Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Moorish Threat: Al Mansur...

And so, as Santiago became famous as the conqueror of the Moors, what we need to remember is that at that time during the 10th century, Spain such as we know it now, did not exist. Instead it was a number of small kingdoms: Navarra, Aragon, Leon, Castilla. Most of it was, however, overrun by the Moorish conquerors, most especially, Al Andalus, very loosely, today’s Andalucia. The Caliphate of Córdoba was so powerful as to be a rival to Baghdad. Enter Al-Mansur, also known to the Christians as Almanzor: The Victorious One.

"Al-Mansur" was born Muhammad Ibn Abi Aamir into a noble Arab family. He was not born into the royal circles; in fact he came originally from the strategic port of Algeciras. He eventually arrived at the court of Córdoba as a student studying literature and law. He was an ambitious man and fast rose to power as the manager of the estates of Prince Hisham II and as such he rose to ever increasing positions of influence, ruthlessly eliminating his political rivals along the way. Hisham II became Caliph, but he was only 12 years old. Al-Mansur used his influence and occupied and added to the beautiful new palace on the outskirts of Córdoba called Medina Azahara (Medinat al-Zahra) which can still be seen today. The palace became a city where the royal mint and the administrative quarters of the Caliphate were located. Built by the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III in 940, it is said that his young bride (one of - al-Rahman had hundreds) missed the snows of her native land, and so al-Rahman planted almond trees around the palace so that their blossom in the spring would remind her of her homeland.

Al-Mansur was less romantic. After the death of Al-Rahman III, the heir to the Caliphate, as we have seen, was a mere boy, Hisham. Al-Mansur brought the young ruler under his power so completely that he made him a virtual prisoner in Medina Azahara while Al-Mansur secured his position and carried forward with agendas of his own.

As you can imagine, the court of Córdoba was full of intrigue and Al-Mansur knew that he would have to act ruthlessly if he was to maintain his position of power. This took him into many battles. One of these was in the year 981 when he engaged his last remaining rival, Ghalib Al-Nasiri, in battle. He returned victorious. What was seemingly unimportant to him that the leader of the opposition was his own father-in-law.

Ruthless, as we have said.

Upon his return to Córdoba, he assumed the title Al Mansur bi Allah – Victorious by the grace of God. To the Christians, who had every reason to fear him, he was known as Almanzor.

Al-Mansur’s grip on Al-Andalus was now without challenge. He was absolute ruler. He dedicated himself to military campaigns against the Christian states of the peninsula. He organized and took part in 57 campaigns, and was victorious in all of them. To wage these campaigns against the Christian states, he brought in many Berber mercenaries from what is now Morocco, which upset the political order over time. Although he mainly fought against León and Castilla, in 985 he sacked Barcelona and in 997 he turned his interests towards Compostela.

The church was sacked. He took the doors to use in his navy, and he returned triumphantly with the church bell carried on the back of captured Christian slaves.
The legend says that he spared the tomb of St. James. And this fascinates me. Supposedly he rode into the church upon his horse, but he found a pious monk (perhaps the bishop) in prayer by the side of the tomb who refused to leave the site. Again, legend tells us that he was so taken with this man’s piety that he left the shrine,and the priest, alone.

Now what intrigues me is why would this be? Al Mansur was not known for his mercy. He had attacked Compostela for the simple reason that he knew (and I imagine it hadn’t taken too much for his spies to learn this) that the church contained a rival – and a powerful one at that – to his own beliefs. One which had been promoted as a figurehead to rouse the people of the Christian north against him. It would have been understandable if along with the doors and bells (he burned the new church to the ground) he had returned even more triumphant with the remains of the saint with whom the Christian might of the northern kings had planned to threaten his power.

But he didn’t. Why not?

The compelling thought which grips me is that Al Mansur learned something from this monk; something which enlightened him as to the real remains in the tomb. That is to say, that it did not contain St. James, his nemesis, but someone else. Someone perhaps who posed no threat at all? Someone whose own views were not so dissimilar to those of his own religion. Could he have learned from this monk about Priscillian? We will never know. But there are so many mysteries surrounding this tomb that this is one we should not discount.

Al Mansur was not to enjoy his power for much longer. Within five years he was dead. And a new church was to arise from the ashes of the old one. Supposedly, with its relics still intact.

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