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Tales of the Alhambra

Chapter: Poets and Poetry of Moslem Andalus.
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Alhambra Tours

Poets and Poetry of Moslem Andalus.

DURING the latter part of my sojourn in the Alhambra I was more than once visited by the Moor of Tetuan, with whom I took great pleasure in rambling through the halls and courts, and getting him to explain to me the Arabic inscriptions. He endeavored to do so faithfully; but, though he succeeded in giving me the thought, he despaired of imparting an idea of the grace and beauty of the language. The aroma of the poetry, said he, is all lost in translation. Enough was imparted, however, to increase the stock of my delightful associations with this extraordinary pile. Perhaps there never was a monument more characteristic of an age and people than the Alhambra; a rugged fortress without, a voluptuous palace within; war frowning from its battlements; poetry breathing throughout the fairy architecture of its halls. One is irresistibly transported in imagination to those times when Moslem Spain was a region of light amid Christian, yet benighted Europe ” externally a warrior power fighting for existence, internally a realm devoted to literature, science, and the arts, where philosophy was cultivated with passion, though wrought up into subtleties and refinements, and where the luxuries of sense were transcended by those of thought and imagination.

Arab poetry, we are told, arrived at its highest splendor under the Ommiades of Spain, who for a long time centred the power and splendor of the Western Caliphat at Cordova. Most of the sovereigns of that brilliant line were themselves poets. One of the last of them was Mahomed ben Abderahman. He led the life of a sybarite in the famous palace and gardens of Azahara, surrounding himself with all that could excite the imagination and delight the senses. His palace was the resort of poets. His vizier, Ibn Zeydun, was called the Horace of Moslem Spain, from his exquisite verses, which were recited with enthusiasm even in the saloons of the Eastern Caliphs. The vizier became passionately enamored of the princess Walada, daughter of Mahomed. She was the idol of her father's court, a poetess of the highest order, and renowned for beauty as well as talent. If Ibn Zeydun was the Horace of Moslem Spain, she was its Sappho. The princess became the subject of the vizier's most impassioned verses, especially of a famous risaleh or epistle addressed to her, which the historian Ash-Shakandi declares has never been equalled for tenderness and melancholy. Whether the poet was happy in his love, the authors I have consulted do not say; but one intimates that the princess was discreet as she was beautiful, and caused many a lover to sigh in vain. In fact, the reign of love and poetry in the delicious abode of Zahara, was soon brought to a close by a popular insurrection. Mahomed with his family took refuge in the fortress of Ucles, near Toledo, where he was treacherously poisoned by the Alcayde; and thus perished one of the last of the Ommiades.

The downfall of that brilliant dynasty, which had concentrated every thing at Cordova, was favorable to the general literature of Morisco Spain.

"After the breaking of the necklace and the scattering of its pearls," says Ash-Shakandi, "the kings of small states divided among themselves the patrimony of the Beni Ommiah."

They vied with each other in filling their capitals with poets and learned men, and rewarded them with boundless prodigality. Such were the Moorish kings of Seville of the illustrious line of the Beni Abbad, "with whom," says the same writer, "resided fruit and palm-trees and pomegranates; who became the centre of eloquence in prose and verse; every day of whose reign was a solemn festivity; whose history abounds in generous actions and heroic deeds, that will last through surrounding ages and live for ever in the memory of man!"

No place, however, profited more in point of civilization and refinement by the downfall of the Western Caliphat than Granada. It succeeded to Cordova in splendor, while it surpassed it in romantic beauty of situation. The amenity of its climate, where the ardent heats of a southern summer were tempered by breezes from snow-clad mountains, the voluptuous repose of its valleys and the bosky luxuriance of its groves and gardens all awakened sensations of delight, and disposed the mind to love and poetry. Hence the great number of amatory poets that flourished in Granada. Hence those amorous canticles breathing of love and war, and wreathing chivalrous grace round the stern exercise of arms. Those ballads which still form the pride and delight of Spanish literature are but the echoes of amatory and chivalric lays which once delighted the Moslem courts of Andalus, and in which a modern historian of Granada pretends to find the origin of the rima Castellana and the type of the "gay science" of the troubadours.

Poetry was cultivated in Granada by both sexes. "Had Allah," says Ash-Shakandi, "bestowed no other boon on Granada than that of making it the birth-place of so many poetesses; that alone would be sufficient for its glory."

Among the most famous of these was Hafsah; renowned, says the old chronicler, for beauty, talents, nobility, and wealth. We have a mere relic of her poetry in some verses, addressed to her lover, Ahmed, recalling an evening passed together in the garden of Maumal.

"Allah has given us a happy night, such as he never vouchsafes to the wicked and the ignoble. We have beheld the cypresses of Maumal gently bowing their heads before the mountain breeze ” the sweet perfumed breeze that smelt of gillyflowers: the dove murmured her love among the trees; the sweet basil inclined its boughs to the limpid brook."

The garden of Maumal was famous among the Moors for its rivulets, its fountains, its flowers, and above all, its cypresses. It had its name from a vizier of Abdallah, grandson of Aben Habuz, and Sultan of Granada. Under the administration of this vizier many of the noblest public works were executed. He constructed an aqueduct by which water was brought from the mountains of Alfacar to irrigate the hills and orchards north of the city. He planted a public walk with cypress-trees, and "made delicious gardens for the solace of the melancholy Moors." "The name of Maumal," says Alcantara, "ought to be preserved in Granada in letters of gold." Perhaps it is as well preserved by being associated with the garden he planted; and by being mentioned in the verses of Hafsah. How often does a casual word from a poet confer immortality!

Perhaps the reader may be curious to learn something of the story of Hafsah and her lover, thus connected with one of the beautiful localities of Granada. The following are all the particulars I have been able to rescue out of the darkness and oblivion which have settled upon the brightest names and geniuses of Moslem Spain:

Ahmed and Hafsah flourished in the sixth century of the Hegira, the twelfth of the Christian Era. Ahmed was the son of the Alcayde of Alcala la Real. His father designed him for public and military life and would have made him his lieutenant; but the youth was of a poetical temperament, and preferred a life of lettered ease in the delightful abodes of Granada. Here he surrounded himself by objects of taste in the arts, and by the works of the learned; he divided his time between study and social enjoyment. He was fond of the sports of the field, and kept horses, hawks, and hounds. He devoted himself to literature, became renowned for erudition, and his compositions in prose and verse were extolled for their beauty, and in the mouths of every one.

Of a tender, susceptible heart, and extremely sensible to female charms, he became the devoted lover of Hafsah. The passion was mutual, and for once the course of true love appeared to run smooth. The lovers were both young, equal in merit, fame, rank, and fortune, enamored of each other's genius as well as person, and inhabiting a region formed to be a realm of love and poetry. A poetical intercourse was carried on between them that formed the delight of Granada. They were continually interchanging verses and epistles, "the poetry of which," says the Arabian writer, Al Makkari, "was like the language of doves."

In the height of their happiness a change took place in the government of Granada. It was the time when the Almohades, a Berber tribe of Mount Atlas, had acquired the control of Moslem Spain, and removed the seat of government from Cordova to Morocco. The Sultan Abdelmuman governed Spain through his Walis and Alcaydes; and his son, Sidi Abu Said, was made Wali of Granada. He governed in his father's name with royal state and splendor, and with despotic sway. Being a stranger in the country, and a Moor by birth, he sought to strengthen himself by drawing round him popular persons of the Arab race; and to this effect made Ahmed, who was then in the zenith of his fame and popularity, his vizier. Ahmed would have declined the post, but the Wali was peremptory. Its duties were irksome to him, and he spurned at its restraint. On a hawking party, with some of his gay companions, he gave way to his poetic vein, exulting in his breaking away from the thraldom of a despotic master like a hawk from the jesses of the falconer, to follow the soaring impulses of his soul.

His words were repeated to Sidi Abu Said. "Ahmed," said the informant, "spurns at restraint and scoffs at thy authority." The poet was instantly dismissed from office. The loss of an irksome post was no grievance to one of his joyous temperament; but he soon discovered the real cause of his removal. The Wali was his rival. He had seen and become enamored of Hafsah. What was worse, Hafsah was dazzled with the conquest she had made.

For a time Ahmed treated the matter with ridicule, and appealed to the prejudice existing between the Arab and Moorish races. Sidi Abu Said was of a dark olive complexion. "How canst thou endure that black man?" said he, scornfully. "By Allah, for twenty dinars I can buy thee a better than he in the slave market."

The scoff reached the ears of Sidi Abu Said and rankled in his heart.

At other times, Ahmed gave way to grief and tenderness, recalling past scenes of happiness, reproaching Hafsah with her inconstancy, and warning her in despairing accents that she would be the cause of his death. His words were unheeded. The idea of having the son of the Sultan for a lover had captivated the imagination of the poetess.

Maddened by jealousy and despair, Ahmed joined in a conspiracy against the ruling dynasty. It was discovered, and the conspirators fled from Granada. Some escaped to a castle on the mountains, Ahmed took refuge in Malaga, where he concealed himself, intending to embark for Valencia. He was discovered, loaded with chains and thrown into a dungeon, to abide the decision of Sidi Abu Said.

He was visited in prison by a nephew, who has left on record an account of the interview. The youth was moved to tears at seeing his illustrious relative, late so prosperous and honored, fettered like a malefactor.

"Why dost thou weep?" said Ahmed. "Are these tears shed for me? For me, who have enjoyed all that the world could give? Weep not for me. I have had my share of happiness; banqueted on the daintiest fare; quaffed out of crystal cups; slept on beds of down; been arrayed in the richest silks and brocades; ridden the fleetest steeds; enjoyed the loves of the fairest maidens. Weep not for me. My present reverse is but the inevitable course of fate. I have committed acts which render pardon hopeless. I must await my punishment."

His presentiment was correct. The vengeance of Sidi Abu Said was only to be satisfied by the blood of his rival, and the unfortunate Ahmed was beheaded at Malaga, in the month Jumadi, in the year 559 of the Hegira (April, 1164). When the news was brought to the fickle-hearted Hafsah, she was struck with sorrow and remorse, and put on mourning; recalling his warning words, and reproaching herself with being the cause of his death.

Of the after fortunes of Hafsah I have no further trace than that she died in Morocco, in 1184, outliving both her lovers, for Sidi Abu Said died in Morocco of the plague in 1175. A memorial of his residence in Granada remained in a palace which he built on the banks of the Xenil. The garden of Maumal, the scene of the early lives of Ahmed and Hafsah, is no longer in existence. Its site may be found by the antiquary in poetical research.

The authorities for the foregoing: Alcantara, Hist. Granada. Al Makkari, Hist. Mohamed. Dynasties in Spain. Notes and illustrations of the same by Gayangos. Ibnu Al Kahttib, Biograph. Dic., cited by Gayangos. Conde, Hist. Dom. Arab.