Almoravids in Al-Andalus. 11th Century.

The Arrival of the Almoravids: Background causes.
The collapse and fragmentation of the caliphate of Córdoba in 1031 resulted in the appearance of numerous small emirates known as the kingdoms of taifa.

Politically weak, and regularly at odds with each other, the taifa kingdoms also faced constant pressure from their stronger Christian neighbours to the north.  To counter threats of attack, they formed alliances wherever they could, including with various Christian kingdoms, to which they paid large tributes (parias) for protection.

The situation, however, was unsustainable in the long term, and in 1085 the taifa of Toledo fell to Alfonso VI (ruled 1065-1109), ruler of the most powerful Christian kingdom, Castile-León. The conquest was significant. For the Christians it fulfilled a long held dream to win back the ancient Christian capital of the Visigoths; for the Moors it was a wake-up call, and a crushing reminder of how vulnerable they were. And for both sides, the geographical location of Toledo in the very centre of the Iberian Peninsula made the city strategically very important.

The reaction of the taifa leaders of Seville, Badajoz and Granada was to call on fellow Muslims from the Maghreb for help. However, it was not an easy choice, because Muslim leaders in al-Andalus were well aware that a new, fundamentalist and aggressive dynasty, the Almoravids, had taken control of the Maghreb. And al-Mu’tamid, the ruler of Seville and the one who issued the appeal to the Almoravids, knew something about their fanatical asceticism, having helped them conquer the coastal town of Ceuta (on the African side of the Straits of Gibraltar) in 1083. 

The dilemma in which the rival taifa leaders found themselves in is neatly encapsulated in the celebrated remark al-Mu’tamid’s is reported to have said: “Better to be a camel driver among the Almoravids  than a swineherd in Castile.

The Almoravids.
Inspired by the religious teachings of Muslim revivalists, the Almoravids**, a Berber tribe from the Western Sahara, quickly crossed the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and by the early 1060s had established themselves in their newly founded capital, Marrakesh.

** From al-Murabitun, people from the “ribat,” a military, religious community. Not all agree with this etymology, however.

Fundamentalists who took the words of the Qur’an literally, the Almoravids preached uncompromising jihad, both in the sense of self-reform and imposing religious reform through war, as they spread northwards. Within 25 years they had conquered all of Morocco and reached the shores of the Mediterranean.

Almoravid empire about 1120. At that time Valencia (arrow pointing north east from Cordoba) was in Almoravid hands. It had been conquered by El Cid in 1094; in 1102 it was recaptured by the Almoravids.

The Almoravids in Spain.
Al-Mu’tamid’s appeal in 1086 came at a timely moment of expansionism, but the Almoravid leader, Yusuf bin Tashufin, was finally persuaded only when Andalusi theologians got into the act, and the taifa leaders agreed to pay his expenses and provide him with soldiers from their own armies.

Under the leadership of Yusuf, the Almoravids defeated the army of Alfonso VI at Zallaqa (Sagrajas), just north east of Badajoz, in 1086. The Christian threat seemed to have been answered, and Yusuf returned to Morocco after the battle.

But Christian ravaging of the taifas continued, especially in the east, and another appeal was made to Yusuf in 1090. This time, however, Yusuf came not to help the taifa rulers but to conquer their kingdoms and convert al-Andalus into a part of the Almoravid empire. 

The reaction of the taifa leaders was to reverse alliances: they now sought a help from none other than Alfonso VI (a perfectly normal recourse given the regular switching of alliances they were already accustomed to)!  Alfonso, however, was in no position to help, and both al-Mu’tamid and the Abd Allah of Granada ended up in exile in Morocco.

One by one the taifa kingdoms fell to the Almoravids, ending with the conquest of Zaragoza in 1110.  Almoravid control of the taifa of Zaragoza was short lived, however; in 1118 it was conquered by Alfonso the “Fighter,” king of Aragón and was never to return to Muslim hands.

The Almoravids also failed to win back Toledo, a major objective in their move northwards. However, they did get some compensation in reclaiming Valencia** in 1102, eight years after it had been taken by Castile’s most famous son, Rodrigo de Vivar, better known as El Cid.

**Valencia remained in Muslim hands
until it was finally reconquered in 1238).

Islamic Spain was once again a unified, as it had been in the 10th century under Abd ar-Rahman III and al-Mansur. But there were significant differences: al-Andalus was no longer the dominant force as it had been in the 10th century, raiding Christian lands at will, nor was it as large as it had been during that period.  Above all, and it was no longer independent; it was in effect a colony ruled from Marrakesh.

Yusuf and his descendants had little time for the Muslims of al-Andalus, who –despite political uncertainties— enjoyed a pleasure-loving and culturally sophisticated life, highlighted by sumptuous palaces (e.g. the Aljafería of Zaragoza) and by the poetry cultivated in their courts.

For their part, most Andalusis objected to the heavy handed puritanism of the Almoravids, even to the point of rising up against them from time to time. Only the Andalusi religious leaders welcomed Almoravid intervention.  To the Almoravids, Muslim Spain had lost its religious commitment; to the Andalusis their austere conquerors were little more than uncouth, desert barbarians

The Almoravids also disapproved strongly the subservience of their co-religionists to Christians, and particularly opposed the payment of tributes (parias) to non-Muslims, which was prohibited by Islamic law (the Shari’ah), and were appalled at the positions of authority enjoyed by Christians and Jews in Andalusi society. Attitudes hardened, hostility increased and persecution became widespread, obliging many Christian and Jews to emigrate to the Christian north.

Christian Reaction to the Almoravids.
In the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, anti-Islamic feelings increased in the face of Almoravid aggression and intolerance; they were exacerbated, too, by the disappearance of the lucrative parias, which were cut off when the Almoravids took over the taifas.

The impact of the loss of tributes was felt even beyond the Pyrenees: the abbey of Cluny, in France, e.g. had received a generous yearly sum equivalent to 120 ounces of gold which flowed from al-Andalus via Castile-León.

Buttressing the anti-Islamic sentiment, too, was a new kind of undertaking launched in Clermont, France, by Pope Urban II in 1095: a call to Christians to undertake an “armed pilgrimage” to the Holy Land to take back Jerusalem, held by Muslims since 638.

The age of the Crusades was just taking off, and France was at the head.  In Spain, the crusading spirit was generally muted but the loss of parias, the jihadist spirit of the Almoravids and the defeat of Alfonso VI’s armies at Zallaqa (Sagrajas) underlined the dangers posed by the Almoravids. Alfonso VI responded to Almoravid aggression by appealing to the French for military aid. 

Another Alfonso, Alfonso I of Aragón (ruled 1104-34), did likewise and French knights and monks crossed the Pyrenees spurred by promises of remission of sins and enticed by dreams of booty. Some had already fought in the Middle East and, after the capture of Jerusalem by the Christians in 1099, transferred their crusading zeal to help rid Spain of the “infidels” or “pagans” or “heathens,” as the Muslims were called.

The Spanish Christian kingdoms had close relationship with the Abbey of Cluny, one of the most powerful forces behind the crusades: e.g. 1) one of Alfonso VI’s wives was the niece of the Abbot of Cluny; 2) the first archbishop of the reconquered Toledo (1085) was Bernard, a monk from Cluny; 3) Bernard was accompanied by numerous like-minded clergy who took charge of many dioceses in Castile; 4) the Cluniacs were instrumental in propagating the cult of St James and in establishing the pilgrim route along the north of Spain; and 5) Pope Urban who preached the First Crusade in 1095 was a French noble and originally a monk at Cluny.

The intervention of the French was instrumental in sparking the crusading spirit in Spain, and gave impetus to the always latent idea amongst the Christians of reconquering the land lost to the Moors. Hence the gradual but steady reconquista by the Christian kingdoms, until by the end of the 11th century, they had expanded as far south as Toledo.

But the crusading zeal in Spain was also tempered by a complex relationship with the Moors, developed over centuries. Both sides had lived alongside, often uneasily but at times in relative harmony. Religion may have divided them, but religion was more often trumped by politics and self-preservation.

At different times, Christians and Moorish leaders sought each other’s help against their co-religionists, and mercenaries from each side were commonplace.  (The best know example is the Cid, legendary “Spanish” national hero –or more accurately Castilian hero. He was in reality a mercenary.).

It was this kind of accommodation with the Moors that confounded the French, who often expressed dismay at what they considered the generosity with which the Christians treated the Moors.  The unknown author of the Poem of the Cid captures something of this: the Cid and his men are more interested in the spoils of conquest; Bishop Jerome –significantly from Cluny—is an enthusiastic crusader come specifically to kill the Moors.

Almoravid control of al-Andalus did not last long. There are several contributing factors that explain its rapid demise: 1) Almoravid control of al-Andalus was always precarious, and their fanaticism did little to endear them to the more pleasure-loving Andalusi society; 2)  the Andalusis were appalled at the use of Christian mercenaries to help the Almoravids control al-Andalus; 3) there was strong opposition by the Andalusis to the taxes imposed on them in order to pay for the mercenaries; 4) mountain Berbers brought in to help reinforce control were viewed as no more than barbarian looters; 5) the Andalusis resented being ruled from Marrakesh; 6) Almoravid leadership became ineffective as the elite gave itself up to the pleasure loving life of al-Andalus; 7) the death of the Almoravid leader in Marrakesh in 1143 resulted in a loss of direction and a reversion to tribal rivalries; and finally, 8) the emergence of a rival dynasty in Morocco, the Almohads, challenged and eventually put an end to Almoravid rule.

By around 1145, al-Andalus was again disunited and drifting into fractious statelets (taifas). Faced with Muslim disunity, Christian forces were able to advance well into the south, even taking Córdoba (temporarily) in 1146 and reaching Almería by the following year. To the west, an Almoravid army was soundly beaten in 1139 by young prince Afonso** of the county of Portugal.

 **A few years later, Afonso assumed the title
of king of Portugal, and in 1143 he was recognised
as such by Alfonso VII of Castile-León.)

The future of al-Andalus was distinctly cloudy, but another invasion by yet a more fundamentalist dynasty, the Almohads, gave it renewed vigour.

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Fletcher, Richards  Moorish Spain  London 1992
Lomax, Derek  La Reconquista Barcelona 1984
Lowney, Chris A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain  Oxford 2006
Menocal, María Rosa The Ornament of the World Boston, New York, London 2002
Map from