A VISIT TO THE TOMB OF AL-MUTAMID IBN
ARAB SPAIN'S POET KING
by Habeeb Salloum
I was barely aware of
my fellow passengers, my daughter and I waited near Jamaa el Fna,
Marrakesh's most famous square, for our bus to begin on its way to
Aghmat - a Berber village some 33 km (20 mi) away.
Our goal was the tomb of the Andalusian poet-king al-Mutamid
ibn Abbad located in that town.
Unlike the other passengers, I was in another world.
My mind had strayed back to the 11th century when this
Moorish monarch's court in Seville was the resort of lovers,
poets, musicians and all types of literary men.
Even as the bus began
to move, my thoughts did not stray away from al-Mutamid's world of
love, splendour and tragedy.
In spite of the bus driver's loud playing tape, urging the
Arab people to overthrow their un-Islamic rulers, my thoughts were
back in history, to the time when Arab Spain was at the zenith of
its cultural flowering - the era when al-Mutamid ibn Abbad was
After the fading away
of the illustrious Umayyad caliphate in the 11th century, Arab
Spain broke up into two dozen paltry states - dubbed by some
writers as ‘turbaned Italian republics’. They
were ruled by petty-monarchs who came to be known as muluk at-tawa’if.
Year after year, they
bickered or fought each other in an endless series of trivial wars.
At the same time, the usually quarrelling Christian states in
the north were uniting and beginning to occupy parts of Arab Spain,
putting into motion the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
Strange as it may seem, this did not bring the Arab
mini-states together. Their
rulers continued on their merry ways, paying tribute to the
Christians and warring against each other - at times with the help
of their northern enemies.
Yet, even with all this
turbulence, this was Moorish Spain's finest cultural era - a time of
affluence and literary accomplishments. The rulers of Badajoz, Granada, Zaragoza, Seville, Toledo and
other city states who had inherited the grandeur of Umayyad Spain,
filled their towns with majestic palaces and enchanted gardens. Even when feuding or vying for political dominance, they
tried to attract to their courts the most renowned of entertainers,
poets and scholars. Each
state became a little earthly delight, living in a world of
make-believe, unaware of the northern armies pounding at their
Of all these petty
kingdoms, Seville, under the Abbadids, was militarily and culturally
the most formidable. Abu
al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Isma il ibn Abbad (1013 to 1042 A.D.), the
founder of this dynasty, was noted
for his wise rule and literary attributes.
He was succeeded by his son, al-Mutadid (1042-68) who was a
genuine patron of literature and the arts, and a poet in his own
right. However, he was feared for his tyrannical ways.
His offspring, al-Mutamid (1068-91), the third and last
successor of the Abbadid dynasty, surpassed his two ancestors in
courage, magnanimity and composition of poetry. Histories of Moorish-Spain are permeated with praises for
this enlightened prince who was to occupy the throne for 23
Abu al-Qasim Muhammad
ibn Abbad al-Mutamid (also known as Mutamid ala Allah, al-Zafir and
al-Mu’ayyad Abu al-Qasim), a contemporary of England's William the
Conqueror, was born in 1040 at Beja near Seville. He became famous for his poetry, especially the love odes to
his wife I timad, a former slave girl, once called al-Rumaykiya, who
he showered with love and precious gifts.
A great and tragic figure who surrounded his life with a halo
of romance and legend, he tasted both the joys and bitterness of
A poet of love in his
early years, he went on, in his later days of exile, to write verses
of nostalgia, sorrow, suffering and deep humiliation.
Ibn Bassam, a contemporary Arab bard, describes his poetry as
being sweeter than the blooming calyx of odoriferous flowers and
unequalled in tenderness of the soul.
When al-Mu tamid
inherited the throne, he became a protector of bards and men of
seeking the company of musicians and intellectuals, he himself
played the lute and composed delicate poetry.
High-spirited and grand in his way of life, he became an
outstanding representative of the 11th century Andalusian-Arab poets
and is ranked with the best of Arab lyricists.
His father, in the
early part of his reign, appointed him as governor of Shalb - today
the Portuguese city of Silves.
Here he learned the art of politics while at the same time
enjoying life. He
brought to court his childhood companion, Ibn Ammar, a
poet-adventurer whose artful verses had captured al-Mutamid's heart.
Lovers of the fair sex and poetry, they became intimate
friends and enjoyed an adventurous time together.
A story is told that a
few years previously when al-Mu tamid and his bosom companion Ibn
Ammar, whom he had also made his advisor, were walking in disguise
along Seville's river, Wadi al-Kabir (Guadalquivir), they passed a
number of women washing their linen.
Noting the wind rippling the surface of the river, al-Mutamid
improvised a half verse, challenging his friend to finish the second
min al-ma'i zarad
(The wind has spun a
coat-of-mail of water)”,
Noting that Ibn Ammar hesitated, one of
dir`in li-qitalin law jamad
(What a shield it would
be for battle, if it stiffened)."
Struck by her quick wit
and great beauty, al-Mutamid bought her freedom from her master, the
muleteer Rumayk ibn al-Hajjaj, and later married her. It is said that he adopted the public name al-Mutamid ala
Allah (he who counts on God) because of her name Itimad (Reliance).
Al-Mu tamid's and Ibn
Ammar's relationship was close and moving but ended in tragedy. When
al-Mutamid became sovereign, he bestowed on his friend many honours,
but later Ibn Ammar betrayed him by satire, then by rebellion. Outraged, the king killed him with his own hands.
As a youth in his
father's court and in Shalb, al-Mutamid's foremost preoccupation was
with poetry and the pleasures of friends in the company of singing
girls. He had inherited
his poetical talent from both his grandfather and father, and was
later to pass on this ability to his children.
In this part of his early life, his obsession was majalis
al-uns (carefree gatherings), enlivened by poetical jousts,
drink and song. These
sessions inspired him to become an outstanding poet concentrating on
the themes of wine,
gaiety and love. Once,
while drinking with his friends, the wine induced him to recite:
"As I was passing
vine, its tendrils tugged my sleeve.
you design’, said I,
body so to grieve?'
do you pass’, the vine
‘and never greeting make?
took this blood of mine
Your thirsting bones to slake.’
time, describing a beautiful concubine, he wrote:
"She loosed her
robe, that I might see
Her body, lissome as a tree.
The calyx opened in that hour
And oh, the beauty of
In this period of his
fun-filled life, beautiful maidens gave him the inspiration to write
ghazal (love poetry).
At times he put in words his ensnarement with the fair sex:
"Her piercing eyes
cut my heart in two,
my eyes wept with longing for her...
I would kiss the lips behind the veil,
embrace the pearl necklace above your embroidered sash!"
After the death of his
father in 1068, al-Mu tamid, at the age of 28 ascended the throne.
In the next two decades, besides being a benevolent ruler and
an eminent statesman, he became known for his personal noble
have written that he was the most chivalrous, courageous, liberal,
high-minded and unselfish of all of al-Andalus's Petty Kings and
noted for his virtues of discretion, generosity and modesty.
turned into a resort of renowned poets and literary men.
Among those who received his favours were, besides Ibn Ammar,
who some historians call the greatest of the 11th century Andalusian-Arab
poets, Abd al-Jabbar ibn Hamdis, who fled Sicily when the Normans
occupied that island, the bard Ibn Lubbana, once one of al-Mutamid's
vizirs, and Bakr ibn Abd as-Samad, a noted poet of that era.
In this early part of
his reign, when all that surrounded him were prosperity and ease, he
was content with life and remained devoted to Itimad. Submissive to
her whims, he sang her verses of passion and tenderness which
reflected a deep, noble and undying love.
They had a splendid life in court together and he could
barely be separated from her. Once,
while he was away on a military expedition, he wrote a long
passionate poem to her in which he lamented:
"I am pining
because of being separated from you,
with the wine of my longing for you;
with the desire to be with you,
sip your lips and to embrace you! ...
to me, dear, fully trusting me,
me: my heart is in your bond!"
Al-Mutamid had met
Itimad ar-Rumaikiya about 1059 when both were around 19.
She appears to have been beautiful, capricious, gracious,
witty and a good poetess, well versed in literature.
The king's infatuation with the former slave girl knew no
bounds and he attempted to indulge her every wish.
Once, while looking through the palace window, she saw some
old ladies mixing mud in the street.
She exclaimed to al-Mutamid, "If they could do that, why
couldn't I?" And it was for al-Mutamid to order that dirt be
mixed with perfumes so that his beloved and her maids could play in
Another story is told
of Itimad watching snowflakes falling - a rare event in Cordova
which hardly knows winter - when she burst into tears calling al-
Mutamid a monster and tyrant for not taking her to some country
where she might see this lovely thing every winter.
Wanting to satisfy her, he had all the surrounding land
planted with almond trees, so that every winter their blossoms would
be a substitute for snow.
Itimad bore al-Mu tamid
six sons and a number of daughters - one, called Zubaydah, married
the Christian monarch Alfonso VI who had, besides her, four other
sons all perished in battle and it is said that she mourned them
until her last days, dying broken-hearted.
Even though al-Mutamid
was immersed in love and poetry, he did not neglect state affairs.
He enlarged his kingdom, occupying among others cities,
Cordova, Jaén and Murcia. Seville's
poet-king was in the heart of every battle and proved to be a great
warrior. He is reported
to have told one of his sons who was fighting by his side, "Do
not fear, for death is easier than humiliation and the road of kings
is from the palace to the grave."
As a result of his
conquests, he became the most powerful monarch among the Petty
Kings. Yet, neither his
kingdom nor any of the other small Muslim states could hold back
Alfonso VI, King of Castile, Leَn and Navarre, who had
resolved to conquer the entire Iberian Peninsula.
After Alfonso occupied
Toledo in 1085, he forced many of the Andalusian-Arab states, among
them Seville, to pay tribute. The
Muslims of Andalusia realized that if they were to survive, they had
to seek help and turned to the Almoravids, the Berber rulers of
North Africa. Some of
the Andalusian-Arab rulers were not enthusiastic about this
invitation but Alfonso's conquering legions left them no choice.
Al-Mutamid is reported to have said in response to the
criticisms brought against him by the Petty Kings that he preferred
to be a camel driver in Morocco rather than a swine herder in
The Arab kings of
Seville, Badajoz and Granada sent a delegation to Marrakesh,
pressing Yusuf ibn Tashufin, leader of the Almoravids, for help.
Ibn Tashufin agreed and in 1086 crossed the Strait of
Gibraltar with his army. At
the Battle of Zallakah, near Badajoz, aided by al-Mutamid and the
other Andalusian-Arab princes, he defeated Alfonso and liberated the
Muslims from paying tribute. Al-Mutamid
fought like a lion, having three chargers killed under him and
receiving three severe wounds.
Returning together as heroes to Seville, al-Mutamid and Ibn
Tashufin spent some time together before the latter returned to
No sooner had Ibn
Tashufin reached his capital in Morocco, then the Petty Kingdoms
returned to their squabbling ways, giving the Christians a chance to
renew their attacks. The
Arab kings, among them al-Mutamid, again travelled to Marrakesh
seeking the Berber leader's assistance.
At the same time, the religious leaders of al-Andalus were
petitioning Ibn Tashufin to rid them of their contending Arab
monarchs who were unable to cope with the Christian onslaughts.
Ibn Tashufin returned
to Andalusia in 1090 and in a short time disposed of the Party
Kings, despoiled their cities and sent the rulers who were not
assassinated into exile in North Africa.
Only al-Mutamid, who had been in the forefront of those
asking for Ibn Tashufin's aid, offered serious resistance.
At the last hour, Seville's king attempted to forge an
alliance with Alfonso, but it was too late.
After six days of onslaught, Seville surrendered in 1091 and
al-Mutamid and his family were put in chains, then loaded on black
barges. Ibn Tashufin,
who had come to rescue Andalusia from the Christians, instead, led
its foremost king into captivity and disgrace.
The people of Seville gathered on the banks of their river to
view the sad spectacle of their beloved sovereign and his family
being taken into exile. Ibn
Labbana's elegy well describes this heart-rendering scene:
"I shall forget
everything before the morning by the Guadalquivir, when
were in the ships, like dead men in their graves;
people crowded on both banks, watching how these pearls floated on
froth of the river.
fell, because maidens no longer cared to cover their faces,
faces were torn, as mantles were in the old time;
moment came: what tumult of farewells! Damsels and
vied in lamentation."
As the captives were crossing the Strait
of Gibraltar to Tangier, Ibn al-Labbana mused:
weeps, now that Ibn Abbad is gone,
weeps over the departed lions and gazelles;"
The prisoners were
initially taken to Meknes, then to Aghmat - the Almoravids' first
capital, located in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. During the first two years of exile, though living in utter
destitution, al-Mutamid enjoyed some personal freedom, but poetry
was his only solace. He
often reminisced in verse about his beloved Seville.
In one of these poems, he reflects:
"I wonder whether
I ever shall spend a night
With flower gardens and water pools around me,
green olive groves, far famed, are planted,
the doves sing, the warbling of birds resounds."
As time went on, al-Mutamid
mourned his pitiful existence in fine verse, lamenting his cruel
he decried the misery of his family which had fallen from the
pinnacle of happiness and power to the depths of poverty and
their first Id al-Fitr (the Muslim festival of the breaking of the
fast) in confinement, tormented by the sight of his wife and
daughters spinning wool, he lamented in sorrow:
"You see your
daughters in tatters, hungry,
they are spinning for other people:...
on hard clay, barefooted, humbled
if they had never been treading on musk and camphor,
cheeks show signs of lack of food,
sigh, their tears roll down like copious rain."
When one of al-Mutamid's
and Itimad's last remaining sons, Abd al-Jabbar, in 1093 revolted in
al-Andalus, they greeted the insurrection with hope and joy.
Ibn Tashufin feared al-Mutamid would try to escape and had
him put in fetters. Al-Mutamid
responded to his captor, writing in verse:
"My chains: Do you
not know I am a Muslim?
refuse to pity me, you are unmerciful."
the same poem, addressing his son, he bemoaned his sad condition and
that of his family:
"The sound of iron
chains rings in my ear
heavily; its touch fills the eyes with tears:
little sisters are dying in grief for you
is your mother: bereavement sears her heart:
weeps - no cloud ever shed more copious streams."
The rebellion was
broken after a few months and the son killed.
Constantly grieving over the loss of her offspring and the
sad condition of life in Aghmat, Itimad became very ill and died
shortly afterwards. In
1095, Al-Mutamid, still in chains and overwhelmed with grief for his
beloved, passed away in abject destitution at the age of 55.
One of Arab Spain's eminent figures, he has been written
about for centuries. Al
Marrakushi, a 13th century historian, said of him: "If one
wanted to list all the examples of beauty produced in Andalusia from
the time of the conquest to the present day, then al-Mutamid would
be one of them, if not the greatest of all."
I was still reminiscing
about this poet-prince who represents the epitome of the brilliance
of Arab culture, when near 30 km (19 mi) from Marrakesh, we turned
to the left on a narrow road. In
about 5 minutes we were in the village of Aghmat, boasting in al-Mutamid's
time medrasas (schools) and royal tombs.
Now, all we could see were the modest reddish adobe homes of
the townspeople. As we
walked from the bus stop, every one beamed when we asked the way to
al-Mutamid ibn Abbad's tomb. Not
one person seemed surprised that strangers had come to visit the
village's most famous site.
As it has been for many
centuries, his mausoleum in Aghmat is still well-known and
frequented by travellers. The
romantic aura of Seville's virtuous lyricist-king has drawn visitors
from the day Ibn Tashufin brought him a prisoner to the city.
His first guests were poets like Ibn Labbana and Ibn Hamdis,
who visited him while he was still alive.
death, his contemporaries, including friends, fellow poets and even
strangers, came to visit his tomb, paying their respects to this
proverbial king. Among
those were the poet Abu Bakr ibn Abd as-Samad, who visited the grave
a few days after al-Mutamid's death and Ahmad Ibn Muhammad al-Maqqari,
the 17th century last great historian of the Moors in the Iberian
Peninsula who wrote the famous Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain.
The paying of homage to this poet-king whose life ended in
tragedy has continued until our day.
Standing inside the
mausoleum, newly renovated in 1991, I surveyed the three
gravestones: those of al-Mu tamid and Itimad, divided by that of one
of their daughters. Turning,
I saw tears flowing from my daughter's eyes as she gazed on the
graves of the once proud and powerful king of Seville and the ones
he loved. I remembered
the words of the traveller who wrote, "people weep for him
My eyes watered,
recalling the words of Ibn Bakr, who after kissing al-Mutamid's
crypt, recited a long poem which included these verses:
"Oh king of kings,
do you hear? May I
do these circumstances not allow you to hear?
your palaces were deprived of your presence,
you were not there as usual during the feasts,
humbly came to this ground, my purpose being
your tomb to recite a poem of praise to you!...
eyes send forth one stream after another, but
The fire of my heart flames constantly anew."
Back in Marrakesh, the
bus let us off beside a mausoleum-like building. Stopping a passerby, I asked, "What is this
smiled, responding "It's the tomb of Ibn Tashufin - the hero of
our nation." I
could barely hold back the tears.
Hero he might be to some people, but to me he was the one who
humiliated Arab Spain's most brilliant literary mind and had him die
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