The contest of Muslim and Christian
Spain played out over nine centuries. While individuals and
communities sought ways to thrive and cooperate in
day-to-day life, larger forces were always at work.
Conflict took the more mundane form of
battles fought for material gain and prestige. And, as often
as Muslim and Christian leaders fought against each other,
they fought against rivals who were their co-religionists.
For much of Medieval Spain's history, leaders also
were more concerned with maintaining economic and military
power -- just as other rulers worldwide -- than on the
rhetoric of crusade and jihad.
The following key battles involving Muslim and Christian
forces in Al-Andalus reveal the complexity of military
affairs. Each encounter represents a unique moment in the
history of Al-Andalus, leading ultimately to its demise.
Battle of Zallaqa/Sagrajas
Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa
Battle of the Rio Salado
Guadalete (July 19, 711)
battle took place close to the Guadalete River near the
southern coast of the Iberian peninsula, between Muslim and
Visigothic forces. An Arab and Amazigh (Berber) Muslim army of
7,000-10,000 soldiers crossed to Spain -- “the land of the
Vandals” or Andalus as they called it -- from North Africa.
The Amazighs (Berbers) possibly received the help of the governor of
Ceuta, Count Julian. He confirmed that the peninsula offered
numerous riches. The forces landed near a large mountain. It
was later named Gibraltar (jabal Tariq, or Tariq’s mountain)
in homage to the army commander, Tariq ibn Ziyad.
According to one account, Tariq burned the ships used for
the crossing and stirred his troops with the words: “O
People! There is nowhere to run away! The sea is behind you,
and the enemy is before you. I swear to God, you have only
sincerity and patience.”
Roderic was a Visigothic nobleman recently chosen as king.
He had been fighting Basques in the north. Upon hearing of
the new threat in the south, he rushed to meet the Muslims.
His army is said to have been nearly 10 times larger than
the Muslim forces. However, exhaustion from the long march
and treachery on the part of other Visigothic rivals led to
With the routing of the Visigothic army -- including many
prominent nobles -- the Muslim forces continued northward
unhindered. They established garrisons in major cities and
conquered many regions. Within a few years, virtually the
entire peninsula came under Muslim rule.
The Visigothic kingdom came to an abrupt end. However, a local Asturian strong man named Pelayo fled to the extreme north beyond the reach of
Muslim armies. (See below.) There, he founded the Kingdom of Asturias.
In subsequent centuries, Asturias was regarded as the origin point for
Covadonga (summer of 722)
years after the Muslim conquest of Iberia, a local Asturian strong man named Pelayo fled to the extreme north of the
peninsula. There, he established the Kingdom of Asturias.
The Umayyad rulers based in Córdoba were unable to extend
their power into Frankish territory. So, they decided to
consolidate their power in Iberia. Meanwhile, Muslim forces
made periodic incursions into Asturias.
In the late summer of 722, a Muslim army overran much of
Pelayo's territory, forcing him to retreat deep into the
mountains. Pelayo and 300 men retired into a narrow valley
at Covadonga. There, they could defend against a broad
frontal attack. Pelayo’s forces routed the Muslim army,
inspiring local villagers to take up arms, as well. Despite
further attempts, the Muslims were unable to conquer
Pelayo's mountainous stronghold. Pelayo's victory at
Covadonga is hailed by some as the first stage of the
Battle of Tours/Poitiers (October 10, 732)
This encounter took place near the border between the
Frankish realm and the independent region of Aquitaine.
Frankish and Burgundian forces -- under Mayor of the Palace
Charles Martel's command -- fought against an Umayyad army
led by al-Ghafiqi, the governor of Al-Andalus.
the preceding decades, the Muslims had conquered Iberia.
They were making tentative expeditions in southern France.
They were pushing the limits of their expansion far from the
regional capital of Córdoba . At the battle, Martel's forces
defeated Al-Ghafiqi’s contingent. It included about 70
Muslim families unprepared for warfare.
The battle's location is described in Arabic historical
works as “The Plain of the Martyrs.” Historians give little
attention to the engagement itself as a minor skirmish.
However, European chroniclers increasingly began to praise
Charles Martel as the champion of Christianity.
What's more, 18th and 19th century historians came to
characterize this battle as a decisive turning point in the
struggle against Islam. Modern historians are divided as to
whether the victory should be considered a landmark event
that saved Christianity and halted the conquest of Europe by
Battle of Roncesvalles (August 15, 778)
is situated in the Spanish region of Navarre, close to the
French border in the Pyrenees Mountains. The army of the
Frankish king, Charlemagne, had entered northern Spain. He
hoped to extend his empire’s boundaries into Iberia,
capturing Barcelona and Pamplona.
Frankish commander Roland and his troops -- comprising the
army’s rear guard -- were returning to France across the
Pyrenees. Suddenly, local Basque Christian tribes attacked
Roland and his army unexpectedly. Though poorly equipped,
these tribes knew their terrain well and defeated Roland’s
forces at the Pass of Roncesvalles in 778.
The famous Song of Roland, dated about 1100, immortalizes
his valor. It is the earliest existing French epic poem
(chanson de geste). However, the poem relates that a Muslim
(Saracen) army of 400,000 attacked Roland and the rear
guard. Roland could not repeal the onslaught. His comrade
urged him to summon aid from Charlemagne by sounding his
horn, but it was too late. Handed down by oral tradition,
this minor battle was romanticized into a major conflict
between Christians and Muslims.
Battle of Zallaqa/Sagrajas (October 23, 1086)
May 25, 1085, Alfonso VI of Castile took Toledo. He
established direct personal control over the Muslim city
from which he had been exacting tribute. This turn of events
alarmed the rulers of other petty kingdoms. They began to
realize their own disunity had strengthened Christian states
in the north.
In order to counterhalt the Christian advance, the Muslims
needed assistance from determined and capable warriors.
Three of the petty kings, including al-Mu'tamid of Seville,
decided to invite Almoravid leader Yusuf ibn Tashufin. He
was the head of a new religious and political movement in North Africa.
They agreed to have him come to Andalus and help them fight
the Christians. Afterwards, they expected him to return to
his capital at Marrakesh.
Ibn Tashfin agreed to help the Andalusians. He crossed over
to Iberia with 7,000 warriors. He marched north to al-Zallaqa.
There, the petty kings' forces joined his troop. By then,
the Muslim army reached 30,000 soldiers.
Alfonso VI of Castile arrived at the battleground with his large army. Using a variety of tactics, the Muslim
forces were able to defeat the Christians. The casualties of
Alfonso's troops were tremendous: only 100 knights returned
to Castile, including Alfonso himself.
Following the battle, Ibn Tashufin kept his word and
returned to North Africa, only to be called back again to
help hamper renewed threats. His return led to Andalus'
inclusion in the Amazigh (Berber) Almoravid Empire.
Battle of Alarcos (July 18, 1195)
Almohads were a Amazigh (Berber) religious and political reform group founded by Ibn
Tumart. They came to power in North Africa in the mid-12th
Ibn Tumart's disciple, Abd al-Mu'min, led the Almohads in
conquering Marrakesh and overthrowing the Almoravids. In
1149, the Almohads replaced Almoravid rule in Al-Andalus.
King Alfonso VIII of Castile decided to attack the region of
Seville. He had the support of the military Order of
Calatrava. The attack ravaged the province, taking much war
Almohad ruler Abu Yusuf Ya'qub al-Mansur crossed to Spain to
lead a retaliatory expedition against the Christians. Local
governors and a small Christian cavalry under Pedro
Fernández de Castro, who opposed Alfonso, raised the troops
that reinforced Al-Mansur.
The two sides met at Alarcos (al-Arak in Arabic), near the
Guadiana River. Al-Mansur's army severely outnumbered
Alfonso's troops. But, Alfonso entered battle rather than
retreating and waiting for reinforcements. The Almohads were
victorious, although there were significant casualties on
The battle's outcome threatened the Kingdom of Castile's
stability for some time. The Christians abandoned or
surrendered all nearby castles.
Abu Yusuf settled in Seville to consolidate Muslim holdings,
rather than attempt conquests northward. He took the title
of al-Mansur Billah ("Victorious by the Grace of God"). He
initiated the construction of the Great Mosque of Seville,
including the massive minaret (later known as the Giralda).
In 1198, he returned to North Africa. After Al-Mansur's
death in February 1199, the Almohad Empire began to falter.
The empire's decline opened the way for renewed Christian
expansion into southern Spain.
Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (July 16, 1212)
their victory at Alarcos, the Almohads conquered such key
cities as Trujillo, Plasencia, Talavera, Cuenca, and Uclés.
They also took a stronghold of the Calatrava Knights.
The Almohad threat prompted Pope Innocent III to call for a
crusade in Iberia. The Pope convinced King Alfonso VIII of
Castile and his Christian rivals -- Sancho VII of Navarre,
Afonso II of Portugal, and Peter II of Aragon -- to set
aside any enmity and join forces against the Muslim south.
Almohad ruler Muhammad al-Nasir brought together troops from
his extensive North African domains and Al-Andalus. They
engaged the Christian coalition at Las Navas de Tolosa. The
battle took place near a pass separating southern Spain from
the central meseta.
Alfonso's forces caught the Muslim army by surprise. The
Muslims suffered a great many casualties. Al-Nasir escaped and
returned to Marrakesh, where he died soon afterward.
The Muslim forces were unable to recover from this defeat,
called al-Uqab in Arabic (“the great tragedy”). As a result, Andalusi cities such as Jaén, Córdoba , Seville, Jerez, and
others were exposed to Christian attack in the mid-13th
Battle of the Rio Salado (October 30, 1340)
Alfonso XI of Castile and King Afonso IV of Portugal joined
forces to resist the combined army of Nasrid ruler Yusuf I
of Granada and Marinid ruler Abu al-Hasan Ali from North
The Granadan rulers allied with the Marinid Dynasty in Fes,
because they were not strong enough on their own to engage
the Christian states.
The Nasrid-Marinid alliance represented an effort to reclaim
lost territories in southern Spain. There, substantial
numbers of Muslims still lived as Mudejars in communities
under Christian rule. But the Granadans were wary not to
allow the Marinids too much influence in the shrinking
territory of Al-Andalus.
The battle took place near the River Salado. There, the
Christians decisively defeated the Marinids, who made up the
bulk of the forces. The Marinids then returned to North
Subsequently, Alfonso XI's son, Pedro of Castile, maintained
cordial relations with the Nasrids of Granada. He admired
their courtly culture so much that he called craftsman from
Granada to upgrade the Alcázar of Seville in the style of
the Alhambra palace.
Conquest of Granada (January 2, 1492)
I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon married in
1469. Their marriage instituted a
policy of extending the Catholic faith throughout the
The Kingdom of Granada remained as the sole Muslim domain in
Spain. Yet, it no longer thrived as it once did. Thus, it
was less probable to offer tribute to the Christians in lieu
The Catholic Monarchs amassed their armies on the plains
west of Granada at a place they named Santa Fe. The
Granadans contemplated a course of action. The elders of
Granada signed a treaty of surrender, with a promise from
the Christians to be granted freedom of religion and
The twenty-third and final Nasrid ruler, Abu Abd Allah
(Boabdil), delivered the city into the hands of Ferdinand
and Isabella to end the city's siege. The Catholic Monarchs
hoisted their banner from atop the Alhambra's citadel,
proclaiming their victory.
is often depicted that Boabdil and his entourage headed into exile,
glancing wistfully back upon the once shining city that his dynasty had
ruled for 250 years. However, Boabdil accepted his new status as King
of the Alpujjaras. About a year later, he decided to abandon his people and go
Revolt of the
policies of Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros increasingly
pressured Granada's Muslim population -- initially Mudejars -- to convert to Christianity. As new Christians,
they were called Moriscos (or "Moroccan-like").
The Hapsburg ruler of Spain, Philip II (son of Charles V),
introduced laws prohibiting the practice of Muslim religion
and customs to accelerate conversion. However, many Moriscos
continued to practice Islam in secret. They began organizing
opposition to the restrictive policies.
In 1568, the Moriscos rallied under the leadership of Ibn
Humeya. They initiated a guerrilla war against Spanish
authorities. This uprising took place in the Alpujarra
Mountains south of Granada. Castilian troops -- led by
Philip's half-brother Don Juan de Austria suppressed the
revolt -- ending it in 1571.
Conflicts between Moriscos and Christians continued. As a
result, in 1609, Philip III issued a decree of expulsion of
the Moriscos. Similarly, in 1492, the Catholic
monarchs' decree of expulsion forced the Jews to seek a more