Saqaliba – Slavs in the Arab World, Part 4 (Slavs in Muslim Spain, part 2)
Last time, we gave an account of Slavs in Muslim Spain. We stopped at the period of political turmoil called Fitna, when the caliphate split up into numerous states, usually referred to as Taifa. Some of these were Slavic-ruled, such as Jativa, Tortosa, Jaen, Baeza, Calatrava etc.
The vast majority of these Taifa states were small, in some cases consisting of a city or a town and a small area around it. There were only a few larger ones, like Badajoz or Toledo, but all of them were sparsely populated. Some of the smallest states were not able to furnish armies larger than a few hundred troops. All the Slavic-ruled states were medium-sized in comparison to the other Taifa states; they were always located on Spain’s eastern seaboard, where, on much of the coastline, the population density was relatively high, and therefore we must conclude that the native populations they ruled over were also relatively big, comparatively speaking. The populations that lived there were, together with those of southern Spain, much of who at that time came under Berber rule, among the most racially heterogeneous in the entire Iberian peninsula, which perhaps facilitated the Slavs’ (and the Berbers’) seizure of power in the areas where they established their respective states.
The Slavs founded more enduring states in Almeria, Denia-Balearics (which was in the 1015-1016 period even briefly extended to Sardinia), Murcia, Tortosa, and Valencia; during the early stage of the Taifa Period they also ruled over for shorter periods of time in Jaen, Baeza, and Calatrava, while in the “march” frontier province of Badajoz a Slav named Sabur initially held power.
In the Taifa state of Seville the Slavs never seized power, but, nevertheless, there may have been some Slavic troops in its service; some Western scholars speculate that they were actually Catholic mercenaries from the north, but that is both unlikely and unsubstantiated. Seville was one of the most expansion-oriented and successful of the Taifa states, and perhaps these Slavic troops had a hand in these successes.
The Slavic-ruled states established in Spain during the Fitna were somewhat similar to the ones established by the Berbers, in that they were both founded by the alien military elites apparently pursuing their own interests and without much interest for the indigenous populations (that is actually Wasserstein‘s own assertion, the examples of at least some of the Slavic rulers show that, at least in some cases, the opposite was true); they were also often torn apart by internal squabbles, had very mixed native populations, and were either unwilling or unable to import additional members of their own race to increase their numbers.
The latter was an important consideration for the Slavs, who were especially few in number (according to Wasserstein’s “guesstimate” perhaps no more than around 15 000 at the peak of their numerical presence in Moorish Spain, or about the size of a single contemporary town on the eastern coast of Spain, where the more long-lasting Slavic states were established). The fact that a small portion of the Slavs in Muslim Spain were made into eunuchs, to be placed in charge of the rich Arabs’ harems, did not help either, albeit that was surely not the case with many of them, as some historians maliciously try to suggest. One might point out to the fact that eunuchs don’t make good soldiers, especially not elite ones. Besides, it is known that Mujahid, the Slavic ruler of Denia-Balearics, begot children, and we also keep on hearing about the Slavs in Muslim Spain until the 12th century, or long after all imports of Slavic slaves to this land had completely ceased with the collapse of the caliphate in the 1010-1013 period; a fact well attested by the decline of the port of Pechina (near Almeria), through which a large portion of the Slavs arrived in Spain, that started in 1011-1012 or at the beginning of the anarchy period (which immediately led to the establishment of the Taifa states) known as the Fitna. Therefore, it must be concluded that these “later” Slavs (those mentioned in the late 11th and 12th century) were born in Spain of at least partial Slavic parentage. The unusually high frequency of light-haired individuals among the Valencians is certainly a legacy of the Slavs’ habitation in that city and the surrounding area, and that is where one of the Slavic-ruled states was actually established.
The most successful Slavic ruler of the Taifa states was Mujahid al-Amiri, the ruler of Denia (later of Denia-Balearics), a son of a Christian woman (most of Slavdom was by that time part of Christiandom), albeit a devout Muslim himself; he was also one of the most brilliant of all the Taifa rulers in general. He established his state in Denia in 1011, during the onset of the Fitna, which saw the collapse of Cordoba’s central authority and the simultaneous emergence of the Taifa states. Using the naval assets of his tiny state, and perhaps also employing Slavic pirates-turned-mercenaries
Mujahid was also a notable patron of sciences; in his capital he established a Koranic school that became renowned in the entire Muslim world, and he also attracted many learned men to his court. Madina Mayurqa (Palma in Majorca) was a scene of a scholastic controversy between Ibn Hazm and al-Baji, two of the most outstanding contemporary Andalusian intellectuals, which took place in public, revealing the high level of culture developed on the Balearics during the period of the Slavic rule. Denia, according to the documents of the Cairo Genizah, became at that time one of the most important ports on the Iberian Peninsula, on par with Almeria and Seville (the former was also under Slavic rule) and with direct links to Egypt. The Slavic rulers of Denia-Balearics also maintained diplomatic relations with the counts of Barcelona. Mujahid’s brilliant statesmanship is very evident from the fact that his reign was a period tranquility and prosperity for his realm. He also ruled over the Taifa state of Valencia during the 1017-1021 period (in 1017-1019 he ruled there jointly with Labib al-Saqlabi, the Slavic ruler of Tortosa). Mujahid, who passed away in 1045, was succeed to the throne by his son ‘Ali, who, prior to assuming power, had to contend it with his brother. In 1076, he is forced by his brother-in-law, the ruler of Saragossa (Zaragozza), to exchange Denia for an estate in the latter’s domain.
Another outstanding Slavic Taifa ruler was Khayran; he held sway over Orihuela, Murcia, and Almeria. At the latter he established his capital in, fortifying and beautifying it in the process, in addition to constructing new buildings and a running water system. Khayran made his brother Zuhayr the governor of Murcia and it was he who succeeded him to the throne. Upon his succession, Zuhayr extended his domain from Almeria all the way almost to Cordoba and Toledo as well as over Jativa and Baeza; he also continued his brother’s general policies. Nevertheless, he suffered serious setbacks in fighting the Badis of Granada, and he was killed in a battle in 1038. News of his untimely demise caused an immense consternation in Almeria, where he was soon replaced by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz of Valencia, who arrived at the request of Almeria’s inhabitants.
But not all the Slavic Taifa rulers appear to have been as enlightened as Mujahid; the 11th century historian Ibn Hayyan has written a certain account in which he accuses the first two Slavic Taifa rulers of Valencia, in the 1011-1017 period, of having reduced their subjects to a miserable condition by their impositions, and of forcing them to abandon their villages and rural areas in order to appropriate and transform them into their private holdings, sometimes accepting the original owners back, albeit now only as tenants on lands they used to own.
Traces of Slavic presence in Spain can even be found in its place names; for example one of the districts belonging to the Province of Shantarin (Santarem) is referred to by the medieval Arabic geographers as Saqlab (Slavic). Unfortunately, now we do not know where precisely this district was located, but it is likely that the modern-day town of Ceclavin on the lower Rio Tajo (Tagus River), near the Portuguese border (in what is now the Spanish Province of Extremadura) is in fact a Romance corruption of the dialectical Arabic Seqlabiyin (Slavs). Another explanation for this place name was put forward by Charmoy. According to him, Saqlab was actually an Arabic corruption of Scalabis, the original name for Santarem. The two major flaws in this hypothesis are the fact that Saqlab does literally translate as “Slavic” and many place names across Europe are known to have been named after a specific nationality that lived there, and also that the Arabs had no reasons to confusingly corrupt Scalabis into their name for Slavs, if no Slavs lived there to begin with.
Furthermore, some folk traditions and festivities still found in modern-day Spain are not unlike those found among some of the Slavs. It may be pointed out that the tribe of the Vandals (and by the same token the Swedes, who might have been one and the same tribe), which is now referred to as “Germanic,” was in reality of Slavic origin, dwelled in Spain for some time, as did the Germanic Suevi, whose name sounds very much like a corruption of the Slavic Slaveni or Sloveni (this subject surely deserves more investigation).
In fact, some Polish historians made the connection between ancient Slavs and both the Vandals and Suevi quite a long time ago. It should be pointed out that the very Arabic name for Spain (al-Andalus) was derived from the name of the Vandals; thus, it was quite fitting for the Arabs to bring more Slavs (Wends or Vendels – Vandals) to this region. At last we should not forget that the ruling family of the Visigoths (from which, among others, Alaric haled from) was known as the Balti (or Balthi); that is quite an interesting name, because the Goths and Balts lived close to each other for some time. Since some ancient peoples are known to have invited foreigners to rule over them during unresolved succession disputes (Germanic tribes invited Celtic princes, the Eastern Slavs invited Rurik of the Rus) it appears that these Balt(h)i might have been originally a princely family of the Balts who were invited by the Goths to rule over them.
One might also point out the remarkably Slavic-sounding names found among the ancient Goths (this is erroneously denied by the Germanic propagandists); especially those with the suffix of -mir, very common in many Slavic names, but virtually unheard of among the Germanic ones. But not only these; of interest is the Visigothic name Witiza, which perhaps may have been derived from the Slavic word vitez (a knight, pronounced vit-ehz), which, contrary to some false claims, is of genuinely Slavic origin and has no connotation whatsoever with the word “viking” (and it appears that even the latter may be of Slavic origin as well). Slavs and Goths also lived close to each other for some time; the latter used to form either most or all of the population of a substantial chunk of present-day Poland, especially in its north-central, north-eastern and eastern sectors, from the Vistula delta in the north to Zamojszczyzna in the south. As a side note, one might point out that the Goths themselves were of Iranian (Alan or Osset) origin.* Or perhaps it was that such traditions originated from people of a later Slavic origin; from the Slavs who arrived and stayed in Muslim Spain. Moreover, there may be some words of Slavic origin in the Spanish language; for example, the Spanish word for “and” is almost identical to its Slavic counterparts – Polish: i, Spanish: y, as is the word for an “eye” – Polish: oko, Spanish: ojo).
It must be added here that the Slavs in Muslim Spain also played a not insignificant role in its scholarly and cultural life, which in the 10th and 11th century stood on a very high level in comparison to the rest of the world. They also quickly acquired lots of wealth; Arabic sources state that many Slavs owned palaces, lands, and slaves. They also took an active part in the intellectual life of Muslim Spain. In the last years of the Cordoban Caliphate, there were so many writers, poets, and bibliophiles of Slavic origin that there arose a need to write a separate monograph devoted just to them, and written by a certain Slav named Habib as-Siqlabi.
There was a great deal of animosity existing between the Berber and Slavic components of the caliphatic armies. Al-Mansur (Al-Manzor) brought large numbers of both “new” Berbers and Slavs to strengthen his armies in his many devastating campaigns against the Catholic states in the north, and it appears that a fierce competition arose between the two new arrivals. Perhaps these antagonisms started even before this time. The Berbers, who made up the bulk of the ordinary troops of the caliphatic armies must have surely resented the preferential treatment and privileged status the Slavs received from the caliphs, and from the Arab rulers in general.
During the early part of the Taifa period there are recorded certain outbursts of hatred on the Berbers’ part toward Slavs. For example, after a Berber faction seized the Taifa state of Cordoba, the Slavs living there were quickly compelled to leave it and seek refuge in the Slavic-ruled states on the eastern seaboard (in this case most likely Almeria and Murcia, since these two were the closest); thus, depopulating Cordoba from the Slavs, but, simultaneously, reinforcing the local Slavic element in the states already under Slavic rule. Perhaps not all Slavs made it though: a certain medieval Arabic writer mentions a tradition according to which some Slavs, after losing a local civil war, were thrown to a cave in the vicinity of the settlement of Cabra, located near Cordoba. Perhaps this event precipitated the Slavic exodus from Cordoba.
Surprisingly enough, the Berbers and Slavs were in many ways alike; they both dominated the military and administration, many of those in the military could not speak Arabic, their cultural levels were quite different from those of al-Andalus, they often did not settle on the land, they strongly retained their distinct racial identities, and, at least until the beginning of the Taifa Period, many did not become urbanized in spite of being encamped in vicinity of cities.
Eventually, the distinct racial identity of Muslim Spain’s Slavs started to diminish. This process was already under way during the Taifa Period. But even afterwards the Slavs continued to play an important role in the local affairs, and are kept on being mentioned until and including the 12th century. It is not until the 13th century that all mentions of their presence disappear from the records – by that time they had become completely assimilated into the local population, whose faith they went on to subsequently share.
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