Posts Tagged ‘Hebrew poets’

Ha Nagid’s journal:13

5 Iyar, 4788 (May, 1039)

After the rejection of his overtures by Almeria, King Badis instituted regular meetings with his generals. He also spent considerable time drilling his army. It is good that he is personally involved, preparing our defenses. Today we received intelligence that Zuhair was on his way to Granada, with a thousand elite troops.

Why only a thousand troops? We have at least four thousand soldiers. Why would Zuhair invade with only a thousand? I can only speculate that Zuhair’s ego has made him reckless. I suggested that King Badis send out scouting patrols in all directions from Granada. Perhaps Zuhair’s plan is to distract us in one direction, and attack with force from another. Maybe the whole thing is just an attempt at intimidation, overconfidence, and hubris. In any case, my advice to the King is to wait. He should act surprised when Zuhair appears. Time will reveal his intentions. Is it possible Zuhair is so deluded he thinks Badis will become his vassal without a fight?


Ha Nagid’s journal: 14

9 Iyar, 4788 (May, 1039)

Zuhair and his army arrived late this afternoon. He made camp on a hill just south of the Jewish section of Granada. His arrival at the head of so many soldiers, without prior announcement, was rude and provocative. King Badis rode out to greet him with only his personal guard, myself, and three tribal chiefs. When Badis asked the reason for this breech of manners Zuhair’s explanation was that he had come to pay his respects at the grave of his great ally and friend King Habbus. This was, of course, bogus since he had never offered condolences to Badis when Habbus died.

We returned to the Alcazaba where King Badis followed my advice. Contrary to the advice of the majority of his tribal chiefs, he restrained his outrage. He waited to see what Zuhair would do next.

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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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Here I am in Granada, Spain looking for all I can find about the life, times and places of a remarkable man Samuel ibn Nagrela who was given the honorific Ha Nagid, the Prince. Ibn Nagrela was a rabbi, the chief advisor to two Caliphs of Granada, General-in-Chief of the second Caliph’s armies, intellectual, scientist, scholar and was fluent in Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Latino the early form of Spanish. He was also a poet who wrote classic poems in Arabic and Hebrew and some of them survived until today and have been translated into English. That’s how I first heard about this remarkable man, who I intend to be the hero of my next novel.

Ibn Nagrela helped design the first construction of what became, over centuries, the Alhambra. In his day the fortress and palace only occupied the tip of the hilltop promontory it now covers. I found this bit of information by purchasing two books from the bookstore on site since I couldn’t gain admission.

There was a long snaking line to purchase entrance tickets to get into the site. The line didn’t move because the site is limited to 350 people at any one time and the tickets are timed during the day. Because of Santa Semana, the week before Easter,  a national holiday, all tickets were sold out. I was counted among the clueless that didn’t know it was necessary to purchase tickets on-line in advance if you want to get in. It is currently sold out until April 5th  many days late and many dollars short, the story of my life.

I was able to discern some of the original fortress construction, those portions constructed with rocks and mortar only. The structure has been repaired, rebuilt, remodeled and newly constructed many times in the last 990 years since ibn Nagrela’s time.  The bricks on the right from the Moorish period, the bricks on the left are much later probably from the Christian period. The original stones were probably covered with some sort of plaster.Alhambra, original const. 2


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