Musa Ibn Nusair (موسى بن نصير) lived from 640 to 716 A.D. and served as the Umayyad governor-general of the province of Afriqiyya (North Africa). It was he who planned and directed the Arab conquest of the Gothic kingdom of Spain. The biographer Ibn Khallikan, writing in Baghdad in 1274, sketched the outline of his career and notable deeds. Ibn Nusair’s full name was Abd al-Rahman Musa Ibn Nusair, and he was noted throughout his life, we are told, “for prudence, generosity, bravery, and piety.” No army under his command was ever defeated.
His ancestry has come down to us in garbled form. Ibn Khallikan says that his father was a commander of the bodyguard of one Muawia Ibn Abi Sofyan, and later entered the service of the governor of Egypt, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Marwan. His father may have been an Arab Christian or Persian slave who was freed through manumission; the specific details are not clear. In any case, his son Ibn Nusair was a man of great diplomatic acumen and military capability. He was given command of military forces in North Africa and ordered to continue the Islamic conquest of that region; through a combination of carrots and sticks he was able to subjugate the various Berber nations there and move towards Spain with a minimum of casualties. The Visigoths in Spain (who themselves had displaced the Romans) naturally looked upon these developments with great trepidation. They became even more alarmed when it became clear that the Arab armies intended to launch an all-out invasion of the peninsula.
Spain was seen as a rich prize. Ibn Khallikan relates this saying about Spain: “If the West form the tail of the bird which is represented by the inhabited portion of the earth, that bird must be a peacock; for its beauty lies in its tail [i.e., Spain].” Meaning that, since the Iberian peninsula was the end of the peacock’s “tail,” its plumage was the most desirable. It is said that one of Musa Ibn Nusair’s commanders, Tariq Ibn Ziyad, gave the following speech to his men before they set out to attack the Goth king of Toledo, Roderic (known to the Arabs as Lodrik). It is a superlative example of military oratory, worthy of Alexander himself:
My men! Whither can you fly? The sea is behind you and the enemy before you; nothing can save you but the help of God, your bravery and your steadiness. Be it known to you that you are here as badly off as orphans at a miser’s table. The foe is coming against you with his troops, his arms and all his forces; you have nothing to rely on but your swords, no food to eat except what you may snatch from the hands of your enemies. If you remain some days longer in your present state of privation, without succeeding in any attempt, you will lose your energy; self-confidence will then replace the fear which fills the hearts of your adversaries and embolden them against you.
Defend yourselves like men who have no assistance to expect; the inevitable result of your present state is that you must contend with this taghia [tyrant, i.e., Lodrik] who now comes against you from his strongly fortified city. But, to triumph over him is for you quite possible, if you are willing to expose yourselves to death. In announcing this danger to you, I have not the intention of keeping out of it myself; when I engaged you in a business such as this, wherein the lives of men are the cheapest ware, I was resolved to risk my own. Be assured that, if you resist, even for a short time the attack which may be the rudest, you will afterwards long enjoy the sweetest and the easiest of lives. Let not your minds be turned against me for [undertaking an expedition) in which the profits falling to your share will be much greater than mine. You know what this island [jazeera, i.e., the Spanish peninsula] produces; large-eyed maidens, daughters of the Greeks [Tariq mistakenly believed the Goths were related to the Greeks], graceful in their bearing, covered with pearls, coral and robes interwoven with pure gold–maidens carefully guarded in the palaces of crowned kings.
Al-Walid Ibn Abd al-Malik has chosen you as being quite as brave as the desert Arabs and has willed that you should become by marriage brothers and sons to the princes of this island; such is his confidence in your eagerness to charge with the spear and your readiness to contend, sword in hand, with the brave warriors and the horsemen. Let him obtain for his portion, by your concurrence, the recompense granted by God to those who shall exalt his word and manifest his religion in this island. All the booty is for you; none of it shall be reserved for him on for the other Muslims.
May the Almighty aid such heroes as you are, so that you may gain renown in this world and in the next. Know also that I shall be the first in doing that to which I invite you: at the joining of the two armies in battle, I shall myself charge upon the taghia of the people of Lodrik and slay him, if God permit. Charge at the same time as I; if I die after killing him, I shall at least have delivered you from the harm he might do you, and you will have no difficulty in finding a brave and intelligent chief to be a commander over you. If I perish before reaching Lodrik., follow up what I commenced; charge you also upon him and, by taking his life, effect what is most important for the conquest of this island. Your adversaries will lose all hopes in losing him. [Trans. by McGucken de Slane, III.478]
“Wisdom,” says Ibn Khallikan, “descended from heaven upon three different members of the human body: upon the brains of the Greeks, the hands of the Chinese and the tongues of the Arabs.” The Spaniards, who inherited the blood and culture of the Arabs, learned their lessons well from this speech and others like it: over eight hundred years later, Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes would give one very much like it to his own men in Mexico before setting out to overthrow the Aztec kingdom. History is not without a sly sense of irony. We will now relate two legends related to the conquest of Spain. They are both related by Ibn Khallikan in his biography of Musa Ibn Nusair, but remain almost unknown in the West.
The Tasks Of The Two Suitors
Before the Arab conquest, there was a king living near Cadiz who had a beautiful daughter. The reputation of this girl was carried far and wide among the many sovereigns in Spain. This fact, however, presented her father with an acute problem. If he offered her to any of the other sovereigns, he then risked offending the remainder. Uncertain how to proceed, he spoke to his daughter and the two of them agreed on a course of action. The daughter’s idea was to impose two conditions. The first was that she would ask her suitors to be not just a king, but also a sage. The second was that she would require her suitors to accomplish some difficult task.
So she and her father wrote to all the other kings and told them these conditions. Most of them were deterred by these conditions, and were never heard from again. However, two kings did respond, and stated they were willing to participate in the contest. The girl told both kings that she would assign them each a task, and would marry whomever accomplished his task soonest. This is what she said:
In our land [Spain] we need stone mills to grind our grain. I will ask that one king discover a way to power the mills using water that has flowed from that land lying across the strait [i.e., North Africa]. To the other king, I will ask that he construct a talisman to protect our country against the peoples of North Africa.
Each king accepted the task that was imposed on him, and set about their jobs quickly. The first king set out to build an aqueduct across the Strait of Ceuta that would be able to bring in water from what is now Morocco. Along the canal which was thus created, he constructed mills to grind grain. The second king–the one tasked with making a talisman–did not see his work proceed so smoothly. He experienced delays and work stoppages. His idea was to build a huge bronze statue of a Berber tribesman that was around seventy cubits in height. In the statue’s left arm was a cloak; and in its right arm, the extended hand contained a key. The statue’s gestures were such that it said to any ship sailing by, “You cannot enter here.” We are told that whenever a foreign ship passed by the statue, the key would fall from its hand, thereby preventing any entry.
Now the king who was tasked with building the aqueduct actually finished his job before the other king. But he kept this fact a secret. The reason he did this was that he did not want his competitor to destroy the talisman upon finding out he had lost the contest. The winner wanted to have both the young girl and the talisman for himself. But the talisman-building king eventually did find out he had lost, of course. When he did, he happened to be at the apex of his statue, polishing its bronze face. When he was told that the aqueduct-building king had beaten him, he fell from the top of his statue and was killed. Thus the king who had built the aqueduct came into possession of the talisman and the girl. What is the meaning of this fable? Ibn Khallikan unfortunately does not provide any comment; but my view is that it encapsulates two messages. One message may be that much can be gained by stealth, secrecy, and daring; another message may in fact be a prophecy, that the conquest of Spain from North Africa was inevitable. Each reader, of course, will have to find his or her own interpretation.
The Chest Of Talismans
We now tell a second tale from Ibn Khallikan. He relates that, before the Arab conquest, the Gothic kings of Spain were much in fear of encroachment and conquest from North Africa, and would seek various types of talismans as divine protection. These kings collected all their talismans and placed them in a large marble chest in the city of Toledo. This marble chest they then placed inside a secure building with an immense locked door. The kings decided among themselves that, upon the death of each of their predecessors, they would add a lock to the door. Thus each generation was tasked with adding a lock to the immense doors of the building that housed the protective talismans. And so it was: for many generations (twenty-six, in fact), the Spanish kings kept this custom, and added locks to the doors.
All this changed with the accession of Lodrik, the king who was crushed by the Arab incursion into Spain, as we observed in the preceding paragraph. When Lodrik (Roderic) was elevated to the throne, he disregarded the customs of those who came before him. He was invested with impatience and foolishness. He told his ministers, “I can’t stand not knowing what is inside that old building that houses the old marble chest of talismans. What could be in it? Surely this must be some useless old superstition that our ancestors erected for no good purpose. It has twenty-six locks on it. I wish to cut them all off.” But his ministers were horrified when they heard this. They tried to dissuade him. “Sire,” they said, “Even if this happens to be a superstition, it is not wise to tamper with it. All your ancestors respected this custom. For you to break it, would bring a curse down on your head from God.”
But some men will not listen to such talk, especially when they think that they can gain treasure. For Lodrik thought that the marble chest contained gold and jewels. So he decided to cut the locks off the doors, and violate the marble chest. His men did so, and found inside the chamber they found a beautiful tablet of gold encrusted with jewels. Inscribed on the tablet were the words, “Table of Solomon, the Son of David, May God Place His Blessing on Both of Them.” They them proceeded to open the marble chest itself. Inside the chest was a piece of very old parchment, upon which was drawn figures of Arab horsemen in military regalia. In their hands were long lances and swords. And on the parchment were written these words:
This chamber and this chest were locked through prudence. When they are opened, the people whose images are on the chest will enter into the island of Spain, the empire will escape from the hands of the Greeks and their wisdom shall be obliterated.
And when Lodrik was brought this parchment by his men, he knew he was doomed. Soon after this, his kingdom was swept away. These are the follies of empires and kings.
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