Child's History of Spain - John Bonner

Abderrahman the First

A.D. 750-788

In the year 750 the Caliph of Damascus was overthrown and killed by a rival who was called the Butcher, and who proved his right to the title by murdering every member of the Caliph's family except two. Of these two one was a young man named Abderrahman, who saved himself by running away to the desert, where he took refuge with an Arab family. Hunted by the Butcher, he ran away again, and this time he did not stop till he reached Africa, where he found a home with some kindly Berbers.

The Governor of the Berber country, who was a friend of the Butcher, heard of him, and sent a party of soldiers to seize him. But the Berbers gave him warning; he escaped again, and this time he did not rest till he reached the sea-coast of Mauritania. While he was there certain of the Moors in Spain, who had been loyal to the murdered caliph and hostile to his assassin, heard of Abderraham and sent him word to come to Spain. The Moors had ruled Spain for forty-four years, and in those forty-four years they had no less than twenty governors or emirs, most of whom had died violent deaths. Warlike as the Moors were, they sighed for peace.

Abderrahman landed in Andalusia in September, 755. He was only twenty years old, was blind of one eye, and devoid of the sense of smell. But he was tall, stout, strong, and brave. His judgment was sound, and his energy prodigious. I am sorry to say that with these good qualities he coupled want of principle and cruelty. His word was not to be trusted, and no man's life was safe in his hands. He was not a good type of the Moorish chief.

He took with him seven hundred and fifty horsemen, and the blessing of the old Berber chief, whose last words to him were:

"'Tis the finger of Heaven which beckons you. Your cimeter shall restore the honor of your family."

Great numbers of Moors in Andalusia flocked to his standard, Seville opened her gates to him, and next spring, when he had got his army in shape, he marched on Cordova. Governor Yusuf, who had been appointed over Spain by the Butcher, came forth to meet him. The two armies were separated by the river Guadalquivir, swollen by the spring rains. As they gazed at each other across the rolling flood Abderrahman offered to treat for peace if Yusuf let him cross without resistance; the offer was accepted, and when Abderrahman's troops got across they fell upon Yusuf's army and cut it in pieces. This treachery gave him possession of Cordova.

Most of Spain submitted with little hesitation. Nearly fifty years of war had inclined the Moors to peace. They secretly respected the vigor with which Abderraham put down rebellions against his authority; they said to each other that such a man knew how to rule. One party of Moors, who were friends of the Butcher, beset him at Carmona. He attacked them and defeated them. Then cutting off the heads of the officers, he labelled them and sent them in sacks to the Butcher. The latter inspected them with a grim face, and said:

"Thank God, there is a sea between that man and me!"

Toledo was one of the last cities to yield. It opened its gates at last on promise of fair treatment by the conqueror. But he no sooner entered the city than he seized the chief citizens and crucified them.

He chose as his capital the city of Cordova, and when you visit that grand old city you will see many traces of his work, and of the work of his successors. He built dikes along the Guadalquivir, and planted on its banks gardens in which Eastern trees and plants grew. It is said that he was the first to plant the palm-tree in Spain. It reminded him of his Arabian home, though, as he said, the palm and the Euphrates had forgotten his early griefs.

He loved poetry, and wrote verse which is not without merit. To the palm he wrote:

"Like me, thou art a stranger,

Far from thy friends:

Thou host grown up in a foreign soil

Far from the land of thy birth."

But his poetic instincts did not stand in the way of his prosaic care of himself and his throne. He kept power in his own hands, and required all officers in Spain to take their orders from him, and to obey him without debate. To execute his will he had forty thousand Berbers from Africa enrolled as a body-guard, and commanded by devoted officers. They did not speak the language of the Spaniards, and hated them. It was to them a joy to fall upon Spanish rebels with sword and lance, and to strew the field with their corpses.

Abderrahman himself was the hardest worker in his empire. He seemed to require neither rest nor sleep. He would work all night over the reports of his officers in the provinces, and at daybreak he would be found on his horse, reviewing his troops or leading them to battle.



When he first made himself master of Spain he required the country to pay, him ten thousand ounces of gold, ten thousand pounds of silver, ten thousand horses, ten thousand mules, and one thousand cuirasses. Before him the governors of Spain had been called emirs, and had held their authority from the Caliph at Damascus. He now declared that he was the true Caliph, and the head of the Moslem Church, having the blood of Mahomet in his veins. And the Asiatic Caliph, who was in power at this time, removed from Damascus to Bagdad, and did not undertake to dispute his assumption with arms.

But if the successor of the Butcher let Abderrahman alone, his subjects in Spain were not disposed to be so submissive. They were perpetually plotting against him, and the plots did not cease, though the Caliph had a way of crucifying the plotters when he found them out. In the first years of his stay at Cordova he used to walk the streets alone and converse in a friendly way with any one he met. In his later years he never appeared without a powerful body-guard, armed to the teeth. He had several thousand soldiers to guard his palace and his person, and not one of them was a Spaniard. Woe befell any one whom he thought he had reason to suspect.



In his way he was pious. He would offer prayers over the bodies of the dead, and on Fridays he would get into the pulpit of the mosque and preach sermons. Having left the mosque, he would give orders for the execution of prisoners who were accused of disloyalty.

Abderrahman lived to be fifty-three, but his later years were years of misery. A tyrant may enforce submission, but he cannot command friendship. Everybody—relations, friends, comrades-in-arms, and even servants—deserted him, except at the hours when duty required them to attend his presence. They stood before him in silence, with bowed heads. He could not order them to execution because they would not talk to him, and yet it was galling to live a life of silence. Not one single person loved him. Every one looked forward eagerly to his death, and he knew it. Of the women who had laid their beautiful heads on his breast in his youth not one remained; they had died, I suppose—perhaps of broken hearts, for there was not a ray of tenderness in him. His son, who was an admirable young man, rarely saw his father, and could not have respected him. Not even one of those whom he had raised to high command was hypocrite enough to feign to like him.

This desolate old man, however, founded a dynasty which lasted three hundred, and an empire which lasted over seven hundred years. The race of which he was the leader ruled Spain for a period equal in length to that which separates us from the Crusades. They left a mark on that country which ignorance, intolerance, and bigotry have been unable to efface; and, by a strange fatality, the epoch of their expulsion coincides very nearly with the decline and fall of Spanish power and prosperity.