The People of Gibraltar
711-1492 - Medieval Gibraltar – Part 8 - Abd al-Mu’min


Alcantara dedicates quite a few pages to deal with what was perhaps one of the major historical moment in the history of Gibraltar – no less than the founding of the town itself. Most of what he writes can be found here and there among the numerous histories written by Islamic authors although I suspect most of it comes from José Antonio Conde. 

The creation of the town, incidentally also led to the third major Islamic invasion of Iberia and hence was also of major importance to the history of Spain and Portugal. 

Understandably Alcantara decided against delving too deeply into the character of the man behind the story - that super-man and saint, the Caliph al-Muwahalid Abd-al Mu'min - also known as Abdelmumin, Abdelmoumen El Goumi - and by me as Abd al-Mu'min – who became the Emir of the Almohads in 1149 AD after destroying the Almoravid dynasty both in North Africa and in Spain. He is credited as having been the first Muslim leader to unite the countries of the Maghreb as well as almost the whole of Iberia – certainly the entire southern region. This is how a 14th century writer describes him.
Ibn Abi Zar – Author of the Rawd al-qirtas - 14th century
Abdelmumin ruled with wisdom and goodness. He excelled over all the Almohads in his virtue, knowledge, piety and horsemanship. The colour of his skin was white, and his cheeks were reddish; he had dark eyes, a tall stature, long and fine eyebrows, an eagle nose and a tick beard. He was fluent in speech, familiar with the sayings of the prophet, well-read and indeed learned in the things of the faith and of the world, and a master of grammar and history.  
His morals were beyond reproach and his judgment sound. He was a generous warrior, enterprising and imposing, strong and victorious. Thanks to God's help he never attacked a country without capturing it, nor an army without vanquishing it. He was particularly fond of men of letters and scholars, and was himself a good poet. 
He was as infallible in his judgment as he was powerful. He was so modest that he gave the impression that he possessed nothing. He liked neither diversions nor distractions and never rested. The whole of the Maghrib was subject to him, and Spain feel into his hands, from the Christians he took Mehdia in Tunisia and Almeria, Evora, Baeza, and Badajoz in Andalusia…
Slightly hagiographic perhaps? There are too many sources to quote here but Arabist experts are mostly of the opinion that Abd al-Mum'in was a nasty piece of work who took personal delight in destroying the philosophy of convivencia by persecuting Christians and Jews with equal relish. 
José Antonio Conde 
When he (Al-Mu’min) entered Medina Telecen, he captured and imprisoned the Vizier Abdelselen . . . and ordered him poisoned with a glass of milk . . .

It seems that on the 4th of December 1159 while Abd al-Mu'min was spending some quality time away from the exhausting business of besieging the city of Al-Mahdiya in Tunisia, he reviewed his thoughts on Jabal Tarik - an attractive if awkward piece of real estate that he owned in Al-Andalus. He had come to a decision. He summoned his scribe and instructed him to write a letter to his sons the Governor of Granada Abu Said Utman and of Seville Abu Ya’qub Yusuf as well as to numerous learned Moslem scholars and VIPs of al Andalus.

Mid-12th century Koran – Abd al-Mu'min probably carried one very like on him all the time.

The following is my English translation of Abd al-Mu’min’s letter. It is taken from a copy of the original discovered and published not all that long ago by a French 20th century Islamologist, Évariste Lévi-Provençal.
From the Emir of the Faithful to the Talibs and Almohads of Granada
From the Almohad camp outside Mahdija
The 20th of da-l-qa’da 554 (4th December 1159 AD) 
The sovereign informs his correspondents that, although he is engaged on the jihad in the east of North Africa, he has not forgotten about the problems of al-Andalus, and that he has decided to build a city on Gebal-Tarik, which is situated in the junction between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and is important to both sides of the Straits. He proposes to endow this foundation with all kinds of advantages and to make it invulnerable. 
He has therefore sent to that place the sheik Abu Ish'aq Barraz and the H'ajj Ya'ish. He orders the recipients of this letter to go themselves to Gebal-Tarik accompanied by the Spanish sheiks of their dominions. There they will find the Talibs of Seville and other messengers of the sovereign. They will decide there on the exact spot that they consider best for the foundation of the new city. 
The sovereign adds that he has written to the eminent sheik Abu H'afs asking him to attend this meeting on the very site of the new city, as soon as possible; and also, to the sheik Judge Abu Allah Ibn Khiyar. The sheik Abu Ish'aq Barraz and the H'ajj Ya'ish have all the necessary instructions.

Évariste Lévi-Provençal

Apart from his role as the founder of the town, Abd al-Mu'min has also gone down in Gibraltar history - albeit without too many people knowing it - as the first man to understand the military and naval importance of the Rock. Not even that fabulous general, his predecessor, Tarik Ibn Zayed, despite giving his name to the place, had figured that one out.

Tarik Ibn Ziyad - what he may have looked like

Well before the ink had even had time to dry, Sheik Abu Ishaq Barraz and al-Hajj Ya'ish had already arrived on the Rock and were carrying out a preliminary survey on what Al Mu’min wanted done. And he was certainly the kind of man who knew what he wanted – in this case employing only the very best that money could buy. Some of the people mentioned in the letter are good examples:

Abu Ishaq Barraz ben Muhammad was a trusted military man who had led the first Almohad incursions into Spain and I presume had been sent to oversee the security aspects of the project. 

Abu H'afs was a well-known Persian poet, scholar and historian.

Abu Allah Ibn Khiyar – An exception -I can’t find anybody similarly named that fits.

Al-Hajj Ya'ish was a much sought-after builder from Malaga. 'Hajj' that formed part of his name indicated that he had made his pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite most of his work having been done under the hated Almoravid dynasty, Abd al-Mu'min felt he couldn't really do without him.

Before being employed to work on Madinat-al-Fath, Ya'ish is known to have produced for the Almoravid Emir Ali ibn Yusuf, one of the unsurpassed creations of Islamic art - the minbar of the Koutobia Mosque in Marrakesh - the place where he happened to be when Abd al-Mu'min took the decision to build his town.

Koutoubia Mosque (1930 s- Walter Mittleholzer)

Minbar at Koutobia

The only reference I have of what these “notables maquinas” actually looked like comes from a long unattributed quote from an English 19th century historian 
Frederick George Stephens.
The minbar or pulpit, of admirable workmanship, and, above all, the great apartment upon wheels which could be moved from one part to another of the mosque, with wings which extended on hinges, and of which the wheels moved noiselessly and with complete certainty, to receive him and his attendants, being, as it is appears from the by no means clear account, a sort of moveable chapel or pew. The Chronicler also leads us to infer that it was also locomotive, and obedient to the will of the king. A poet described them as follows;
More shall thou see
Machines that move to meet him as he nears them
Attentive to his wish, and stealing forth
Silently to receive their potent lord.
Nay, when he turns to leave them, they retire,
Anticipating still the wish he forms.
I have not been able to find any details as regards his 'clever machines' in Gibraltar but have taken it as a distinct possibility that he might have attempted something similar.

To continue, according to a contemporary historian they were soon joined by other worthies:
Ibn Sahib al-Sala (My translation from the Spanish)
(Al Mu’min) asked that the illustrious Abu Ya’qub of Seville order all the masons, plasterers and master builders from all over Almohad Al-Andalus to make haste and travel to Gibraltar so as to comply with the supreme orders given. Governmental measures were taken and a great number of soldiers, supervisors, scribes and accountants to supervise the work and record the expenses incurred to start and complete the project arrived on the Rock . . . as did from Seville the master builder Ahmad b. Basa together with his masons and other similar craftsmen that would help and obey him.

Gold coins of the Almohad era. There must have been a few of these in circulation in the Campo during the building of Madinat-al-Fath

Ahmad ibn Basu was perhaps the best Moorish architect of his generation. A decade or so later in 1172 after his exploits in Gibraltar he would become far more well known as the architect who designed and built the mosque in Seville and laid the foundation for its famous minaret. One of the remits given to him by the Emir was to determine exactly where the town of Madinat-al-Fath should be built. It seems he opted for the north east corner of the Rock, traditionally thought of as the identical spot of what is still today the northern part of the town. However . . .
Ibn Sahib al-Sala 
They began their construction on the site agreed upon as the best one because of its nearness to the sea in that area where it is adjacent and surrounds it.
Which could be interpreted as either in the northeast or the southeast and is therefore of no use. I can find no other direct references as to where exactly Madinat-al-Fath was built. The British Historian George Hills thinks that is very likely that the foundations of Madinat-al-Fath were not dug on the northern area but well south of today's Charles's the V Wall. 

The argument is based on the lack of any archaeological evidence for any 12th century structures left standing in the north but that the remnants of an old Moorish wall identified in the literature as the Coral de Fez is known to have existed around the area of the ancient Torre del Tuerto. This, he suggests might be a more likely candidate for the place where Madinat-al-Fath was built.

His argument becomes more believable when we realise that he thought that hardly anything of Madinat-al-Fath had actually ever been built at all. This is based on two premises. The first that there simply wasn't enough to time to finish everything in six month and the second that when Abd al-Mu'min died in 1163 one cannot imagine that his successor, his son Abu Ya’qub – now ex-governor of Seville - would have had much time for an old man's dreams. 

Yussuf may or may not have shredded his father's letter after he had taken over the shop, but he did move back to Seville making absolutely sure that Ahmed ibn Basu went with him. Living in luxury among the fragrant orange tree blossoms of the famous Patio de los Naranjos must have been more than enough to make him forget all about Madinat-al-Fath and the unfinished or perhaps never properly constructed castle on the hill.

Patio de los Naranjos - Seville

An even more modern historian Maurice Harvey writing in the year 2000 tends to agree with Hills in that he thought that very little of the original plan was actually carried out. He also suggests a far more modest castle than the present one but mentions a section of wall above the Charles V one which might date from this period.

Our very own and only 17th century historian offers Hills and Harvey some support - albeit somewhat indirectly.
Alonso Hernandez del Portillo
Coriose aquí junto con el baluarte del Rosario (South Bastion) un lienzo de muro de los antiguos, en la cual estaba una puerta morisca muy galana, que llamaban la Puerta de Algeciras donde estaba otra llave como la que dijimos verse hoy en la Puerta de Granada y de aquella misma fábrica.  
. . . De aquí adelante está este muro caído y destrosado por muchas partes hasta llegar a la Torre del Tuerto, la cual como decíamos es de fabrica más antigua que de los otros; aunque unos aposentos que están fuera de la torre y mejor parados con ella parecen Moriscos; a lo menos renovados por los moros . . . Esta torre es de fabrica, o tiene forma pentagonal . . .
The wall in question was a sea defence running south from the bottom of what is today Charles V wall right up to the New Mole. In other words the remnants of Abu l-hasan's extensions to the Line Wall. La Puerta de Algeciras was a passageway through the wall facing the town of the same name. 

More to the point, according to the Spanish historian Saez Rodriguez, polygonal towers were a feature of Almohad architecture yet there have never been any such towers within the confines of the town. Could the old Torre del Tuerto and the rest of the Moorish walls in the south have been part of the real Madinat al Fath?

Battle of Gibraltar showing the old polygonal Torre del Tuerto (1607 - Adam Willaers)

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