Just Like Modern Life: Greed, Treachery and the Will to Power
Shot through with sagas of ambition, bravery and cultural achievement, the story of the rise and fall of al-Andalus, the area of the Iberian Peninsula occupied by the Muslims in the Middle Ages, makes passionate reading. Nor is it lacking in the eternal attributes of greed, treachery and the unbridled will to power. Add to those factors generous doses of religious fundamentalism on both sides, and you’ve got a story that resonates with 21st-century readers.
Contrary to the lessons we were taught as schoolchildren, neither was the Muslim conquest of Iberia a simple question of bloodthirsty Muslim warriors with curved scimitars imposing “the Koran or the sword”, nor was the Christian Reconquest, at least in its first 500 years, a conscious, organized campaign to reclaim Iberia for Christianity. It was more of a free-for-all with Muslim raids to the north to annex territory, and Christian warlords attacking the Muslim city-states (reinos de Taifa) in the south and east for plunder or taxes.
Conquered in Three Years, Al-Andalus Took Eight Centuries to Disappear
The area occupied by al-Andalus, changed constantly over the nearly 800-year period that the Muslims were in Spain. Under the pressure of Christian military and diplomatic victories, the Muslim-dominated part of Iberia diminished progressively over an 800-year period from an area that originally covered almost the entire peninsula. By the time the Kingdom of Granada, the last bastion of al-Andalus, was retaken in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella, “the Catholic Monarchs,” it had been reduced approximately to the area occupied by today’s provinces of Granada, Málaga and Almería. The “reconquista,” with its expulsion of Moors, Jews and Gypsies, and all that they contributed to the society of al-Andalus, left an indelible mark on life and society in the Spain of then and now.
Here’s the first mystery of the Muslim invasion: How did the Berber chieftain, Tariq ibn Ziyad, manage to transport his army of 9,000 men across the Straits of Gibraltar on April 27, 711? Actually, he was invited to do so, in a nice bit of treachery perpetrated by Julian, the Christian count of Ceuta. Julian was harboring the family of the Visigothic king, Wittiza, who had been deposed by Roderic, destined to garner the dubious honor of becoming the last of Spain’s Visigothic monarchs. To take revenge, Julian decided to ally himself with Musa, the Muslim governor general of Ifrikquiya, as North Africa was known. There may have been other motives, as well, as legend has it that Roderic had been dilly dallying with Julian’s daughter, leaving her “embarazada,” “embarrassed,” the polite Spanish term for “pregnant.” In any case, it was Julian who provided the boats to ferry the Muslim troops to the Peninsula. (Here’s a charming poetic version of the results of Julian’s treachery.)
It took Musa’s troops just three years to occupy the Peninsula, with the exception of a small, inaccessible region in the mountainous northwest which would later be called Asturias. How was it that the Moors were able to conquer virtually the entire Iberian Peninsula in three short years? Among other things, they were aided by the Iberian Jews, who were chafing under the yoke of intolerant Visigothic Christians. It wasn’t only the Jews who resented the Visigothic aristocracy, as many slaves and landless Christians also deserted to al-Andalus and converted to Islam in order to benefit from the redistribution of the land there. These were known as “Mozarabs.”
The Muslim invaders, unlike the Romans who kept all the land they conquered, or the Visigothic kings, who kept two thirds of it, redistributed the great farms of the Visigoths among the population. The lands that belonged to the church and the Christian noblemen, after a fifth was reserved for the Caliph, were distributed among Muslim citizens. Ironically, many of the Muslims who suffered expulsion at the hands of the Christians between the 15th and 17th centuries were the descendants of native Iberians whose forebears had converted to Islam half a millennium earlier.
The End of Visigothic Spain and the Seed of the Reconquest
Roderic met defeat at the Battle of Guadalete in 712, just a year after the Muslim landing, again a victim of treachery. He might have won the battle, and saved his life, had his troops not deserted him at the last minute, incited to do so by the Bishop of Oppas, a relative of the deposed king, Wittiza. Among the troops who escaped from Guadalete was one Pelayo, who returned to his native Asturias and lived to go down in history as the father of the Christian resistance to Muslim domination. The Moorish troops were eventually defeated there in 722 at a town called Covadonga, later to be famous throughout Spanish history as “the cradle of the Reconquest.”
Do not presume, however, that Roderic was evil and Wittiza blameless. Wittiza was renowned for his license and vileness, and Roderic was just avenging his father, Theodofred, Duke of Cordoba, whom Wittiza had blinded and thrown into prison, as a potential threat to his reign. At that same time Wittiza ordered the murder of Favila, the Duke of Cantabria, thereby alienating his son, Pelayo.
If this chain of events seems as convoluted as a Colombian culebrón soap opera, it’s because it was, and it’s rendered here in some detail as an example of the events which were to follow over the next 800 years of ebb and flow of Christians and Muslims across the lands which were to become Spain and Portugal. Nothing was ever as simple as it seemed. The history of al-Andalus and the Christian Reconquest was full of shifting loyalties, strange bedfellows, spectacular betrayals and mixed descendencies. The early Christian kings of Navarra were actually descended from a Muslim family, for example.
El Cid Campeador, Hero and Patriot of Mixed Loyalties
The figure which best personifies this promiscuous ambivalence of loyalties for modern readers is the medieval Christian knight, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, El Cid. Díaz de Vivar is a legend in Spanish history, the subject of The Poem of El Cid (El Cantar del Mio Cid), the anonymous epic of medieval Spain. Raised alongside the future king, Sancho II of Castille, he became Sancho’s loyal paladin from the beginning, fighting beside him for nine years (1063-1072). Their first battle together, that of Graus, was as allies of Al-Muqtadir, the Muslim king of Zaragoza. In 1067 Díaz de Vivar was accorded the title of “Campeador,” (champion) having defeated the best knight of the King of Navarra in single combat in a contest for a series of castles on the border between Castilla and Navarra.
Twelve years later, on a royal mission to collect tributes due from Al-Mutamid, the poet emir of Seville, Díaz de Vivar came across an armed force of the Muslim king of Granada, and defeated it in a spontaneous battle. What he did not know at the time was that this army formed part of King Sancho’s strategy to submit one of the rebellious “Taifa” kingdoms. The Christian king considered this faux pas unforgivable and promptly ordered Díaz de Vivar into exile, the first of two.
Thus out of work, Díaz de Vivar crossed the border with his band of armed vassals (“mesnada”) and signed onto the service of al-Mutamin, the emir of Zaragoza. This relationship lasted for four years, during which Díaz de Vivar and his band of merry men waged war on al-Mutamin’s brother, al-Mundir, governor of Lérida, in turn the ally of the Christian Count Ramon Berenguer of Barcelona and Sancho Ramírez, the king of Aragon. Audacious as ever, Díaz de Vivar, with the help of al-Mutamin’s army, defeated them all, capturing Count Ramon Berenguer II in the process and returning to a hero’s welcome in Zaragoza. There the Muslims received him with the cry of “sidi, sidi” (“lord, lord”), the origin of the name which has come down to us: El Cid.
The Almoravid invasion and the defeat of Alfonso VI at the Battle of Sagrajas, near Badajoz, in 1086 prompted Díaz de Vivar to rejoin his Christian king and defend for him the Spanish Levante. This arrangement was successful for a few years, until a new falling out with Alfonso and Díaz de Vivar’s second banishment, along with the forfeiture of all his properties. So, accompanied by his wife and his loyal mesnada, El Cid went into business for himself, conquering first the Kingdom of Denia, on the Mediterranean coast, then Valencia, successfully defending it against a coalition of Castillians, Aragonese and Catalonians.
In 1097, with the Almoravids attacking Valencia, Díaz de Vivar made peace with his old enemies, Pedro I of Aragon and the Catalan Count Ramon Berenguer III, and together they defeated the Muslim invaders. A couple of years after Díaz de Vivar’s death of a fever in 1099, Alfonso VI helped his family and followers to escape from a deteriorating situation in Valencia. El Cid was buried in the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña until 1921, when he was reunited with his wife, Doña Jimena, in adjoining tombs in the Cathedral of Burgos. Perhaps Díaz de Vivar’s most eloquent epitaph is the much-quoted line from El Cantar del Mio Cid: “Dios, que buen vasallo, si oviesse buen señore!” (“God, what a fine vassal, if only he had a fine lord!”)
See a chronology of the history of al-Andalus (in Spanish), courtesy of the Fundación Legado Andalusí