otto I (r. 938-973/326-362 AH), and the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (d. 959/348 AH). Cordoba welcomed Byzantine mosaicists to work in Cordoba and a Byzantine monk named Nicolas is recorded to have arrived there to work on a Greek Dioscorides manuscript.  During his reign the dynasty had reached its epic zenith and a golden period in Iberian history.

Architecture had also reached its greatest heights during ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III’s reign with the construction of the Madīna al-Zahra in ca. 936- 940/325-329 AH which was a magnificent palatial city located five kilometers east of Cordoba. In 946/334-5 AH ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III took up residence in his new city and a little over a year later, administrative components such as the coin mints also were shifted there. Madīna al-Zahra became the central arena for the public display of caliphal power through the exhibition of court ceremonies and the receipt of embassies.

‘Abd al-Raḥmān III died in 961/350 AH and was succeeded by his son al-Ḥakam (r. 961-976/350-365 AH) who continued his father’s legacy. During his successful reign, the Christian kingdoms of the north had become humble vassals paying tribute to the caliphate.  al-Ḥakam also extended Umayyad military activity across the straits in Morocco. He also made improvements to Madīna al-Zahra  and to the Great Mosque of Cordoba of which the current ornate miḥrab is attributed to his patronage. The caliphal age in the history of Cordoba transformed al-Andalus into one of the most prestigious powers in the medieval Mediterranean. Trade, commerce, agriculture, and industry flourished throughout the Iberian peninsula. The estimated population of Cordoba was 100,000 in the tenth century it became the most developed city in Europe of its time.

The Downfall of The Spanish Umayyads

Upon al-Ḥakam’s death in 976/336 AH, his son Hishām II (d. 1013/403 AH) succeeded him at the age of eleven. Taking advantage of the vulnerable age of the young sovereign, the court ḥājib, Muḥammad b. Abī ‘Āmir al-Manṣūr (d. 1002/392 AH) assumed absolute power over al-Andalus.  His heirs continued a short dynastic reign after his death under the position of the ḥājib which the submissive Hishām II willingly sanctioned.  By the end of Hishām II’s reign the caliphate was irreversibly weakened and after continuous political strifes among members of the Umayyad dynasty trying to regain power in al-Andalus, the dynast collapsed in 1031/422 AH. Thus, al-Andalus became politically fragmented beginning the era of the Tā’ifa Kings.


Ali Asgar Alibhai, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University

Related Resources:

Andalusian Gardens


Bearman, P. J. The Encyclopedia of Islam. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Dodds, Jerrilynn Denise. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.

Kennedy, Hugh. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of Al-Andalus. London: Longman, 1996.

O'Callaghan, Joseph F. A History of Medieval Spain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Ruggles, D. Fairchild. Gardens, Landscape, and Vision in the Palaces of Islamic Spain. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

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