The Caliph’s Favorite: New Light from Manuscript Sources on Hasdai ibn Shaprut of Cordova
By Norman Golb
Published Online by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (2011)
Introduction: The mid-10th Century was a remarkable time in the history of Europe – not least because of the burgeoning presence in Spain of a Muslim power whose military forces had pushed out from North Africa more than two centuries earlier and gradually transformed almost four-fifths of the country into the Arabic-speaking Caliphate of Andalus (Andalusia). Roughly speaking, the first two centuries of the Arab conquest were given over to military victories and the consolidation of power, but by the time Abd-al-Rahman the Third had ascended the throne of the Caliphate in the year 929, he was able to devote at least a small part of his time to more mundane and sometimes even peaceful affairs of state.
By approximately 930, the Jewish family of Hasdai son of Joseph ibn Shaprut had moved from their hometown of Jaen to the Muslim capital of Cordova, and before many years had passed the relatively young Hasdai began attracting the attention of the courtiers in the royal palace for his unusual intellectual and sentient qualities. By approximately 935 he was himself serving as a royal courtier, and Abd-al-Rahman himself soon began to recognize Hasdai’s highly unusual gifts; he eventually appointed him major-domo over virtually all affairs of state.
Several Muslim writers of the Middle Ages have known about Hasdai and as a rule praised him in their Arabic writings – but Hebrew texts of that period offer more detailed descriptions of his remarkable activities while serving Abd-al-Rahman. There is, of course the very lengthy and detailed letter by Hasdai himself to King Joseph of the Khazars, in which Hasdai offers fascinating descriptions of his official duties and of the economy and material culture of Andalus under his caliph’s rule; also extant is full-fledged response of the Khazar king of Hasdai, which set the stage for Hasdai’s supreme personal venture.