Muslim accounts on warfare in al-Andalus (Spain)

The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain was written by a seventeenth-century scholar named Ahmed ibn Mohammed al-Maqqari. This historical compendium includes many extracts from earlier works. The first section gives a description of the weapons and armour used by Muslim warriors in Spain during the Middle Ages. The second account describes the death of Sancho Ramirez, son of the Aragonese king Ramiro I, while at the siege of Huesca in 1094 (Christian accounts have Sancho Ramirez being killed by an arrow while at the siege).  The third section details how James I invaded and captured the island of Majorca in 1231. Al-Maqqari uses an account from Ibn ‘Onayrah Al-makhzumi, who resided in Majorca until its fall and died in 1258.

Their weapons and equipment in time of war

Sultans, military officers, and even the common soldiers, followed the fashions of the infidels; in time of war, especially, they wore a dress very similar to that of the Christians, their neighbours. They used likewise the same weapons, and, like them, were clad in mail, over which they threw a short scarlet tunic, in the Christian fashion. They fought on horseback with shield and spear, but knew not how to use either the mace or the bow of the Arabs; instead of which they adopted the crossbow of the Franks, and used it in sieges, or in marches, to defend the infantry from the attacks of the cavalry, for without that requisite they would certainly be defeated. However, we are informed by Ibnul-khattib that under the Merinite Sultans, who reigned at Granada, trhe Andalusian troops were again clad and armed in the real Arabic fashion; instead of the heavy steel helmet and thick breast-plate of their ancestors; they wore a slender head-piece, and a thin but well-tempered cuirass; instead of the huge spear with a broad end in the Christian fashion, they took the long and slender reed of the Arabs, and they substituted for the clumsy and ill-shaped Christian saddles the more military-looking and more convenient horse furniture of the inhabitants of Arabia.

Feat of arms at the siege of Huesca (1094)

When Al-muktadir-billah Ibn Hud, Sultan of Andalus, sallied from Saragasso to the frontiers to oppose the son of Radmir, the great Christian King, who at the head of considerable forces had invaded his territory, there happened to be in his host a Moslem of the name of Sa’darah, who performed a feat of arms well worthy of record. Both armies, which were equally numerous and well appointed, met in an extensive plain in the neighbourhood of Huesca; the battle was engaged with great fury on both sides, and maintained with equal animosity during the whole day, until towards evening the cavalry of the Moslems began to give way. When Al-muktadir saw this, he ordered into his presence a borderer named Sa’darah, a man of tried courage, and equally renowned for his exploits and experiences in the affairs of war. “What thinkest thou,” said al-muktadir to Sa’darah, “will be the result of this day?” Sa’darah cast his experienced eye over the plain, and, shaking his head, significantly answered, “To tell the truth, O Prince! yonder signs bode no good”, and pointing towards the dense iron-clad masses of the Christian cavalry dispersing the light horsemen of Al-muktadir, he added, “Unless yonder iron wall be broken by some unforeseen accident, the day will be against us,”

“Thou art right,” replied Al-muktadir, “things look rather cloudy, but what dost thou propose to do?” Sa’darah meditated an instant, and said, “Among the white tents that cover the declivity of that hill I can easily perceive in the centre that of the son of Radmir towering above the rest; if thou grant me permission I will go there in disguise and kill the tyrant with my own hand.” “Well said,” replied Al-muktadir, “if thou succeed, the favours of thy master shall be lavished on thee; if thou fail, the rewards of the Almighty will be thy recompense.” Sa’darah then goes to his tent, puts on a dress similar to those used by Christian knights, arms himself with weapons like theirs, and, mounting his steed, plunges into the thickest of the melee. Being well acquainted with the language and customs of the Christians, he had no difficulty, after opening himself a passage through their thronged ranks, to penetrate into their camp. He then goes to the King’s tent, and having entered it, he sees the son of Radmir sitting upon his throne, completely cased in steel, so that the eyes were his only visible part of his body. He then watches for some time his opportunity, and, pouncing upon the Christian, with a small dagger wounds him in the eye through one of apertures in the visor, and kills him. He then leaves the tent, and begins to cry out at the top of his voice, “The King is killed! The King is killed!” and the news spread like fire through the enemy’s camp, panic and consternation seize the Christian warriors; they give way in each direction, and the victory remains in the hands of the Moslems, who never cease slaughtering until their arms were tired, and their swords shivered from dealing blows.

Conquest of Majorca (1229-1231)

Al-makhzumi, in his history of Majorca, gives the following details: Majorca was governed at the time by an Amir, named Mohammed Ibn ‘Ali Ibn Musa, who, being a man of quality and influence among the people of the extinct dynasty of [the Almohades]; had been entrusted with the government [of the Balearic Islands], which he held ever since 606 (beginning July 5, A. D. 1209). Happening once to want some timber, which in the neighbouring island of Iviza is very abundant, Mohammed sent thither some light vessels under the convoy of a few of his war galleys. The Christian governor of Tortosa, having received intelligence of the departure of the expedition, sent out a fleet to capture the Moslem vessels, and succeeded; upon which Mohammed was so angry at the loss of his ships that he resolved upon declaring war against the Christians and making a descent upon their territory. In an evil hour did he form such a determination; for he lost his dominions in the contest. An occasion soon presented itself for carrying his project into execution. About the end of Dhi-l-hajjah of the year 623 (Dec. A.D. 1226); news came to him, that a vessel from Barcelona had appeared in sight of Iviza, and that another ship from Tortosa had also come up with it. Upon the receipt of this intelligence, Mohammed dispatched his son with some armed vessels in chase of the enemy. The son of Mohammed having entered the harbour of Iviza, found lying there at anchor a large Genoese galley, which he attacked and took. This done, he sailed in chase of the Barcelonese ship; which he likewise boarded and took. This trifling success had the effect of completely turning the head of the governor of Majorca, who from that ‘moment fancied himself a conqueror, and thought that no king could resist his victorious arms, forgetting that he was as ill-fated as the camel cursed with sterility, and that the Christians would not fail to take ample vengeance for the injury they had received. And so it happened; for the people of Barcelona had no sooner heard of the capture of their vessel, than they said to their king [James I], who was of the posterity of Alfonso. “How does the king like to see his subjects used in this manner? We are ready to assist thee with our persons and our money to revenge this insult.” The king, taking them at their word, immediately raised an army of twenty thousand, men in his dominions, and, having equipped a considerable fleet, set sail for Majorca with upwards of sixteen thousand soldiers. This took place in 626 (AD 1229); but as these immense preparations could not be made secretly, the news of the armament soon reached the governor of Majorca, who began also to collect his forces, and prepared to repel the invasion. Having selected upwards of one thousand cavalry, he distributed them about the island, and he raised besides another body consisting of one thousand horse from among the country people and the inhabitants of the capital; his infantry amounted to eighteen thousand men. All these levies were ready by the month of Rabi’ the first, of the said year (A.D. 1229). Unluckily, however, all these active preparations were counteracted by the following unfortunate event. One day Mohammed ordered the captain of his guards to bring into his presence four of the principal inhabitants of the town, and when, in pursuance of his order, they appeared before him, he caused them to be immediately beheaded. Among the number of these victims were two sons of his mother’s brother, Abu Hafss Ibn Sheyri, a man of rank and influence in the island. The people went to him and related what had occurred, warning him against the tyrant, and saying, “By Allah ! this state of things can no longer be endured; the Amir is not fit either to govern us or defend us, and as long as he rules our lives will be entirely at his mercy.” After this declaration, the citizens bound themselves to revenge the blood spilt by the tyrant, and Ibn Sheyri having consented to become their chief, they determined upon ridding themselves of the Amir at all hazards. It was on a Friday, about the middle of the month of Shawwal (A.D. 1229). What with the fear of Mohammed’s vengeance, should their plans be discovered and the dread caused by the enemy, who was known to be at no great distance from the island, the citizens were actually trembling. Presently Mohammed summons to his presence the captain of his guards, and commands him to bring before him fifty of the principal citizens, the most distinguished by their birth, wealth, or talents. The tyrant’s orders were immediately complied with, and the fifty individuals stood before him: they were all expecting to be marched to immediate execution, when, lo! a horseman appears, dressed as a courier, who, being introduced into the Amir’s presence, informs him that the Christian fleet, composed of upwards of forty sail, is in sight, and making for the shore. No sooner, however, had the horseman finished his recital, than a second messenger from a different quarter rushed breathless into the audience chamber, saying, “The Christian fleet is in sight, and I can count seventy sail.” The fact was soon ascertained, and the news found to be true. Mohammed then pardoned the fifty citizens who had been sentenced to death, and having apprised them of the arrival of the enemy, bade them go and prepare for the defence of the city. Accordingly they all went home, and were received by their families as if they had risen from the tomb. Soon after the news arrived that the Christians were just at hand, and that their fleet was composed of one hundred and fifty sail.

After crossing the bay, the Christians made for the harbour [intending to land]; but the Amir having sent against them some infantry and cavalry, with orders to station themselves on the shore and to remain there encamped both day and night, they were prevented from landing. At last the Christians gained their object; and on the 18th of Shawwal (A.D. 1229), which was a Monday, an engagement took place in which the Moslems were completely defeated. After this, the enemy marched to the city and encamped on the deserted and uncultivated plain, close to the gate of Al-kahl, whence they made several assaults upon the city, and were on the point of taking it by storm. When Ibn Sheyri saw that the Christians were masters of the neighbouring country, and that the city could not hold out much longer, he left it secretly and made for the interior of the island, with such among the inhabitants as would follow him. On Friday, the 11th of Safar, A.H. 628 (Dec. 18, A.D.1230), the Christians made a general attack on the city, and on the following Sunday became masters of it; when in the massacre that ensued no less than twenty-four thousand of the inhabitants were inhumanly sacrificed for the fault of a single individual. The Amir was taken and subjected to all manner of torture, under which he expired forty-five days after his capture. As to Ibn Sheyri, he betook himself to the mountainous part of the island, in which were many places strongly fortified by nature, and having collected around him a force of sixteen thousand men, he defended himself bravely for some time, until he was killed on Friday the 10th of Rabi’ the second, of the year 628 (Feb. 14, A.D. 1231).

These sections are from The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, by Ahmed Ibn Mohammed Al-Maqqari, translated by Pascual de Gayangos, 2 volumes (London: Oriental Translation Fund, 1840-3). The second volume has been republished in

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