Taifa – The Party Kings

When the Andalus settled down after the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordova a kaleidoscope of petty states emerged, some quite large, others consisting of little more than one town.

These taifa states represent an example of the Iberian tradition of regionalism, a tradition directly opposed to a centralising concept of unification. Both still exist and can still be seen in Spain. The taifas were also part of a wider trend in 11th century Islamic history and were mirrored by events in Iran where another people, similarly conquered by Arabs in the early Islamic period reasserted their identity. Iran’s revival remained within Islamic orbit; but in Iberia Christians were numerous, perhaps even an overall majority, while neighbouring Christian states could draw upon growing strength of Europe beyond the Pyrenees. Most significant of all, perhaps, was the fact that the Muslims did not appreciate the change-taking place to their north. They were confident of cultural superiority and were accustomed to military security. It simply did not occur to taifa rulers that the Christians of northern Iberia posed a serious threat- not, at least, until it was almost too late. And why should they? Crusades to they Holy Lands had yet to begin, and everywhere else except Sicily, Islam was victorious.

Taifa states also differed from one another. The biggest, Badajoz, Toledo and Saragossa, were centred upon the thughur or military frontier zones of the old Caliphate. The tiniest were clustered in the south-west (the Algarve) far from the Christian frontier, while some were ruled by an Andalusian aristocracy which thus enjoyed power for the first time in a century.

Caparable fragmentation was taking place in North Africa; the fact Ceuta and Tangier, at the very northern tip of Morocco, formed a taifa state, having previously been part of the Andalusian Caliphate. From 1060 to the 1070’s Ceuta was ruled by Barghawata berbers, a people who, having evolved their own peculiar religion, were considered as infidels by ordinary Muslims. Though powerful enough to field 12,000 horsemen, the barghawata were eventually crushed by the Almoravids after a fierce struggle, Ceuta falling in 1078/9. This left the fierce Saharan Almoravids poised on the Straits of Gibraltar. Elsewhere in North Africa a Fatimid withdrawal to Egypt and an invasion by nomad Beni Hilal tribes added to confusion.

The fall of Toledo to the Castilians and Valencia to El Cid sent shock waves throughout the Muslim west. But what could be done? The taifa states were neither strong nor particularly rich; some had armies of only a hundred or so men. A few employed North African or Christian Spanish mercenaries, Seville being one. But Seville was more aggressive and expansionist than the rest, apparently hoping to reunite Andalus under its own rule. Others, like Saragossa, allied themselves with their Christian neighbours, getting some assistance in return. Warfare was not, in fact, a normal way of settling disputes amongst taifa states and when faced by Christian threats they paid tribute, made pacts and encouraged inter-Christian rivalries. Some taifa states, including Seville, retaliated with raids, albeit rare and often unsuccessful ones.

None the less the taifa states did have warrior elites though there was less differentiation than in the Christian north, family or tribal ties being more important. Military tenancies, often centred around small castles, were increasingly hereditary, while garrisons were paid as well as owing semi feudal obligations to the local governor or castle-holder. Towns were a more important source of military strength. These were similarly dominated by great families, as is the case in much of the Middle East today, while even the Mozarab Christian nobility seems to have risen in military importance. Though the role of infantry increased as Islam went on the defensive, the most prestigious soldiers were still cavalry. These followed a code of conduct similar to the knightly ideals of their Spanish counter-parts. Their skills, organization and equipment of mail and quilted armour, long swords and spears, heavy shields and helmets, were clearly comparable. Face-covering mail coifs are mentioned, as are leather shields imported from the Sahara, while crossbows were now the most important infantry weapon.