Samuel Ha-Nagid: Jewish General in Al-Andalus

Samuel Ha-Nagid interests me because he was both a poet and a military leader. He is also unusual by being one of only two Jews to command Medieval Muslim armies (his son, Joseph, was the other).



Samuel (Shemuel) ha-Levi ben-Yusef ibn Nagrela was born in Córdoba.


When the Berber army sacked Cordoba Samuel moved to Malaga in the Berber province of Granada. He worked as an Arabic calligrapher. Samuel attracted the favourable attention of the Vizier (Abu al-Kasim ibn al-Arif) to the Granadine King (Habbus).


When al-Kasim died Samuel took on the role of Vizier. The Jewish population named Samuel “Ha-Nagid” (The Prince) as a mark of his position in the community.

1038 – 1056

When Habbus died, Badis, his oldest son, replaced him. Samuel kept his role of Vizier and became commander of the Kings armies as well. There were only two years in the period 1038 – 1056 when Samuel was not involved in military action. Most of the conflicts were with the neighbouring Muslim Kingdom of Seville.


Samuel died in Granada.

1056 – 1066

Joseph took over from his father.


Samuel Ha-Nagid was a poet as well as a military commander. A lot of Medieval Jewish poetry is religious in nature, which isn’t my cup of tea. Ha-Nagid, although a religious man, didn’t restrict himself to praising god. As the following poem shows he was proud of his military accomplishments. It was a message to his son, Joseph, on the raising of the siege of Lorca.

Send a carrier-pigeon, although she cannot speak,
With a tiny letter attached to her wings,
Sweetened with saffron-water, perfumed with frankincense.
And when she rises to fly away, send with her another,
So that, should she meet an eagle, or fall into a snare,
Or fail to make haste, the second will speed away.
And when she comes to Joseph’s house, she will coo on the roof-top.
When she flies down to his hand, he will rejoice in her, as with a song-bird.
He will spread out her wings, and read a letter thus:

‘Know , my son, that the cursed band of rebels has fled,
Scattered among the hills like chaff from a windswept field,
And among the byways like sheep astray with no shepherd.
They looked to defeat their enemy but they did not see it.
As we went to destroy them, at that very hour they fled.
They were slaughtered, falling upon each other at the crossing.
Their designs against the barred, walled city were frustrated.
They were humiliated like thieves caught in the act.
They covered themselves with ignominy as with a garment.
Calamity attached itself to them like the skin to one’s face.
They drank contempt in their cups, and drained the cup of drunkenness.
In my heart there was the pain of a woman bearing her first child,
and God put balm upon it, like rain in the drought.
Then my eyes were brightened, and my enemies’ plunged in gloom.
I sing with a joyful heart, and t hey utter only laments.
The voice of gladness is in my house, and theirs hears bitter weeping.

To you, my rock and my tower, to you my soul sings.
When I was in trouble, my plaint was laid before you.
My son, put your heart in the glorious hand of my God.
Arise, sing my song in the full assembly of the people.
And make it an amulet to be bound on your hand,
And let it be written with pen of iron in your heart.’

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