Hasday Ibn Shaprut: the Prince of the Jews of Al-Andalus

Hasday Ibn Saprut was the closest thing to a man of the Renaissance in the Middle Ages. Someone…

A Renaissance man in the Middle Ages

(Text translated from Spanish. We apologize for the possible grammatical errors)

Jewish doctor, translator and political figure in the caliphal court, prince of the Jews of Al-Andalus, this Jew born in Jaén in the year 915, was the great impetus of the golden age of Hebrew letters in Arab Spain, thus as a powerful statesman, protagonist in some of the most important diplomatic negotiations of the caliphal court with Constantinople and with the Christian kingdoms of the North of the Iberian Peninsula

After becoming a court physician to the mighty Umayyad caliph Abd al-Raḥmān III, Ḥasday gradually gained fame throughout the Arab world, acting de facto as vizier of the great caliph. He used his linguistic talents (he knew Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin) and his persuasive personality on delicate diplomatic missions between Muslim and Christian rulers. On one occasion he helped negotiate a treaty with the Byzantine Empire. At one of the embassies sent to Cordoba by the Emperor of Byzantium came a great gift that would change the history of medicine in Europe: the pharmacology treatise of the Greek physician Dioscorides. Hasday was one of those responsible for its translation into Arabic. This work would later be translated into Latin and would become one of the most important pharmacological treatises in the West until well into the eighteenth century. Hasday was also of enormous importance to get the signing of peace treaties with the kingdoms of Navarra and León. After Abd al-Raḥmān died in 961, Ḥasday continued to provide important services for his son and successor, the Caliph al-Ḥakam II.

Hasday was the great forerunner of the golden age of Spanish Judaism, bringing together under his patronage important literary figures such as Dunash ben Labrat (c. 920 – c. 990) and Menahem ben Saruq (c. 910 – c. 970), who helped to establish Hebrew as a scientific and literary language as well as to create a new style of Hebrew poetry. Hasday encouraged the study of Jewish law and the Talmud; he helped found the great Talmudic schools of Córdoba and Lucena by making the Spanish Jewry compete in relevance with the great Talmudic schools of Babylon.

Hasday Ibn Shaprut’s correspondence (written by Menahem ben Saruq) with Joseph, king of the Khazars is of historical importance. The Khazars were a people who lived in southern Russia, and who apparently had converted to Judaism in the middle of the 8th century. Hasday’s correspondence with the Khazars is highly relevant in providing information about a people that remains largely a puzzle to Jewish historians.

Hasday Ibn Saprut was a Renaissance man in the Middle Ages. Someone who made his knowledge, influence and fortune available to Andalusian society and the Jewish community in Sepharad, and who undoubtedly contributed both to the splendor of the Umayyad caliphate and to the golden age of Judaism in Sepharad.

One of the most beautiful streets in the Jewish quarter of Córdoba has his name. Córdoba has one of the best preserved medieval Jewish quarters. Strolling through its streets is a walk through one of the most fascinating episodes in the history of Andalusia.




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