Nasrid and Merini

Castile had benefited from the rule of King Alfonso el Sabio, but trouble was brewing with the Muslims in his lands. After the Mudejár uprising in 1266 he had expelled many of the ringleaders and troublemakers from Castile. But his treatment had not been entirely just with those who remained. Prejudice was allowed to fester into open acts of aggression against the Muslims, and some of the powerful dukes had been raiding Muslim lands without his knowledge or consent. In response, the Emir of Granada stirred up unrest within the powerful nobility of Castile by offering favours to bring down their king.

At the same time, dissident factions in the emirate had risen against the emir with the encouragement of Alfonso X, who had also foolishly begun to meddle with the stability of the Granadan emirate. The rival Banu Ashqilula family, rulers in Málaga, Guadix and Comares plunged the emirate into civil war; a war in which King Alfonso hoped to gain more Muslim lands. The situation had grown out of hand, and faced with rebellion in his own lands, and the threat of outside invasion by the Christians, the Emir of Granada, Mohammad I, did what other emirs had done in the past. He wrote to Africa for help.

In the Maghreb, the Merini emir Abu Yusuf had just overcome the last of the Almohad strongholds in Morocco, but was still fighting his old enemy Yaghmorassan of Tlemcen. He could not respond to Mohammad’s plea for help. The war in al-Andalus continued for another two years, and Mohammad I was succeeded by his son, who was forced to pay King Alfonso X 30,0000  maravedis and promise not to interfere in Castilian politics. Faced with this bitter defeat, Mohammad II wrote to Abu Yusuf for help. In 1272 Abu Yusuf had finally succeeded in subduing the whole of the Maghreb in the west, and Tlemcen in the east. Mohammad’s renewed plea for assistance now contained the added incentive of the ports of Tarifa, Algeciras and the inland fortified city of Ronda as gifts for his help. The offer was too good to refuse and Abu-Yusuf ordered his army to Tangir to prepare to invade Iberia.

King Alfonso X was occupied in France making a plea to Pope Gregory X to allow him to become King of the Holy Roman Empire when Abu’s troops stormed through southern al-Andalus. He had left his eldest son, Ferdinand, as caretaker king in his absence, and the poor boy was faced by full scale invasion with no warning. Ferdinand summoned what army he could muster and sent a letter to his father. His younger brother Sancho rode east to rally troops from other nobles and kingdoms and led them south to meet the Merinis.

During the first days of the war Ferdinand died, and the onus of the war fell upon Sancho who defended the Christian kingdoms alone.

After taking the whole of southern al-Andalus, Abu betrayed Mohammad and supported the Banu Ashqilula family in a surprising about face. The Nasrid emir was now forced to fight the Christians and the Merinis. The Merinis were finally halted when Sancho blocked Abu’s supply ships from crossing the straits. By this time, King Alfonso had returned from France and he called truce and asked Abu to discuss terms for peace.


The Wise King then made an error of judgment that would cost him his kingdom. He told his two sons that he was going to bypass them and make the son of his dead firstborn son heir to the crown of Castile. Sancho flew into a rage and rallied his own supporters around him. His first act was to throw his younger brother John into jail for plotting against him. King Alfonso tried to pull his kingdom together, but soon realised that it was irretrievably split by civil war. In desperation, he wrote a letter to Abu Yusuf asking for his help to take back his crown and restore his kingdom. Amazingly, Abu was only too glad to help. Once again, the Merini ships crossed the straits and landed their troops on Iberian soil. Despite reaching the gates of Córdoba, the invasion was a failure, and Abu Yusuf returned to Africa with little gain. The old king, now mortally ill, was isolated in Seville in his last remaining outpost, the Alcazar, where he died in 1284. One of his last acts was to have the Pope excommunicate Sancho, so that his son's marriage was void, and his children illegitimate. Nevertheless, that same year, Sanch was crowned King Sancho IV of Castile by the nobles who supported him.

Sancho succeeded in uniting Castile and León again, but across the straits in Africa, Abu mustered his army around Tangier and launched them across the straits in response to a plea from the rebel Banu Ashqilula family for help against the Granadans. Abu devastated the whole of southern Iberia before Sancho could raise his army and meet him in battle. The emir had laid siege to Jerez, and Sancho marched to relieve the city, but Abu had gone.


Sancho followed Abu south in an attempt to take the ports that Abu was using as invasion staging posts. Abu realised that Sancho was nothing like his father and that he was up against a warrior king who was determined to drive him out of Iberia; he immediately sued for peace. Sancho demanded that he pay compensation for the damage that he had caused, and as a sweetener, Sancho returned three thousand Islamic books of antiquity from the translators in Toledo. Abu also began negotiations with the Nasrid emir Mohammad I to settle disputes over land and the control of ports. It was during these negotiations that Abu Yusuf died and his eldest son, Abu Yaqub Yusuf, succeeded him as emir.

Treaties were negotiated between Christians, Merinis and Nasrid kingdoms, and all parties agreed not to interfere in each other’s politics. The Banu Ashqilula family, who had caused so much bloodshed, were banished to Morocco forever, and as a precaution against further invasions, Sancho strengthened the defenses of southern al-Andalus, including the port of Tarifa, which he had captured from the Merinis.    

 Photo: In 1293, King Sancho IV granted the Archbishop of Toledo, Garcia Guidel, a licence to create the Studium Generale at Álcala de Heneres. In 1499, Pope Alexander VI granted permission for Cardinal Cisneros, himself a pupil of the Studium Generale, to create the Universidad Complutensis, which was the first university campus in the world, and forerunner of the University of Madrid. (Complutum was the Roman name of Álcala de Heneres.)   


For a while there was peace, and with the horrors of another invasion receding, Sancho continued the work that his father had started. In an effort to gain favour with the Pope, he established the network of Studium Generales. These were universities where teachers and students of any of the three main religions could study without constraints. They were linked to the other Great universities of France and Italy, where the renaissance was flowering. The first of the studiums were in Toledo and Alcalá de Heneres, the seat of the Castilian kings near to present day Madrid.   

Photo: The library in al-Karouine.

In the Islamic Madrasas in Iberia and Africa, there was fierce competition to create centres of learning equal or better than the Christian ones.  In 1276 Abu Yusuf had begun to build a new city alongside his capitol, the walled city of Fez.  El-Medinat el-Beida (The White City) was to be a showpiece of Islamic learning and architecture. The ancient madrasa of Al-Karouine in old Fez had been established in 859, making it the oldest university in Europe. In all, Abu built seven madrasas in the new Fez, and it would later become known as Fes el-Jedid (Fez the New)


The story of Alfonso X el Sabio and the civil war with his sons cannot be finished without mentioning one of Spain’s unsung heroes. 

When Sancho IV, el Bravo, took Tarifa he could not find anybody to defend it against the Merinis. As part of the peace settlement, he was supposed to return it to Abu Yacub, but he reneged on the deal. This was the most isolated and dangerous Christian port in all Iberia. Just ten miles to the east was Al-Jazeera, a huge military staging post for the Merini invasions, which was set in a well-defended bay behind the towering rock of Jabal-al-Taric (Gibraltar) and had a large permanent Muslim garrison. The Order of Calatrava agreed to defend Tarifa for a year, but insisted that King Sancho find somebody else to take responsibility for this perilous outpost.

One man offered to defend the castle at Rate. He had served in Alfonso’s army, and as a general in Abu Yusuf’s army. He was known and respected by both sides and was of Muslim parentage, but part of the royal Castilian court. If anybody could ensure peace between the conflicting religions, it was Alosnso Peréz de Guzmán.

King Sancho had thrown his brother John into prison during the time that he had been fighting for the crown of Castile. As soon as Sancho released him, John ran to Portugal to ask King Denis to support him in an attempt to depose his brother. The King threw him out of his country, so John went to Abu Yacub in Fez to ask him to give him troops to take back Tarifa.

John’s plan was to use one of Guzmán’s sons as blackmail. He had broken a siege in this way before, and he tried it again at Tarifa. Guzmán would not surrender the castle, and John killed his son before the gates of Rate Castle where the statue of King Sancho now stands. In 1296 Sancho brought Guzmán and his family to Alcalá de Heneres and made him a hero of Castile.  Guzmán fought in many battles for Castile before his death in 1309.