This is episode 42 called Battle of Simancas and in this episode you will learn:
- Who Ramiro II of León was
- The pompous parade of departure of the campaign of Osma of 934
- The first revolt of Muhammad ibn Hashim of the Banu Tujib clan and the tactical declaration of the Kingdom of Pamplona as vassal of the Caliphate
- The campaign of Osma itself
- The rebellion of Muhammad ibn Hashim, the offensives of the Christians, and the submission of Zaragoza
- The treaty of submission of Zaragoza and its implications
- The preparation of the campaign of the Omnipotence
- The Battle of Simancas-Alhándega and why the Caliphal forces were defeated
- Public execution of the traitors of Simancas at Medina Azahara and the Umayyad social contract
- The long-lasting consequences of the Battle of Simancas
- The immediate aftermath of the battle
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 42 called Battle of Simancas. In this episode you will learn about the campaign of Osma, the submission of Zaragoza, and the decisive Battle of Simancas. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast!
We left the narrative of the Kingdom of León with the victory of Ramiro II in 931 over his brother Alfonso IV, who had abdicated but later regretted that decision. In Pamplona, Sancho Garcés had been succeeded by his minor son García Sánchez, this being the first time in Spanish history that a minor ruled, so his uncle acted as regent until he died in 931. When his uncle passed away, it seems that another uncle tried to either become the regent or directly replace García Sánchez, but the crisis was solved thanks to the Queen dowager and mother of García, Toda of Pamplona. From then on, Toda of Pamplona became the regent and real ruler of Pamplona, and with her excellent political and diplomatic skills she secured the reign of his son and years later she intervened in the Kingdom of León too. In al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman III had elevated the Emirate into the Caliphate of Córdoba and he had already extended his authority over the Lower and Middle Marches, as well as Ceuta and Melilla, so he only had to impose firmly his authority over the Upper March. Moreover, the Caliph started to construct the magnificent city-palace of Medina Azahara, as we saw in the previous episode ‘Caliphal Córdoba and Medina Azahara’, but in this episode we are going to focus on political and military developments.
King Ramiro II of León was a brave, intelligent and confident monarch, maybe a bit over-confident. He opted to reunify the County of Castile and name one of his apparently most loyal supporters Count of Castile. Count Fernán González had that honor, and additionally he also ruled the County of Álava, that’s why I said that Ramiro II might have been over-confident and naive giving so much power to one man, but we will see why I say that in the next episode. For the time being, Ramiro could only see the danger from the south. The Caliphate of Córdoba was only growing stronger, and if the Leonese were going to confront the Andalusis they needed to be united and outsmart them, because they had fewer resources compared to the Caliphate. The son of Ordoño II would prove to be a worthy successor of his father as a great adversary of Abd al-Rahman III, to the point that he would earn the nickname el Diablo, the Devil, due to his ferocity and energy fighting the Muslims. We had already seen in episode 39 ‘Towards the Caliphate of Córdoba’ that he intervened in the siege of Toledo to protect the independence of this key city from the Caliph of Córdoba. Since he had to besiege León, he couldn’t go to Toledo in person nor sent the bulk of his army, but the Leonese troops were capable of attacking the fortress of Madrid and sacking the then small city.
According to some Christian sources, in 933 there was a first battle at Osma that the Leonese and Castilian troops won, but the historicity of this battle is not clear and according to Arabic sources that year there was only a campaign around the frontier of the Middle March, to subdue some rebels of the Berber Banu Dhi-l-Nun clan. What’s clear is that in 934 Abd al-Rahman III led a campaign himself, departing from Córdoba with a pompous parade. Historian Ibn Hayyan said the following about the parade: “In this year the Caliph al-Nasir personally made an aceifa against the lands of the infidels, which was the campaign called of Osma, for which he had ordered preparations and mobilization since the beginning of the year, sending letters in this sense to the kuras of al-Andalus and to all his loyalists of North Africa. People came from all over, making al-Nasir for this campaign a great display, which became famous in al-Andalus and caused admiration in Cordoba for the demonstration he made of number of soldiers and material, jewelry and adornment…
He appeared wearing a coat and hugging a sword, a knight in a chestnut of a well-known race, one of his best steeds, surrounded by his qadi and squadrons, in perfect formation, showing off weapons and strength. For the greater showiness of the display he multiplied the classes of equipment and the formidable, beautiful and valuable insignia of outlandish classes in flags and banners, appearing on this occasion among his flags the eagle, which he had invented, for no sultan had it before, and which the people looked upon with curiosity and delight, being the object of endless commentary.” With this parade of departure we can see how the Caliph wanted to show off his power, but it also shows how he was becoming a little overconfident, and he would pay for that overconfidence in the Battle of Simancas.
Anyway, al-Nasir had the intention of penetrating Castilian territory through the province of Guadalajara, but since the governor of Zaragoza Muhammad ibn Hashim and the Banu al-Tawil of Huesca refused to participate in the campaign, the Caliphal troops first paid a visit to the Upper March. The revolt was quickly suppressed, and the Umayyad army continued the expedition towards the Kingdom of Pamplona of the regent Queen Toda. Instead of letting the Andalusis raze and loot the Kingdom of Pamplona, Queen Toda opted for a diplomatic solution, so she and several noble and ecclesiastical magnates came out to meet Caliph Abd al-Rahman at the military camp of Calahorra. Toda of Pamplona invoked the kinship ties between her and the Caliph, because she was his aunt, and declared Pamplona a vassal of the Caliphate of Córdoba, and in exchange al-Nasir acknowledged García Sánchez as King of Pamplona and he stopped incursions against Vasconia. This treaty was humiliating for Pamplona, because they were recognizing the hegemony of the Caliphate of Córdoba, but thanks to that Queen Toda was saving the integrity of the Kingdom of Pamplona and the well-being of its citizens. Not everyone in Pamplona was happy with this diplomatic approach, and a member of the Jimena dynasty revolted to force the return of the unconditional war against the Muslims. The instigator of the revolt was forced to surrender, he was executed in the camp of the Cordobans, and his body was cut into quarters.
After that, the Andalusis continued their aceifa in the County of Álava and Castile to sack the region. As usual, the Umayyad army ravaged the fields and burned the vineyards and orchards, while peasants had to take refuge in fortresses to avoid being captured and enslaved. Among the damage caused, in Castile the town of Oña was destroyed and the monastery of Cardeña in Burgos was sacked and destroyed, and following Latin and Arabic sources that confirms the historic veracity of the story of the between 200 and 300 martyrs of Cardeña. The contemporary historian Al-Razi said that the smell of the burning of the fortress of Grañón in Álava was sweeter than perfume to the Muslim soldiers, and Al-Razi goes on saying that in the campaign of Osma many other monasteries, fortresses, towns and churches of Castile were destroyed.
This bellicose rhetoric had the intention to present Abd al-Rahman III as a champion of jihad, a condition that anyone claiming to be the Caliph must have and that’s far from the idealized tolerant attitude of the Muslims of al-Andalus. We don’t have any mention of an organized resistance by Count Fernán González or King Ramiro II yet, because Fernán González knew that the Castilian hosts wouldn’t be enough to confront the Umayyads and he had sent an urgent letter to his king requesting aid. According to Ibn Hayyan, Count Fernán González in the meantime used guerrilla tactics, using high and inaccessible places to harass small Muslim detachments. The real battle of the campaign occurred outside the walls of Osma, with an indecisive battle with significant losses on both sides, although both Christian and Muslim sources claim that they had won the battle.
The following year’s war between León and the Caliphate of Córdoba occurred in present-day Aragon, what then was the Upper March. The Banu Tujib clan had been the uncontested rulers of the Upper March ever since the Banu Qasi lost their hegemony. Muhammad ibn Hashim, known in the Christian chronicles as Aboiahia, was the patriarch of the clan during the reign of Ramiro II and he had succeeded his father in the office without the permission or intervention of the Caliph, something that the Cordoban obviously didn’t approve. But Muhammad didn’t like the idea of accepting the authority of Abd al-Rahman III, as he saw how former Banu Qasi bastions like Tudela, Borja or Tarazona were controlled by Abd al-Rahman, who replaced their governors at will. Even the Banu al-Tawil of Huesca had seen much of their power fading away during the 930s, and Muhammad didn’t want that to happen to his clan. The only alternative for the Banu Tujib to maintain their autonomy was to nominally become vassals of Ramiro II and form a military alliance to protect their independence.
Not surprisingly, in 935 Muhammad ibn Hashim rebelled once again. Meanwhile, the Banu Tujib of Calatayud and Daroca remained loyal and Abd al-Rahman negotiated a truce with Ramiro to prevent him from aiding Muhammad ibn Hashim, so it only seemed like a matter of time before Zaragoza surrendered. Nonetheless, the submission of Zaragoza wasn’t going to be that easy, because Christian rulers and Muslim warlords opened new fronts that gave extra boost to the revolt of Zaragoza. King Ramiro II broke the treaty with the Caliph and attacked loyal Umayyad fortresses to support the rebellion of Muhammad ibn Hashim and make him his vassal. Queen Toda of Pamplona did the same, because the declaration of Pamplona as vassal of the Umayyads was only a tactical move to avoid widespread destruction, and Toda also thought that a coalition between Pamplona, Zaragoza and León would be enough to resist the power of Córdoba.
In the eastern frontier, Count Suñer I of Barcelona successfully raided Tarragona, as a revenge of a raid of an Umayyad fleet against the Catalan coasts. Suñer I forced the stronghold of Tortosa to pay tribute and he captured booty and Muslims. Moreover, in al-Andalus the Tujibids of Calatayud and Daroca joined their relative, the citizens of Huesca expelled their Umayyad governor and a Banu Tujib became governor of Huesca, and the Banu Dhi-l-Nun of the Middle March revolted too. Historian Eduardo Manzano Moreno suggested that this widespread disaffection is related to the alleged ambitions of an Umayyad who served as general against Zaragoza, but who was executed because Abd al-Rahman suspected that he wanted to claim the Cordoban throne. His brother rebelled and sought alliances with the Banu Dhi-l-Nun of Cuenca and Guadalajara, but the revolt was suppressed in the end.
Abd al-Rahman III was firmly committed to the task of reunifying al-Andalus, and the submission of Zaragoza was the final step to achieve that ambitious objective. Muslim troops of the Banu Dhi-l-Nun and the Banu Razin, who later would found the small and very interesting Taifa of Albarracín, attacked the Castilian frontier and killed the brother of Fernán González. King Ramiro apparently had to suppress an internal revolt, and the Umayyads also attacked northern Portugal and Pamplona to put Ramiro and Toda on the defensive. With their Christian allies distracted and more worried about their own realms, the Banu Tujib abandoned their stronghold of Daroca and based their strategy on the defense of Calatayud and Zaragoza. Muslim and Christian troops under a Banu Tujib were stationed in Calatayud, but the Umayyad army put it under siege until the Tujibids surrendered. The Muslims were pardoned, but the majority of Christian Alavese and Castilian soldiers had their throat cut. The fall of Calatayud supposed the beginning of the end of the Tujibid rebellion, because Zaragoza became isolated, resisting a siege alone for 8 months. On 23 August 937 Muhammad ibn Hashim surrendered Zaragoza and that marked the end of the local revolts against the central government. Nonetheless, peace negotiations lasted until November, and luckily the treaty has survived to this day.
I cannot cite the entire treaty because it’s more than 2 pages long, but let me quote some of the key points to better understand the submission of a frontier stronghold like Zaragoza. “The treaty grants the aman (the pardon) for Muhammad ibn Hashim, his brothers, sons, relatives, and all his comrades, his men, and anyone who joined him. […] It grants the ownership of the city to Muhammad ibn Hashim. […] Al-Nasir commits himself to register in the name of Yahya ibn Hashim (brother of Muhammad) the city of Lérida. […] Muhammad is to stay in Córdoba for thirty days, demonstrating the sincerity of his submission. […] The government promises to name Muhammad governor and general of Zaragoza and destitute the acting Umayyad governors once Muhammad fulfills the agreed clause of appearing in the court of Córdoba. […] Muhammad was to surrender as hostages his eldest son and the eldest son of his brother. […] Muhammad ibn Hashim had to provide evidence of having broken his relationship with the polytheists, from the territories of Barcelona, Cerdaña, Pamplona, Álava, Castile and León. He wouldn’t exchange letters nor have trade with them.”
Apart from all these points, the treaty of submission of Zaragoza highlights the obligation of Muhammad ibn Hashim to send to the capital the corresponding taxes and tributes and his obligation to participate in the aceifas of the Caliph. They swore this treaty in the Mosque of Zaragoza and in the presence of tens of notables from both Córdoba and Zaragoza who had to swear the treaty too. To sum up the content of the agreement, if Muhammad ibn Hashim demonstrated his loyalty with the terms imposed by the Caliph, then he would be named governor of Zaragoza for life, his sons could succeed him in the office, and other Tujibids received concessions like the ownership of Lérida. It’s very remarkable how the central government of Córdoba was unable to remove the power of the Tujibids and substitute them for loyal governors, and instead the Umayyads had to accept feudal relationships with the Tujibids. The price of reimposing Umayyad authority over all al-Andalus was high, because Abd al-Rahman had no other choice but to acknowledge a high degree of autonomy of certain powerful clans of the marches. Only the Christians would benefit from the internal divisions within al-Andalus, so it was a necessary concession, but despite the generosity of the Caliph with the terms of surrender of Zaragoza, people in the borderlands still resented the central government, as they soon demonstrated.
After pacifying the Upper March, the next objective of Abd al-Rahman III was the Kingdom of León, specifically the Leonese and Castilian areas of expansion along the Duero river. He prepared a very large military force, the largest Muslim expedition before the campaigns of Almanzor with the aim to crush once and for all the boldness of Ramiro II and the Christian expansion in general. Some sources talk about around 100,000 men although it is difficult to believe that so many men could be mobilized in a country that probably had 5 o 6 million people. In any case, thousands of Andalusis participated in a campaign that was beforehand named the Campaign of the Omnipotence, a name that reflected the overconfidence of the Muslims. Abd al-Rahman III departed from Córdoba, going through Toledo while Muslim clans of the marches, including the Banu Tujib, joined the Caliph. To confront this large military force, Ramiro gathered troops from all the corners of the Kingdom of León, including the Castilian troops of Count Fernán González and allied Pamplonese troops of Queen Toda and King García Sánchez.
A solar eclipse preceded the battle, later interpreted as a bad omen for the Umayyads. The chronicler Kitab ar-Rawd wrote: “As the army arrived near Simancas, there was an awful eclipse of the sun that covered the earth of a dark yellow amid the day and it filled us and the infidels with terror as neither had seen in their life such a thing as this. Two days passed without either side making any movement”. The Battle of Simancas was first fought in the right bank of the Pisuegra river, in the northeast of Simancas, over the course of several days of August 939. Both sides lost thousands of men, but according to the Castilian annals the Christians killed 3,000 Muslims and Ramiro II of León defeated Abd al-Rahman III and his large army in the Battle of Simancas, preventing them from taking the stronghold of Simancas. This first encounter wasn’t a really decisive defeat, but the Battle of Simancas had a second and much more decisive follow up, called the battle of Alhándega, hence the battle is also known as the Battle of Simancas-Alhándega. Alhándega comes from the Arabic al-jandaq, meaning cliff, because it’s in a cliff nearby Castro, in the province of Soria, where Abd al-Rahman III was spectacularly defeated, in part because some Andalusi lords with their hosts defected.
The Andalusis lost even more men and material than at Simancas, and that was the cherry on the cake for the Christians and the ultimate humiliation for the Caliphate of Córdoba. Old aristocratic Arab families of the Syrian junds and Muslim frontier lords felt disaffected for different reasons. There were tensions with the junds because they were being replaced by mercenaries and slaves and the main commander of the Battle of Simancas was the hated brother-in-law of the Caliph and non-Arab namedNadja ibn Husayn, while the frontier lords wanted their autonomy back. So some of them defected without worrying about the protection of the Caliph or the fate of the inexperienced Islamic volunteers, and that was especially aggravating for a Caliph who assumed the protection of his subjects as a religious duty. The governor of Huesca of the Banu al-Tawil family was one of the men who withheld his troops, and because of that he was arrested, tortured, and he had his tongue cut before being crucified alive. Pretty gore, yes.
When the Caliph and his decimated troops arrived in the capital, the Caliph immediately ordered the erection of crosses in front of the main door of Medina Azahara and a kind of wooden walls that represented the Islamic araf, the high curtain that separates Heaven from Hell. The symbolism had the clear intention of causing fear and announcing that the Caliph was about to send traitors to Hell, not to the Paradise. The election of the day of the execution wasn’t casual either, since the Eid al-Adha or Festival of the Sacrifice has a special religious meaning. No one knew who was going to be executed, but the Cordobans were curious. Abd al-Rahman reviewed the troops and then ordered the magistrate of Córdoba to arrest ten senior officers of the junds who deserted at Simancas. When they woke up that day, those officers didn’t imagine that they would be crucified, so they started to cry for aid, mercy and forgiveness but that fell on deaf ears. In fact, Abd al-Rahman III got increasingly furious and he started to recriminate them their desertion.
Pointing to the citizens of Córdoba who were there to witness the execution, the Caliph yelled: “Look at these poor people, haven’t they given us authority, making themselves our submissive servants, for us to defend and protect them? But, if we become their equals in cowardice in front of the enemy and we lack character, in what way are we superior to them, if we only want to save our life, even if we lose theirs? God forbid: taste the consequences of your actions”. Then al-Nasir ordered their crucifixion and had them finished off with spears. One witness found their death so unbearable that he fainted, but the objective of such a violent public execution was precisely to be exemplary, to instill fear among the Andalusis and especially among the elite, and to demonstrate the absolute power of Abd al-Rahman III. The words of Abd al-Rahman also reflect the social contract that the Umayyads had with their subjects, because as he said the Umayyads were only the legitimate rulers of al-Andalus as long as they protected the interests of their subjects. According to other sources, an additional 300 cavalry officers were crucified too, while heralds proclaimed: “this is the punishment reserved for those who have betrayed Islam, sold its people and sown fear among the ranks of the soldiers in the Holy War!”
The Caliph of Córdoba took the withdrawal of some troops very personally, because his life was put in great danger during the battle, it’s actually said that Abd al-Rahman only escaped from the battle half-alive. Al-Nasir even lost his personal Quran and his coat of mail, and although later Ramiro II returned them that’s not the only thing the Christian troops captured. The Leonese, Castilians and Pamplonese captured much loot, including gold, silver and precious Andalusi fabrics, and they also captured their former ally Muhammad ibn Hashim of the Banu Tujib. The Caliph Abd al-Rahman III started preparing a new expedition for the following year, but he changed his mind when a Leonese envoy arrived in Córdoba proposing a truce. Negotiations were complicated, but thanks to the skillful intervention of the Jewish foreign minister of Abd al-Rahman, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, Leonese magnates signed in Córdoba the treaty the following year, and among the conditions Muhammad ibn Hashim was to be released. Both Abd al-Rahman and Ramiro knew that this truce wouldn’t last, but it was a way to buy time and recover from their losses.
The Caliphal defeat in the Battle of Simancas had a wide range of long-lasting consequences. Never again did any Caliph of Córdoba lead an aceifa against the Christian kingdoms nor any type of military expedition, and from then on al-Nasir focused his efforts on the administration and the building of Medina Azahara. The strategy to fight the Christians changed from launching large-scale expeditions from time to time, to attacking the Christian border with smaller and more mobile detachments lead by Cordoban generals or frontier lords. Abd al-Rahman reorganized the army and diminished the importance of volunteers and the Syrian junds, and instead the Umayyad army relied more on a professional standing army made up of Andalusis, saqaliba and Berbers from North Africa, something that had a profound impact during the civil war that destroyed the Caliphate of Córdoba. From then on, Abd al-Rahman III didn’t attempt to extend his direct control over the frontier, so he stopped trying to remove the influence of local lineages in the marches. In fact, from 939 onwards the Muslim lords of the Upper and Middle Marches launched aceifas on their own, and al-Nasir had to recognize the right to rule of important local dynasties. Abd al-Rahman had to content himself with this indirect control over the Upper March and to an extent the Middle March too, but the good thing is that the absence of new serious rebellions indicates that the central government and local dynasties had finally found an acceptable balance of autonomy.
In the Upper March, Muhammad ibn Hashim fought against the King of Pamplona García Sánchez and the Count of Castile Fernán González. He even helped in the defense of Lérida against a weird incursion of Magyars, that is Hungarians, who caused some devastation in present-day Catalonia and Aragon in 942. The Banu al-Tawil once again ruled in Huesca and Barbastro, and they had some internal conflicts caused by differences of opinions regarding their marriages and relationship with Pamplona. Intermarriage between Christian and Muslim elites was becoming a thing of the past, and in the 10th century the importance of religious affiliation was increasing in the Iberian Peninsula, a prelude of the later crusade and militant jihad movements.
On the other hand, thanks to the Christian victory at Simancas Ramiro II of León was able to continue his repopulations beyond the Duero, between the Duero and Tormes river. The resettlement included cities that would become important, like Salamanca or Ledesma, while Count Fernán González of Castile colonized Sepúlveda, although these conquests would be reverted for some time later because they were in the other side of the Duero and thus less easy to defend. The prestige and fame of Ramiro II of León increased in al-Andalus and in other Christian states, and it’s in the Battle of Simancas when Ramiro earned his nickname the Devil. The Battle of Simancas is remembered not because it supposed great territorial gains for the Kingdom of León or Pamplona, but rather because it was the first major victory of the Spanish Christians against the Andalusis. Despite the joy for their victory at Simancas, the Christians soon wouldn’t be so happy, because not too long after the battle the Caliphate of Córdoba was able to intervene in the domestic affairs of the Christian kingdoms, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that they became satellite states of Córdoba. Thanks to these successful interventions and the successful raids of al-Andalus against the Christians of later years, the memory of the Battle of Simancas was not completely forgotten, but the effects of the defeat were minimized.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the political theory that gave legitimacy to Umayyad rule in Córdoba. Umayyad legitimacy was based on the political and religious principles of the Quran, but as we have seen Abd al-Rahman III was perfectly aware that the rule of the Umayyads was not uncontested nor granted by Allah. A caliph had to rule the umma, the entire Muslim community, guided by the laws of Quran, and in return the umma pledged obedience to him. The umma was subject and not sovereign, governed and not governing, but that’s not something that must be understood pejoratively but rather as a reciprocal but unequal relationship between the caliph and the umma. The monk and ambassador of Emperor Otto I John of Gorze was actually surprised, because that meant that rulers didn’t reign by the grace of God and that the Andalusis had the right to revolt and depose a tyrant ruler if the monarch failed to follow and guide his subject in accordance to the Quran. This is similar to other political theories seen in other parts of the world, like Confucianism and the Mandate of Heaven of China, or later other thinkers in the West justified the right of revolution and tyrannicide, like Thomas Aquinas, Juan de Mariana, or John Locke. This is important to understand, because even monarchies need a political philosophy to justify their right to rule. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I’m going to talk about the Count of Castile Fernán González, a ruler who has been converted into a hero and founder of the Castilian nation by later chronicles, as it happened to Count Wifredo the Hairy in Catalonia. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, that has a fantastic store with merchandising, history books, travel guides, books and materials to learn Spanish, and more. If you love the podcast, you may want to support it by becoming a patron or making a donation, but there are other non-financial ways to support the show, like reviewing the podcast or spreading the word. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, YouTube and more and follow the social media accounts of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
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