Almohads in Al-Andalus. 12th Century.

The Almohads: Background.
After the dramatic and violent collapse of the caliphate of Cordoba (1031)al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) fragmented into several small independent statelets known as the kingdoms of taifa

Politically weak and constantly at odds with each other, the taifa kings were unable to prevent Christian advances from the north notwithstanding the various alliances made with their Christian neighbours and the protection offered them by the latter.

Following the conquest of the taifa of Toledo by Alfonso VI, king of Castile-León, in 1085, and fearing further loss to the Christians, the leaders of the taifas of Seville, Badajoz and Granada appealed for help from a newly formed, fundamentalist dynasty in the Maghreb (North West Africa): the Almoravids.

The Almoravids, however, dismayed by the pleasure-loving life styles of their co-religionists in al-Andalus, took over the taifas and subjugated them to rule from their capital, Marrakesh. Dissatisfaction with their new rulers lead to uprisings in various parts of al-Andalus, and weakened Muslim ability to resist Christian forays into their lands, as far south even as Córdoba and the port of Almeria. 

But the most telling setback for the Almoravids occurred in the west, in 1139, at the hands of Afonso, prince of the “county” of Portugal. Afonso’s victory over the Almoravids laid the foundation for the birth of a new monarchy, Portugal, in 1143. By now, al-Andalus had again collapsed into independent statelets, and again there was an appeal made to the Maghreb for help, this time from an even more fundamentalist dynasty which had replaced the Almoravids: the Almohads.

Al-Andalus: The Almohads 1145-1212
Was history repeating itself? In a way, yes, because at the beginning of the 12th century a new religious revival took root in the Maghreb to challenge weakening Almoravid rule.

And members of this fundamentalist movement, known as Almohads, or Unitarians, were invited to al-Andalus for roughly the same reasons the Almoravids had been invited: to oppose Christian advances and to counter the pleasure-loving life style to which the Almoravids had  succumbed.

Almohad empire ca 1200.

The Almohads arrived in 1145 and set in motion once more a process of reunification of what remained of al-Andalus, although there was strong opposition from the Valencia and Murcia areas, where one individual succeeded in carving out a kingdom for himself from about 1149 until his death in 1172.  His name was Muhammad ibn Sa’d, better known by his Christian name of El Rey Lobo (King Wolf).

Lobo hated the Almohads more than he hated the Christians, and although a Muslim he wasted no opportunity to ally himself with any Christian ruler, often paying tributes, as the rulers of the kingdoms of taifa had done. He spoke both Arabic and the Spanish of the time, wore Christian clothes, often used Christian soldiers alongside his Muslim troops, and even encouraged Christians to settle in the lands he controlled.

Given the opposition they found in al-Andalus, the Almohads elevated Seville to the status of co-capital with Marrakesh. This fulfilled two functions: 1) it placed decision makers closer to the action, and 2) it averted Andalusi fears that al-Andalus would again be just a province ruled from Morocco,

Like their predecessors, the Almohads disapproved of the life-style of the Andalusis, and following a stricter and more orthodox interpretation of the Qur’an, they were more militant in rejecting material pleasures. They were also more jihadist and far more intolerant of Christians and Jews, and demanded conversion to Islam as the price for remaining in al-Andalus. Predictably many Christians and Jews abandoned al-Andalus for the Christian kingdoms to the north.

Christian Reaction to the Almohads
The high point of Almohad dominance came in 1195 with the resounding defeat of Alfonso VIII of Castile at Alarcos (about mid-way between Madrid and Granada). Sweet as victory was for the Almohads, the defeat hardened Alfonso’s resolve to rid Spain of them.

But there was a major obstacle: Castile alone was not strong enough to defeat the Almohads, but territorial disputes, mutual suspicion and hostilities between the five kingdoms that made up Christian Iberia at the time (Castile, León, Navarre, Portugal and Aragón) constantly undermined any notion of Christian unity.

This was particularly the case between Castile, León and Navarre. Indeed, following the Battle of Alarcos, the kings of León and Navarre exploited Castile’s misfortune, attacking Castilian lands to avenge themselves of perceived affronts suffered at the hands of their more powerful neighbour! Even personal slights could cause defection. There is a well-documented case of a leading Castilian noble, Pedro Fernández de Castro, who fought for the Almohads in the battle of Alarcos following a quarrel with Alfonso VIII.

Where, then, could Alfonso VIII look for support? Like his predecessor, Alfonso VI (who had appealed for help from the French against the Almoravids), Alfonso looked beyond the Pyrenees. Here the main moving force was the aged pope, Celestine III. In 1197 Celestine issued a call for a crusade in Spain, a call that was reiterated by his successor, Innocent III in 1206.  Celestine also threatened Christian leaders with excommunication and pressured them to mend fences (one result of such pressure was the marriage of the Leonese king –Alfonso IX– to the Castilian princess, Berenguela in 1197).

Papal eagerness in declaring a crusade in Spain was spurred by the recent loss, in 1187, of Jerusalem to the Muslim forces of Saladin, and the failure of the Third and Fourth Crusades (1189-2; 1202-04) to recover the city. Defeat at one end of the Mediterranean had to be compensated by victory at the other end.

Religious Orders.
The increasing crusading spirit in the Christian kingdoms of Spain during the 12th century changed the nature of the Reconquista, which had been hitherto primarily a political power struggle with little ideological content.

A significant indicator of the change from political to ideological warfare is the appearance of military religious orders. These monks of war were not only knights, they had also taken the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. With no political axe to grind initially and a mission to defend Christianity against Islam, they were viewed as the ideal embodiment of the crusading spirit.

The most famous Christian military order was that of the Knights Templar (founded in Jerusalem around 1119), whose main mission was to fight to defend the Holy City. The Templars also received endowments in Spain, especially in Aragón, but they were soon replaced in importance by the proliferation of religious brotherhoods in Spain. Of these confraternities, the most important were the Orders of Calatrava (founded in 1158), Alcántara (1165) and Santiago (1170).

There is no basis to the commonly held belief that the Order of Santiago was created to protect the pilgrim route to the city of Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia. There had been no Moorish raids on the route for over 150 years. The Order was actually founded in Cáceres (Extremadura) and was so called because a group of knights established a brotherhood there which received a donation from the archbishop of Santiago as well as a standard of the saint. The archbishop was also made an honorary member of the Order. Interestingly, the Order’s motto reads: Rubet ensis sanguine Arabum: “The sword runs red with the blood of the Arab.” I.e. Like the other Orders, that of Santiago was created to fight in defence of the Church, but not specifically to protect the pilgrim road to Santiago.

These religious knights played a fundamental role in resisting the onslaughts of the Almohads and defending the frontier for Christendom.  As a result, they were rewarded with lands and castles, especially in Castile and Extremadura.  These rewards were a source of immense wealth that eventually translated into economic and political power as the crusading zeal gradually faded and al-Andalus contracted dramatically in the 13th century.

Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) and its Consequences.
In response to the papal call for a crusade, soldiers came from France, Italy, Aragón and Navarre to help the Castilians. The kings of Portugal and León were embroiled in a dispute and did not officially participate, although many of their subjects did answer the crusading call.

History records a great victory for the Christians, although significantly most of the French contingent withdrew before the battle, ostensibly because of the extreme heat! A more likely cause, however, is that it became evident that the Spanish leaders –in skirmishes en route– discouraged the slaughter of the enemy.

For the French, such toleration was disgraceful, but long term contact with the Moors gave the Spanish Christians a different perspective. (For an excellent description of preparations for the campaign, the location, and the battle itself, see O’Shea pages 212-27.)

Almohad al-Andalus just before the Battle of the Navas de Tolosa 1212.

Having obtained a foothold south of a major geographical barrier, the Sierra Morena, the Christians now faced no immediate major natural obstacle to their advance. Ahead of them was the extensive Guadalquivir valley. Al-Andalus was suddenly exposed and Christian morale was high.

Within 40 years the political-religious face of the peninsula changed completely, although not without resistance. Castile-León, united once and for all in 1230 in the figure of Ferdinand III, took Córdoba in June 1236. The city fell after a brief siege, and the Great Mosque was immediately “cleansed” and mass held in it, with the king in attendance. Shortly after, the bells that al-Mansur had removed from Santiago de Compostela in 997 and converted into lanterns for the mosque were returned north with all due ceremony.

Valencia fell to the Aragonese in 1238, and the Algarve to the Portuguese in the 1240s (Portugal has remained essentially unchanged from this time). In 1243 Murcia was taken by the Castilians, and five years later, Ferdinand III entered triumphantly into Seville.

Only the kingdom of Granada now remained, but that remained in Muslim hands for almost 250 more years. The final irony in this stage of the Reconquest, but not surprising given shifting alliances, is that Ferdinand III was helped in his conquest of both Córdoba and Seville by … Muslim troops from Granada! Once again, a matter of politics trumping religion.

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Hindley, Geoffrey  The Crusades: Islam and Christianity in the Struggle for World Supremacy  London 2003
Lomax, Derek The Reconquest of Spain  London & New York 1978
Lowney, Chris A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain Oxford 2006
O’Shea, Stephen  Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World  Vancouver, Toronto 2006
Smith, Colin  Christians and Moors in Spain, II, 1195-1614  Warminster, England 1989.