Laws are like spider-webs which, if anything small falls into them they ensnare it, but large things break through and escape. — Solon of Athens

Moors in Spain - M. Florian




The Conquests of the Arabs or Moors


End of the Sixth Century to the Middle of the Eighth.


The primitive Moors were the inhabitants of the vast portion of Africa bounded on the east by Egypt, on the north by the Mediterranean, on the west by the Atlantic, and on the south by the deserts of Barbary.

The origin of the Moors, or Mauritanians, is, like that of most other ancient nations, obscure, and the information we possess concerning their early history confusedly mingled with fables. The fact, however, appears to be established, that Asiatic emigrations were, from the earliest times made into Africa. In addition to this, the historians of remote ages speak of a certain Meleck Yarfrick, king of Arabia Felix, who conducted a people called Sabaei into Libya, made himself master of that country, established his followers there, and gave it the name of Africa. It is from these Sabians or Sabaei that the principal Moorish tribes pretend to trace their descent. The derivation of the name Moors is also supposed, in some degree, to confirm the impression that they came originally from Asia.

But, without enlarging upon these ancient statements, let it suffice to say, that nearly certain ground exists for the belief that the original Moors were Arabians. In confirmation of this impression, we find that, during every period of the existence of their race, the descendants of the primitive inhabitants of Mauritania have, like the Arabs, been divided into distinct tribes, and, like them, have pursued a wild and wandering mode of existence.

The Moors of Africa are known in ancient history under the name of Nomades, Numidae or Numidians, Getulae, and Massyli. They were by turns the subjects, the enemies, or the allies of the Carthaginians, and with them they fell under the dominion of the Romans.

After several unsuccessful revolts, to which they were instigated by their fiery, restless, and inconstant temper, the Moors were at length subjugated by the Vandals, A.D. 427.

A century afterward these people were conquered by Belisarius: but the Greeks were in their turn subdued by the Arabs, who then proceeded to achieve the conquest of Mauritania.

As, from the period when that event occurred, the Mauritanians or Moors, who were thus suddenly converted to Mohammedanism, have frequently been confounded with the native Arabians, it will be proper to say a few words concerning that extraordinary people: a people who, after occupying for so many centuries an insignificant place among the nations of the earth, rapidly rendered themselves masters of the greater part of the known world.

The Arabs are, beyond question, one of the most ancient races of men in existence; and have, of all others, perhaps, best preserved their national independence, and their distinctive character and manners. Divided from the most remote times into tribes that either wandered in the desert or were collected together in cities, and obedient to chiefs who in the same person united the warrior and the magistrate, they have never been subjected to foreign domination. The Persians, the Romans, and the Macedonians vainly attempted to subdue them: they only shattered their weapons in fragments against the rocks of the Nabatheans. Proud of an origin which he traced back even to the patriarchs of olden time, exulting in his successful defence of his liberty and his rights, the Arab, from the midst of his deserts, regarded the rest of mankind as consisting of mere bands of slaves, changing masters as chance or convenience directed. Brave, temperate, and indefatigable, inured from infancy to the severest toil, fearing neither thirst, hunger, nor death itself—these were a people by whose assistance a leader suitably endowed could render himself master of the world. Mohammed appeared: to him nature had accorded the requisite qualifications for executing such a design. Courageous, sagacious, eloquent, polished, possessed in an eminent degree of the powers which both awe and delight mankind, Mohammed would have been a great man had he belonged to the most enlightened age—among an ignorant and fanatical people he became a prophet.

Until Mohammed arose among them, the Arab tribes, surrounded by Jews, Christians, and idolators, had entertained a superstitious faith, compounded of the religious belief of their various neighbors and that of the ancient Sabaei. They fully credited the existence of genii, demons, and witchcraft, adored the stars, and offered idolatrous sacrifices. But Mohammed—after having devoted many years to profound and solitary meditation upon the new dogmas he designed to establish; after having either convinced or won to his interests the principal individuals of his own family, possessing pre-eminent consequence among their countrymen—suddenly began to preach a new religion, opposed to all those with which the Arabs were hitherto familiar, and whose principles were well-adapted to inflame the ardent temper of that excitable people.

Children of Ishmael, said the Prophet to them, I bring you the faith that was professed by your father Abraham, by Noah, and by all the patriarchs. There is but one God, the Sovereign Ruler of all worlds: he is called THE MERCIFIUL; worship Him alone. Be beneficent toward orphans, slaves, captives, and the poor: be just to all men—justice is the sister of piety. Pray and bestow alms. You will be rewarded in Heaven, by being permitted to dwell perpetually in delicious gardens, where limpid waters will for ever flow, and where each one of you will eternally enjoy the companionship of women who will be ever beautiful, ever youthful, ever devoted to you alone. Courageously combat both the unbelieving and the impious. Oppose them until they embrace Islamism or render you tribute. Every soldier who dies in battle will share the treasures of God; nor can the coward prolong his life; for the moment when he is destined to be smitten by the angel of death is written in the Book of the Eternal.

Such precepts, announced in majestic and highly figurative language, embellished with the charms of verse, and presented by a warrior, prophet, poet, and legislator, professing to be the representative of an angel, to the most susceptible people in the world—to a people possessing a passion alike for the marvelous and the voluptuous, for heroism and for poetry—could scarcely fail to find disciples. Converts rapidly crowded around Mohammed, and their numbers were soon augmented by persecution. His enemies obliged the Prophet to fly from his native Mecca and take refuge in Medina. This flight was the epoch of his glory and of the Hegira of the Mussulmans. It occurred A.D. 622.

From this moment Islamism spread like a torrent over the Arabias and Ethiopa. In vain did the Jewish and idolatrous tribes attempt to maintain their ancient faith; in vain did Mecca arm her soldiers against the destroyers of her gods; Mohammed, sword in hand, dispersed their armies, seized upon their cities, and won the affections of the people whom he subdued, by his clemency, his genius, and his fascinating address.

A legislator, a pontiff, the chief of all the Arab tribes, the commander of an invincible army, respected by the Asiatic sovereigns, adored by a powerful nation, and surrounded by captains who had become heroes in serving under him, Mohammed was on the point of marching against Heraclius, when his designs were for ever interrupted by the termination of his existence. This event took place at Medina, A.D. 632, Hegira 11, and was the effect of poison, which had some time before, been administered to this extraordinary man by a Jewess of Rhaibar.

The death of the Prophet arrested neither the progress of his religion nor the triumphs of the Moslem arms.

Abubeker, the father-in-law of Mohammed, became his successor, and assumed the title of Caliph, which simply signifies vicar. During is reign the Saracens penetrated into Syria, dispersed the armies of Heraclius, and took the city of Damascus, the siege of which will be for ever celebrated in consequence of the almost superhuman exploits of the famous Kaled, surnamed the Sword of God.

Notwithstanding these successive victories, and the enormous amount of booty thus taken from the enemy and committed to his keeping, Abubeker appropriated to his own particular use a sum scarcely equivalent to forty cents a day.

Omar, the successor of Abubeker, commanded Kaled to march against Jerusalem. That city soon became the prize of the Arabs; Syria and Palestine were subdued; the Turks and the Persians demanded peace; Heraclius fled from Antioch; and all Asia trembled before Omar and the terrible Mussulmans.

Modest, in spite of the triumphs that everywhere attended them, and attributing their success to God alone, these Moslems preserved unaltered their austere manners, their frugality, their severe discipline and their reverence for poverty, though surrounded by the most corrupt of the nations of the earth, and exposed to the seductive influences of the delicious climates and the luxurious pleasures of some of the richest and most beautiful countries in the world. During the sacking of a city, the most eager and impetuous soldier would be instantly arrested in the work of pillage by the word of his chief, and would, with the strictest fidelity, deliver up the booty he had obtained, that it might be deposited in the general treasury. Even the most independent and magnificent of the heroic chiefs would hasten, in accordance with the directions of the caliph, to take the command of an army, and would become successively generals, private soldiers, or ambassadors, in obedience to his slightest wish. In fine, Omar himself—Omar, the richest, the greatest, the most puissant of the monarchs of Asia, set forward upon a journey to Jerusalem, mounted upon a red camel, which bore a sack of barley, one of rice, a well-filled water-skin, and a wooden vase. Thus equipped, the caliph traveled through the midst of conquered nations, who crowded around his path at every step, entreating his blessing and praying him to adjudge their quarrels. At last he joined his army, and, inculcating precepts of simplicity, valor, and humility upon the soldiers, he made his entrance into the Holy City, liberated such of its former Christian possessors as had become the captives of his people, and commanded the preservation of the churches. Then remounting his camel, the representative of the Prophet returned to Medina, to perform the duties of the high-priest of his religion.

The Mussulmans now advanced towards Egypt. That country was soon subdued. Alexandria was taken by Amrou, one of the most distinguished generals of Omar. It was then that the famous library was destroyed, whose loss still excites the profound regrets of the learned. The Arabians, though such enthusiastic admirers of their national poetry, despised the literature of all the rest of the world. Amrou caused the library of the Ptolemies to be burned, yet this same Amrou was nevertheless celebrated for his poetical effusions. He entertained the sincerest affection and respect for the celebrated John the Grammarian, to whom, but for the opposing order of the caliph, he would have given this valuable collection of books. It was Amrou, too, who caused the execution of a design worthy of the best age of Rome, that of connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean by means of a navigable canal, at a point where the waters of the Nile might be diverted from their course for its supply. This canal, so useful to Egypt, and so important to the commerce of both Europe and Asia, was accomplished in a few months. The Turks, in more modern times, have suffered it to be destroyed.

Amrou continued to advance into Africa, while the other Arabian commanders passed the Euphrates and conquered the Persians. But Omar was already no more, and Othman occupied his place.

It was during the reign of this caliph that the Saracens, banishing for ever its enfeebled Greek masters, conquered Mauritania, or the country of the Moors of Africa, A.D. 647, Heg. 27.

The invaders met with serious resistance only from the warlike tribes of the Bereberes. That bold and pastoral people, the descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Numidia, and preserving, even to this day, a species of independence, intrenched as they are in the Atlas Mountains, long and successfully resisted the conquerors of the Moors. A Moslem general named Akba finally succeeded in subjugating them, and in compelling them to adopt the laws and faith of his country.

After that achievement Akba carried his arms to the extreme western point of Africa, the ocean alone resisting him in his progress. There, inspired by courage and devotion with feelings of the highest enthusiasm, he forced his horse into the waves, and, drawing his sabre, cried, "God of Mohammed, thou beholdest that, but for the element which arrests me, I would have proceeded in search of unknown nations, whom I would have forced to adore thy name!"

Until this epoch, the Moors, under the successive dominion of the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, and the Greeks, had taken but little interest in the affairs of their different masters.

Wandering in the deserts, they occupied themselves chiefly with the care of their flocks; paid the arbitrary imposts levied upon them, sometimes passively enduring the oppression of their rulers, and sometimes assaying to break their chains; taking refuge, after each defeat of their efforts, in the Atlas Mountains, or in the interior of their country.

Their religion was a mixture of Christianity and idolatry; their manners those of the enslaved Nomades: rude, ignorant, and wretched, their condition was the prototype of what it now is under the tyrants of Morocco.

But the presence of the Arabs rapidly produced a great change among these people. A common origin with that of their new masters, together with similarity of language and temperament, contributed to bind the conquered to their conquerors. The announcement of a religion which had been preached by a descendant of Ishmael, whom the Moors regarded as their father; the rapid conquests of the Mussulmans, who were already masters of half of Asia and a large portion of Africa, and who threatened to enslave the world, aroused the excitable imaginations of the Moors, and restored to their national character all its passionate energy. They embraced the dogmas of Mohammed with transport; they united with the Arabs, volunteered to serve under the Moslem banners, and suddenly became simultaneously enamored with Islamism and with glory.

This reunion, which doubled the military strength of the two united nations, was disturbed for some time by the revolt of the Bereberes, who never yielded their liberty under any circumstances.

The reigning caliph, Valid the First, despatched into Egypt Moussa-ben-Nazir, a judicious and valiant commander, at the head of a hundred thousand men, A.D. 708, Heg. 89.

Moussa defeated the Bereberes, restored quiet in Mauritania, and seized upon Tangier, which belonged to the Goths of Spain.

Master of an immense region of country, of a redoubtable army, and of a people who considered his supremacy as essential to their well-being, the Saracen general from this period contemplated carrying his arms into Spain.

That beautiful kingdom, after having been successively under the yoke of the Carthaginians and the Romans, had finally become the prey of the Barbarians. The Alani, the Suevi, and the Vandals had divided its provinces among them; but Euric, one of the Visigoths, who entered the country from the south of Gaul, had, towards the end of the fifth century, gained possession of the whole of Spain, and transmitted it to his descendants.

The softness of the climate, together with the effects of wealth and luxury, gradually enfeebled these conquerors, creating vices from which they had been previously free, and depriving them of the war-like qualities to which alone they had been indebted for their success. Of the kings who succeeded Euric, some were Arians and others Catholics, who abandoned their authority to the control of bishops, and occupied a throne shaken to its center by internal disturbances. Roderick, the last of these Gothic sovereigns, polluted the throne by his vices; and both history and tradition accuse him of the basest crimes. Indeed, in the instance of nearly all these tyrants, their vices either directly occasioned, or were made the pretext of their final ruin.

The fact is well established, that Count Julian and his brother Oppas, archbishop of Toledo, both of them distinguished and influential men, favored the irruption of the Moors into Spain.

Tarik, one of the most renowned captains of his time, was sent into Spain by Moussa. He had at first but few troops; but he was not by this prevented from defeating the large army that, by command of Roderick, the last Gothic king, opposed his course.

Subsequently, having received re-enforcements from Africa, Tarik vanquished Roderick himself at the battle of Xeres, where that unfortunate monarch perished during the general flight in which the conflict terminated, A.D. 714, Heg. 96.

After this battle, the Mohammedan general, profiting by his victory, penetrated into Estremadura, Andalusia, and the two Castiles, and took possession of the city of Toledo. Being soon after joined by Moussa, whose jealousy of the glory his lieutenant was so rapidly acquiring, prompted him to hasten to his side, these two remarkable commanders, dividing their troops into several corps, achieved, in a few months, the conquest of the whole of Spain.

It should be observed, that these Moors, whom several historians have represented as bloodthirsty barbarians, did not deprive the people whom they had subjugated either of their faith, their churches, or the administrators of their laws. They exacted from the Spaniards only the tribute they had been accustomed to pay their kings. One cannot but question the existence of the ferocity that is ascribed to them, when it is remembered that the greater part of the Spanish cities submitted to the invaders without making the least attempt at resistance; that the Christians readily united themselves with the Moors; that the inhabitants of Toledo desired to assume the name of Musarabs; and that Queen Egilona, the widow of Roderick, the last of the Gothic sovereigns, publicly espoused, with the united consent of the two nations, Abdelazis, the son of Moussa.

Moussa, whom the success of Tarik had greatly exasperated, wishing to remove a lieutenant whose achievements eclipsed his own, preferred an accusation against him to the caliph. Valid recalled them both, but refused to adjudge their difference, and suffered them. to die at court from chagrin at seeing themselves forgotten.

Abdelazis, the husband of Egilona, became governor of Spain A.D. 718, Heg,100, but did not long survive his elevation. Alahor, who succeeded him, carried his arms into Gaul, subdued the Warbonnais, and was preparing to push his conquests still farther, when he learned that Pelagius, a prince of the blood-royal of the Visigoths, had taken refuge in the mountains of Asturia with a handful of devoted followers; that with them he dared to brave the conquerors of Spain, and had formed the bold design of attempting to rid himself of their yoke. Alahor sent some troops against him. Pelagius, intrenched with his little army in the mountain gorges, twice gave battle to the Mussulmans, seized upon several castles, and, reanimating the spirits of the Christians, whose courage had been almost extinguished by so long a succession of reverses, taught the astonished Spaniards that the Moors were not invincible.

The insurrection of Pelagius occasioned the recall of Alahor by the Caliph Omar II. Elzemah, his successor, was of the opinion that the most certain means of repressing revolts among a people is to render them prosperous and contented. He therefore devoted himself to the wise and humane government of Spain; to the regulation of imposts, until then quite arbitrary; and to quieting the discontents of the soldiery, and establishing their pay at a fixed rate. A lover of the fine arts, which the Arabs began from that time to cultivate, Elzemah embellished Cordova, which was his capital, and attracted thither the savans  of the age. He was himself the author of a book containing a description of the cities, rivers, provinces, and ports of Spain; of the metals, mines, and quarries it possesses; and, in short, of almost every object of interest either in science or government.

But little disturbed by the insurrectionary movements of Pelagius, whose power was confined to the possession of some inaccessible mountain fortresses, Elzemah did not attempt to force him from his strongholds, but, impelled by the ardent desire of extending the Moorish conquests into France, with which the governors of Spain were ever inflamed, he passed the Pyrenees, and perished in a battle fought against Eudes, duke of Aquitania, A.D., 722, Heg. 104.

During the remainder of the Caliphate of Yezid II., several governors followed each other in rapid succession after the death of Elzemah. None of their actions merit recital; but, during this period, the brave Pelagius aggrandized his petty state, advancing into the mountains of Leon, and, in addition, making himself master of several towns.

This hero, whose invincible daring roused the Asturians and Cantabrians to struggle for liberty, laid the foundations of that powerful monarchy whose warriors afterward pursued the Moors even to the rocks of the Atlas.

The Moslems, who dreamed only of new conquests, made no considerable efforts against Pelagius: they were confident of checking his rebellion with the utmost ease when they should have accomplished the subjugation of the French dominions; and that desire alone fired the ardent soul of the new governor Abdalrahman, or, as he is commonly called, Abderamus.

His love of glory, his valor, his genius, and, above all, his immeasurable ambition, made the Mussulman governor regard this conquest as one that could be easily effected; but he himself was destined to be the vanquished.

Charles Martel, the son of Pepin d'Heristal, and the grandfather of Charlemagne, whose exploits effaced the recollection of those of his father, and whose fame was not eclipsed by that of his grandson, was at this time mayor of the palace, under the last princes of the first race; or, rather, Charles was the real monarch of the French and German nations.

Eudes, duke of Aquitania, the possessor of Gascony and Guienne, had long maintained a quarrel with the French hero. Unable longer, without assistance, to resist his foe, he sought an alliance with a Moor named Munuza, who was the governor of Catalonia and the secret enemy of Abderamus. These two powerful vassals, both discontented with their respective sovereigns, and inspired as much by fear as dislike, united themselves in the closest bonds, in despite of the difference in their religious faith. The Christian duke did not hesitate to give his daughter in marriage to his Mohammedan ally, and the Princess Numerance espoused the Moorish Munuza, as Queen Egilona had espoused the Moorish Abdelazis.

Abderamus, when informed of this alliance, immediately divined the motives which had induced it. He soon assembled an army, penetrated with rapidity into Catalonia, and attacked Munuza, who was wounded in a fruitless endeavor to fly, and afterward perished by his own hand. His captive wife was conducted into the presence of the victorious governor. Abderamus, struck with her beauty, sent the fair Numerance as a present to the Caliph Haccham, whose regard she elicited; and thus, by a singular chance, a princess of Gascony became an inmate of the seraglio of a sovereign of Damascus.

Not content with having so signally punished Munuza, Abderamus crossed the Pyrenees, traversed Navarre, entered Guienne, and besieged and took the City of Bordeaux. Eudes attempted, at the head of an army, to arrest his progress, but was repelled in a decisive engagement. Everything yielded to the Mussulman arms: Abderamus pursued his route, ravaged Perigord, Saintonge, and Poitou, appeared in triumph in Touraine, and paused only when within view of the streaming ensigns of Charles Martel.

Charles came to this rencounter followed by the forces of France, Asturia, and Bourgogne, and attended by the veteran warriors whom he was accustomed to lead to victory. The Duke of Aquitania was also in the camp. Charles forgot his private injuries in the contemplation of the common danger: this danger was pressing: the fate of France and Germany—indeed, of the whole of Christendom, depended on the event of the approaching conflict.

Abderamus was a rival worthy of the son of Pepin. Flushed, like him, with the proud recollection of numerous victories; at the head of an innumerable army; surrounded by experienced captains, who had been the frequent witnesses of his martial triumphs; and long inspired with the warmest hopes of finally adding to the dominion of Islamism the only country belonging to the ancient Roman empire that still remained unsubdued by the Saracens, the Moorish leader met his brave foe, upon equal terms, on the battle-field of Tours, A.D. 733, Heg. 114.

The'action was long and bloody. Abderamus was slain; and this dispiriting loss, without doubt, decided he defeat of his army. Historians assert that more than three hundred thousand men perished. This statement is probably exaggerated; but it is certainly true, that the Moors, who had thus penetrated into the midst of France, were relentlessly pursued after their defeat, and many of them were unable to escape from the arms of the victors and the vengeance of the people.

This memorable battle, of which we possess no details, saved France from the yoke of the Arabs, and effectually arrested their spreading dominion.

Once again, subsequent to this reverse, the Moors attempted to penetrate France, and succeeded in seizng upon Avignon; but Charles Martel defeated them anew, retook the captured city, drove them from Narbonne, and deprived them forever of the hope with which they had so often flattered themselves.

After the death of Abderamus, Spain was torn by dissensions between the two governors named successively by the caliph. A third pretender arrived from Africa. A fourth added himself to the list; factions multiplied; the different parties often had recourse to arms; chiefs were assassinated, cities taken, and provinces ravaged.

The details of these events are variously related by different historians, but possess little interest in the narrations of any.

These civil wars lasted nearly twenty years. The Christians, who had retired into Asturia, profited by them to the utmost. Alphonso I., the son-in-law and successor of Pelagius, imitated the career of that hero. He seized upon a part of Galicia and Leon, repulsed the Mussulman troops who were sent to oppose him, and rendered himself master of several towns.

The Moors, occupied by their domestic quarrels, neglected to arrest the progress of Alphonso, and from that time the growth of a miniature kingdom commenced, whose interests were inimical to those of the Saracens in Spain.

After many crimes and combats, a certain Joseph had succeeded in triumphing over his different rivals, and was at last reigning supreme in Cordova, when there occurred a memorable event in the East, which was destined greatly to affect the condition of Spain.

From that period, A.D. 749, Heg. 134, commences the second epoch of the empire of the Moors of Spain, which makes it necessary to revert briefly to the history of the Eastern caliphs.