Say the word “Crusades” to many people and they automatically think of the Holy Land, Syria and Egypt. The wars between Christian knights and Muslim warriors are seen entirely as a violent confrontation that took place only in the Middle East. Our rather narrow and misleading view is coloured by the continuing instability in that region. In fact, the Crusades were a much bigger affair.
Indeed the Crusades extended far beyond modern Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. Up in north east Europe, the Teutonic Knights fought both pagans and Russian orthodox Christians. Meanwhile in south-western Europe – the Iberian peninsula to be precise – saw initially small Christian kingdoms fight a large flourishing caliphate that at one point in the eighth century CE stretched into southern France.
So how exactly did Muslim rulers come to be in charge of the Iberian peninsula?
Well, in the year 711CE the armies of Islam were invited into modern Spain to take sides in a dispute between rival Visigoth nobles. These were the descendants of the Germanic tribes that had overrun Roman Hispania three centuries earlier. Seeing the stretch of fertile land before them, the Umayyad Muslim generals could scarcely believe their luck. And the Visigoths duly crumbled before their gleaming scimitars. Over the next sixty years, the Umayyads set about subduing the entire peninsula – what we now call Spain and Portugal.
This invasion would have a huge impact on this part of the world. Cities like Cordoba and Seville came to be regarded as an integral part of a caliphate that stretched all the way to Damascus and Baghdad. The only parts of the Iberian peninsula not taken were the north west, which was less economically attractive and more remote, and the harder to conquer bits of the Basque country. Otherwise, every major urban centre and most of the land fell to the caliphate.
For the next seven hundred and fifty years, the Muslim domains would be pushed back bit by bit. New Christian kingdoms gradually formed in the north like Leon, Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal forcing the Emirate of Cordoba to yield its cities to the Cross. This story of prolonged warfare is fascinating and one I touch on in my book Quest for the True Cross. I take my protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, from the killing fields of the Holy Land to the siege of a great and glorious city called Al-Usbuna.
Al-Usbuna is modern day Lisbon. In 1147, it was a Moorish city with a Muslim governor, a great mosque and a maze of streets called the Medina where the ordinary people lived. It’s hard to believe that the capital of modern Portugal was part of the Umayyad caliphate and had to be conquered by a large crusader force including many Knights Templar. Even today, the northern Portuguese often refer to their southern Portuguese fellow countrymen as “arabs”.
In my book, I draw on a contemporary account of the siege translated from the Latin – The Conquest of Lisbon – which details how the city, after over four hundred years of Muslim rule – came to be besieged by a Christian force. Even though my book is a work of fiction, it does include many key details of that siege and you’ll get a real flavour of how the Crusades were fought in Spain and Portugal to an ultimately successful conclusion.