The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212

16 July 1212, an outnumbered crusader army led by the Kings of Castile, Navarre and Aragon and the Archbishop of Toledo decisively defeated the host of the Almohad Caliphate at Las Navas de Tolosa in one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages.

“The wonderful culture of the Moors in Spain, which was fundamentally nearer to us and appealed more to our senses and tastes than that of Rome and Greece, was trampled down (—I do not say by what sort of feet—) Why? Because it had to thank noble and manly instincts for its origin—because it said yes to life, even to the rare and refined luxuriousness of Moorish life! ... The crusaders later made war on something before which it would have been more fitting for them to have grovelled in the dust -- a civilization beside which even that of our nineteenth century seems very poor and very "senile". (Friedrich Nietzsche)

The Catalan painter Francisco de Paula van Halen y Gil’s (1814 – 1887) somewhat wimmelbook-like imagination of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa set in the dramatic landscape of the Sierra Morena (1863)

Calatrava la Vieja had fallen in June of the year, the key fortress in the valley of the Guadiana that controlled the approaches to the Muslim domains and Cordoba and Seville itself. The Almohad Caliph Muhammad an-Nasir, the Miramamolín or amir al-mu'minin, the Prince of the Faithful, was beside himself with wrath and the town major found himself one head shorter. The crusaders, on the other hand, especially the Francos from Narbonne, Nantes and Bordeaux thought their task, given to them by Pope Innocent III, was more or less done, left for good and found the world a perplexing place anyway. King Alfonso VIII of Castile had spared the lives of the infidels inhabiting the place and hadn’t they made the far way to slay Mussulmen, like they did already, along with the Jews, in Christian Toledo, the crusade’s rallying point? The amir al-mu'minin, who had just arrived in al-Andalus from North Africa a year before and already gained considerable territory from the Christians, cried havoc, rallied his redoubtable army and marched to intercept the men from Castile, Navarre and Aragon and both sides approached the Sierra Morena to seek a decision.

A shepherd named Martin Alhaja led the coalition army through the Desfiladero de Despeñaperros, the gate to Andalusia, marked by a cow’s head, a Cabeza de Vaca, and Martin was ennobled on the spot by King Alfonso and his family was hence known as Cabeza de Vaca. One of his descendants was the conquistador and travel writer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca who explored the New World from Florida to Argentina and became something of a proto-anthropologist 300 years later. The coalition army led by his ancestor surprised the Almohad army and the Caliph hastily fielded his 22 -30,000 men against the 12,000 Christians. It was touch and go for a while, but finally the Castilians managed to break through the Almohad centre after suffering heavily under a literal storm of arrows. King Sancho VII of Navarre and his household knights closed in from the right wing and overcame the caliph’s lifeguards, slaves, armed to their teeth and chained together for good measure. The Prince of the Faithful hastily fled the field, his fairytale-like camp gear and war chest fell into the hands of the Christian coalition, Sancho changed his coat-of-arms into a network of golden chains on a red field, to commemorate his feat in battle and the army of the faithful was nearly annihilated. It was the beginning of the end of al-Andalus.

Another King of Aragon surveying a mountain pass in dramatic surroundings - here: Pedro III, as imagined by Mariano Barbasán Langueruela (1864 - 1924) 

The valley of the Guadalquivir was occupied immediately after the battle and over the next thirty years, all major Moorish cities in southern Spain fell to the Reconquista, Córdoba in 1236, Jaén in 1246 and Seville, the new capital, in 1248. Only Granada held out until 1492. The Miramamolín died in Marrakech a few months after the battle, his standard and tent were given to the Pope and the rich tapestry that once had covered the entrance to the tent is still on display in the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas near Burgos and the last major battle between Muslim forces and the Reconquista was fought in 1340 in a futile attempt of the Sultan of Morocco to support Granada and regain lost territories in al-Andalus.

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