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Ha Nagid’s journal:10

20 Tishrei, 4733 (October, 1024)

I was born in Cordoba in the year 4654 (993). My brother Isaac is slightly over a year older than me. We were both keen students. Isaac still has a quick, retentive mind, and superior powers of reasoning. I was marginally slower than he. My father was not extremely wealthy but he was a successful businessman, and he made certain his sons studied with the best teachers available. We both studied with the renowned scholar Rabbi Hanokh and his son Rabbi Moses ben Hanokh, both highly respected for their learning. We also studied with the leading Hebrew grammarian of his generation, Judah Hayyudi. There were other teachers for Latin and Greek, Arabic, Aramaic and Berber. The language of the streets, Ladino, we learned on the streets.

Our father did not neglect to teach his sons business affairs. We both became practical and self-sufficient, as well as well-educated. In those days students met at previously set times in the homes of their teachers, sometimes in the synagogue, and sometimes even in shops where books were sold. Most wealthy homes, both Islamic and Jewish, had extensive libraries. The teachers would lead and direct long discussions of various literary topics, and all the scholars present were expected to participate sharing their insights and opinions. Significant amounts of time were set aside for the reading and analysis of all the various meters of Arabic and Hebrew poetry. Readings were followed by an in-depth discussion about the form, texture and meaning of the poems.

At an early age I enjoyed recognition for my understanding of both Arabic and Hebrew poetry, even approbation by Arab scholars who appreciated my writings. I have always been excited to learn something new every day and feel if I haven’t the day has been wasted. I have even made an extensive study of the Qur’an, and of the writings of many Muslim theologians. Of course, I have studied Torah, and both editions of the Talmud, extensively and in great detail. Neither have I neglected the writings of Christian scholars and the New Testament.

Leaders of the large Jewish community of Cordoba often spoke of the accomplishments of the physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut. Ibn Shaprut achieved preeminence as Foreign Minister to the illustrious court of the Caliph of all Andalusia. As a youth, I often daydreamed about matching or even surpassing the accomplishments of ibn Shaprut, hero of all the Jews of Andalusia.

It was in the month of Siven, 4674 (1013) when the Berbers took final control of Cordoba from the Umayyads, after three years of strife. The result was the breakup of the Umayyad Empire into many city/states now known as the Taifa. During those three years of conflict the Jews and other citizens of Cordoba were under continuous stress as well as physical danger. I was twenty years old and decided to leave Cordoba to escape the turmoil. My father and the rest of my family stayed behind in hopes of retaining the home and business.

I joined a small group of immigrants. We were all intent on braving the roving bands of Berbers and effecting an escape. Berber raiders were continuing to create havoc in the countryside and on the highways, robbing, raping, pillaging and murdering those they encountered. Our small group’s plan was to reach Malaga, where the ruler of that Taifa had an agreement with the Berbers. They accepted tribute from him and in return agreed to leave him, his holdings, and his people alone.

There was then, and still is, a highway that follows the course of a thousand-plus-year-old Roman road from Cordoba to Malaga. That road runs south and slightly east from Cordoba and is less than two hundred kilometers in length. Under normal circumstances it is a relatively easy eight-day trip on foot. Our small group of emigrants inquired of everyone we met along the way with the intent of finding the easiest road and avoiding contact with Berbers. We first headed in the opposite direction, northeast out of Cordoba then took the road to Montoro. We then followed a little traveled road south and west crossing the Guadajoz River then east to Baena. From Baena we made our way east then south again skirting the eastern slopes of the Subbetica Mountains and continuing south to Archidona. From Archidona we learned the roads were safe from Antequera to Malaga. We finally arrived in Malaga after twenty days of walking.

Several times during the journey we were forced to hide from roving Berber bands. During those twenty hectic days, I formed a special relationship with the donkey that carried my most valued books, and the supplies and gear I needed for the trip. The donkey followed me closely, keeping the rope from my hand to his halter slack. Whenever we were forced to hide, my hand on the donkey’s nose was enough to prevent him braying. I kept that donkey for many years.

After I was settled in Malaga I opened a small shop and started a business selling spices. I had sewn a dozen gold coins into the hem of my cloak. Those coins were all I had as capital to start my business. The business acumen I learned from my father proved valuable. Over the next several years my business expanded enough for me to purchase the building that housed the shop. The business provided an adequate, albeit not extravagant, lifestyle.

The Jewish community of Malaga was small, about forty families. Almost all the heads of households were either craftsmen or merchants. There were no young scholars or writers with whom I could interact. I did manage to find some intellectual stimulation in the home of Rabbi Judah, the leader of the small Malagan Jewish community. But there was no extensive circle of intellectuals to provide the back and forth discourse I was accustomed to when living in Cordoba. I felt isolated and depressed, except when I was able to interact with the new friend I made during my first year in Malaga.

Ali ben Ahmad ibn Hazm became one of the most renowned Muslim intellectuals of our generation. He was the son of a high-ranking member of the recently deposed government of Cordoba. Although he and I were both born and raised in Cordoba, we did not meet until after both of us moved to Malaga. After the takeover by the Berbers, ibn Hazam’s father was ousted by the new Berber rulers, then imprisoned and was forced to forfeit a significant portion of his property to obtain his freedom. Despite these family setbacks, Ali ibn Hazm continued his studies and acquired a deep understanding of Arabic literature, philology, and the theory of logic. He also composed beautiful poetry, but his overriding passion was the study of theology.

After we met, as two refugees from Cordoba, there was an immediate connection. Then, and for the rest of his life, ibn Hazm was a controversial man. He particularly enjoyed arguing with anyone who held religious views that differed from his, not excluding other Muslim theologians. He also enjoyed debating literary subjects. He and I spent many hours engaged in good spirited argument.

Ibn Hazm particularly enjoyed arranging public debates. He loved to demonstrate his knowledge and debating skills to an audience. He challenged me to a series of debates about the veracity of certain sections of the Torah. My friend eventually published a book detailing those debates, his arguments and my responses. In that book, he voiced the opinion that I was the most accomplished debater he ever knew. We maintained a respectful friendship while we both resided in Malaga, but once I attained a position of authority and success, ibn Hazm, who never achieved a similar level of recognition, became increasingly vindictive and eventually turned against me.

Within the small Jewish community of Malaga, and increasingly within the entire population of the city, my reputation as a scholar was increasing. There was also considerable interest in my ability to write grammatically correct Arabic, free of error and in the flowery style much appreciated by the Andalusians. It wasn’t long until those skills were put to use. I was happy, and pleased, to compose letters for people I knew.

By this time, I had all but given up on my youthful dreams of living up to the standards set by my hero Hasdai ibn Shaprut. My spirits reached a new low as I approached thirty years of age. I was unmarried as well as frustrated with the lack of an intellectually challenging life. Then something totally unexpected happened.

The house next to mine was owned by the Finance Vizier of Granada, Abu l-Abbas. The house and nearby estates of this worthy man were maintained and managed by one of his stewards. The steward made my acquaintance and frequently asked me to write letters to the Vizier. I answered the Vizier’s questions about his affairs in Malaga and provided updates on his properties. Abu l-Abbas was apparently impressed by the level of skill and learning apparent in that correspondence and asked the steward about the scribe responsible. On one of his visits to Malaga, Abu l-Abbas insisted the steward introduce him to me. After a short conversation, the Vizier recruited me to return with him to Granada to become his aide.

A legend is often repeated in Jewish community of Granada that I was responsible for the growth in influence and the wise advice of the Vizier l-Abbas. According that legend, the Vizier, on his deathbed, admitted to King Habbus that the writings and wise council he provided for the king were all my work thus securing for me the position of Vizier. This legend is pure fabrication, but it seems to have developed a life independent of reality. It will, no doubt, persist.

Even after moving to Granada, my life did not progress smoothly. As my reputation grew and I became more successful I was appointed Ha Nagid, responsible for the good behavior of the Jewish community as well as tax collector for that community. This, inevitably, resulted in my acquisition of enemies. Tax collectors are never popular and the way the system works, throughout Andalusia, is that the rulers tell those responsible for collecting taxes how much the government expects from their assigned district. These so-called “tax farmers” collect as much as they think they can, and kept the difference. I became successful in this endeavor and thus managed to alienate several wealthy, and influential, heads of old Jewish families in Granada. When I arrived, the Jewish community comprised at least forty percent of the inhabitants of Granada and was destined to grow in numbers under my nurturing.

I wanted to help my friend from Malaga, Rabbi Judah. It also was true that Rabbi Judah’s daughter Rebecca was young, beautiful, and of marriageable age. I secured a tax territory for Rabbi Judah and the Rabbi moved his family to Granada. I made no secret of my interest in Rebecca, but she was already spoken for. A second cousin, who was the Rabbi’s disciple, had been promised her.

The fact that I brought in an outsider to assume the lucrative tax farmer duties rankled, and further alienated those same, already out of sorts, old Jewish establishment families. The situation was worse because Rabbi Judah was an even more recent arrival than I was. The Jewish men who felt slighted turned to the Muslim officials with whom they had long-standing relationships. They managed to convince those officials that I was collecting significantly more than I should in taxes and was keeping enough to become overly wealthy. I was arrested and put into prison. Later I discovered the same malcontents also hired thugs who attacked and killed Rabbi Judah and his disciple, the fiancé of Rebecca, while I was in jail and they were out collecting taxes.

My many friends in the Jewish community, along with the Finance Vizier l-Abbas, managed to obtain my release from prison, but it was too late to save Rabbi Judah. I suggested I should marry Rebecca and assume the responsibility and honor of caring for the Rabbi’s family. Despite having to pay a huge fine to help secure my release, I still had considerable financial resources. Rabbi Judah’s family agreed to the arrangement but insisted the marriage be delayed for a full year of mourning. Eventually the katuba was signed and Rebecca and I were married.

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Chapter 8: Letter from Abu Dja far Ahmad ben Abbas

3 Junada al-thani, 421(August, 1030)

To the most honorable King of Malaga, ibn Ali Musa:

King Habbus of Granada, and his Zanhadja, have ignored the teachings of the Qur’an by ignoring my advice to rid themselves of the Jews in their government, particularly their Vizier of Finance, the self-righteous ibn Nagrela. They have placed their own self-interest above the law dictated by the Prophet.

My King Zuhair respectively petitions you to join him in renouncing the Zanhadja for retaining the Jews in their administration. If you do this thing I believe I will be able to convince King Zuhair to form a mutual defense pact with you and Muhammad ben Abdallah, the ruler of Carmona. The alliance of Almeria, Malaga and Carmona will surround Granada with enemies and force them to adhere to the teachings of the Qur’an. The alliance will also provide other benefits to our respective Kingdoms.


Chapter 9: Joseph’s journal;

15 Siven, 4806 (June,1059)

I know I fall short of father’s achievements. I am less than an average poet and I am useless as a soldier, let alone the Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of Granada, a role my father filled with distinction. I perceive the brutality and stench of battle as perhaps the most disgustingly fearful and repugnant activity of man. My Berber masters consider war the culmination of living. I have inherited father’s position as Chief Vizier, but cannot duplicate his accomplishments. I know how to manage the finances of the Kingdom, and I do it well. I know how to pick the best man for a job. I am calm, quiet, observant. With careful thought, and an excellent network of spies, I am able to forestall plots, revolutions, and other threats against the kingdom.

King Badis is a good listener, and I have his ear. Most of the time he heeds my advice because my father taught me the techniques that make him believe that he was actually the one who formulated the strategy. Badis is also good about inviting disparate views but he keeps his own council before acting. Mostly he does nothing. He waits patiently for events to develop until his choices of action are more obvious, more limited. This behavior of non-action is one I approve of, and encourage.

At dinner, this evening I spoke of family matters with my mother, Rebecca, and my uncle, my mother’s brother, Rabbi David ben Judah, who lives with us. My sister Sarah is now married, and about to give birth to her first child. My brother Judah died as an infant, and my brother Elyasaf is not yet Bar Mitzvah. My wife Sarah supervised the preparation and serving of the dinner by the servants, her usual role. My children, who had been fed earlier, were in their beds.

My uncle is a good man, a moral man, very learned in the specifics of Jewish law as promulgated by the great scholars, but he has contributed nothing new. He is, however, very competent in managing the details of the many estates and investments I inherited from my father. He also serves me well as a sounding board, allowing me to unload my worries while offering only the advice of the sages.

When I was but sixteen years old, my father sent me across the Mediterranean Sea and then on a long trek through the desert to Kairwan in Tunisia. He sent me to learn at the Yeshiva of Rabbi Nissim, who was known to be one of the most learned Rabbis throughout the diaspora. Rabbi Nissim was also my father’s friend and colleague of many years. Although they had never met face to face they carried on an intense correspondence regarding the proper interpretation of passages from the Torah and Talmud.

I studied at the feet of Rabbi Nissim until I was nineteen years old. Eventually, he told me that I was the best student he ever had, and that I had learned as much Torah and Talmud as he could teach. He told me it was time for me to return to Granada where I needed to learn how to become the successor to Ha Nagid, as my father was no longer young. Rabbi Nissim also offered me a parting gift, the hand of his daughter Sarah in marriage. This was a gift I could not refuse. I had admired her, and done everything I could to be her friend and confident, since my arrival. She was then and is now a beautiful woman. She is also a dutiful daughter and wife.

Rabbi Nissim, and his entire family, accompanied me on the long sea voyage to Malaga, and from there, by mule drawn wagons, to Granada. Soon after our arrival in Granada the wedding was held, and our two families were joined. My father convinced Rabbi Nissim to remain in Granada to teach in Father’s Yeshiva. To make it easier he moved the Yeshiva from our house to a much more commodious venue, a house in the Jewish section, that he subsequently gave to Rabbi Nissim.

Not long after my wedding a renowned Arab scholar by the name of Haj Amin el Badr returned to Andalusia from a pilgrimage to Mecca. He responded to the machinations of Abu ben Abbas by trying to convince King Badis to get rid of my father as his Vizier, but Badis refused, as he had refused all previous efforts. El Badr then started preaching in the largest mosque in Granada, repeating the idea that it was not possible to trust a non-believer. He managed another audience with King Badis and claimed he had a solution to the Jew problem. He proposed to convince my father to convert to Islam.

Badis was delighted at the prospect of relieving his boredom by having Badr and my father debate the merits of Judaism versus Islam. He ordered that Badr and my father would conduct an open debate in his throne room in front of all those nobles who wanted to attend. This would be Badr’s one and only opportunity to convince my father to convert. I didn’t want to go but my father insisted that I be present, and that I make careful notes of all that transpired.

We entered the Alcazaba through the gate at the foot of the tower. The access to the gate is from a walkway that goes up a slight slope then makes a right angle turn that prevents the gate from being seen from outside the walls. We passed through the gate and entered the inner closed space, vaulted with many turns and openings high on the walls through which defenders can fire arrows and crossbow bolts. We emerged through an archway into the large courtyard, the Place of Arms. Defenders can control all access to this yard where, during peacetime troops practice marching and maneuvers. In case of an invasion any enemy that manages to reach the courtyard can be attacked from the top of the surrounding wall and from the tower, both areas only accessible via a narrow, steep, and vaulted staircase.

The massive stone inner walls are faced with Granada’s brick, red in the bright summer sunlight, dark and ominous in the shadows. We passed through alternate heat and cool, sunlight and shade. As I followed my father’s purposeful stride I noticed only the sound of his and my footfalls echoed through the passage ways. No other people were seen, no other sounds were heard. I smelled orange blossoms but couldn’t see any orange trees. I smelled spices being toasted but no kitchens or workers were visible.

After leaving the Place of Arms, we walked through a pointed arch embellished with vertically juxtaposed prisms then entered the Baraka, the blessing hall. This hall is rectangular in shape about twenty meters long but only slightly over four meters wide with a high vaulted ceiling. A plain low plinth serves as the foundation for the walls, all richly decorated with painted plasterworks. At both ends of this hall were alcoves with tiled plinths embellishing the columns that support stilted scalloped arches, ornamented with highly decorated pendentives. This is a construction where the curved triangle of vaulting is formed by the intersection of a dome with its supporting arches.

Finally, we entered the throne room through a double arch. The room was already crowded with nobility and administrators. The disturbing sound of many guttural, hushed voices assaulted my ears, which were, by then, accustomed to the muted sounds of our route to this place. This was my first time in that room, a room my father specifically designed to create awe. I stood, transfixed. I shivered, either from the abrupt change in temperature or in anticipation of the unknowable.

I looked around and estimated the room to be a little over eleven long strides square, but the ceiling soared above our heads. The floor was brilliant white marble covered in brightly colored silk rugs. Scattered around the room were piles of cushions, also covered with ornately decorated silk weavings. On the walls were hung heavy silk rugs with sumptuous colors and intricate designs. Huge ceramic vases decorated with cobalt blue, manganese-black, iron-green, copper-red, tin-white, and lead-yellow designs were scattered around the hall.

Each wall contained three arches, the center arch being the largest. Each of the eight smaller arches opened to niches through the two-and-a-half-meter thick wall. From where I stood all the niches seemed to extend through the wall and end as balconies, overlooking what I did not know. The center arches were twin arches with two lattice windows located near the top. The arches, the walls, the niches, the balconies, everything were covered with decorative inscriptions, poems praising Allah or the King. There was also an arch over the platform, which was covered with huge cushions serving as a throne. The platform was raised half-a-meter above the floor, accessed by two steps. It was unoccupied. The arch over the throne platform was decorated with a molding starting at the imposts and framing the opening and contained a quote from the Qur’an:

Help me Allah stoner of the devil.   

In the name of Allah who is merciful and has mercy.

Be, Allah, with our Lord Mahomet and his generation, accompaniment and salvation.

And say: my help of Allah’s rage and of the devil that permits breakage of hell;

And save me from evilness of the jealous when he is jealous

And no other divinity lives than Allah’s to who eternally praise

The praise to the Allah of the centuries.

Most of the room was in dim light. The lack of sunlight made the room cool on the hottest days but the latticework on the openings allowed filtered light into the room. I noticed that the light from the several of the lattices was focused on the platform throne. The effect was to surround the seated king in diffused light, which added to his power and mystery.

Above the arch over the throne platform was a paneled ceiling embellished with ribbon bow motifs and painted stars. The walls of the room, surrounded by a glazed tile plinth, are decorated with carvings of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables combined harmoniously with geometrical designs.

Scattered on the walls, embedded in the geometric designs were inscriptions I didn’t notice at first. There is no victor but Allah, was repeated several times. Rejoice in good fortune, because Allah helps you. Be sparse in words and you will go in peace.

These sayings were an elaborate form of propaganda, designed by my father, to reflect the power and might of the king.

The murmuring of many voices stopped abruptly when King Badis entered the room. He wore a turquoise colored outer silk robe decorated with intricate designs made of gold thread on the collar and cuffs. Under the robe were pants and shirt of brilliant white silk, and on his head a silk turban matching the cloak, also decorated with gold thread. Without speaking, he ascended the platform, sat crossed-legged on his cushions, and nodded at Badr.

Without preliminaries, Badr started the debate by pointing out that the Qur’an clearly states that Jews are money grabbers. I will do my best to repeat what was said from the notes I made and my memory of that fateful encounter.

“How can a money grabber be trusted to control the finances of the Kingdom?”

“Highness and notables of the land. Our Holy Torah forbids the charging of interest on loans to our people,” answered my father.

“But Jew, we are not your people,” Badr said with a laugh.

“Your Highness, I had not finished my answer. Our Holy sages tell us in the Talmud that it is a far worse sin to charge interest or deal falsely with non-Jews.” Father proceeded to quote from memory the various passages from the Talmud that made this idea clear. He ended with a clincher. “Our Rabbis strictly enforce this rule of law and Haj Amin El Badr has benefitted from this directly. He borrowed the funds necessary to make his pilgrimage to Mecca from the money lender Yehudah and was not charged interest. I am also told he has not yet paid back all of the borrowed funds.”

Badr seemed confused and requested that the debate be halted for the day to be resumed the next and King Badis with a thoughtful smile on his face agreed, stood up and left the room.

The audience of nobles was stunned. They had expected something dramatic and witnessed only an initial feeling out.

The following day my father and I followed the same route but I was feeling a more ominous anticipation. My father was calm, serious but didn’t seem worried or nervous. This time the cacophony from those gathered in the throne room was louder, more intense. King Badis entered, dressed in royal blue, and again the audience went silent. Badis did not smile, just waved his left hand at Badr who opened the second day with the following statement:

“Is it not written in your Torah that a prophet from your midst will be chosen by God and that you must heed his words? Whom else can this be but Mohammed?”

Badr stood smiling with satisfaction. My father got up from the cushion he was sitting on and responded.

“This is a total misinterpretation. Our scholars have pointed out that the Torah says; ‘…just as I Moses am from your midst so will our Lord bring forth additional prophets from your midst. …’ This is the direct quote from the Torah. I submit that your sainted prophet Mohammad did not receive the prophetic tradition in a direct line from the prophets as Moses foretold. He did not come from our midst. Moses was our prophet and we believe in him because of the miracles he performed leading to our exodus from Egypt, and because he was the one chosen by God to receive the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The Torah also commands that we Jews not add to what is set as law in the Torah, nor delete from it. Your prophet ignored portions of the Torah that contradicted his message just as the Christians have done. We cannot accept any revisions to the Torah.”

Badr’s sneered, his face reddening as he struggled to contain his anger and frustration. My father allowed only a hint of a smile and stood calmly, waiting. Badis smiled broadly, leaned forward and rested his chin on his left fist.

“So, Jew, if yours is the true faith why and how did Islam become the dominant religion of the world? Why does a mosque now stand on the very ground where your temple was? Why have so many Jews converted to Islam?”

Only the sound of many men breathing deeply could be heard. All heads shifted to look at my father. The anticipation was palpable. How could the Jew possibly respond to this?

“Islam has spread among the multitudes. I cannot deny that fact. This must have happened because God willed it so. We believe that God wishes that monotheism be spread amongst all non-believers so that when the Messiah does arrive it will be easier for all to accept him. We Jews were expelled from our homeland because we sinned against our Lord and his Torah. When we all return to God’s commandments and repent he will restore his people to Zion. This is what we believe.”

“This Jew is too clever Majesty. He has answers for everything. I ask a favor. I have brought with me a former Jew by the name of Abu Sufyan. I ask this man be allowed to debate ibn Nagrela. I think, your Highness, that it will take one cunning Jew to outdebate another Jew.”

“Where is this man?” asked Badis.

A short man in a common wool cloak pushed forward from the back of the room.

“I am Abu Sufyan,” he bowed low to the King. “May I speak Majesty?”

Badis gave permission with a wave of his right hand.

“Your Highness and gathered nobles, when a Jew is faced with death, the Torah instructs that he must convert, because to preserve a life a Jew may ignore any prohibition of the Torah. The only exceptions allowed are that one must die rather than commit murder, lead an amoral life or worship idols. Islam is not considered Idolatry by the Jews so if you order ibn Nagrela to convert he is not being ordered to commit murder or compromise morality. He must convert or be put to death.”

“Great King,” my father said, as he gathered his thoughts “I am attacked by an apostate Jew who converted rather than be executed for being a thief. I ask that I be allowed to go to my home and pray to God for guidance before responding.”

Badis agreed. “We will resume this tomorrow after the noon meal.”

As soon as he left the throne room the place erupted with sound.

On the walk home I studied my father’s face. He was deep in thought. I dared not ask how he planned to respond. Would he really risk death by refusing to convert?

All that night my father prayed and consulted with Rabbi Nissim on ways to respond to the argument raised by Abu Sufyan. The next day, after the noon meal, the debate resumed.

Badis spoke to open the proceedings.

“Ibn Nagrela, based on what we heard yesterday I believe you must accept Islam with a clear conscience, or I will be forced to order your execution.”

My father stepped forward and spoke directly to the king.

“My king, the Torah tells us that in times of persecution we may not abandon Torah to save our lives, it is obvious to me that we Jews are facing a time of persecution.”

Abu Sufyan jumped off the cushion he was sitting on.

“There is no truth to that statement,” he shouted. “Nobody in Granada is preventing the Jews from practicing their religion. The truth is that the people do not want the a favorite of the King to have influence over their lives, if he is a Jew. They fear he will favor his own people over them.”

My father turned slowly to face his accuser.

“Even if I agree that you are correct, and also believe that my people will not be persecuted, as you persecute me now, I still may not convert. If I accept Islam as my religion, I will be rejecting the Torah. Moses told us the Torah is eternal. There are many passages in the Talmud describing self-sacrifice. How can I do less than Rabbi Akiba, or Daniel, who was thrown to the lions rather than convert?”

Once again, he addressed the king.

“As Ha Nagid of the Jews, and as your Vizier who has always supported your Highness, my conversion would be an embarrassment and sin for all generations who follow. Your Highness knows that for the past many years, first for your father and now for you, I have devoted my life, my brain, and all my energy to you and to our Kingdom. My guiding principle has always been the best interest of the Kingdom. No, your Highness, I am prepared to die here and now rather than convert.”

My heart beat so strongly in my chest I feared those close to me could hear it. My father’s face was calm, almost serene, then I saw a slight tremble of his lower lip. I prayed to God that nobody else, especially King Badis, noticed that tremble.

Badis was immobile, his chin again resting on his left fist. He gazed around the silent room, slowly then stood up and stared at each of the nobles and tribal chiefs in the room until each looked away.

“Ibn Nagrela you have convinced me and all of those present.” He looked again around the room and held each person’s eyes until they nodded agreement. “You have remained true to your people and your religion and have answered all of the arguments of your accusers. I have complete faith in you. You have served this Kingdom well and, I am certain, will continue to do so. I order that Abu Sufyan and Haj Amin El Badr both be imprisoned and kept locked away to ponder the danger of attacking my most trusted servant.”

I smiled with relief, as did my father.

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Chapter 7: Open letter from Abu-far Ahmad ben Abbas

14 Rabi’ al-awwal, 421 (May, 1030)

To all True Believers living in Granada:

The blessed Qur’an instructs that a non-believer should not hold any office that provides a measure of authority over any Muslim. In keeping with the Holy word of Allah, all Jews in the service of Muslim Kings must be dismissed. To disobey is to flaunt the law as set down in the Qur’an.

My King, the blessed by Allah, Zuhair has instructed me to demand specifically that the Jew Samuel ibn Nagrela be removed from the high office he holds in Granada. The position must be held by a True Believer.


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Chapter 6: Joseph’s journal;

2 Iyar, 4806 (May, 1057)

Shortly after my father was appointed Vizier of Finance a crisis loomed. King Habbus was infirm with age. For reasons he failed to share with anyone, he did not indicate who his successor would be. This made the Zanhadja nobles very nervous. The heads of the various families, and their sons, had been given governorships of provinces, and other honors and responsibilities. But, all was at the pleasure of Habbus. He did make it a point to make them feel they were his equals. He never summoned any of these worthies to the palace to conduct business. When he required their input or opinion he went to them, thus demonstrating that he considered them equals. These men did not want a new king who would abandon these practices, or take away their privilege or estates. Prince Yaddair ben Hubasa, King Habbus’ nephew, courted the chiefs by promising they would retain their privileges. Yaddair was determined to usurp the place of Habbus’ two sons.

Yaddair was one of those people who peruses many books but with little real understanding beyond the title and author. He associated with learned men, but with the goal of learning as much as possible from them while expending as little effort as possible. He was clever and well-spoken, and managed to flatter most men. He especially wanted to appear to be a zealous Muslim. Habbus seemed to value this cleverness. He employed Yaddair to negotiate with emissaries of other governments, and sometimes gave him the full authority to handle various tasks for the Kingdom.

Prior to his death Abu l-Abbas, Father’s mentor and predecessor as Financial Vizier, proposed to King Habbus that the King designate Yaddair as his successor. He thought there was no other person more deserving. However, there was no consensus amongst the Zanhadja. One of the Berber chiefs spoke to promote and defend Habbus’ eldest son Badis. This chief pointed out that amongst his many other achievements, Badis possessed the essential personality to rule. He was also well-versed in governmental matters. Various factions lined up as supporters of Yaddair or Badis, while yet another cadre of chiefs supported Boluggin, the younger son.

Father knew Yaddair thought ill of him after Abu’s son was removed as Vizier, and he was given that title. Yaddair also did not believe a Jew should hold such a high position. The majority of the Berber chiefs seemed to not want Badis to be king. That same cabal of chiefs aligned against Badis had close ties to some very wealthy Jews, heads of old Jewish Granadan families. Some of those Jews held grudges against my father for supposed slights. Mostly they resented him because he wielded more power than they did.

Father worked diligently to find ways to convince Boluggin, the younger son, that being king is a demanding position requiring hard work and great responsibility. Boluggin was averse to both. Father also needed to gain the support of the majority of the Jews of Granada, and to convince them that the succession of Badis was in their best interest. At the same time, he needed to do everything possible to convince Badis of his loyalty to him, and to Habbus, and of the value he could be to both of them.

The succession was not the only crisis looming. The Slav general Khairhan took over Almeria several years previous. When he died, the Slav eunuch General Zuhair succeeded him, and became even more powerful than Khairhan had been. Zuhair even controlled Cordoba for a time. Almeria was much more important as a friend to Granada than as an enemy, so when the king of Seville attacked Zuhair, Habbus went to Zuhair’s aid. Together they invaded Seville’s territory and won a battle over the Sevillian army.

When Father was appointed Finance Vizier of Granada the Head Vizier of Almeria, Abu ben Abbas, immediately began to undermine our alliance with Zuhair.  Abu ben Abbas was a formidable enemy. He was then a young Arab, very wealthy, a true scholar of Arabic literature, and an excellent orator. The rumor was that he had five hundred women in his harem, each more beautiful than the previous. Father’s spies also reported that Abu ben Abbas was extremely miserly, egotistical, and conceited. He boasted of his genealogy and traced his linage to those first Muslims in Medina, who welcomed the Prophet when he fled from Mecca. He was an unhappy man who fate had forced to serve Zuhair, once a mercenary eunuch slave. This was a most demeaning situation for ben Abbas, and abhorrent. He believed he was much more qualified to be king than Zuhair.

Map of Andalusia in 1025 AD:

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Chapter 5: Letter from Habbus, King of Granada:

12 Safar, 420 (May, 1030)

I am well aware that the recently departed Abut l-Abbas was your mentor. He spoke highly of your skills and intelligence. As you know I followed l-Abbas’ recommendation and appointed his son Vizier of Finance after the old man’s passing. The young man is intelligent enough but his father was negligent teaching him all he needed to know to be effective.

This morning when he was summoned to me you appeared in his stead and explained he was unavailable due to a sudden and severe illness. You did an outstanding job of presenting the information I required, and you answered all my questions regarding the financial status of the Kingdom with concise and accurate data.

I appreciate your loyalty to your mentor and to his son, but I have learned the young man is dedicated to the pleasures of life. This morning he was still under the influence of too much wine and food taken the previous evening. This is not the first time this has happened and in each case, you have filled in for him while presenting the information you have compiled, as if he had done the work. I am well aware that my Vizier of Finance suffers from a weakness of understanding of the finance ministry and its duties.

I have had you investigated thoroughly. I learned that you are the person responsible for the excellent management of our Finance Ministry.

I have this day given the son of Abu l-Abbas a large estate near Jaen to which he is ordered to repair. I have appointed you, Samuel ibn Nagrela, Vizier of Finance. You will come to the palace tomorrow morning to be invested with your office and recognized by the court.

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Chapter 4: Joseph’s journal: 

20 Nissan, 4806 (March, 1057)

Father often expounded about how Arabic poetry is very important to educated Muslims. Their poetry speaks of lovers, battles, wine, food, and other worldly issues as well as of God and religion. I knew that my father composes poems in both Arabic and Hebrew, sometimes in Aramaic. When the family was gathered, usually after dinner, he would often recite something he had recently written.

Another evening, when I was still nine years old, he told me that from that day on, whenever he was home, he would give me one of his poems, or perhaps a poem written by someone he admired. I was to make a copy, using my very best calligraphy, and making no errors. In addition to making the copy I was to decide which of fourteen different types of metric structure the poem used. Each time I completed one of these assignments he promised to give me a gold coin as payment for a job well done. But it had to be done properly, no errors, no sloppy calligraphy, if I expected to receive payment.

He then opened a book on top of the stack of books closest to him. I knew that book because he had me read to him from it two weeks before. The book was sewn with silk and bound with leather-covered pasteboards and a leather flap that wrapped around it when it was not being read from. My father removed a single sheet of thick paper and handed it to me.

“This is a poem I finished this afternoon. It is your first of many tasks.”

I started to stand but he told me there was something else he wanted to begin. I sat back on the stool and waited while he rubbed his beard, thinking.

“In the years to come, I am going to speak to you not only of the history of Andalusia and her people, but also about thoughts, and concerns, and worries I have about what I do for King Habbus. You are not to interrupt or comment and most importantly you are never to repeat one word of what I say to you in this room, to anyone. Not to your mother, nor your uncle, nor your brother, nor to any other living soul. Do you understand what I am saying, and give me your word to obey this command?”

I nodded, but he told me to say it out loud.

I told him that I understood and that I would never repeat anything he said to me in this room to anyone.

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Chapter 3: Joseph’s journal:

14 Nissan, 4806 (March, 1057)

“When I am gone, you must be ready to take my place,” my father told me when I was nine years old. We were again in his study and he had just finished quizzing me about what I had learned that day.

“It is important that you are qualified and able to fill this responsibility. The welfare of our family, of your new brother Judah, your sister, and mother, and uncle, and all of the Jewish people. This is true not only here in Granada, but perhaps in all of Andalusia. Their lives and happiness may depend on you, as it does now on me. Is this clear to you?”

“Yes, Papa, I understand.”

“However, you need more than all this education. You are a smart and clever boy. You have been learning everything I ask, but you must learn even more as you mature. It will be necessary for you to be able to influence the actions of many different individuals. The people you must deal with will have many different prejudices, fears, schemes, and shifting loyalties. As you know, our masters here in Granada are Berbers, of the tribal confederation known as the Zanhadja. Among the Zanhadja family and tribal loyalty is the most important aspect of their lives. Jews will always be outsiders. There is another loosely united tribal federation of Berbers indigenous to North Africa known as the Zenaga. The Zanhadja and Zenaga will usually form an alliance when threatened with an outside enemy, but when not threatened from without they will often go to war against each other. This can and often times does result from a minor incident or perceived slight. The third race of Muslims is the Arabs. They originated from the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East.”

I told him I didn’t know these places, the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, North Africa. Where were they?

He told me that was his fault. The very next day he provided a teacher of geography. I learned all the countries where our people could be found, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Persia, and the rest of the Middle East, North Africa, and Andalusia. I learned the relationship of these places to the Mediterranean Sea. I also learned about the Christian kingdoms north and east of us, and of Rome and its history. I learned how far away these places were, or how near, and how long it took to travel to them, and the routes to arrive there.

My father himself taught me about the Arabs. They are, he said, a proud race who consider themselves conquerors, traders, and rulers. They are most comfortable living in large towns and cities. The Berbers, he told me, seem to prefer smaller settlements, and the freedom of the countryside. Many Berbers have fair skin and blonde or red hair with blue or green eyes. Arabs usually have darker skin, black or brown hair and eyes. The majority of both Berbers and Arabs are Muslim, but many of the Berbers have retained practices of their previous religions despite conversion to Islam. The Berber Muslims are mostly Sunni while Arabs may be either Sunni or Shia, depending on where they came from originally.

“You must learn and understand what motivates many of the prejudices and therefore the actions of the people who rule over us.”

My father spent many evenings talking to me about the history, and the people who occupied Andalusia. Particularly he spoke about the Zanhadja families who ruled Grenada. I learned that after they were converted to Islam the Zanhadja spread throughout the Sudan, and as far away as the Senegal and Niger rivers. They established themselves in the middle of the Atlas and Rif mountains, and to the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Some Zanhadja settled in Algeria. I learned that the Arabs were responsible for the ascension of the Fatimid, the Zirid and Hammadid dynasties that controlled North Africa. This all happened before the Berber tribes were converted to Islam. The Islamic theologian, ibn Yasin was the person who united those Arabs who had relocated to North Africa. He then converted the Berber tribes and they were united by the Almoravid family. The Almoravids eventually conquered Andalusia.

After the fall of Cordoba, the Almoravid Empire collapsed. When I was still young I was confused about this history because the Almoravid tribe was also identified, in the Arabic historical literature, as the Omayyad or Umayyad tribe.  In any case after the Almoravids were defeated, and removed from power, the Cordoban empire collapsed and the Taifa, many individual city/states, came into being. Today some of these Taifa are ruled by the Zanhadja, others are ruled by the Zenaga, still others by Arabs who still want the Almoravid Caliph to return to rule all of Andalusia. Some of the Taifa are even ruled by Slavs.

The Berbers, both Zanhadja and Zenaga, will almost always unite to prevent the Arabs or Slavs from taking over. The Slavs, were people from Christian Europe, but many were not Christian. Those followed a variety of pagan religions. They were all originally brought to Andalusia as slaves. Young boys with the necessary aptitude were, and still are, trained as mercenaries. They admit allegiance to only their unit, army and commanders. Some of these men, the very best fighters and leaders, were promoted within their units and have become successful generals. The most successful were freed, and now occupy positions of authority and power. A few have even become kings.

My father taught me that the first thing I must do when I meet someone new is to identify their background. That is very important because the populations in all of the Taifa are very mixed. The Zanhadja rule Granada, but our citizens include Zenaga, Arab, Slav, Negros from Africa, Christians, of course Jews, and traders from the rest of the world. Many, except the Jews and the traders, originated as mercenaries, hired for short or longer terms or brought in for a particular war or battle. Father taught me to understand that each individual is different. Each has their own personality, prejudices, beliefs, mode of thinking and reacting. He taught me the skill, and importance of gentle questioning and sincere interest. I use these skills to encourage any person I meet to talk about themselves and especially about their family. He repeated over and over that I should listen much more than I talked.

“You cannot learn anything if you are talking, or thinking about what you are going to say next,” was his mantra.

By understanding the backgrounds and cultures of the people I need to interact with, to learn and know more about their culture than they know about mine, gives me an advantage. For Jews it is important to maintain some mystery about the way we think and act. Culture dictates the way people live, what they believe to be of significance, many times why they do the things they do.

The most important thing he taught me was rulers are especially difficult, complicated people.

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