Letter from Badis, King of Granada         

20 Ramadan, 447 (1056)

My Dear Joseph ben Ishma’il ibn Nagrela,

Allow me again to offer condolences for the death of your beloved father. I believe I feel his loss as much as you. However, life goes on and I require your services.

You will report to the palace tomorrow morning three hours after dawn to receive your official appointment as Chief Vizier and Finance Vizier.  I know you have been fulfilling the duties of these offices for some time now, while under the supervision of your father.

Be prompt. You may bring along members of your immediate family to witness the ceremony, if you wish.



Joseph’s journal;

8 Adar 4809 (February, 1060)

It is hard to believe my father has been dead for four years. Last year we also lost my Uncle, my mother’s brother, Rabbi ben Judah. It was he who managed the family properties for many years. His heart, weak for some time, stopped while he was sleeping. This has put additional family responsibilities on me and forced me to consider a serious consolidation of the family’s resources. My brother Elyasaf, only eleven years old and eighteen years my junior, is too young to assume the daily oversight of the family’s holdings so I have that additional responsibility.

Many of our most distant properties have been sold, the capital invested in various business opportunities here in Granada. I offered David ben Abraham ownership of the two Ecija farms at a fair price with no down payment and no interest loans, to be paid off over time. He was very pleased. Three of the other properties were sold to the same managers who worked them profitably for many years, on equally generous terms.

My relationship with King Badis is considerably more formal than the one my father had with him. Officially I am still his Chief Vizier, and he does listen when I have something he considers significant to contribute. However, I have not been able to maintain the numbers nor reliability of the spy network my father constructed. The information I have access to regarding the actions and intentions of potential enemies is still significant. Some rivals for the King’s ear are making inroads. I still have a strong hold on the finances of the kingdom and Badis seems pleased with all I continue to accomplish in that regard. The economy continues to grow, the treasury is adequate to meet all needs and whims, and we maintain a strong military capable of responding to all threats.

I am happy to not be involved in the military adventures of the kingdom. Badis has at his disposal capable Generals, of proven ability, who were educated and trained by my father. They conduct his military adventures for him. My father made it clear to Badis I had no talent nor inclination to be a warrior. The king no longer takes the field himself. He is much addicted to his cup.

Although I have considerable influence in the Jewish community of Granada I am not able to exert the level of control over the ethical attitudes and practices that my father was. During the last three years the economic situation here continued to improve and the number of people moving into Granada has multiplied. Many Jews have also arrived, looking for opportunity to invest capital in a more robust economy than existed where they previously lived. Some of these individuals have been loaning money at interest, growing their capital. There has also been a large increase in the Arab and Berber populations and this has attracted Imams of less tolerant beliefs.

The inevitable happened. Borrowers defaulted and lenders look for legal, and sometimes extralegal, activities to recoup their capital. The result has been hard feelings, hard words, and an increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric and incidents. Gangs of men beat up two Jews in the streets, in broad daylight, last month. Both those attacked were money lenders. I appealed to Badis and he appointed one of his Zanhadja tribal chiefs to investigate, but there doesn’t seem to have been a serious attempt to identify the perpetrators or bring them to justice. If this situation persists I will be hard pressed to suggest a solution.

This morning I had a conversation with Amar, an Arab with whom I have been friends since we were children.

“My friend, I think something is happening that you need to be aware of.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Last week I attended services at the new mosque built two streets away from my house, you know it?”


“The Imam preached a sermon with the same old arguments about Infidels having power over True Believers. He did not name you but it was clear, from what he said, he is not happy that any of his followers are paying taxes to a Jew, or that one particular Jew has great power and influence in this Taifa, as well as being very wealthy himself.”

“This is a problem my father had to face all his life. I cannot respond to this Imam’s words but perhaps we can make it known if his words incite his followers to action there will be consequences.”

“What kind of consequences, and how would you prove he was responsible?”

“Ah, that is the problem I wrestle with, Amar. Thank you for telling me. I have always been thankful you are my friend.”


Joseph’s journal;

4 Tevelt 4808 (December 1059) 

It seems that early each spring, we receive intelligence of an uprising, an invasion, raiding, or some sort of incident that demands a military response. These crises seem to require that Ha Nagid put on his armor and depart on a campaign. Sometimes circumstances dictate a large army, sometimes just a token force. In the spring of 1056, word arrived that in Linares, a town north of Jaen, one of Father’s tax collectors had been murdered. One of the Zenata Berber tribes was responsible for the murder and the same tribe was raiding the nearby villages of Carboneros and La Carolina. This was not a new scenario it was often repeated in different places by different perpetrators, but it was not something that could be tolerated.

“You are fully capable of dealing with things here in Granada, Joseph. I will take a small force, maybe two companies of light cavalry, one of heavy, two units of mounted archers and slingers, and two units of infantry and go deal with these rebels. Take care to keep the king happy while I’m gone.”

“Of course, Papa, but there is no need for you to lead the force in person. You have more than one general capable of accomplishing the task.”

“No, I must do this myself. The man who was murdered was a friend of long-standing, Shlomo ben Yitzhak. Everyone knew he was my man, so this was meant to be a challenge to my authority. I will deal with it.”

Colonel Samuel ben Yehuda, a Jew commanded a company of heavy cavalry. He was one of my childhood friends. Ben Yehuda is a full two meters tall, heavily muscled and has proven to be very brave and resourceful in battle. His men know he is always solicitous of their wellbeing but determined to do whatever is necessary to be victorious. He is destined to be a general. I called on him in his home.

“I am worried about Ha Nagid,” I told him. “He is acting more and more like an old man, but he insists this latest policing action is personal for him. I’m afraid he is planning to do something foolish. I think he intends to personally fight if the opportunity presents itself. Last night, I watched as he sharpened the blades of his sword and knives. He was reciting some of King David’s poems as he sharpened his weapons. He has also inspected his own armor, and that of his horse. He ordered the repair of some very minor weaknesses in the chaining. He is too old to be engaging in combat.”

“Do not worry, Joseph. I will glue myself to his side. If there is any fighting, I will protect him. I know this Zenata Chief. He is a blowhard. If and when he sees our forces he will either run to the mountains or surrender. In either case he will beg your father for forgiveness with some lame excuse for what he has done.”

“Thank you, Samuel. I will count on you to keep Ha Nagid safe. Also, please watch to make certain he does not tire himself and become ill again. He is not nearly so strong as he once was.”

“Of course. Please do not worry. I will make certain he is returned home in better shape than when we leave. Time in the field, in the open air, will rejuvenate him.”

They were gone for a little over two months and returned to Granada with only two wounded. Father looked stronger and healthier than I had seen him for four years.

Colonel ben Yehuda and I were strolling along my favorite path next to the river the day after they returned home. The day was clear, a few white clouds scuttling across the late morning sky. On that stretch of river, the water flows gently and I watched as a leaf got trapped in an eddy next to the bank.

“My father appears to be in much better health than when you left on your camping trip. He told me last night everything went well.”

“Yes, being outside in the fresh air, and the healthy exercise, agreed with him. I don’t know how he does it. After travelling all day, he stayed up almost all night studying his books or writing. Every day he sent a messenger loaded with documents to deliver back here to you, or to the palace, or to send on their way to the diaspora. One or two messengers caught up with us with their dispatches every day. How many Rabbis and officials do you think he communicates with?”

“I can’t keep a count. The last time I tried to make a list, it was well over two dozen.”

“He’s a remarkable man, but I must tell you he gave me a huge scare.”

I stopped short and took hold of his arm. “What did he do?”

“After two weeks, our scouts located their camp. We managed to get within a kilometer before they knew we were coming. They reacted quickly, grabbed what they could, armed themselves, and scrambled to saddle their horses and flee. Your father ordered me to attack immediately, then spurred his stallion, drawing his sword as he galloped towards the camp. I shouted to my captains to attack and gave chase, just managing to catch up to him as he encountered one of the rebels.”

“I thought you were going to keep him out of danger.”

“I’m sorry. I never expected him to rush in as he did. He was possessed. He was smiling and shouting a prayer to God. I couldn’t understand all of what he was shouting. He crashed into the first man he encountered, knocking him off his horse and slashing the man’s sword arm. Then he jerked his horse to the side, attempting to engage a group of three. I managed to get between him and them, joined by six of my men. We wounded and captured ten and killed three before they scattered into the mountains. This happened in the foothills north of Navas de Tolosa. I split up our forces and we pursued their small bands, but only managed to find and capture another dozen before the rest of them crossed over into Castile-La Mancha. Ha Nagid didn’t want to invade the Christian territory with an armed force, so we turned back and spent time in La Carolina, Carbones, El Altico, and Guarromain before going to Linares.”

“In each of those places, your father held council with my officers and me. We selected two, sometime three platoons, with a lieutenant in charge. They were left as a garrison to prevent further raids. He also met with the leaders of each community and appointed new administrators to replace those killed by the rebels.”

We continued walking then reached a bench under an overhanging weeping willow tree. I nodded at the bench and we sat. I needed to find out more about my father’s actions.

“We left two companies to garrison Linares and your father made certain there was a fast response system in place with remount stations. He ordered that messengers must be able to get a fresh horse every ten-kilometers, or less. He insists that we be able to respond quickly to any attacks or raiding parties. He summoned my brother David to bring his family to Linares and assume the positions of tax collector and sub-governor of the northern territories. He will report to the governor of Jaen province. All of this took the better part of a month in Linares alone.”

“Do you think your brother will do well there?”

“He seemed quite happy with the opportunity, although I think he will miss the interaction with family and the Jewish community here. Time will tell.”

“His financial situation will certainly improve.”


Late that same fall, my father was again ill and depressed. He rarely left his bed, even to go to his study. He seemed content to lay propped up with many cushions while he read, disinclined to occupy his time with writing. One morning, as I sat at his bedside going over the tasks for the day, he handed me two folded sheets of paper.

“Joseph, keep these but do not open them until I am gone. I doubt I will last through this winter.”

His complexion was pasty, his breathing labored. His right hand was shaking slightly and he grabbed it with his left hand to hold it steady. He started coughing and was unable to speak for some minutes before he coughed up phlegm into a square of soft cotton cloth. I took the fabric from him and handed him a clean cloth from a stack on the table next to his bed.

“This is not good, Papa. I am sending for your physicians. There must be something they can do.”

“All three of them will be here this afternoon, Joseph, we agreed to that when they were here two days ago. They are giving me treatments for the congestion in my chest, but they tell me much of the pus is accumulating in my lungs. There is nothing to be done more than inhaling the steam with eucalyptus oil that they treat me with.”

“I will bring in some other physicians. They will have other treatments to try.”

“No, Joseph, they will want to bleed me and do other invasive things to my old body. I am tired and you are ready to take over. No more physicians, no more treatments. I have lived a long life, more years than I deserved. God has been my protector and my champion. It’s enough.”

Three weeks after that conversation, he died in his sleep. The entire Jewish population of Granada and representatives from all of the communities capable of arriving within twenty-four hours of the news of his death attended his burial. King Badis came, as did his entire family. All of the government officials and administrators, all of the generals and colonels of the army attended. We buried him in a plain, white cotton shroud in the Jewish cemetery just outside the Elvira gate to the city. Memorial services honoring him were conducted in every town with an organized Jewish community throughout Andalusia and in many other communities throughout the diaspora.

All of the Jews who attended his burial wore white cotton cloaks, which they tore during the keriah. The family and visitors to our home crowded the meeting room and jammed the courtyard for each of the mandated seven days of the daily shiva service. On the eighth day, alone and lonely in the study, I unfolded the two sheets of paper he gave me just before dying.

The first said; “I have not always been faithful to the one with whom you were conceived. King Badis gave me a young Jewish maiden whom I loved in a way completely different from the way I loved your mother. For ten years I loved her and then she died from the same pox that took your sister from us. This is a poem I wrote for her:”

The poem brought tears to my eyes and is too personal to share with anyone.

The second sheet of paper held his final instructions to me.

“When you deal with the King, you must use all of the wisdom and experience that the two of us together brought to him. You must convince him that all the ideas he embraces were in actuality his own. The largest threat to our Jewish community is disunity. I charge you with the responsibility and obligation to do everything necessary to protect our people. When I am gone dear Joseph, my son, you must take extraordinary care to avoid any action that can or might corrode your relationship with the King or with the Jewish community.”


Joseph’s journal:

28 Kislev, 4808 (November, 1059) 

The winter of 4794 (1056) found Ha Nagid tired. He was tired of living, tired of campaigning, tired of being responsible for correcting King Badis’ poor judgment and failings, tired of the responsibility of protecting and advancing the lives of the Jewish people and our community. It was fortunate that he no longer had to deal with the machinations and plotting of many of his historic enemies. Yaddair was dead as were Boluggin, Zuhair, Ibn Abbas, and the kings of Carmona and Ronda. Mutadid was ineffective, behaving more and more erratically, more and more crazy. He was also in failing physical health.

Father focused his thinking, and his poetry, on the physical afflictions of advancing age. His own health was unquestionably a major preoccupation. The inevitability of death occupied much of his thinking and was reflected in his poetry. He was also ready to leave the corridors of power. Each day he turned over to me additional duties, responsibilities, and tasks. He insisted that I assume the role he had chosen for me.

One good thing did happen that winter. Yacob ben Rabbihi came to our front gate and begged to talk to Ha Nagid. Rabbihi had been one of Father’s favorite students, but he plagiarized an obscure piece of commentary in an analysis he wrote as an assignment from my father. Father, of course, recognized that passage on first reading. His response was predictable and final. He immediately expelled ben Rabbihi from the Yeshiva. I went to the gate to ascertain what the man wanted.

“Joseph, thank you for speaking to me.”

“Yacob, what is it that you want to talk to Ha Nagid about? He has no wish to see you.”

“I understand Joseph, but I have been wandering Andalusia since I did that one unforgivable deed. Now I have accomplished something I pray will allow Ha Nagid to forgive me.”


“Before I fell from grace, I was privileged to copy small sections of Ha Nagid’s work he titled Minor Kobelet.”

“Yes, that manuscript was lost in the ambush by Abu Nun of Ronda when Father had to escape into the river.”

“I know, but a year ago I met the man who recovered the manuscript. He represented it to me as his own work. I told him I was very interested in the subject and begged him to allow me to study it. He agreed, but would only allow me to access it in his presence. Each day I would memorize a section of the text then I would write down what I had memorized when alone in the evening. It took me over a month to transcribe the entire manuscript.”

He reached inside a pouch attached to the belt around his waist and extracted a book. He held it out to me. I took it, examined it, and immediately recognized Father’s phrasing and Yacob’s calligraphy.

“Your calligraphy skills are still intact, Yacob.”

“It was for those skills that Ha Nagid first accepted me as a student.”

“Well I’m certain he will want to examine this. Follow me.”

I took him to the study, but instructed him to wait outside the doorway while I told Father the story and showed him the book. Father looked at me for several moments then nodded, and extended his hand. I gave him the book and he started leafing through it, then more slowly, reading each line while alternating smiling, nodding, and frowning. I could see he was conflicted.

“Yes, Joseph, this is it. So the prodigal has returned and offers this gift in hopes of forgiveness?”

“Yes, he told me as much.”

“All right, bring him in.”

As Yacob entered the study Father stood up from his desk and took two steps forward, extending his hand.

“Yacob, you have returned to me a work I thought was lost forever. If you will forgive my harsh response to your mistake, I will accept you back into my Yeshiva. Your first assignment will be the task of making ten copies of this work.”

“Thank you, Nagid, it is more than what I dreamed or hoped for. You will never have cause to doubt me or regret this decision.”

I was very surprised at Father’s reaction. The father I knew was quick to anger, unforgiving, vengeful, and held grudges sometimes beyond reason. Perhaps his advanced age caused him to mellow. His joy at being reunited with a work he had thought lost forever was obvious. It induced him to give Yacob ben Rabbihi a second chance. This was the first time I ever knew him to grant even the most remorseful person a second chance.

As I said previously, most of the enemies of Granada, and thereby my father, were no longer a factor in his life nor cause for concern. They had been removed from the scene either by the natural course of events or as a result of his machinations. Even Mutadid, the rumors and spy reports told us, was on his deathbed. We would have to await his successor to see what new threat, if any, would come from Seville.

Father’s friends were secure. The Jewish communities of Granada and all of its territories were protected and thriving economically. He protected them and also gave a significant portion of his wealth to the Jewish communities. He considered the Jews a community of people chosen by God to demonstrate to the world how to live a moral, honest, caring, and useful life. Over many years he had also encouraged and supported many poets and philosophers, both Jews and Gentiles, and most of them were thriving. His literary, philological, and religious books were read and held in highest esteem by people he respected and honored. He resented those that disliked his work and made their feelings public in their writings. At least he claimed to resent them. In the case of his long dispute with Jonah ibn Janah, however, I sensed an undercurrent of mutual respect and camaraderie. I think my father actually enjoyed his on-going war of words with ibn Janah, even the vitriol between them.

Father and ibn Janah both grew up in Cordoba. They shared some of the same teachers, but not all. As youths they both loved to debate and specially to debate each other. But the outcome of their debates rarely resulted in a clear winner. They both fled Cordoba about the same time and for the same reasons, but ibn Janah wandered through Andalusia for several years before finally settling in Saragossa in the north. He made his living as a physician and was, by all accounts, a very good one.

Unlike Father, ibn Janah had no talent for poetry and did not publish any. The major thrust of his published works were concerned with philology. He felt strongly that; “… Scripture can only be understood by the aid of philology. …”  He repeated that statement many times in his various writings.

One of ibn Janah’s earliest books was titled The Book of Criticism. In this book, he made a vicious, and my father felt, disrespectful, attack on one of Father’s most beloved teachers Rabbi Judah ben David Hayyui.

After the publication of his critique of Rabbi Hayyui, ibn Janah welcomed into his home a man who happened to be a mutual friend of his and my father’s. This common friend delivered a manuscript, written by my father, that criticized Janah’s critique of Rabbi Hayyui. Janah replied to this by authoring another book, The Book of Repute. Father countered with The Epistles of the Companions. I know that book well since I had the responsibility of overseeing the making of several copies. The publication of The Epistles resulted in two more responses from ibn Janah; The Book of Sharing and The Book of Minute Research. This last book was one of the earliest books written about Hebrew philology. In these works, Janah slanderously identified Father as an oaf, a freak, an idiot, and even a stammerer. During his career, ibn Janah published six major works, a third of them were direct attacks on my father.

Some of my father’s responses to these attacks were published, but most were just delivered to ibn Janah as written rebuttal. I think both men were spurred on by the other to think and write more creatively and each drew some measure of pleasure from the war of words. As a result of these exchanges, ibn Janah will no doubt be remembered as one of the greatest Hebrew philologists of all time. Father once said to me, “Joseph, ibn Janah is now and will be long remembered for his knowledge and exposition of Hebrew grammar, usage and the complex meaning of Hebrew words.”

One of Father’s protégés became well known in my lifetime. I believe the fame his poetry achieved will live on through many generations. Solomon ben Yehudah ibn Gabirol was born in 1021 in Malaga. Ibn Gabirol was writing accomplished poetry by the time he was sixteen years old. He wrote and published some very important poems when he was only nineteen.

Unfortunately, ibn Gabirol was short, rotund, somewhat misshapen. He was unhappily afflicted with dermal tuberculosis. That disease resulted in boils and an ugly, scarred face, arms, legs, and body. He actually mentions some of these deformities in his poetry. His mother died in 1045 and ibn Gabirol subsequently moved to Granada. My father was familiar with his work and recognized his genius so he sponsored and supported him for a time.

For two years ibn Gabirol lived in our household writing secular verse that frequently revealed his anger and his thwarted ambition. His stay with us ended after he insulted my father. I don’t know what he did or said, and Father never told me. He was asked to leave and did so. While he was with us he also wrote several piyyutim, liturgical poems. Many of those piyyutim, and ones he authored after leaving our household, are included in siddurim, the prayer books used during services. He also started work on a philosophical book that became a masterpiece titled; The Fountain of Life.

After he left our house, ibn Gabirol claimed, in one of his poems, to have written twenty books on philosophical, linguistic, scientific, and religious topics. There is no doubt in my mind that his liturgical poetry will survive in our prayer books for centuries. They are brilliant. He died in 1060, before he reached forty years of age.

Joseph’s journal;

 22 Kislev, 4808 (November, 1059)

My father deployed his Zanhadja troops, mercenaries, and his Zenata allies with such skill he was able to engage Mutadid’s various raiding parties in several small-scale skirmishes. In each instance he made certain he always had the preponderance of numbers. Thus his troops were successful in all these confrontations. Eventually he and his allies were able to drive the Sevillian forces out of the provinces of Carmona and Moron and return those territories to the rule of their original Berber families.

However, during the campaign, Father’s health deteriorated. First he suffered from recurring boils. Next he contracted an upper respiratory infection that, initially responded to treatment then reoccurred three separate times. At the end of the last month of the campaign he was confined to his mattress on the floor of his tent, suffering from a fever so severe it induced a bout of delirium. His physicians feared he was dying and sent for me. After three days and two nights of hard riding, changing horses every ten kilometers, I reached his encampment. I found him sitting on a rug on the floor of his tent at his campaign desk writing a poem.

Even when bedridden my father was compelled to work. He was incapable of turning off his mind. Even dreaming he was mulling over a problem of diplomacy, palace intrigue, military strategy, the solution of a complex Talmudic question, or how to best express a poetic thought. He especially loved acrostics, the first letter of each line forming a word or phrase. He was also particularly enamored of the muwashat, the girdle poem, with a two-line opening girdle followed by the first stophe rhyming three times, the second strophe also rhyming three times but encircled by the first opening girdle. The difficulty of expressing an idea or concept while finding Hebrew words or expressions to fit the complex poetic structure was exactly the kind of mental gymnastics that most appealed to him.

I apologize to the reader not interested in, or familiar with, the exacting rules of poetic expression. They were drummed into me from an early age. I can correctly identify the various poetic structures in my father’s, or the poetry of others, but I lack the knack of composing my own poems, at least poems that have any merit. I learned to be satisfied with making copies of Father’s efforts and the work of other poets that he admired.

I stayed with Father during that campaign, until he felt fully recovered. It was then we received intelligence that Mutadid’s forces had feigned retreat, but circled around and raided north of Malaga. His troops were causing havoc in some of the new Granadan territories we had recently taken from Malaga. Initially, my father wanted to send me home, but I managed to convince him that although I was no warrior, I could be of service. I wanted to make certain he was well cared for and did not suffer a relapse. He relented, allowing me to stay with him and I was personally able to witness my father, the general, in action.

The Sevillian generals were reluctant to engage in any pitched battles. They were specifically instructed to follow this tactic by Mutadid. Mutadid was no fool. He recognized Father’s skill and reputation as a fighter. Our scouting parties, backed with light cavalry, mounted archers, and slingers, fought a series of skirmishes while pushing Mutadid’s forces back into Sevillian territory. After these minor successes, Father, following with the rest of his army, took possession of the towns, villages, and fortresses that offered token resistance, if any.

A month after I joined him he had recovered almost all of his strength. He was obviously enjoying himself. The physical challenges of being in the field that made my life so uncomfortable made him stronger each the day. We were following a small unit that had dispersed after a short encounter, to the village of Ard-Allah or land of Allah, known as Ardales in the common language of the Andalusians. The white-washed houses of the village hugged the base of a huge rock on top of which was perched a small fortress that offered protection to the soldiers we were chasing.

Our forces occupied the village. After questioning several of the villagers, father identified the most respected man. He sent that village elder as an emissary to the fortress with  instructions to tell the defenders in the fortress if they did not surrender before the following morning, the village would be torn down, the inhabitants would be taken as slaves to Granada, and the fortress would be bombarded, continuously, until they surrendered or were starved out. Any survivors would be enslaved. If they gave up now, however, they would be disarmed but set free and the village would enjoy the protection of Granada.

The defenders of the fortress followed the emissary back down mountain and surrendered all their arms. My father kept his word. None of the soldiers were harmed and the village was spared, although we did provision our army from the stores in the fortress and from the homes of the village and surrounding fields.

That same evening, Father started coughing again. He gave orders that the army needed to rest and refurbish their arms. He allowed into his tent only those officers he could fully trust to not disclose he was ill. Over the next five days he gradually recovered then we continued our march towards Seville.

The plunder was good and my father extracted tribute as we moved through Sevillian territory. Our army and our allies were happy to be gaining wealth with relatively little effort and practically no danger.

Father was not able to shake the remnants of whatever respiratory infection made him cough. The coughing sapped his strength and resolve. He finally deemed the retaliation against Mutadid sufficient and turned his army south and east to reoccupy Malaga. There was no opposition as we entered the city and took back the Alcazaba. Father soon installed people loyal to King Badis to administer Malaga. It is still under our control to this day. The king, and those around him, were humiliated and left devoid of power, their treachery avenged. We returned to Granada before Rosh Hashanah anticipating a peaceful fall and winter and an opportunity for Ha Nagid to rest and to recover his strength and health.

Ha Nagid’s journal: 47

12 Tishrei, 4795 (September, 1054)


The summer of 1054, King Badis stayed home. He was drinking heavily, amusing himself with untold numbers of new additions to his harem. I took our forces to unite with the armies of Carmona and Moron. During the previous winter, I worked diligently to bring more of the Berber kingdoms into my grand alliance. Those that did not join the alliance seemed to believe Mutadid’s raids into Carmona and Moron was only the normal activity of stealing sheep and horses. They didn’t think the raids were anything more nefarious. I was frustrated. It did not enter their consciousness that his true intent was to build an empire.

Once I was able to unite our forces with the troops and officers sent by our allies, we penetrated deeply into Sevillian territory. Mutadid’s generals avoided large-scale confrontations but all the skirmishes that did take place were won by our Zanhadja-Zenata Berber coalition.

One aspect of Mutadid’s conquest of Ronda troubled me greatly. I harbored no good feelings for the Rondan hierarchy, but the manner in which the kingdom was brought down was troubling. All of the Berber controlled taifas, including Granada, were home to significant populations of Arabs. These populations thought of themselves as a persecuted minority. At least the Arab intellectuals with whom I communicated felt persecuted. Mutadid’s successful takeover of Berber governments was significantly aided by an immediate revolt of the indigenous Arab populations. They opened the gates of Ronda’s Alcazaba to Mutadid’s forces and, once Mutadid’s forces gained control, the Arabs killed every Berber they could find. This fact was of considerable concern to King Badis, less so to me. But Granada’s population did include significant numbers of Arabs.

Before I left for the summer’s campaign, I was called to the palace and asked Joseph to accompany me. Badis, as usual, was drinking steadily, although his tolerance was great. When we arrived, he was slumped on his cushions his eyelids half closed. After we were ushered into his presence, he put aside his cup, roused himself, sat upright and, with no slurring of speech and considerable glee, revealed a plan he had concocted on his own.

“You know the problem, Nagid. In every city and town of the Zanhadja, there is a fifth column of enemies and schemers who live, and I don’t need to tell you that they live well, under our protection. But they resent us none-the-less. They pose a significant problem, as we have seen, with what happened in Ronda. I have a brilliant solution. On a certain Friday, I will make it known that I will review and inspect all the troops you leave to garrison Granada. This will allay any suspicions about the reason for so many armed soldiers walking the streets. The devout and responsible Arabs will all be at prayer in the mosques. I will have the soldiers block all of the exits then send in units to kill those Arabs trapped within. What do you think Nagrela, a brilliant plan, no? I will execute this plan while you are gone campaigning so no one can blame you. They will never suspect.”

“Ah, great King. It is indeed a brilliant solution to the possibility our Arab citizens, although they have always supported your Majesty, will rise against us if the opportunity presents itself.”

I was buying time while frantically trying to think of some way to dissuade Badis from killing a significant number of loyal Granadian citizens. I knew if Badis carried out this scheme he would surely convert a host of Arab families into resolute enemies, thirsting for revenge.

“I have not heard any rumors our Arab citizens would contemplate a rebellion of this sort, despite what happened in Ronda,” I temporized. “You know I have many spies who report anything of this nature to me immediately. Do you have any reason to believe those Arab friends who attended the gathering you hosted last week would even consider such an action?’

“You speak nonsense, Nagrela. Arabs have butchered Berbers for centuries. Many times, this has happened when to all appearances Arabs and Berbers were living together in peace.”

Badis stared at me, then at Joseph. He set his mouth and squinted his eyes.

“Do I detect that you are in opposition to this plan, Nagrela? Do I have to worry about your loyalty? Do you propose to defend the Arabs who have always been the enemies of the Zanhadja? Can I no longer trust you?”

“Please, Majesty. I am now, and will always be, your loyal servant. I think only of the possible long-term effects of an action of this magnitude. We have plenty of enemies. I have always counseled you to destroy any rebellion instantly and completely. I will never abandon that position. I cannot help but think, however, the action you propose should be carefully thought through and all ramifications be considered. This, I think, is essential for the security of your kingdom.”

Badis reached back with his right hand. A servant immediately placed a cup of wine in the hand and retreated out of sight. My king took a slow drink from the cup, peering at me over the rim.

“This solution is one I have arrived at without your counsel, Nagrela. It is a good solution to the problem of harboring potential enemies in our midst. I do not want to hear any more of your whimpering. I will give the orders so this will happen. Do not interfere or you will regret it.”

He staggered to his feet and shouted. His words were slurred, but I could not decide if from wine or anger.

“Do you hear me, Vizier, or do you no longer wish to be Vizier? Possibly you want to join forces with your oh so intellectual Arab friends?”

I raised both arms over my head in surrender. “Your Majesty knows what is best for his kingdom. You have my unquestioning loyalty and support for whatever you do, Highness. I am certain you have given the matter much thought. I do not presume to second guess you.”

The Berbers, as I repeatedly mention, are mostly uneducated, and crude. They come from a warrior tradition that makes them content to fight, and to steal sheep and horses. They resent urbane, educated Arabs, and feel uncomfortable when in the presence of those intellectual discussions that the Arabs love. This discomfort feeds their memory of every slight, treachery, injury, double cross, and death any Berber has ever suffered at the hands of an Arab throughout their detailed and minutely remembered history.

“I should think not. You and your son are dismissed. I do not want to hear any more of your reservations,” Badis interrupted my thoughts.

“Of course, Majesty.”

I motioned Joseph to follow me through the doorway. We both backed away. It was the worst kind of offense to turn one’s back on any king, but especially Badis. I once witnessed the flogging he administered to one of his tribal chiefs who made that mistake. From beneath my lowered eyelids, I saw Badis sway and fall back onto the cushions that constituted his throne. He shook his head trying to clear it then slid around on his backside to find a more comfortable position in the nest of embroidered silk brocade pillows. He held out his wine cup to be refilled by the same servant who had been quietly hovering behind the curtain in back of the platform.

When we were safely away from the palace and walking towards our home, I took Joseph’s arm and pulled him close so I could whisper in his ear.

“We must come up with a way to warn the Arab community. It is imperative that we not leave any evidence that the warning came from our house. Start thinking, Joseph. How can we accomplish this?”

I was scheduled to leave for the summer campaign five days later. We guessed Badis’ plan was probably going to be put in motion the first Friday after I was gone. Badis was not the kind of person who could wait to do something once he made up his mind. He was also very unlikely to forget something as basic to his personality as the hatred, the feelings of inferiority, and the envy, he harbored for Arabs.

That evening Joseph and I were again in the study. I was in my chair, leaning forward, both elbows on my table, holding my head. My turban lay on the floor where I caused it to fall. Wisps of gray hair protruded from between my fingers. I was troubled. I wanted Joseph to understand the magnitude of my depression instituted by Badis’ ridiculous plan.

“Have you come up with a solution?” I asked.

“No, I have not … but if we warn them and Badis finds out, he will likely murder both of us. Even if he allows me to live, only because he considers me insignificant, he will strip the family of our wealth. He might take retribution on the whole Jewish community. I believe his prejudice against Jews is only slightly less than that directed at the Arabs and Christians.”

“That is true, Joseph but to murder most, if not all, of the Arab population of Granada without reason is a terrible act, an immoral act. It is the very type of act expressly forbidden by the Torah. We must do something to prevent it from happening. Badis must be saved from himself. This is an ill-conceived idea hatched from a brain befuddled by wine. The Badis I thought I knew is too shrewd to concoct such a terrible thing. It is his overindulgence of wine talking. Are you still friends with the son of Abu Ishak ibn Talib? I seem to remember that the two of you were close as youngsters.”


“We must warn him of what Badis plans. When you and ibn Ishak were children did you not create a cipher to send secret messages back and forth?”

“We did.”

“Do you think ibn Ishak will remember the cipher?”

“I think so.”

“You must let him know what the king plans, using your cipher. Do not meet him in person. It will be a disaster if someone witnesses such a meeting. I have a man I can trust who will deliver the message. You must instruct your friend to make it appear that the Arab community suspects something is wrong when they see so many armed soldiers on the morning of their Shabbat. They must express skepticism of the excuse of troop review giving this as the reason they avoid the mosques. I will also plant rumors amongst the garrison troops so the Arab soldiers get wind of the plan and warn their families.”

“We will not be able to save them all father. The most devout will not fail to go to the mosques to pray.”

“No, some will certainly be murdered, but we must do what we can despite the risk to ourselves. God demands it. There is no excuse for us to allow the murder of innocent people when we have the power and the obligation to prevent it.”

That very night Joseph did as I asked. He put the details of the plot and my suggestions of what to do into a cipher message. I prayed to God his childhood friend would recognize the game and be able to decode the message, warn his own father, and spread word throughout the Arab community. They needed to pay close attention to any increase in the numbers of armed soldiers on the streets on any Sabbath day. We did not know when Badis would set his plan in motion. They needed to question the soldiers about why they were so numerous and why they were moving about the city with full armor and weapons. This would give credence to the idea the Arab population had a premonition something bad was going to happen. It would explain their apprehension about congregating in their mosques in the usual numbers.

The cipher message to Joseph’s friend and the spread of rumor among the garrison troops accomplished most of what we hoped for. However, many Arabs ignored, or didn’t believe the warnings. Badis’ troops closed off the mosques with them inside, along with a few devout Berbers. His handpicked mercenaries moved in with sword and knife. I was told the screams of the slaughtered could be heard throughout the city. It took weeks to clean the floors and walls of the mosques before anyone could return to listen to the few remaining Imam’s and pray. Badis was furious his brilliant plan did not produce the complete annihilation of the Arab population. Some of the survivors were brought before Badis for torture and questioning. Although he may have had his suspicions he was unable to find evidence to associate the failure of his plan to me or to Joseph.

Joseph’s journal: 46

20 Kislev, 4808 (November, 1059)

The Moslem celebration of the birth of a newborn male is very similar to our Jewish custom. The circumcision ceremony is a great celebration, especially so for a monarch. Mutadid’s third wife was only fifteen years old when she gave birth to a son. The kings of Mutadid’s allies, Moron, Arcos, and Ronda, were all invited to the circumcision. All three rulers arrived on the same day, with their entourages. The three processions entering through the main gate into Seville within an hour of each other.

Mutadid welcomed the three as they arrived and suggested they freshen up after their travels by taking a steam bath in his newly renovated sauna. He explained that he was very proud of the work done on the steam bath, although he admitted his stonemasons were still completing some final tasks. He told them that if the construction noise was disturbing they should just say so to the attendants. The workers would cease their labors immediately.

The three kings readily agreed to the steam bath looking forward to the relaxation it would provide. Mutadid made certain they were supplied with the best his palace had to offer in wine and snacks, but cautioned his guests not to eat and drink too much because there was to be a grand banquet that night.

The three paid no notice of the masons working at the entrance to the sauna until one of them noticed that the entrance had been walled shut. Within moments the amount of steam in the room increased, along with the temperature. Their frantic shouts and pleas were not answered. Nobody could say how long it took for the three to die, but Mutadid was in no hurry to check on them. He was too occupied with the murder of their entourages. Not one person, male, female, or child, was left alive. Late the next morning, Mutadid had the sauna reopened and added the parboiled heads of the three kings to the collection of pickled heads he kept in his bedroom.

Mutadid’s next move was to dispatch a regiment of troops to Ronda where they joined forces with the Sevillians already stationed there. The Arab population of Ronda immediately joined the Sevillian forces. The combined Arab forces slaughtered every Berber not wise enough to calculate the odds and flee, including many women and children. The king of Ronda had left one of his sons, the heir-apparent to the throne, in charge while he travelled to Seville for the festivities. The young man made an attempt to escape by rappelling down the cliff on which the Alcazaba perched, but the rope slipped loose and he fell to his death.

Arcos was the next to be to be brutally violated and annexed to Seville. The Berber rulers of that city/state, and their followers, were only able to mount a quickly suppressed token resistance. Mutadid installed his own people to administer the two Taifa he had annexed and his generals took command of their remaining armed forces and mercenaries.

When the king of Moron learned of the fates of the Zenata Berbers of Ronda and Arcos he immediately dispatched emissaries to both Carmona and Granada, pleading for aid from their Berber brothers to fight against the Arabs. Both Berber states responded by dispatching units of their military to support Moron’s army. But Mutadid was again content with his gains. He never exercised his plan to take over Moron. He had made certain that two of his fickle Berber allies would not be able to change sides when next offered the choice.

When I was a teenager, I can remember my father looking forward, with excitement and anticipation, to taking the field each spring for a summer of campaigning. The garnering of more territory and wealth for his king and for the kingdom motivated him. It was a fortuitous incidental that he also acquired more wealth and honor for himself and his people.

The winter of 4795 (1054) my father celebrated his sixty-first birthday quietly, at home. That was the first time I noticed the large, persistent, dark, puffy bags under both of his eyes. His beard and hair, both long and gray, were beginning to become thin and wispy. His shoulders, once square and proud, slumped forward. When at work at his desk he hunched forward squinting and peering to better see the words he wrote or was reading. He seemed to have shrunk at least three centimeters in height.

That spring when he strapped on his armor and took up his weapons, he seemed to struggle from their weight. I selected those servants who most valued and cared about him to accompany him during the spring and summer campaigns. Those loyal people understood they were responsible for his welfare. I also charged them with making certain that every possible creature comfort was provided for him. Aside from the obvious challenges and dangers of fighting battles my father had to endure the added stress of exposure to the elements. Campaigning often required long days of travel under trying and dangerous conditions.

True to his nature, Father worried first about the wellbeing of his troops. He was ultimately responsible for the welfare and supply of the thousands of men who depended on his attention to detail. He had to make certain to provide everything his men needed in the field and on the march. Adding to all this, he had to deal with the arbitrary moods and desires of a capricious king. I can only imagine how much stress these responsibilities put on him.

“Joseph, I am so very happy you have no aptitude nor skill as a general. It has been my curse,” he told me one long spring night before the start of that year’s campaign. “You will be able to function well as a Grand Vizier, but I am pleased you will not become a general. It is too difficult.”

I could see my father was tired, bone weary tired. The same evening he shared that he was pleased with my lack of aptitude for war, he fell ill with a severe cough and fever. He took to his bed. A parade of physicians came, administered their remedies, and departed. After four weeks, he regained strength, but only after my mother sat with him and spoon-fed him bowl after bowl of rich chicken soup, her remedy for all ailments. After he was able to get up and move around on his own, he resumed all of his normal activities, including daily training with his sword. After just five or so minutes of exercise, however, the cough returned and he had to stop, catch his breath, and rest before resuming. Nothing I said was able to convince him to stay home and rest, to let his generals take care of defending the kingdom. He just shook his head and resumed his training. The bags under his eyes grew larger. His shoulders slumped more. His posture did not improve.

The Warrior Rabbi: 45

Joseph’s journal: 45

19 Kislev, 4808 (November, 1059)

I am somewhat reluctant to record this next incident in the saga of my father but it is necessary to provide a complete picture of who he was. On numerous occasions King Idris III of Malaga showed himself treacherous and lacking in moral character. During recent times, he was our ally, but only for the moment. Father was acutely aware that Idris was not a man to be trusted. Father understood that Idris was certain to betray Granada the first time it appeared advantageous for him to do so.

Father worried about a multitude of possible threats to the kingdom. One of these constant concerns was the possibility of someone using poison to eliminate him, or worse in his mind, King Badis. A plot could be promulgated by high-ranking Granadian functionaries but this was not a huge concern, although vigilance was essential. Poisoning was the most likely method to avoid exposure for the person actually responsible. For this reason, father made it known to all of the physicians in the city of Granada and its territorial holdings, that if they knew of any new poisonous substances, or if they heard of, or developed antidotes to any poisons, he was to be informed immediately. One day, a physician from Jaen showed up at our door and was admitted to Father’s study.

After the physician told my father why he had come, Father sent a servant to tell me to stop whatever I was working on and come immediately to his study. When I arrived Father turned to the physician.

“This is my son Joseph. Joseph, this is the physician David ben Noah of Jaen. Dr. ben Noah has come to us with interesting information. Please, ben Noah, tell us again about what you have discovered.”

“Of course, Ha Nagid. The powder is made from fruit pits, cherries, apples, apricots, any or all of them. The pits are crushed into a fine powder, a very fine powder. When you have a full cup of the powder you add hot water and, while keeping it warm, stir until the powder is in solution. The water must not boil, however. After the powder is completely dissolved, you spread the liquid in a shallow container and allow it to evaporate. It can be put out in the sunlight to hasten evaporation. The powder that remains after the liquid evaporates is the poison. If the poison is mixed with wine or vinegar it will emit a gas that is also poisonous.”

“And you have some of this powder?” asked Father.

“I have it here,” said ben Noah. He extracted a small glass container with a cork stopper from the pocket of his cloak and handed the flask to my father.

“And what is the antidote for this?”

“There is no known antidote, Ha Nagid.”

“No antidote?” My father’s brow furrowed as he rested his chin in his hand. “How fast does it act?”

“That depends on the size of the person and upon the amount consumed or inhaled. One fourth of the powder in the flask you are holding will kill a horse.”

“Thank you, ben Noah. I assume you are doing experiments to find an antidote to this poison?”

“Yes, of course, Nagid, but so far none of the antidotes have an effect, even when given to a test animal prior to exposure.

“Well, I want you to continue to work on the antidote.” Father handed the physician a pouch of gold coins. “This should enable you to continue your research for the antidote. Please keep me informed of your progress on a regular basis. Is there any way to detect this substance so a person would be able to prevent it being used to kill someone?”

“Yes, Ha Nagid, it seems about one of every three persons can smell it. They detect a faint odor similar to the smell of almonds. It would be wise to have someone with that ability available to smell food or beverage offered by someone you do not know or trust.”

“Is it safe to sniff this?”

“Yes, as long as it is still a dry powder.”

Father removed the cork from the flask and sniffed tentatively then again, more strongly. He replaced the cork stopper.

“I smell nothing,” he said and handed me the flask.

I removed the cork, took a sniff and recognized a faint aroma of almonds.

“Yes, I smell almonds, it seems to be a bitter scent, but still of almonds.”

Father smiled broadly. “From now on Joseph you will give the smell test to everything on my plate before I take a bite,” he teased.

“Even food my mother prepares?” I responded, serious.

He laughed. “Especially food prepared by your mother.” He reached over and rubbed my head. “I’m teasing you, Joseph. You take everything so seriously, therefore it amuses me to tease you. Put the flask away in your safe place, Joseph. “

Two weeks later, as we were finishing our evening meeting, my father addressed me.

“Before you retire this evening, Joseph, please bring me the flask the physician ben Noah brought to this house.”

I looked at him, raised my eyebrows and waited.

“Never mind, that is all you need to know for now. I have a plan I must discuss with the king. Just bring me the flask please.”

“Of course, Papa.”

I did as he requested, but even when I withheld the flask for a moment with a questioning look on my face, he told me nothing more about what he wanted the poison for. The evening of the following day he handed the flask back to me. About a third of the powder was gone. Again I looked at him, questioning.

“Badis has agreed to my plan with considerable enthusiasm. He gave me a solid gold wine cup, exquisitely decorated. He also provided a small flask of his very best wine. We are going to send Idris of Malaga the cup and the wine as a special present.”

“And the poison that is missing from the flask?”

“That has been dissolved and all the liquid is being evaporated from the cup. When all is ready I will send the gifts to Idris as a token of our appreciation for all he has done recently as our much valued ally.”

“And who will you send to bring him these presents?”

“Our king has suggested Ishak ibn Mohammed, chief of the Bani tribe.”

“Ishak ibn Mohammed? Isn’t that the same man you told me about a month ago? He has been whispering evil about you to the king.”

“Exactly so.”

I shook my head. “And the king has approved this plan, and even recommended ibn Mohammed for the task?”

“Yes. This is yet another harsh lesson for you, Joseph. Say nothing. Watch events as they develop. You must observe what people say, and more importantly do, as the plan unfolds.”

Late that same winter of 4802 (1053) I learned what happened. As he was instructed, ibn Mohammad delivered the gold cup, and the flask of wine to Idris III. Much later I heard, from a tribal chief who was present, that ibn Mohammad gave Idris his testimony as to the fine quality of the wine.

He said to King Idris, “I was summoned to King Badis and he told me he wanted me to bring to you two very special gifts. He handed me the gold cup you now hold in your hand. I think you must agree it is one of the finest, if not the finest, such drinking cup in existence. The decorations are exquisite. My lord, King Badis also gave me a taste of the wine in this cask I’m holding. He told me it is the finest Granada has to offer. I agree, it is the best I have ever tasted.”

“Well then,” said Idris, extending the gift gold cup he was examining, “let’s have a taste of this jewel of the wine maker’s art.”

Ibn Mohammad poured some wine into the cup. Idris raised the cup to his lips and sniffed, then sniffed again, inhaling deeply.

“It smells of almonds.”

“Yes excellency, I have been told as much but could not detect that smell when I was given a taste.”

Idris became pensive, perhaps thinking back to his own long history of treachery. He took another, longer and deeper, sniff of the cup and wrinkled his brows. Then held out the cup of wine.

“Ibn Mohammad I want you to drink from this cup. Tell me if it is the same fine wine you were given prior to coming to me.”

“Yes, of course, Excellency, as you wish.”

He took a sip of the wine then gazed into the cup.

“Not quite as I remember it but still very good, Excellency.”

“Drink the whole cup. We will fill it again, then I will drink.”

Ibn Mohammad shrugged and finished off the contents of the cup handing it back to Idris. Idris took the cup then turned it slowly again in his hand examining the intricate carvings. He looked inside the cup then studied ibn Mohammad who seemed to be getting dizzy. Idris waited, … smiling.

Ibn Mohammad sank to his knees and bent over. He tried to push himself upright again with both arms. He managed to get up on one knee then collapsed, rolled to his right side in the fetal position and died. Foam came from between his lips. The nobles of Idris’ court who witnessed this charade, rushed to their king.

“How did you know?” asked one of them.

“I didn’t, but I suspected. This is the work of the Jew, I’m certain of it.”

However, Idris was not aware of the deadly toxic fumes released from the poison by the wine. That afternoon he complained of being weak and short of breath. He seemed confused and kept dozing off. He roused with a start, and exploded into a ranting rage at a blameless servant, for no discernable reason. The next morning, he was slow to awaken, and seemed even more confused. His skin was a bright pink. He was breathing very fast, almost panting, while at the same time complaining that he couldn’t catch his breath. That afternoon, despite frantic attempts at treatment by his physicians, he was comatose. One of the physicians reported he smelled bitter almonds on his ruler’s breath. Late the next morning, he died.

Granada’s complete takeover of Malaga was initiated the day after word of Idris’ death reached Granada. I am still attempting to reconcile my father’s role in this.

Meanwhile, King Mutadid of Seville was still plotting and planning. He was finally ready to set in motion his strategy for the coming summer’s military campaign. He instigated the invasion of Granadian territory by the kings of Moron and Arcos, promising them financial, military, and logistical support. They were to attack Granada in early spring, as soon as the weather permitted.

Mutadid anticipated correctly that King Badis would respond to this attack as usual, by retaliating and invading Seville’s lands. Once Granada was committed, Mutadid arranged for the king of Ronda to attack our forces from the rear. This time he followed through on his promises. He sent two regiments of his army to support Moron and Arcos, and three regiments to support Ronda. He also sent considerable gold and silver as well as the promised logistical support in the form of long lines of mule-drawn wagons loaded with provisions, arms, and supplies.

This previously tried and proven strategy of getting Granada to commit, then attacking them from the rear, was once again effective. The Zanhadja were soon fighting on two fronts with significant numbers against them on both. During that summer, both sides managed to avoid any large confrontation, but continuous small encounters occupied both armies. The general outcome of the skirmishes was that Granada’s forces retreated, but they always pulled back disciplined and in good order. During the whole summer’s campaign, neither side was willing to fight a pitched battle so neither side suffered devastating losses.

My father engineered the strategy of orderly retreat by convincing Badis the combined forces of Seville and her allies outnumbered our forces significantly. He explained that Granada could easily lose an all-in confrontation. He also pointed out that any relief coming from Granada was likely to be ambushed along the way. The wisest course was to avoid any significant large-scale clash, abandon those territories they had already lost, and retreat to Granada. They could use what was left of the fall, and the fast approaching winter months, to rebuild their strength, remobilize, and be in a position to exact vengeance early the following spring.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mutadid seemed content with this outcome. He recalled most of his troops, leaving only token forces with his allies. What my father didn’t realize until later, was Mutadid’s grand strategy had never been a final and extremely dangerous confrontation with Granada. His strategic goal was to expand and consolidate Seville’s territories.