Reversal Of Fortune: The Fate Of Al-Mu’tamid Ibn Abbad, Ruler Of Seville

Al-Mu’tamid ibn Abbad (المعتمد بن عباد) lived from 1040 to 1095 and was the last ruler of the Abbadid kingdom of Seville.  He was raised under the fold of royalty, and enjoyed the pleasures and good fortunes that come to young princes.  In 1069, upon the death of his father Abbad al-Mu’tadid, he inherited the dominion of Seville; his domain included a large part of southern Spain.

An Arabic chronicler described the young king in this way, according to the biographer Ibn Khallikan:

[H]e was gifted with a handsome face, a body perfect in its proportions, a colossal stature, a liberal hand, penetration of intellect, presence of mind, and a just perception. By these qualities he surpassed all his contemporaries; and moreover, before ambition led him to aspire after power, he had looked into literature with a close glance and an acute apprehension; so that by his quick intelligence, he acquired an abundant stock of information, noted down without serious study, without advancing far into its depths, without extensive reading, and without indulging in the passion of collecting books of that kind.

With these accomplishments, he derived from his genius the talent of expressing his thoughts in an ornate style. He composed also pieces of verse remarkable for sweetness, containing thoughts which the natural turn of his disposition enabled him to attain, expressing perfectly well what he wished to say, and displaying such excellence as caused them to be copied by literary men. [All quotes herein trans. by M. de Slane, Biog. Dict. III.183]

Seville had acknowledged itself as the vassal of the King of Castile, Alfonso VI.  At some point Al-Mu’tamid found it inconvenient to continue paying tributes to the Christian king, and refused to continue doing so.  This prompted a military response from Alfonso.  Al-Mu’tamid asked the Almoravid rulers in neighboring Morocco for assistance, and they gladly agreed.

The Almoravids were successful, perhaps too successful; crushing the Christian army in the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086, they decided to occupy all the Islamic territories in Spain for themselves.  Thus Al-Mu’tamid, who had called upon the Moroccans for help in preserving his kingdom from Castilian attack, now found himself a prisoner of the Almoravids.  Calling upon other states for military help, it seems, is often a dangerous request.  So Al-Mu’tamid was shipped off to the town of Aghmat in Morocco in chains, to spend the remainder of his life as a prisoner.  He had lost everything, and turned to his one consolation, poetry.  Recalling his days of comfort and splendor, he wrote:

Early in the morning, when I stopped to say farewell, standards were waving in the court of the castle, and we wept blood;

So that, by the shedding of red tears, our eyes appeared like wounds.

Of him another poet, named Ibn Labbana, penned the following verse:

The heavens shed tears, evening and morning, over the noble princes, the sons of Abbad.

While he was in captivity in Morocco, Al-Mu’tamid found much time to reflect on the transitory nature of earthy riches, glory, and the pleasures of the flesh.  He endured his privations with Stoic resolution, but would allow himself to grieve in his verses.  Some of them are masterpieces of sorrowful reflection, as the following lines:

For the shade of my once triumphant banners I have received in exchange

The ignominy of fetters and the weight of chains. The irons which I once used

Were the pointed lance and the sharp, thin, and polished sword;

But both are now turned into rusty chains, grasping my leg as lions grasp their prey.

One historian described his confinement with these words:

Torn from his country and stripped of his possessions, he was carried off in a ship and deposited on the African shore as a corpse is deposited in its place of burial; the pulpits of his states and the throne deplored his absence; those who once visited his table or his bed of sickness went near him no more; he remained alone in his grief, uttering deep-drawn sighs and pouring forth tears as a conduit pours forth water.

None were left to console him in his solitude, and, instead…he now saw nought but strangers. Deprived of consolation, hopeless of the approach of friends, debarred from the aspect of joy, he called to mind his native abodes, and that thought made him long for home; he saw in imagination the splendor of his court, and that image raised his admiration…

More poignant still were the words of the poet Ibn Labbana, who described Al-Mu’tamid’s reversal of fortune with a philosophic grace worthy of Seneca:

Each thing has its appointed hour; each wish, a time for its fulfillment.

Fortune has been immersed in the dye of the chameleon, and the colors of its various states are always changing.

We are chessmen in the hands of fortune, and sometimes the pawn may check the king.

Cast off the world and its inhabitants; the earth is now tenantless; men worthy of the name are dead.

Tell the creatures who dwell here below that the secret plan of Providence above is now concealed at Aghmat.

The biographer Ibn Khallikan tells us that Al-Mu’tamid was once visited in prison by his daughters, who had also fallen far from the positions they once held.  They had been reduced to spinning wool in the region near Aghmat, and were desperately poor.  The sight of them was almost too much for him to bear.  He wrote the following anguished lines later, which are directed to himself:

In former times festivals made you rejoice; but now, a prisoner in Aghmat, a festival afflicts you.

You see your daughters hungry and in rags, spinning for hire and penniless.

They went forth to salute you, with down-cast eyes and broken hearts; they walk barefoot in the mud,

As if they had never trod on floors strewed with musk and camphor.

Not a cheek of theirs but its surface complains of drought misery,

And is never watered but with sobs and tears.

Fortune was once obedient to your command;

Now it has reduced you to obey the commands of others.

He who, after you, lives rejoicing in the exercise of power, lives in the mere delusion of a dream.

Those who strut so arrogantly on the stages of power would do well to reflect on these last lines.  Power is the most fleeting thing in the world; and its loss will be that much speedier if it be untempered by modesty, justice, and restraint.

Al-Mu’tamid died in prison in 1095.  He had lost his kingdom and his fortune, but retained his dignity.  This endured beyond his grave, and his poetry gave it immortality.


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