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The Reconquista |
A key Christian victory assures the doom of Muslim Spain

The Reconquista is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 170, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Two violent but short-lived Islamic revivals fail to save Andalusia as the Christians advance inexorably south to the Battle of Las Navas

The Reconquista - A key Christian victory assures the doom of Muslim Spain

The Reconquista – A key Christian victory assures the doom of Muslim Spain
The cityscape of Toledo still shows the fingerprint of Alfonso VI. After retaking the city from the Muslims, Alfonso converted mosques into churches and furthered the re-Christianization of Spain, known to Spanish history as the Reconquista. The spires of these churches can still be seen on the Toledo skyline.

It had been three hundred years since the Muslims ousted Spain’s Christian Visigoths and occupied nearly four fifths of the Iberian Peninsula. Called Andalusia, Muslim Spain reached its cultural, military, and economic summit under the brutal regime of the rulers al-Mansur and his son Abd al-Malik at the end of the first Christian millennium. After Abd al-Malik’s death in 1009, it split into an array of city-states called taifas, run by an assortment of amiably decadent Arab, Berber, and other sultans.

With the Muslims thus weakened, the Christians in the north slowly but resolutely moved into attack mode. By then they consisted of the sparsely populated but militarily competent principalities of Galicia, Leon, Castile, Navarre, Aragon, and Catalonia. These ran across the craggy top of Spain from the Atlantic along the south slope of the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean. The Muslim taifas were wealthier, more peopled, and potentially able to assemble bigger armies, but the Christians were more unified and better organized.

Thus, under Sancho III the Great, king of Navarre from 1000 to 1035, they were able to exact tribute from the adjacent Muslim taifas of Badajoz, Toledo, and Saragossa–protection money guaranteeing them against Christian attack. This brought Muslim gold flowing northward, making Christian Spain an economic rival to flourishing Flanders and Lombardy.

Sancho III reestablished regular contact with the Roman curia, and French Benedictine monks gradually supplanted the traditions of Spain’s old Visigothic church. With the new monasteries came new towns, peopled by immigrants from France and Italy, who also took up the cheap farmland of the rugged north and of the Trans-Duero region, the big wedge of cattle country that included the La Mancha plateau. The latter was the key to further expansion into the city and taifa of Toledo that dominated the economic life of central Iberia.1

Reconnection to Rome and Europe brought another, and especially dubious, benefit. In a forerunner of the Crusades, the king of Christian Aragon, with the blessing of Pope Alexander II, imported fifty thousand Normans, French, and Italians to take the Muslim city of Barbastro in 1063. What the pope did not bless, however, was the outcome. In the Muslim account, these foreign troops broke the terms of the city’s surrender and slaughtered all the defenders plus an additional six thousand male inhabitants, all of them first made to watch the rape and enslavement of their wives and daughters and the murder of their children.

This was considerably at odds with Spanish precedent. The northern kings tended to preserve conquered populations, allowing residents to continue practicing their trade and religion. They realized that the Andalusian cities had no strong loyalties to either side and would fight for whoever paid them. Spanish Christians, too, had been known to switch sides–even the great Cid (volume 6 pages 252—253).2 Barbastro, incidentally, was recovered by the Muslims a year later.

In the 1080s Alfonso VI of Castile set his sights on Toledo, the ancient Visigoth capital. Still half Christian, it was now the capital of a vast Muslim taifa, also called Toledo, that sprawled over the center of the Iberian Peninsula. Contending that Toledo had been paying tribute with debased coinage, Alfonso laid siege in 1085 and with the help of Toledo’s Christians brought about its surrender. He offered generous conditions: self-government for the taifa plus freedom of religion for Muslims and Visigoth Christians alike. There was a price, however: steeper tribute payments from neighboring sultans, or the Christians would seize the taifas of Saragossa, Seville, and Granada as well.

This put the sultans into a painful quandary. They knew they could not defeat Alfonso’s formidable armies, which, after Toledo, had gone on to take the taifa of Valencia. Moreover, another immediate danger was threatening them from the south. Across the Strait of Gibraltar in North Africa, poised to strike, were the Almoravid Muslims, an Afro-Berber dynasty that had sprung up in the Sahara in the 1040s and had taken over northwest Africa. Under their devout, warlike, and pitiless leader, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the Almoravids practiced a Qur’anic literalism that glorified jihad and strict asceticism. This appealed not at all to the pleasure-loving taifa sultans, who typically neglected even military spending while lavishing money on the glorification of their courts. Their wealth was far better spent, in their view, on the poets, artists, and musicians who so magnificently adorned their palaces.

These splendors, however, were not always appreciated by the masses, whose taxes paid for them. Further, devout Andalusian imams tended to share the Almoravid moral outlook. To them, the sultans’ courts were cesspools of sin and squalor, unhealthily influenced by Christianity, where homosexuality, harlotry, and adultery were accepted or winked at and alcohol freely consumed. These things, expressly forbidden by the Qur’an, were openly indulged in by Andalusia’s nobles and celebrated by its poets in ever more lubricious verse. “One cannot help sensing among the literate ruling class a widespread boredom and cynicism, an appetite for novel sexual sensations, and a striving after verbal cleverness for its own sake,” writes historian Gabriel Jackson in his The Making of Medieval Spain.

Caught between Islamic fundamentalism, which they loathed, and Christian conquest, which they dreaded, the sultans of Seville, Granada, and Badajoz reluctantly chose the former. They called in the Almoravids, hoping that they would prove reasonable as well as helpful. So the aging Yusuf arrived with his crack Berber troops and began taking over one taifa after another, willing or otherwise. Within fifteen years the Almoravids had added Andalusia to their empire. They also in short order took back Valencia from the Christians.3

Strict Qur’anic rule did not last, however. When Yusuf died in 1106, reputedly at the age of one hundred, his empire had peaked. Under his son Ali bin Yusuf, described by one historian as “a pious non-entity who fasted and prayed while his empire fell to pieces,” decadence began a recovery. Meanwhile, the northerners, reinforced by Christian refugees from Andalusia fleeing the strictures of Islamic law, were gaining strength. Furthermore, to replace their lost taifa tribute revenue, the northern kingdoms sought and found money and manpower in Europe beyond the Pyrenees. So Christian forces repeatedly defeated Almoravid leader Ali bin Yusuf, and after Ali’s death in 1142 his son fared no better, perishing four years later in battle.

Meanwhile, another kingdom, to be known to history as Portugal, had struggled into being on the Christian side. Originally called Portucale, it began life after its recapture from the Muslims in 868 as a county in southwestern Galicia. In the late eleventh century, during a war between the Spanish Christian kingdoms, Portucale ruler Count Henry declared independence. This became a recognized fact after his son won the curious Battle of Sao Mamede in 1128–curious because he waged it against his own mother and her lover.4 When Portugal captured the port of Lisbon, at the mouth of the Tagus River, with the help of a few boatloads of soldiers on their way to the Second Crusade, Lisbon became its capital. In 1250 it expanded southward by again defeating the Muslims.

By the mid-twelfth century Christian Spain had resolved into three relatively stable kingdoms that would last to the end of the Middle Ages: Portugal, Leon-Castile, and Aragon-Catalonia. The Almoravid Empire was in rapid decline, and the end of Muslim Andalusia seemed at hand, but such was not yet to be. Out of the rugged Atlas Mountains, in what would become Morocco and Algeria, there emerged another Islamic movement: the Almohads, founded by a pious Berber named Ibn Tumart, who, invoking Qur’anic law, began by trashing wineshops and attacking unveiled women. Recruiting an army of like-minded apostles, he made ready to take on more formidable foes than women and bootleggers.

After Ibn Tumart’s death in battle, the title of caliph was assumed by one of his generals, Abd al-Mumin, who rapidly overwhelmed the now dissolute Almoravid Empire. By 1149 he had extended his rule across North Africa to Egypt. His successor, Yusuf II, crossed the straits, established a base in Seville, and began terrorizing the Almoravid, Christian, and Jewish populations of Andalusia, many of whom fled north. The Almohads quickly pushed the Christians back farther north, recovering the territory lost by the Almoravids.

Before long their initial zealotry evolved into a pragmatic rule characterized by an efficient bureaucracy and impressive feats of engineering, which included the Giraldi mosque tower in Seville and the new port of Gibraltar. Berber armies were regularly shipped in from Africa to contain the Christians, who, in any case, were now occupied with a dispute over the succession in Castile and Leon.

Significantly, however, the Almohads were not able to defeat the northern kingdoms in a major battle until the year 1193, when the caliph Ya’qub trounced Alfonso VIII of Castile at the Battle of Alarcos. Most of Alfonso’s army of eight thousand was killed; he himself barely escaped with his life. But Ya’qub either could not or did not exploit the victory, and six years later the turn of the tide began that would ultimately see the Muslims expelled from Spain.

Ya’qub died in 1199 and was succeeded by his less gifted son, Muhammad al-Nasir, who unwisely signed a truce with the defeated Alfonso VIII. Then, assuming the Christians thoroughly vanquished, al-Nasir left Andalusia to deal with a revolt in Tunisia. It was a catastrophic mistake: Alfonso took advantage of his absence to rebuild his army, strengthen border defenses, and repair relations with the other Christian kings (who had bitterly blamed him for the defeat at Alarcos).

By 1210 al-Nasir realized what was going on and hastened back across the strait with an army estimated in the notoriously exaggerated contemporary accounts at six hundred thousand men. Marching north, he captured the castle at Salvatierra, where the first truly Spanish military monastic order, the Calatrava, was based.5 Alfonso, thoroughly alarmed, sent an anxious request for support to Pope Innocent III, who responded with an appeal to the French nobility, offering indulgences to those who joined the “Spanish Crusade.”

The major contingents of the international Christian army that gathered in Toledo were nobles, town militias, military orders, and mercenaries from Castile, but Peter II of Aragon brought three thousand knights and almost as many crossbowmen. There was a large group of Portuguese and a smaller one of Leonese–albeit without their kings, who still distrusted Alfonso on account of Alarcos. King Sancho VII of Navarre brought two hundred retainers. Finally, over the Pyrenees there marched or rode sixty thousand assorted crusaders. Arriving in Toledo, they had to be restrained by the Castilians from trying to kill all the city’s Jews.

This army, the greatest of the Reconquista, moved south toward the enemy on June 20, 1212. Although short of rations, they crossed the baked Gadiana plains and fought a hard battle to win the town of Old Calatrava. Finding little there by way of plunder to reward their efforts, the French troops embarked upon slaughter but were ordered by Alfonso to leave the townspeople alone. For the foreign crusaders this was a final frustration. On July 3 they abandoned the Spanish army to its fate and headed back home across the Pyrenees.

The Spaniards, being inured to tough fighting on the parched plains of Spain’s interior, marched on and retook Alarcos. On July 12 they reached the pass at Mur-adel but found it already blocked by the massive Almohad army. Its warriors held the high ground on either side and far into the distance, with the Ittabalan musicians beating their huge kettledrums from the rock ledges. But a local peasant, it is said, showed the Christians an alternate route around the blocked pass to the plains (las navas) on the Andalusian side of the Sierra Morena. Here the greatest battle of the Reconquista was about to take place.

Al-Nasir’s army was arranged in three lines. Cavalry and heavily armed foot soldiers were in the center, screened by archers and a row of Berber lancers. At the rear sat al-Nasir beside his red tent, dressed in a black cloak and surrounded by bodyguards. In one hand he held a sword, in the other the Qur’an. An unknown scribe writes in the Latin Chronicles of the Kings of Castile,

Then the Christians arose after midnight, the hour at which Christ, whom they worshipped, rose up victorious after death. After hearing the solemnities of masses, and being renewed by the life-giving sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our God, they fortified themselves with the sign of the cross. They quickly took up their weapons of war, and with joy rushed to the battle as if they were invited to a feast. Neither the broken and stony places, nor the hollows of the valleys, nor the steep mountains held them back. They advanced on the enemy prepared to die or conquer.

The Christians moved forward in a three-line flanking attack, militia to the front, cavalry behind, and the three kings–Alfonso of Castile, Peter of Aragon, and Sancho of Navarre–in the rearguard. They crashed through the front line of Muslim defense and into the heavy core of troops behind, where hand-to-hand fighting with axes and swords continued inconclusively for hours. Then the caliph called in his reserve troops and the Christians fell back, but Alfonso hastened to return to the fray, and the rest followed. Under this last thrust the Andalusians first gave way, followed by the Berbers and, finally, the Arabs. One of the earliest to depart, on a fast mare, was Muhammad al-Nasir. “Who can count how many thousands of Moors fell that day and descended into the depths of hell?” the chronicler wonders.

The hard part was over. Caliph al-Nasir took ship back to Maghreb. Behind him he left most of his army on the plains of Tolosa, destined to be slaughtered in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. The Christians did not immediately occupy towns near the battlefield, in part because of drought but chiefly because of stench and disease from the unburied corpses.

The Almohads had been dealt a blow from which they would not recover, and the path to the Reconquista was now clear. In the next thirty-six years Spanish Christians led by Ferdinand III of Leon would take back all Andalusia save the kingdom of Granada, a foothold in Iberia that Islam would retain for the next two and a half centuries. At length it, too, would be lost, but that is a story for a future volume.

This is the end of the The Reconquista category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 170, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about The Reconquista from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at