Post-classical history

Chapter Thirteen


The Almohads in Spain

Between 1147 and 1177, the Almohads destroy the Almoravids but fail to capture the Spanish peninsula

BY 1147, Alfonso VII of León-Castile had pushed the southern front of Christian conquest more than halfway through the old Almoravid lands. In that same year, Alfonso I of Portugal captured Lisbon from its Muslim inhabitants, shoring up his claim of a royal title. And in the same year, the Almoravids fell. The Almohads stormed Marrakesh, under al-Mu’min’s direction, and brought the weakened Almoravid rule to an end.1

The remnants of the Almoravid empire lingered on in Spain, cut loose from its roots. The city of Granada, now independent of Marrakesh, remained in Muslim hands; but without direction from Africa, it began to chart its own political course, making overtures of alliance to Alfonso VII himself. The cities of Valencia and Murcia formed a mini-kingdom ruled by Ibn Mardanish; he also decided to make peace with the Christian king of León-Castile, agreeing to become a vassal of Alfonso VII in exchange for peace.2

But this independence was short-lived. “When all the provinces of Morocco were submissive to al-Mu’min,” the historian al-Marrakushi tells us, “he turned his armies to the eastern areas of North Africa, and then towards Spain.” In 1155, Granada was forced to surrender to Almohad armies and acknowledge al-Mu’min’s lordship. Two years later, the Almohads had advanced north of Granada, taking Ubeda, Baeza, and Almería from Alfonso’s very hands.3

On the way home from the defeat at Almería, Alfonso VII fell ill. He died in August of 1157, leaving Castile and León in the hands of his two sons Sancho and Fernando.

The division of the kingdom set the two brothers and their heirs against each other, severing the last unity among the four Christian kingdoms. Sancho died after a single year on the throne of Castile, and his three-year-old son Alfonso VIII inherited it, plunging Castile into a struggle between noble families for control of the regency; the king of Navarre, son of Garcia the Restorer, took advantage of Castile’s weakness to claim a few border towns for himself.4


13.1 The Kingdoms of Spain

But the Muslims in the south were on no better terms than the Christians of the north. Spain remained a secondary priority for the Almohad caliph, who was still shoring up his hold on North Africa. Granada had surrendered, but Ibn Mardanish of Valencia and Murcia refused to submit to Almohad rule, holding on to his alliance with the Christians of Castile instead; and Granada was constantly on the edge of rebellion against Almohad domination.5

Many of the peoples living in the contested and chaotic areas fled. Among them was Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph, who in 1160 took his wife and grown children and left the peninsula. Like many other Jews, the ben Joseph family had been living under steadily worsening conditions. An Almohad decree in 1146 had commanded all Jews (and any Christians who might be living in the Muslim areas) to convert to Islam, but even Jews who converted were required to wear distinctive black tunics and black caps to set them apart. As Almohad power in Spain grew, the decree was more and more often enforced. “[I am] like one who is drowning,” Maimon ben Joseph wrote, just before leaving his home. “We are almost totally immersed. . . . Overwhelmed with humiliation, blamed and despised, the seas of captivity surround us and we are submerged in its depths.”6

Conditions in the Christian kingdoms were only slightly better; and ben Joseph’s family, like many others, crossed over to the North African coast. Eventually they reached Egypt and settled there, under the more benevolent government of Saladin. There, ben Joseph’s older son Maimonides began to practice as a physician. He also started work on a massive, fourteen-volume summary of Jewish law, which he hoped would give the scattered and perplexed Jews a guide for living in troubled times.

Meanwhile, the Almohad grip on North Africa had tightened.


13.2 The Almohad Empire

The Almohad caliph ‘Abd al-Mu’min had brought all of North Africa under his control: “Through him,” wrote the Almohad historian al-Marrakushi, “God stamped out disbelief in Ifriqiya.” He was planning a massive transfer of forces over to the Spanish peninsula, in preparation for a full-scale assault on the Christian resistance.7

But in 1163, he died before launching his invasion. He had fathered fifteen sons, so for several years his son and successor Yusuf I had to spend most of his strength fighting off brotherly challenges to his caliphate. Struggles on the Spanish peninsula continued, small army against small army, border spats and guerrilla warfare. The unsettled times allowed mercenaries and adventurers to prosper.

One of the most famous of these was Gerald the Fearless, a Portuguese soldier of fortune who assembled an army of freebooters and campaigned recklessly into the area known as the Extremadura: outside Portuguese borders, well into Almohad territory. Sometime around 1165, he attacked the city of Evora. Later chroniclers insist that, when his soldiers balked, Gerald went up the walls himself by driving spears between the stones as a makeshift ladder and came back down with a couple of heads. Evora’s coat of arms commemorated the event, as did the epic poem Os Lusiadas, written in the sixteenth century by Luis Vaz de Camões:

Watch this one, shinning down his lance

Back to the ambush, with the heads

Of the two watchmen, and so captures

Evora with subterfuge and daring.8

The capture of Evora was the first in a series of victories for Gerald the Fearless and his band; he went on to seize at least four more towns.

The successes alarmed the Almohads, but were even more troubling to the Christian kings; Gerald seemed to be on the path to a private kingdom of his own. When Gerald laid siege to the Almohad city of Badajoz in 1169, Afonso Henriques of Portugal and Ferdinand II of León banded together to drive him off.

Gerald now found himself without a home. He made overtures of peace to the king of Portugal; Afonso Henriques, who broke his leg in the fight for Badajoz and was never again able to ride without pain, was not forgiving. So in 1172 Gerald offered to enter the service of the Almohad caliph Yusuf I instead.

The caliph accepted his allegiance and stationed him in the Moroccan desert. This was not a posting that showed great faith in Gerald’s loyalties, and, sure enough, within months Gerald was carrying on a second set of secret negotiations with Afonso Henriques, proposing to hand over his new territory so that the Portuguese would have a base of operations from which to attack the Almohad heartland. Yusuf I, getting wind of the messages, sent soldiers to arrest Gerald; whether or not by design, they killed him in the process.9

The siege of Badajoz had temporarily put the Almohad ruler of Badajoz and the two Christian kings on the same side. This blurring of allegiances troubled Yusuf I, and in the summer of 1171 he transported twenty thousand soldiers across the Strait of Gibraltar, aiming to firm up his hold on the Muslim territories. Within the year, he had whipped most of the Muslim cities into line.10

In 1172, he made his first foray against the Christian position. He laid siege to the city of Huete—and failed.

There were multiple reasons for the failure. At least one eyewitness suggests that Yusuf I, perhaps underestimating his enemy, wasn’t particularly engaged in the siege; instead of appearing on the battlefield, he remained in his tent, carrying on philosophical discussions with his advisors. The twenty thousand Almohad troops were an uneasy mixture of local Spaniards, Arabs, and North Africans; they all had their own native commanders and did not act easily in unison. They were forced to forage farther and farther afield for food. A message came from the pope to Huete, promising the city’s defenders remission from sin for their efforts and stiffening their resolve. And just as the inhabitants began to suffer from thirst, a massive rainstorm refilled the city’s reservoirs.11

When the news went around the Almohad camp that Alfonso VIII of Castile (now eighteen and ruling in his own name) was approaching to lift the siege, the Almohads gave up their position and retreated. It was an embarrassing defeat for Yusuf I, although not fatal; he would soon regather himself and relaunch the war.

But Huete was a turning point for the Christian kingdoms, which now began to readjust their attitudes towards each other. By 1177, all five of the Christian kings had sworn out treaties or created marriage alliances. The political unity of Alfonso the Battler had become a unity of purpose; and the latticework of allegiances woven by the Christian enemy would prove almost impossible for the Almohads to penetrate.


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