Friday, 28 June 2013

Warfare in Al-Andalus

It took me a while to finish this last part of the Al-Andalus project because I needed to sit down and have a look at the books again.

My reading list for Andalusia

These three books are  bound together by the author and illustrator and this results well researched books, which draw their strength from David Nicolle´s good knowledge of Arabic sources and the in beautiful paintings of Angus McBride. But there´s also a broad variety of photographs and maps that add to the text without overlap between the books.

The weakest of the three books is El Cid and the Reconquista, 1050-1492. Spanning four and a half centuries, it suffers from bad organisation. By splitting up the discussion of the armies over different periods, any sense of continuity of change is lost. There is quite a lot of emphasis on equipment at the expense of other subjects, which feel rather general.

This is the only book of the three giving much detail on the armies of the Christian kingdoms. They relied on royal retainers, military religious orders and later urban militias to expand to the south. Their equipment and tactics were heavily influenced by their Arabic opponents.

One of the important lessons is that it is hard to talk of Christian or Muslim armies, because both sides employed warriors of both faiths and many different ethnicities: Spanish born, but also Arab and Berber Muslims, and Spanish as well as French Christians, not forgetting renegades. El Cid’s story is the best known of these soldiers fighting on both sides.

A model showing the Gibralfaro and Alcazaba of
Malaga and the double walls connecting them

Much better is the Moors, where the development is much better explained. Organisation, equipment, architecture and naval warfare are all better structured. It details the change from a Ummayad caliphate based on Spain to Almoravid and later Almohad empires that were both rooted in North Africa. These were seen, by the Muslims as well as the Christian, as foreign invaders. Their fundamentalist teachings meant that they remained separated from the Spanish elites.

Interesting is that these invasion always followed on fragmentation of the previous Muslim empire. Encroachment by Christian kingdoms then forced the Spanish Muslims to call for help from the south. They would have rather remained masters of their own fate.

The walls of Ronda served the town well, but the town
surrendered after its water supply was compromised
Granada 1492. The Twilight of Moorish Spain, on the last campaign is well structured, but has the advantage of a limited period of time with relatively few changes in equipment and organisation. It rolls like a narrative of the campaigns, with good analysis of the strategic considerations on both sides.

The war was pretty one-sided due to the infighting among the Granadese pretenders, although the financial burden of the war would have set limits on the Spanish side had it lasted longer. On the other hand, the quick progress was probably a factor in the ability to gain new loans.

The walls of the Alcazaba of Malaga
One of the few fortresses to stand up to Spanish cannon

But it was not only the internal strife on the Granadese side that won the Spanish the war. This war was about raid and sieges. And while the Granadese gave as good as they received on the first count, the Spanish enjoyed a marked advantage in the latter department. Although there was some artillery in the forts, the Spanish had more and better. Most sieges against smaller towns were therefore resolved quickly. Only Malaga and Granada could put up prolonged resistance. 

Having seen the terrain around Malaga and Ronda, I got the impression that the war in Al-Andalus was a struggle over valleys, with fortification providing control over the areas. This suited the Spanish well as fortifications could be taken at ease most of the time.

The church door of Alozaina commemorating the capture
of the town by Spanish troops on June 21st 1484

Looking at the long term, Granada’s long survival had only been obtained by bending its knees deeply to the Christian kingdoms, war among the Christians and support from North Africa. When these points were resolved in the late 15th century with the unification of Castile and Aragon, and the loss of connections to Muslim rulers across the Straits of Gibraltar, the days of a Muslim state on the Iberian peninsula were marked.

One minaret remains of the mosque of Ronda

Check out my earlier post on the struggle between Christians and Muslims from the perspective of the other side of the Mediterranean, that is from Rhodes.

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