Art by Belén Esturla
The story, according to Córdoba-born historian Ibn Hayyan, is that when the amir of Al-Andalus, ‘Abd al-Rahman ii, assigned his court poet and trusted ambassador to a mission to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, the poet tried his best to refuse.
Independent, insubordinate, even impudent: Such moments were almost trademarks of Yahya ibn Hakam al-Ghazal, whose surname meant “the gazelle,” a name given for his extraordinary good looks and fleet wit. He was known for satirical verse and sharp epigrams that not infrequently landed him in trouble. Yet it was precisely this kind of trouble that precipitated his travels, which later included also the farthest and earliest Arab journey to the Norsemen, or Vikings, a journey that, if true, outshines even the more famous (and better documented) voyage a century later of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan up the Volga River.
Because Al-Ghazal himself is not known to have ever put his own pen to parchment—at least to any that survives today—we rely on Arab chroniclers of following centuries. Although some eminent Western historians of Al-Andalus, including the Frenchman Evariste Lévi-Provençal and the Spaniard Ambrosio Huici Miranda, are skeptical of their accuracy, modern historians of the Vikings take the truth of Al-Ghazal’s story as a given. Ibn Hayyan wrote his 10-volume history of Al-Andalus in the 11th century, fully 200 years after Al-Ghazal lived, and it is the most complete record we have of his biography and diwan, or suite, of poems, many written and, often, composed orally and recited on the spot, thanks to his lightning wit. Thus we know that although he tried to beg off the assignment to Constantinople, protesting that he was too old and the journey too dangerous, Al-Ghazal eventually acceded, begrudgingly:
Some say that Al-Ghazal is so clever
That after due consideration, he was the one selected.
Yet that was not the reason. Rather it is that I was
The easiest one to be rid of.
So yes I will go, but those who cause me harm
Stand before the whims of fortune;
I only wish it to be God’s plan that I return
Whether they like it or not.
Al-Ghazal was born in Jaén, on the Iberian Peninsula, around 770 ce. This was during the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman i, who had fled for his life from the Umayyad court in Damascus. Not much is known about Al-Ghazal’s early years, but his family must have been socially prominent, because as a young man, he was free to move to Córdoba, and there, he began flirting with power.
To put it that way is apt because, besides his handsome looks that helped him engage in conversations with women, Ibn Hayyan also wrote that “together with his education, he had varied and abundant wisdom; he was able to play the knowing fool when speaking, and he was funny, intense and always at ease in his expression.”
It is perhaps to Al-Ghazal’s fortune that he was still too young to practice his satire during the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman’s successor, Hisham i, who is known to have cut out the eyes and snipped off the ears of a poet who rubbed him the wrong way. Nevertheless, all that we know of Al-Ghazal tells us that once he opened his mouth, he sometimes could not close it in time.
In 832, by then well positioned in Córdoba and in his early 50s, al-Ghazal wrote a scathing verse about the popular Persian poet and musician Abul Hasan Ali ibn Nafi, known also as Ziryab, who had been invited to court by ‘Abd al-Rahman ii expressly to educate the amir’s own court poets in the arts of the Arab East, which were much admired. For this Al-Ghazal was sent briefly into exile—ironically to Iraq, seat of power of the rival Abbasids, which also happened to place him near the feet of none other than Abu Nuwas, the greatest Arab poet of all time.
Perhaps Al-Ghazal never fully recovered from this misstep, because even though he returned from Baghdad a better poet, he was unable to turn down the ambassadorship to Constantinople. But he tried his best, as Ibn Hayyan recorded his verses beseeching ‘Abd al-Rahman ii to reconsider:
What they give me for being absent, I will consider,
Although being too much, is miserable.
I see death stealing life from the most elusive deer
And, like birds, catching them despite their flight.
He left for Constantinople in 834 as a guest of the Byzantine emissary who had come to Córdoba to forge an alliance against the Abbasids. But en route, Al-Ghazal apparently did not care for the Greek’s hospitality, which he found meager, nor his provisions, which he found light, as he complained in an epigram: “I would like to know how much it would have cost you to do me the smallest of favors, in case you had chosen to do even one.”
Once in Constantinople, Al-Ghazal put loyalty first, but wit was not far behind. Ibn Hayyan wrote that when the time came for Al-Ghazal’s audience with Emperor Theophilus, the emperor laid a trick to disconcert his Arab visitor: a doorway so low that nobody could pass through without kneeling, an act which, however inadvertent or forced, would express submission to the emperor. But Al-Ghazal’s wit got the better of the moment when he turned backward and propelled himself through the tiny door rump first. Once inside, he turned and stood properly to greet Emperor Theophilus with due respect. It seemed that everyone, Theophilus included, was impressed, and the meeting went well.
Theophilus and his wife, Empress Theodora, seemed captivated by the manners of this experienced courtier. According to Ibn Hayyan, the first time the poet saw Theodora “wearing jewels and dressed like a rising sun,” he was so impressed that he could not lower his eyes. When Theophilus expressed his annoyance, Al-Ghazal replied, “I am so dazzled by the beauty of this queen and her extraordinary form that I am unaware of the reason you have called me here—and this is fair, for I have never seen a more beautiful image.”
Once back in Al-Andalus, he was denounced—unfairly—by the vizier. It concerned a trifling matter of jewelry he was given abroad and allegedly illegal grain sales he made at home. Unfair or not, he again faced the displeasure of his amir. Al-Ghazal took aim at the vizier and all court hypocrites with a barbed poem:
A judge asked for my opinion
About a man who seemed fair
And thus was to be appointed governor.
“What do you think he will do then?”
And I responded:
What do bumblebees do to bees?
They break into their hives, eat their honey
And leave the left-overs to the flies!
Still, it seemed to the amir that Al-Ghazal’s diplomacy overseas was as good as his sharp tongue at home was bad. This was why he asked the poet to lead yet another embassy: this time to the land of the Norsemen who had lately been raiding the coasts of Al-Andalus. We get this only from later, less reliable Arab sources, including a 12th-century biographical encyclopedia of the lives of Arab poets collected by the Valencia-born Ibn Dihya al-Kalbi.
The first Western scholar to vouch for the story was W.E.D. Allen, a diplomat-socialite and expert in the South Caucasus who briefly dabbled in British fascism. Allen’s evocatively titled The Poet and the Spae-Wife (spae-wife is an Old English cognate of an Old Norse word for “prophetess”) accepts Ibn Dihya’s account of Al-Ghazal’s journey mostly on circumstantial evidence. Other scholars, however, claim it tracks disturbingly close to Ibn Hayyan’s account of the trip to Constantinople, and thus Ibn Dihya may have either filled in a real journey’s story with plagiarized details or made it all up outright.
Undisputed is that Norsemen attacked throughout the Mediterranean in these years. Vikings had raided several cities of Al-Andalus, including Seville, just downstream from Córdoba. After one unsuccessful attack that resulted in the burning of their ships and the death of their captain, a Viking embassy in November 844 came to sue for peace. ‘Abd al-Rahman ii decided to send a return legation to the Viking camp. It was this mission that was headed by Al-Ghazal, since, according to Ibn Dihya, he had “a sharp mind, and a quick inventiveness; he was savvy at replying, he was brave, had perseverance, and knew how to cross all doors.”
The account begins just as Ibn Hayyan’s story of the Constantinople embassy begins: a storm delayed Al-Ghazal upon setting out in the company of a foreign ambassador. Then he arrived at the Viking camp “on an island or peninsula” that scholars of Norse history have identified as possibly Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, but more likely it was Ireland. Although some Vikings had recently become Christians, Ibn Dihya described them as pagan devotees of fire cults, using for them the name Al-Majus, or Magians, the same given to fire-worshipping Zoroastrians and the word from which English gets magician.
In what may be the clearest of Ibn Dihya’s alleged plagiarisms, Al-Ghazal told his hosts he would not kneel before any sovereign but his own, and yet, as in Constantinople, the door to the Viking throne room was of low clearance, so that this time he scooted in feet first, sitting, so that the soles of his shoes approached closest to the king. If true, it was another quick-thinking but plausibly deniable gesture to gain the upper hand; if false, it was merely a cut-and-paste of the Constantinople account to a more exotic locale.
Having delivered ‘Abd al-Rahman’s letter and trunks of luxurious gifts, he is said to have again exercised arts of seduction on his host’s royal consort, in this case the Queen Nud. Ibn Dihya recounted the poet’s version of the encounter: “I swear that she had certain charm, but I won her favor by talking to her in a way so that I got more than I wanted.” He goes on to say that Al-Ghazal’s Arab companions had to intervene to silence the poet, lest the indiscretion go too far.
Despite the similarities, one reason to think Ibn Dihya’s version was at least based on a now-lost contemporaneous account is that some of Al-Ghazal’s poems here are not found in other chronicles, and they read as if they were written specifically for the moment at hand. At one point the Viking queen suggests that her guest darken his white hair with dye so as to look younger. His answer could not have been more sharply put:
Do not disregard the shine of white hair!
It is the flower of understanding and intelligence
I have now what you’ve longed for from your own youth,
Good manners and education.
He returned to Córdoba after an absence of 20 months, in the summer of 846, when he was more than 70 years old. While some authors say he reached 94, the most accurate source may be one of his own verses, written not long before he died:
I have lived thirty years and some more,
The first third part of them flirting
The second part living in sin,
And the third part deep in an abyss
Where my pity and faith are lacking.
But how finally might one settle the question whether Al-Ghazal headed one or two ambassadorships—the one to Constantinople, and the other, possibly, to Ireland? There may be a hint in a bite of Spain’s tastiest variety of fig. It’s called the doñegal, and it is said to have been introduced to Al-Andalus by Al-Ghazal—from Constantinople. But why use that name? “Donegal” is an Old Irish word meaning “fort of the foreigners.” What, we might wonder today, would the Gazelle say about that?