Saqaliba – Slavs in the Arab World, Part 3 (Slavs in Muslim Spain,part 1)
Time has come to mention the Slavs who arrived in the Muslim-occupied Spain. These can be subdivided into two groups: one consisted of the slaves of Slavic origin who were recognized as a highly valued commodity there, and the other were Slavic warriors who voluntarily became mercenaries in the service of the Arabic rulers of Spain; the latter must have been surely attracted by the fabulous wealth of al-Andalus.
The Slavic slaves sold to Muslim Spain included female concubines for the harems of the rich Arabs who were especially valued for their light complexion and blond hair, and males, often brought in as young boys, who either became civil servants, palace servants, eunuchs at the above-mentioned harems, or, in the case of the physically strongest specimen, troops of the elite Slavic Guards, which served as “preatorian guards,” and whose soldiers enjoyed special privileges from the Arabic rulers of Spain. It must be also added that part of the Slavic slaves who arrived in Spain were later transferred to other locations in the Muslim world, like North Africa and even the Middle East; in the former the existence of the Slavic Guards has also been confirmed (see below about the Slavic Guard at Nukur). According to Ibn Hauqal the Slavic slaves were brought to Muslim Spain via Galicia, Frankia, the Lombard Kingdom, and Calabria in Southern Italy
With regard to the Slavs who arrived in Muslim Spain on their own account, to serve as mercenaries in the armies of the Spain’s Arabic rulers, we know that the more venturesome Slavs from both the Balkans and the southern shores of the Baltic could have reached Spain without too much difficulty; the Mediterranean is very much an inland sea, with lots of coasts and islands that make navigation much easier than is the case with an open ocean. The Western Slavs from the Baltic had a more difficult journey to accomplish, but they could have easily employed stop-overs at various Slavic “Danelaws” established on the North Sea, one such in the present-day area of Utrecht in the Netherlands (founded by the Vielets), and which Thomas Ebendorfer refers to as the Provincia Veletaborum (Vielet Province), as well as many more in England where Western Slavic settlement during the viking times was surprisingly extensive. It appears that the Danes made an extensive use of Slavs as mercenaries and settlers in parts of England; the Slavs’ military virtues being clearly very appreciated by these most fearsome of all the Norsemen. Not surprising, since Denmark, and to lesser degrees Sweden and Norway, itself experienced the fury of the Slavs on its own skin.
The Slavs arrived in Muslim Spain quite early on; already in 762 a certain Arabic diplomat named ‘Abd ar-Rahman al-Fihri, who arrived from the East to agitate on behalf of the Abbasids, had the nickname of as-Saqlabi (the Slav), because he was tall, had auburn hair and blue eyes. There were also many Slavs at the court of the Omayyad Emir of Cordoba al-Hakam I (796-822). The Slavs in Muslim Spain quickly attained an important position in the social structure of Muslim Spain, and many went on to play an important role in its politics in the subsequent future. These “Spanish” Slavs found a powerful patron in the person of ‘Abd ar-Rahman III (reigned 912-961, from 929 as the Caliph), one of the most outstanding monarchs from the Spanish line of the Omayyad Dynasty. Muslim Spain owes to this ruler the reforms in its administration, the expansion into Maghreb (Maghrib), the creation of a strong navy, the expanding and securing the borders on the Castilian and Leonese frontier with mostly successful and devastating (to the northern Catholic states) military campaigns, magnificient construction projects, an unprecedented development of arts and sciences, as well as general economic prosperity.
‘Abd ar-Rahman III quickly recognized the high value of the Slavs, their bravery and loyalty, and their industriousness. Keeping this in mind he organized an elite “preatorian guard”, appropriately known as the Slavic Guard, which, aside from protecting his person, was also tasked with keeping the unruly hereditary Arabic aristocracy and the anarchic Berber tribes, which frequently launched revolts against the Arab domination, in check. The Slavic Guard is known to have been blindly obedient to the caliph, and was also one of the strongest and most disciplined military units of its time. It is interesting to note that, according to the Muslim laws, all non-Muslims who lived under Muslim rule were forbidden from bearing arms, yet this same prohibition did not applied to the non-Muslims who came from outside of the Muslim domains (dar al-Islam in Arabic). The number of the Slavs in the service of the Caliph of Al-Andalus rapidly increased; according to al-Maqqari, an Arab historian from the 17th century, in the city of Cordoba (Cordova) alone it reached 3 750, then it elevated to 6 087, and at the end of the reign of ‘Abd ar-Rahman III it stood at 13 750. Many of these Slavs came to Spain as young boys and such individuals easily became Muslims; they showed great attachment and loyalty to their protector, who did not spare them the privileges and promotions. Already in 939 ‘Abd ar-Rahman III nominated a certain Slav named Naja as the commander of his army in a war against the Kingdom of Leon. Many other Slavs also attained important positions in the Spanish Caliphate’s military and civil service. This state of affairs continues during the reign of ‘Abd ar-Rahman’s successor Caliph al-Hakam II (reigned 961-976), who had come under the total influence of his Slavic “preatorians”.
There have been some false suggestions put forward with regard to whether the Slavs of Muslim Spain were really Slavs. The clear connotation of the Arabic name for Slavs to genuine Slavs has been already mentioned in the beginning. Afterwards, the ways in which the Slavs arrived in Moorish Spain from their homelands have also been discussed. To this should also be added the Spanish Arabic sources which clearly state that the members of the Slavic Guards originally consisted exclusively of men of the Slavic race, and only later were some Leonese, Franks, and Lombards allowed to join it. Furthermore, the latter do not just appear only later, but could not have been admitted in larger numbers, since that would have been a very dangerous thing for the Muslims to do. The case of the famous Castilian knight El Cid, during the last part of the Taifa Period, demonstrates it quite clearly. Having real Slavs as either all or at least most troops of the Slavic Guards conveniently avoided such unnecessary risks. Interestingly, El Cid was never referred to by his Muslim employers as a “Slav” in spite of the fact that Slavs kept on being mentioned by the Arabic sources as being in Muslim Spain until the 12th century. At last, the troops of the Slavic Guards are known to have had the nickname “The Silent,” since they could not speak neither Arabic nor Romance; a lack of proficiency in the latter would surely not have been the case with the Leonese, Franks, and Lombards – all of whom came from Romance-speaking regions.
In the beginning of the 11th century Muslim Spain experienced a period of political turmoil and fragmentation which began around 1010 with the collapse of the central authority; a power vacuum arose and a succession struggle ensued. From 1013 to 1031, when a ruling council of Cordoba officially abolished the office of the caliph, six Omayyads and three members of a half-Berber dynasty were holding that office, in each case for a brief time; none had any real power of a true caliph, and they only exercised authority in the Taifa state of Cordoba. Between 1011 and 1013 Muslim Spain disintegrated into about 30 states during an era of anarchy known as the Fitna; some of them are seized and ruled by the Slavs. The rulers of these states that were established on the ruins of the Cordoban Caliphate were known in Arabic as muluk at-tawa’if (Party Kings) or reyes de taifa (and thence the Taifa Period) in Spanish, because they were often supported by the various parties that carved out their own dominions in Muslim Spain. This condition persists until the early 1090’s, when Muslim Spain is re-unified by the Almoravids. For example, a certain Slav named Hayran, who was the leader of the Slavic party in the capital of Cordoba and a faithful follower of the Caliph Hisham II (reigned 976-1009 and 1010-1013), was also the governor of the Province of Almeria where eventually a Slavic-ruled state was established. At the same time, another Slav named Vadih was the governor of a northern “march” frontier province of the Cordoban Caliphate. During the early part of the Taifa Period a certain Slav was the Prince of Jaen, Baeza, and Calatrava. In some cases even the very names of these Slavic rulers identify them as Slavs; that was surely the case with Khayrah al-Saqlabi, the Slavic Taifa ruler of Jativa, and Labib al-Saqlabi, the Slavic ruler of Tortosa.
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