Saracens In Spain

Saracens In Spain: Battle Of The Guadalete
Author: Al-Makkari, Ahmed Ibn Mahomet


When assailed by the Saracen power, the Gothic kingdom in Spain which
had endured for three centuries, had long been suffering a decline.
Political disorders and social demoralization had made its condition such as
might well invite the Moslem armies, flushed with victories on the African
side, to cross the narrow Strait of Gibraltar for new conquests.

The final subjection of North Africa had been accomplished by the Arab
general, Musa Ibn Nosseyr, only the fortress of Ceuta, on the shore of the
strait, still remaining in possession of the Goths. The Saracens knew that a
fresh revolution in Spain had placed on the throne Roderic - who proved to be
the last of the Gothic kings. At Ceuta the commandant, Count Ilyan (Julian),
when he was attacked, made a feeble defence, virtually betraying the post
into the hands of the Moslems. The reason, according to some authorities,
for the defection of Ilyan was his desire to avenge an injury inflicted upon
him by Roderic, who is said to have dishonored Ilyan's daughter, the Lady
Florinda. Others attribute the treason of Ilyan to his real loyalty to the
rivals of Roderic, the latter being regarded by him as a usurper.

It is recorded that Ilyan proposed to Musa the conquest of Anda lusia,
whose wealth in productiveness and other natural attractions he glowingly
described. The people, Ilyan declared, were enervated by reason of prolonged
peace, and were destitute of arms. He was induced entirely to desert the
Gothic cause and join the Moslems, and made a successful incursion into the
country of his former friends, returning to Africa loaded with spoil. From
this time Ilyan served under the Moslem standard.

Another invasion was made by the Saracens with like results, and then
Musa, having received authority from the Caliph, prepared to enter upon the
conquest of Spain. The events which followed were not only of great moment
in the affairs of that country, but foreshadowed others which seemed to
involve the fate of Europe and of Christendom in the outcome of the Mahometan

Musa strengthened himself in his intention of invading Andalusia: to
this effect he called a freed slave of his, to whom he had on different
occasions intrusted important commands in his armies, and whose name was
Tarik Ibn Zeyad Ibn Abdillah, a native of Hamdan, in Persia, although some
pretend that he was not a freedman of Musa Ibn Nosseyr, but a free-born man
of the tribe of Sadf, while others make him a mauli of Lahm. It is even
asserted that some of his posterity, who lived in Andalusia, rejected with
indignation the supposition of their ancestor having ever been a liberated
slave of Musa Ibn Nosseyr. Some authors, and they are the greatest number,
say that he was a Berber.

To this Tarik, therefore, the Arabian governor of Africa committed the
important trust of conquering the kingdom of Andalusia, for which end he gave
him the command of an army of seven thousand men, chiefly Berbers and slaves,
very few only being genuine Arabs. To accompany and guide Tarik in this
expedition, Musa sent Ilyan, who provided four vessels from the ports under
his command, the only places on the coast where vessels were at that time
built. Everything being got ready, a division of the army crossed that arm
of the sea which divides Andalusia from Africa, and landed with Tarik at the
foot of the mountain, which afterward received his name, on a Saturday, in
the month of Shaban, of the year [of the Hegira] 92 (July, 711), answering to
the month of Agosht (August); and the four vessels were sent back, and
crossed and recrossed until the rest of Tarik's men were safely put on shore.

It is otherwise said that Tarik landed on the 24th of Rejeb (June 19th,
A.D. 711), in the same year. Another account makes the number of men
embarked on this occasion amount to twelve thousand, all but sixteen, a
number consisting almost entirely of Berbers, there being but few Arabs among
them; but the same writer agrees that Ilyan transported this force at various
times to the coast of Andalusia in merchant vessels - whence collected, it is
not known - and that Tarik was the last man on board.

Various historians have recorded two circumstances concerning Tarik's
passage, and his landing on the coast of Andalusia, which we consider worthy
of being transcribed. They say that while he was sailing across that arm of
the sea which separates Africa from Andalusia, he saw in a dream the prophet
Mahomet, surrounded by Arabs of the Muhajirm and Anssar, who with unsheathed
swords and bended bows stood close by him, and that he heard the prophet say:
"Take courage, O Tarik! and accomplish what thou art destined to perform";
and that having looked round him he saw the messenger of God, who with his
companions was entering Andalusia. Tarik then awoke from his sleep, and,
delighted with this good omen, hastened to communicate the miraculous
circumstance to his followers, who were much pleased and strengthened. Tarik
himself was so much struck by the apparition that from that moment he never
doubted of victory.

The same writers have preserved another anecdote, which sufficiently
proves the mediation of the Almighty in permitting that the conquest of
Andalusia should be achieved by Tarik. Directly after his landing on the
rock Musa's freedman brought his forces upon the plain, and began to overrun
and lay waste the neighboring country. While he was thus employed, an old
woman from Algesiras presented herself to him, and among other things told
him what follows: "Thou must know, O stranger! that I had once a husband, who
had the knowledge of future events; and I have repeatedly heard him say to
the people of this country that a foreign general would come to this island
and subject it to his arms. He described him to me as a man of prominent
forehead, and such, I see, is thine; he told me also that the individual
designated by the prophecy would have a black mole covered with hair on his
left shoulder. Now, if thou hast such a mark on thy body, thou art
undoubtedly the person intended."

When Tarik heard the old woman's reasoning, he immediately laid his
shoulder bare, and the mark being found, as predicted, upon the left one,
both he and his companions were filled with delight at the good omen.

Ibnu Hayyan's account does not materially differ from those of the
historians from whom we have quoted. He agrees in saying that Ilyan, lord of
Ceuta, incited Musa Ibn Nosseyr to make the conquest of Andalusia; and that
this he did out of revenge, and moved by the personal enmity and hatred he
had conceived against Roderic. He makes Tarik's army amount only to seven
thousand, mostly Berbers, which, he says, crossed in four vessels provided by
Ilyan. According to his account, Tarik landed on a Saturday, in the month of
Shaban, of the year 92, and the vessels that brought him and his men on shore
were immediately sent back to Africa, and never ceased going backward and
forward until the whole of the army was safely landed on the shores of

On the other side, Ibnu Khaldun reckons the army under the orders of
Tarik at three hundred Arabs and ten thousand Berbers. He says that before
starting on his expedition, Tarik divided his army into two corps, he himself
taking the command of one, and placing the other under the immediate orders
of Tarif An-najai. Tarik, with his men, landed at the foot of the rock now
called Jebalu-l-fatah, "the mountain of the entrance," and which then
received his name, and was called Jebal-Tarik, "the mountain of Tarik"; while
his companion, Tarif, landed on the island afterward called after him
Jezirah-Tarif, "the island of Tarif." In order to provide for the security
of their respective armies, both generals selected, soon after their landing,
a good encampment, which they surrounded with walls and trenches, for no
sooner had the news of their landing spread than the armies of the Goths
began to march against them from all quarters.

No sooner did Tarik set his foot in Andalusia than he was attacked by a
Goth named Tudmir (Theodomir), to whom Roderic had intrusted the defence of
that frontier. Theodomir, who is the same general who afterward gave his
name to a province of Andalusia, called Belad Tudmir, "the country of
Theodomir," having tried, although in vain, to stop the impetuous career of
Tarik's men, despatched immediately a messenger to his master, apprising him
how Tarik and his followers had landed In Andalusia. He also wrote him a
letter thus conceived: "This our land has been invaded by people whose name,
country, and origin are unknown to me. I cannot even tell whence they
came - whether they fell from the skies or sprang from the earth."

When this news reached Roderic, who was then in the country of the
Bashkans (Basques), making war in the territory of Banbilonah (Pamplona),
where serious disturbances had occurred, he guessed directly that the blow
came from Ilyan. Sensible, however, of the importance of this attack made
upon his dominions, he left what he had in hand, and, moving toward the south
with the whole of his powerful army, arrived in Cordova, which is placed in
the centre of Andalusia. There he took up his abode in the royal castle,
which the Arabs called after him Roderic's castle. In this palace Roderic
took up his residence for a few days, to await the arrival of the numerous
troops which he had summoned from the different provinces of his kingdom.

They say that while he was staying in Cordova he wrote to the sons of
Wittiza to come and join him against the common enemy; for although it is
true that Roderic had usurped the throne of their father, and persecuted the
sons, yet he had spared their lives; since these two sons of Wittiza are the
same who, when Tarik attacked the forces of King Roderic on the plains of
Guadalete, near the sea, turned back and deserted their ranks, owing to a
promise made them by Tarik to restore them to the throne of their father, if
they helped him against Roderic. However, when Roderic arrived in Cordova,
the sons of Wittiza were busily engaged in some distant province collecting
troops to march against the invaders, and he wrote to them to come and join
him with their forces, in order to march against the Arabs; and, cautioning
them against the inconvenience and danger of private feuds at that moment,
engaged them to join him and attack the Arabs in one mass. The sons of
Wittiza readily agreed to Roderic's proposition, and collecting all their
forces, came to meet him, and encamped not far from the village of Shakandah,
on the opposite side of the river, and on the south of the palace of Cordova.

There they remained for some time, not daring to enter the capital or to
trust Roderic, until at last, having ascertained the truth of the
preparations, and seeing the army march out of the city and him with it, they
entered Cordova, united their forces to his, and marched with him against the
enemy, although, as will be seen presently, they were already planning the
treachery which they afterward committed. Others say that the sons of
Wittiza did not obey the summons sent them by the usurper Roderic; on the
contrary, that they joined Tarik with all their forces.

When Tarik received the news of the approach of Roderic's army, which is
said to have amounted to nearly one hundred thousand men, provided with all
kinds of weapons and military stores, he wrote to Musa for assistance, saying
that he had taken Algesiras, a port of Andalusia, thus becoming, by its
possession, the master of the passage into that country; that he had subdued
its districts as far as the bay; but that Roderic was now advancing against
him with a force which it was not in his power to resist, except it was God
Almighty's will that it should be so. Musa, who since Tarik's departure for
this expedition had been employed in building ships, and had by this time
collected a great many, sent by them a reinforcement of five thousand
Moslems, which, added to the seven thousand of the first expedition, made the
whole forces amount to twelve thousand men, eager for plunder and anxious for
battle. Ilyan was also sent with his army and the people of his states to
accompany this expedition, and to guide it through the passes in the country,
and gather intelligence for them.

In the mean while Roderic was drawing nearer to the Moslems, with all
the forces of the barbarians, their lords, their knights, and their bishops;
but the hearts of the great people of the kingdom being against him, they
used to see each other frequently, and in their private conversations they
uttered their sentiments about Roderic in the following manner: "This wretch
has by force taken possession of the throne to which he is not justly
entitled, for not only he does not belong to the royal family, but he was
once one of our meanest menials; we do not know how far he may carry his
wicked intentions against us. There is no doubt but that Tarik's followers
do not intend to settle in this country; their only wish is to fill their
hands with spoil, and then return. Let us then, as soon as the battle is
engaged, give way, and leave the usurper alone to fight the strangers, who
will soon deliver us from him; and, when they shall be gone, we can place on
the throne him who most deserves it."

In these sentiments all agreed, and it was decided that the proposed
plan should be put into execution; the two sons of Wittiza, whom Roderic had
appointed to the command of the right and left wings of his army, being at
the head of the conspiracy, in the hope of gaining the throne of their

When the armies drew nearer to each other, the princes began to spin the
web of their treason; and for this purpose a messenger was sent by them to
Tarik, informing him how Roderic, who had been a mere menial and servant to
their father, had, after his death, usurped the throne; that the princes had
by no means relinquished their rights, and that they implored protection and
security for themselves. They offered to desert, and pass over to Tarik with
the troops under their command, on condition that the Arab general would,
after subduing the whole of Andalusia, secure to than all their father's
possessions, amounting to three thousand valuable and chosen farms, the same
that received after this the name of Safaya-l-moluk, "the royal portion."
This offer Tarik accepted; and, having agreed to the conditions, on the next
day the sons of Wittiza deserted the ranks of the Gothic army in the midst of
battle, and passed over to Tarik, this being, no doubt, one of the principal
causes of the conquest.

Roderic arrived on the banks of the Guadalete with a formidable army,
which most historians compute at one hundred thousand cavalry; although Ibnu
Khaldun makes it amount to forty thousand men only. Roderic brought all his
treasures and military stores in carts: he himself came in a litter placed
between two mules, having over his head an awning richly set with pearls,
rubies, and emeralds. On the approach of this formidable host the Moslems
did not lose courage, but prepared to meet their adversary. Tarik assembled
his men, comforted them by his words, and after rendering the due praises to
the Almighty God, and returning thanks for what had already been
accomplished, proceeded to implore his mighty help for the future. He then
encouraged the Moslems, and kindled their enthusiasm with the following

"Whither can you fly? - the enemy is in your front, the sea at your
back. By Allah! there is no salvation for you but in your courage and
perseverance. Consider your situation: here you are on this island, like so
many orphans cast upon the world; you will soon be met by a powerful enemy,
surrounding you on all sides like the infuriated billows of a tempestuous
sea, and sending against you his countless warriors, drowned in steel, and
provided with every store and description of arms. What can you oppose to
them? You have no other weapons than your swords, no provisions but those
that you may snatch from the hands of your enemies; you must therefore attack
them immediately, or otherwise your wants will increase; the gales of victory
may no longer blow in your favor, and perchance the fear that lurks in the
hearts of your enemies may be changed into indomitable courage.

"Banish all fear from your hearts, trust that victory shall be ours, and
that the barbarian king will not be able to withstand the shock of our arms.
Here he comes to make us the master of his cities and castles, and to deliver
into our hands his countless treasures; and if you only seize the opportunity
now presented, it may perhaps be the means of your becoming the owners of
them, besides saving yourselves from certain death. Do not think that I
impose upon you a task from which I shrink myself, or that I try to conceal
from you the dangers attending this our expedition. No; you have certainly a
great deal to encounter, but know that if you only suffer for a while, you
will reap in the end an abundant harvest of pleasures and enjoyments. And do
not imagine that while I speak to you I mean not to act as I speak; for as my
interest in this affair is greater, so will my behavior on this occasion
surpass yours. You must have heard numerous accounts of this island, you
must know how the Grecian maidens, as handsome as houris, their necks
glittering with innumerable pearls and jewels, their bodies clothed with
tunics of costly silks, sprinkled with gold, are waiting your arrival,
reclining on soft couches in the sumptuous palaces of crowned lords and

"You know well that the caliph Abdu-I-Malek Ibnu-I-walid has chosen you,
like so many heroes, from among the brave; you know that the great lords of
this island are willing to make you their sons and brethren by marriage, if
you only rush on like so many brave men to the fight, and behave like true
champions and valiant knights; you know that the recompenses of God await you
if you are prepared to uphold his words, and proclaim his religion in this
island; and, lastly, that all the spoil shall be yours, and of such Moslems
as may be with you.

"Bear in mind that God Almighty will select, according to this promise,
those that distinguish themselves most among you, and grant them due reward,
both in this world and in the future; and know likewise that I shall be the
first to set you the example, and to put in practice what I recommend you to
do; for it is my intention, on the meeting of the two hosts, to attack the
Christian tyrant Roderic, and kill him with my own hand, if God be pleased.
When you see me bearing against him, charge along with me; if I kill him, the
victory is ours; if I am killed before I reach him, do not trouble yourselves
about me, but fight as if I were still alive and among you, and follow up my
purpose; for the moment they see their King fall, these barbarians are sure
to disperse. If, however, I should be killed, after inflicting death upon
their King, appoint a man from among you who unites both courage and
experience and may command you in this emergency and follow up the success.
If you attend to my instructions, we are sure of the victory."

When Tarik had thus addressed his soldiers and exhorted them to fight
with courage and to face the dangers of war with a stout heart - when he had
thus recommended them to make a simultaneous attack upon Roderic's men, and
promised them abundant reward if they routed their enemies - their
countenances were suddenly expanded with joy their hopes were strengthened,
the gales of victory began to blow on their side, and they all unanimously
answered him: "We are ready to follow thee, O Tarik! We shall all, to one
man, stand by thee and fight for thee; nor could we avoid it were we
otherwise disposed - victory is our only hope of salvation."

After this Tarik mounted his horse, and his men did the same; and they
all passed that night in constant watch for fear of the enemy. On the
following morning, when day dawned, both armies prepared for battle; each
general formed his cavalry and his infantry, and, the signal being given, the
armies met with a shock, similar to that of two mountains dashing against
each other.

King Roderic came, borne on a throne, and having over his head an awning
of variegated silk to guard him from the rays of the sun, surrounded by
warriors, cased in bright steel, with fluttering pennons and a profusion of
banners and standards.

Tarik's men were differently arrayed; their breasts were covered with
mail armor; they wore white turbans on their heads, the Arabian bow slung
across their backs, their swords suspended in their girdles, and their long
spears firmly grasped in their hands.

They say that when the two armies were advancing upon each other, and
the eyes of Roderic fell upon the men in the first ranks, he was
horror-stricken, and was heard to exclaim: "By the faith of the Messiah!
These are the very men I saw painted on the scroll found in the mansion of
science at Toledo;" and from that moment fear entered his heart; and when
Tarik perceived Roderic, he said to his followers, "This is the King of the
Christians," and he charged with his men, the warriors who surrounded Roderic
being on all sides scattered and dispersed; seeing which, Tarik plunged into
the ranks of the enemy until he reached the King, and wounded him with his
sword on the head and killed him on his throne; and when Roderic's men saw
their King fall, and his bodyguard dispersed, the rout became general, and
victory remained with the Moslems.

The rout of the Christians was complete, for instead of rallying on one
spot, they fled in all directions, and, their panic being communicated to
their countrymen, cities opened their gates, and castles surrendered without

The preceding account we have borrowed from a writer of great note, but
we deem it necessary to warn the readers that the assertion that Roderic died
by the hands of Tarik has been contradicted by several historians, since his
body, although diligently sought on the field of battle, could nowhere be

We shall proceed to recount in detail that memorable battle, when
Almighty God was pleased to put King Roderic's army to flight and grant the
Moslems a most complete victory. Several authors who have described at large
this famous engagement state that Tarik encamped near Roderic, toward the
middle of the month of Ramadan of the year 92 (September, A.D. 711), and
although there is some difference as to the dates, all agree that the battle
was fought on the banks of the Guadalete. They say also that while both
armies were encamped in front of each other, the barbarian King, wishing to
ascertain the exact amount of Tarik's forces, sent one of his men, whose
valor and strength he knew, and in whose fidelity he placed unbounded
confidence, with instructions to penetrate into Tarik's camp, and bring him
an account of their number, arms, accoutrements, and vessels.

The Christian proceeded to execute his commission, and reached a small
elevation, whence he had a commanding view of the whole camp. However, he
had not remained long in his place of observation before he was discovered by
some Moslems, who pursued him; but the Christian fled before them, and
escaped through the swiftness of his horse.

Arrived at the Christian camp, he addressed Roderic in the following
words: "These people, O King! are the same that thou sawest painted on the
scroll of the enchanted palace. Beware of them! for the greatest part of
them have bound themselves by oath to reach thee or die in the attempt; they
have set fire to their vessels, to destroy their last hope of escape; they
are encamped along the sea-shore, determined to die or to vanquish, for they
know well that there is not in this country a place whither they can fly."
On hearing this account, King Roderic was much disheartened, and he trembled
with fear. However, the two armies engaged near the lake or gulf; they
fought resolutely on both sides till the right and left wings of Roderic's
army, under the command of the sons of Wittiza, gave way. The centre, in
which Roderic was, still held firm for a while, and made the fate of the
battle uncertain for some time; they fled at last, and Roderic before them.
From that moment the rout became general, and the Moslems followed with ardor
the pursuit of the scattered bands, inflicting death wherever they went.

Roderic disappeared in the midst of the battle, and no certain
intelligence was afterward received of him. It is true that some Moslems
found his favorite steed, a milk-white horse, bearing a saddle of gold,
sparkling with rubies, plunged in the mud of the river, as also one of his
sandals, adorned with rubies and emeralds, but the other was never found; nor
was Roderic, although diligently searched for, ever discovered either dead or
alive, a circumstance which led the Moslems to believe that he perished in
the stream, the weight of his armor preventing him from struggling against
the current, and he was drowned; but God only knows what became of him.

According to Ar-razi, the contest began on Sunday, two days before the
end of Ramadan, and continued till Sunday, the 5th of Shawal; namely, eight
whole days; at the end of which God Almighty was pleased to put the idolaters
to flight, and grant the victory to the Moslems; and he adds that so great
was the number of the Goths who perished in the battle that for a long time
after the victory the bones of the slain were to be seen covering the field
of action.

They say also that the spoil found by the Moslems in the camp of the
Christians surpassed all computation, for the princes and great men of the
Goths who had fallen were distinguished by the rings of gold they wore on
their fingers, those of an inferior class by similar ornaments of silver,
while those of the slaves were made of brass. Tarik collected all the spoil
and divided it into five shares or portions, when, after deducting one-fifth,
he distributed the rest among nine thousand Moslems, besides the slaves and

When the people on the other side of the straits heard of this success
of Tarik, and of the plentiful spoils he had acquired, they flocked to him
from all quarters, and crossed the sea on every vessel or bark they could lay
hold of. Tarik's army being so considerably reinforced, the Christians were
obliged to shut themselves up in their castles and fortresses, and, quitting
the flat country, betake themselves to their mountains.

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