One holdout, King Pelagius of Asturia, drew supporters and won the Battle of Covadonga, 1,300 years ago. The Iberian Peninsula was never the same.
Editor’s note: The following account is excerpted and adapted from the author’s new book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West.
Exactly 1,300 years ago, in the year 718, a little-remembered kingdom was born in Spain. It soon led to the liberation of the Iberian Peninsula from Islamic occupation. To appreciate the significance of that development, we must travel back seven years earlier, to 711, when Arabs and Africans, both under the banner of Islam, “godlessly invaded Spain to destroy it,” to quote from the Chronicle of 754. Once on European soil, they “ruined beautiful cities, burning them with fire; condemned lords and powerful men to the cross; and butchered youths and infants with the sword.”
After meeting and beating Spain’s Visigothic nobles at the pivotal Battle of Guadalete — “never was there in the West a more bloody battle than this,” wrote the Muslim chronicler al-Hakam, “for the Muslims did not withdraw their scimitars from them [Christians] for three days” — the invaders continued to penetrate northward into Spain, “not passing a place without reducing it, and getting possession of its wealth, for Allah Almighty had struck with terror the hearts of the infidels.”
Such terrorism was intentionally cultivated, in keeping with the Koran (3:151, 8:12, etc.). For instance, the invaders slaughtered, cooked, and pretended to eat Christian captives, while releasing others who, horrified, fled and “informed the people of Andalus [Spain] that the Muslims feed on human flesh,” thereby “contributing in no small degree to increase the panic of the infidels,” wrote al-Maqqari, another Muslim chronicler.
Contrary to the claim that Spain capitulated easily, that it reasoned that Muslim rule was no worse and possibly more lenient than that of the Visigoths, even Muslim chroniclers note how “the Christians defended themselves with the utmost vigor and resolution, and great was the havoc that they made in the ranks of the faithful.” In Córdoba, for example, a number of leading Visigoths and their people holed themselves up in a church. Although “the besieged had no hopes of deliverance, they were so obstinate that when safety was offered to them on condition either of embracing Islam, or paying jizya, they refused to surrender, and the church being set on fire, they all perished in the flames,” wrote al-Maqqari, adding that the ruins of this church became a place of “great veneration” for later generations of Spaniards because “of the courage and endurance displayed in the cause of their religion by the people who died in it.”
In the end, native Spaniards had two choices: acquiesce to Muslim rule or “flee to the mountains, where they risked hunger and various forms of death,” according to an early Christian chronicler.
Pelagius, better known as Pelayo (685–737), a relative of and “sword-bearer” to King Roderick, who survived Guadalete, followed both strategies. After the battle, he retreated north, where Muslim rule was still tenuous, but eventually consented to become a vassal of Munnuza, a local Muslim chief. Through some “stratagem,” Munnuza “married” Pelayo’s sister — a matter that the sword-bearer “by no means consented to,” according to the Chronicle of Alfonso III. Having expressed displeasure at the seizure of his sister, and having ceased paying jizya (tribute), Muslims were sent “to apprehend him treacherously” and bring him back “bound in chains.” Unable to fight the oncoming throng of Arabs and Africans “because they were so numerous,” Pelayo “climbed a mountain” and “joined himself to as many people as he found hastening to assemble.”
There, in the deepest recesses of the Asturian mountains — the only free spot left in the Iberian Peninsula — the assembled Christian fugitives declared Pelayo to be their new king. Thus the Kingdom of Asturias was born in 718.
In the Chronicle of Alfonso III, we have possibly the oldest record of the two sorts of Christians that developed under Muslim-occupied Spain: those who defied Islam and fled to the Asturian wilds, and those who accepted their lot and maneuvered within the system as subjugated dhimmis.
“Hearing this, the king [the Muslim governor of Córdoba], moved by an insane fury, ordered a very large army from all over Spain to go forth” and bring the infidel rebels to heel. The invaders — 180,000 of them, if the chroniclers are to be believed — surrounded Pelayo’s mountain. They sent Oppa, a bishop or nobleman who had acquiesced to Muslim rule, to reason with him at the mouth of a deep cavern: “If when the entire army of the Goths was assembled, it was unable to sustain the attack of the Ishmaelites [at Guadalete], how much better will you be able to defend yourself on this mountaintop? To me it seems difficult. Rather, heed my warning and recall your soul from this decision, so that you may take advantage of many good things and enjoy the partnership of the Chaldeans [Arabs].”
“I will not associate with the Arabs in friendship nor will I submit to their authority,” Pelayo responded. Then the rebel made a prophecy that would be fulfilled over the course of nearly eight centuries: “Have you not read in the divine scriptures [e.g., Mark 4:30-21] that the church of God is compared to a mustard seed and that it will be raised up again through divine mercy?”
Oppa affirmed that it was so. The fugitive continued: “Christ is our hope that through this little mountain, which you see, the well-being of Spain and the army of the Gothic people will be restored. . . . Now, therefore, trusting in the mercy of Jesus Christ, I despise this multitude and am not afraid of it. As for the battle with which you threaten us, we have for ourselves an advocate in the presence of the Father, that is, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is capable of liberating us from these few.” (Here, in the Chronicle of Alfonso III, we have possibly the oldest record of the two sorts of Christians that developed under Muslim-occupied Spain: those who defied Islam and fled to the Asturian wilds, and those who accepted their lot and maneuvered within the system as subjugated dhimmis — and grumbled against their northern coreligionists for bringing Islam’s ire against them. The two will meet and compete again in centuries to come.)
There, at Covadonga — meaning “Cavern of the Lady” — battle commenced in the summer of 722. A shower of rocks rained down on the Muslims in the narrow passes, where their numbers counted for nothing and only caused confusion. Afterward, Pelayo and his band of rebels rushed forth from their caves and hiding places and made great slaughter among them; those who fled the carnage were tracked and mowed down by other, now emboldened, mountaineers. “A decisive blow was dealt at the Moorish power,” a 19th-century historian wrote. “The advancing tide of conquest was stemmed. The Spaniards gathered heart and hope in their darkest hour; and the dream of Moslem invincibility was broken.”
According to Reconquista historian Joseph O’Callaghan, “Covadonga became the symbol of Christian resistance to Islam and a source of inspiration to those who, in words attributed to Pelayo, would achieve the salus Spanie, the salvation of Spain.”
Several subsequent Muslim attempts, including three major campaigns, were made to conquer the Asturian kingdom, and the “Christians of the North scarcely knew the meaning of repose, security, or any of the amenities of life,” historian Louis Bertrand observed. Constant jihad raids created a wild frontier zone roughly along the Duero River; this became “a territory where one [a Muslim] fights for the faith,” one medieval Muslim wrote. As the great Ibn Khaldun affirmed, every Muslim ruler of Andalusia was obligated “to wage the jihad himself and with his armies at least once a year.”
The Muslims intentionally devastated the region — they later dubbed it “the Great Desert” — between them and Asturias. Bertrand elaborates:
To keep the [northern] Christians in their place it did not suffice to surround them with a zone of famine and destruction. It was necessary also to go and sow terror and massacre among them. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, an army sallied forth from Córdoba to go and raid the Christians, destroy their villages, their fortified posts, their monasteries and their churches, except when it was a question of expeditions of larger scope, involving sieges and pitched battles. In cases of simply punitive expeditions, the soldiers of the Caliph confined themselves to destroying harvests and cutting down trees. . . . If one bears in mind that this brigandage was almost continual, and that this fury of destruction and extermination was regarded as a work of piety — it was a holy war against infidels — it is not surprising that whole regions of Spain should have been made irremediably sterile. This was one of the capital causes of the deforestation from which the Peninsula still suffers. With what savage satisfaction and in what pious accents do the Arab annalists tell us of those at least biennial raids. A typical phrase for praising the devotion of a Caliph is this: “He penetrated into Christian territory, where he wrought devastation, devoted himself to pillage, and took prisoners.” . . . At the same time as they were devastated, whole regions were depopulated. . . . The prolonged presence of the Muslims, therefore, was a calamity for this unhappy country of Spain. By their system of continual raids they kept her for centuries in a condition of brigandage and devastation.
Even so, the mustard seed would not perish. “A vital spark was still alive,” Edward Gibbon wrote; “some invincible fugitives preferred a life of poverty and freedom in the Asturian valleys; the hardy mountaineers repulsed the slaves of the caliph.” Moreover, “all who were dissatisfied with Moorish dominion, all who clung to the hope of a Christian revival, all who detested Mahomet,” were drawn to the life of poverty and freedom, as 19th-century historian Henry Edward Watts put it. By the mid eighth century, the “vital spark” had spread to engulf the entire northwest of the Peninsula.
Over the next three centuries, a number of Christian kingdoms — Galicia, Leon, Castile, Navarre, Aragon, and Catalonia, whose significance and names morphed and changed with the vicissitudes of history — evolved from or alongside the Asturian mustard seed. They made slow but steady progress against the forces of Islam.
Finally, in 1085, and after nearly 400 years of Muslim occupation, the Christians recaptured the ancient Visigothic capital, Toledo. Over the next century, not one but two massive new invasions came from Africa, the first under the Almoravids, the second under the Almohads. Both were committed to the jihad (in ways that would make the Islamic State appear half-hearted). A tug of war between Christians and Muslims ensued until 1212, when the two forces met at the highly decisive battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Victory went to the Christians: One by one, long-held Muslim cities were liberated by the victors: Córdoba, for centuries the capital of Muslim Spain, in 1236; Valencia in 1238; and Seville in 1248.
Just as Muslims had for centuries “purified” captured Christian towns and churches “from the filth of idolatry and . . . from the stains of infidelity and polytheism,” so now, tit for tat, Christian conquerors and clergymen engaged in elaborate ceremonies whereby mosques and cities were “cleansed of the filthiness of Muhammad” — a ubiquitous phrase in the chronicles of the conquest of Muslim cities conquered — even as Muslim accounts lament over “dwellings emptied of Islam” and over “mosques . . . wherein only bells and crosses may [now] be found.”
Only the remote Muslim kingdom of Granada, at the very southern tip of the Peninsula, remained. Surrounded by mountainous terrain and with the sea behind it, Granada was well fortified, inaccessible, and isolated from the rest of Iberia. Moreover, Christian infighting habitually flared out, as Castile, Aragon, and Portugal increasingly jockeyed for power.
On Christmas Day in 1481, Granadan Muslims stormed a nearby Christian fortress and slaughtered all present. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella declared war, so that “Christendom might be delivered from this continued threat at the gates,” as they explained, and “these infidels of the kingdom of Granada [might be] ejected and expelled from Spain” once and for all. After a decade of military campaigns and sieges, Granada finally surrendered, on January 2, 1492.
“After so much labor, expense, death, and shedding of blood,” sang the monarchs, “this kingdom of Granada, which was occupied for over seven hundred and eighty years by the infidels,” had been liberated. And it all came to pass thanks to Pelayo’s Asturian mustard seed, planted 1,300 years ago this year.