Almanzor’s sacking of Santiago de Compostela

Jose Mari Escalante

On 10 August 997, one of those events took place that marked a before and after in historical processes. The sacking by Almanzor of the city containing one of the most important Christian relics in Europe, the remains of the Apostle St. James, marked a turning point in the so-called “Christian Reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula. The terrible events of those days in Santiago de Compostela only corroborated the fear that the year 1000 would come and the worst prophecies would be fulfilled with the end of the known world. But no, for the Christians, the world did not end in the year 1000; rather, as we shall see, it was quite the opposite.

Almanzor

First of all, we will briefly meet the man responsible for the greatest scourge that the Christians of the Peninsula had known up to that time. Our character, with the full Arabic name of Abu Amir Muhammad ibn Abi Amir, was born in the province of Malaga, into a noble family that had been settled in this territory since the time of the Islamic conquest of the Peninsula. Although his early life goes largely unnoticed in historiography, we know that he was educated in the splendour of the Cordoba Caliphate. We also know that around 967 he was already fully installed at the court of the Caliph Alhaken II, whom he served faithfully in the education of his children, and according to gossip, in the care of his favourite wife, the exuberant Basque slave Subh.

Almanzor in Catalanazor

Almanzor in Catalanazor

After the death of the Caliph in 976, he began his unstoppable political rise. In a few years he got rid of the main enemies within the court; the Hayid al-Mushafi in 978 and, three years later, the best general the caliphate had ever known, Galib. Both died under the threatening shadow of Almanzor, who from that moment onwards felt free to rule al-Andalus. The outlook in Cordoba pointed to this, with the new Caliph Hisham II, only 13 years old, praying in Medina Azahara, a prominent position in the bed of the Basque Subh now turned queen mother, and especially with control of the powerful Caliphate army, after displacing the Umayyad aristocracy from the command posts, and placing his loyal Berber mercenaries in their place.

Nothing could stop his endless desire to subjugate the Christian kingdoms of the northern peninsula. A whopping 56 aceifas (raids) have been counted in the 25 years that Almanzor was at the head of the Caliphate. From the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, few corners were spared the visits of the plundering armies of the new master of Cordoba. Of all of them, the one that concerns us today, number 48, was the most painful.

Count García Fernández

To begin the story, we go back to the beginning of the summer of the year 995, that is, two years before Almanzor’s hordes razed Santiago to the ground. In those days, the only Christian who was capable of facing the Cordovan Hayid face to face died. García Fernández, the Count of Castile, who had played a leading role in the resistance against the Caliphate in the last few years. His determination is evidenced by the fact that he managed to take the powerful fortress of Gormaz from the Cordobans, which remained in the hands of the Castilian count between 978-983.

Count García Fernández in Salamanca

Count García Fernández in Salamanca

As it is often said about the death of the valiant García Fernández that “rivers of ink have flowed”. First of all, we will leave aside the curious legends about a fat horse or the supposed infidelities of his wife with Almanzor himself. By the way, allow me to add, the Cordoban leader must have been as valiant at the head of the Caliphate armies as he was in bed. Once these legends have been discarded, historiography today favours a fortuitous error that cost him his death.

In one of Almanzor’s last aceifas, the Caliph’s troops sheltered in some of the most important towns of the Count of Castile, such as Osma, Gormaz, and Clunia. García Fernández’s response was to attack the heart of the Cordoban Caliph’s power, the city of Medinaceli, at that time the capital of the Middle Mark of al-Andalus. In this context, before or after this attack, it is not clear, there was a clash with a Muslim detachment.

For the Christian sources it was a battle, for the Caliph’s a chance encounter near the castle of Peñaranda de Duero. It was most likely a fall from the horse of Count García Fernández, hence the legend of the horse fattened by his wife, Almanzor’s mistress. With a blow to the head, he was captured and taken to Medinaceli by his enemies, where he died four days later. His head arrived in the following days in Córdoba as a trophy for Almanzor.

Gate of the Caliphate fortress of Gormaz

Gate of the Caliphate fortress of Gormaz

The misrule of the Kingdom of León

The Kingdom of León at the end of the 10th century was a veritable political gibberish; it was ruled, if one can call it that, by Bermudo II. But it is clear that those who held power were the nobles who exercised territorial power. Castile, as we have already seen, was practically on its way to emancipation, Galicia, Portugal, Asturias, and even León had become tributaries of Almanzor.

The king was not going through the best of times, a few years earlier he had handed over his own daughter to the Cordoban warlord with the intention of getting rid of the Muslim aceifas, and these did not stop, nor did they decrease in number, as for Almanzor the handing over of a daughter was not a reason for loyalty, but for submission.

The misrule was evident; not even Bermudo II’s own neighbours respected him as king. The Banu Gómez, an aristocratic family based around Carrión de los Condes, continually attacked the capital of the kingdom in order to displace the nominal king from power. The latter was even defended by Almanzor himself, as was common in the medieval pacts that arose around the feudal political system: “I pay you, you defend me”. In one of these, the Muslims razed Carrión and the monastery of San Román de Entrepeñas, the family seat.

It was in this context that the rebellion of Bermudo II was born. If we have to look for reasons for this, there are several: it was the weakest moment for his neighbours the Banu Gómez, the death of García Fernández as a Christian hero in the face of the Muslims could also have served as a spur, not to mention his hatred for the man who had taken his daughter without compensation in return. Moreover, on the other side of the border, problems were arising for Almanzor, revolts in the Maghreb, and palace intrigues led by Subh.

In short, Bermudo may have thought that the time was ripe to scour the kingdom for help in throwing off the Muslim yoke. Among  the first to join were the neighbouring Banu Gómez, who abandoned their quarrels for a good reason. That year, Almanzor’s men left the capital of the kingdom, without the customary tribute regularly paid by the King of León.

The aceifa number 48 headed for Santiago de Compostela

Almanzor did not let a day go by; he had to counteract the audacity of Bermudo II. The next aceifa could not be just one more, to use the chess simile, the Cordoban leader had to strategically move his pieces on the board to “kill the king”. This was not Bermudo II, but the supposed sacred origin of the Reconquista, the tomb of St. James the Apostle, the true point of union of the Christian kingdoms through their pilgrimage routes.

The Caliphate troops left Cordoba on 3 July. They did not go directly to Santiago but passed through the Portuguese towns of Viseu and Coria to collect the help of the Portuguese counts. They put their lust for power before their faith and did not mind crossing the river Miño alongside the Muslims and destroying all the monasteries in their path. Hundreds or thousands of men were captured to become luxury goods in the Andalusian markets.

The alleged harem of Almanzor

The alleged harem of Almanzor

On 10 August the Caliphate and Portuguese troops arrived in Santiago de Compostela. According the mainly Muslim sources, the city was deserted, its inhabitants having abandoned it for fear of Almanzor. Legend has it that an old monk was waiting for the warlord beside the tomb of Santiago. He did not even flinch at the arrival of the great Almanzor, and when he was questioned, his only reply was that he remained there to honour the remains of the apostle. Both were pardoned by the warlord, neither the life of the monk nor the remains of Santiago were desecrated. Superstition, respect for his aceifa companions?

The same fate did not befall the holy city, which was razed to the ground. The old pre-Romanesque church was set on fire and the spoils of the aceifa were the most succulent in living memory; silks, dresses, gold pieces, and great tapestries all headed for Cordoba. The bells of the church being carried on the shoulders of Christian slaves seems more like a two way legend, as they returned 238 years later on the shoulders of Muslim slaves, pushed by the armies of Fernando III.

The response of the Christian kingdoms

We return to our chess simile: “if you can turn your check into checkmate, do it, otherwise you may regret it”. This conclusion can be drawn from the following events.

The fact that the news spread throughout Europe may have been one of the reasons for the reaction of the peninsular Christian kingdoms, as they felt the need not to fail their European co-religionists, in short, at the turn of the millennium the tomb of the apostle St. James was becoming the heritage of European Christianity.

Only two years later, in 999, Bermudo II died of an attack of gout. His heir, the young Alfonso, was only five years old, and the kingdom de facto fell into the hands of his mother Elvira, daughter of the well-remembered Castilian Count García Fernández. Well, she achieved something that seemed unthinkable at the time. The great nobles of Castile, León, and Galicia decided by consensus to protect the figure of the young king. Soon the lower nobility and the clergy joined in, either because of the memory of García Fernández reincarnated in his grandson Alfonso V, or because of their unease at the events of Santiago de Compostela.

Soon the coalition would be joined by the last guest. That same year Almanzor’s troops repeated the operation against Pamplona. The Kingdom of Navarre joined its religious allies; it was not in vain that it was the first geographical location to receive the European pilgrims on their way to Santiago, who then passed through Castile, León, and reached Galicia. All the territories united by the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago set out to protect the reconstruction of the Holy City.

The dreaded year 1000 arrived. The warlord prepared a new aceifa, and that year it was Castile’s turn. He set off north from the capital Medinaceli, but did not reach his destination. On the hill of Peña Cervera, 170 m above the level of the Castilian plain, the united Christian armies awaited him for the first time in several decades. In retrospect, we can think of it as a battle of mutual fear. Faced with the arrival of the Muslim army, the Christian army deployed its best strategy, to nullify the flanks of the Muslim attack, historically their best combat weapon. Almanzor’s surprised men fled to the hill opposite, possibly looking for an escape route. The Castilian armies thought they would wait for reinforcements from there. Both were mistaken, and both took the road back to their bases.

The view from Peña Cervera

The view from Peña Cervera

The chessboard of the Battle of Cervera had ended in an unexpected “draw”. For some, accustomed to numerous defeats, it had the aftertaste of victory. On the other side, on the contrary, the warlord reprimanded the cowardice of his men. Two years later, Almanzor “the victorious” died totally exhausted, after leading the hardest years of the Christian kingdoms since the time of the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, keeping the so-called “Christian Reconquest” in check. But this ended up emerging strengthened and ready to continue its path of victories.

Almanzor's death

Almanzor’s death

Sources

This post was translated from:

Jose Mari (2019) ‘El saqueo de Almanzor a Santiago de Compostela’, 28 September. Available at: https://caminandoporlahistoria.com/saqueo-de-almanzor-a-santiago/ (Accessed: 19 May 2021).

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