Al-Andalus and Occitania

Arabs chronicles from the 8th century noted the increasing in Arab settlements in Septimanie whose intention was to remain this fertile land in southeastern France. However, the political upheavals and the famine that hit the area by the end of this century led the Arabs to depart for Al-Andalus.

The Muslim settlements that occupied the other side of the Pyrenees between 718 and 755, particularly around Narbonne, along with the existence of several minor treatises, meant, according to the chroniclers of the time, that the intention of the new arrivals was to remain permanently. Yet, Narbonne finally fell from treason, in the year 759, in the hands of Pepin the Short, one of the sons of Charles Martel, and the Arabs decided in the end to withdraw altogether from Septimanie.

Only seven years after Muslim settlers entered the Iberian Peninsula, Muslim armies, bolstered by recently arrived troops from northern and southern Arabia ̶ Syrians and Yemenis ̶ cross the Pyrenees, probing deep into what they call “the Great Land,”al-Ard al-Kabirah.

The year is 719. Muslim troops quickly capture most of Visigothic Septimania, including the once-great Roman centre of Narbonne, known in Arabic as Arbuna. The inhabitants of the city, mostly Arian Christians, are given honourable terms and allowed complete religious freedom by a treaty that resembles one granted to the Spanish Visigoth Theudemia of Murcia. The two documents together show that the Arabs had a very definite settlement policy in mind for the Visigothic possessions of Occitania ̶ southern France ̶ on the other side of the Pyrenees, with more generous and far-sighted conditions than were current in intra-European struggles.

With Narbonne and its port secure, al-Samh ibn Malik, governor-general of Al-Andalus, moved swiftly to subdue the surrounding area, taking Alet, south of Carcassonne, and Béziers, Agde, Lodève, Maguelonne (Montpellier) and Nîmes in fairly quick succession. By 712, he was ready for a new, decisive and far-reaching campaign. This was to be no minor affair, no karr wa-farr(attack and withdraw) slash across southwestern France. Al-Samh’s aim was to strike westward, take the key Garonne River valley, capture Toulouse (Tolosa) ̶ then the capital of Eudes, Duke of Aquitaine ̶ and open up a vast territory stretching all the way to the Atlantic and back south through Andalusia to the Mediterranean and the Maghrib.

Castle of Carcassone (France)

Al-Samh must have felt confident that, with Toulouse in his grip, he could repeat what he had done in Narbonne: create by treaty a string of lslamo-Christian principalities, sealed in the usual way by marriage between the leading princes and families on both sides. But first he returned to Al-Andalus to muster fresh troops. Reinforced, he crossed back into Occitania in early spring, 721, and immediately marched west toward Toulouse.

Al-Samh’s army included siege engines, infantry, a few horsemen and numerous mercenaries, as well as the redoubtable Basque slingers. And though Toulouse was a big, well-defended city, whose walls had been consistently strengthened since Roman and Visigothic times, Eudes wasted no time. Leaving Toulouse safely locked up, he rode out to scour the four corners of his territory, urgently calling in every possible ally to build up an army big enough to meet the approaching danger. Appeals to the Frankish ruler Charles Martel, illegitimate son of the founder of the Carolingian dynasty, fell on deaf ears, however. Charles, called “the Hammer”, had larger ambitions; it suited his strategy to watch and wait.

The siege of Toulouse, with its near-impregnable walls, lasted until early summer. The defenders, short of provisions, were close to surrendering when, around June 9, 721, Eudes of Aquitaine returned at the head of a large force, hurled himself at al-Samh’s rear and launched a highly successful encircling movement. hurled himself at al-Samh’s rear and launched a highly successful encircling movement. A major, decisive battle ensued; on this, three major Muslim historians of the period agree: Ibn Hayyan (died 1067), Ibn al-Athir (d. 1234) and al-Maqqari (d. 1632).

View of the Garonne River on its course through Toulouse (France)

Their accounts suggest that al-Samh had fallen into the classic trap of static warfare and had concentrated his entire potential against the walls of Toulouse. With woefully few horsemen ̶ the extensive use of Arab cavalry in Europe came later ̶ he was unable to react fast enough to Eudes’ charge, which completely engulfed him. Caught between the city’s defenders and Eudes’s men, al-Samh tried to break out, but was trapped with the bulk of his troops in a place called Balat , where he made a determined last stand.

Al-Maqqari puts Eudes’s force at 300.000 men. European sources speak of 375.000 Arab dead or wounded at Balat, against only 1.500 casualties for Eudes’s forces. The number of Arab casualties is of course inflated, but the Arab historians agree that Toulouse was a total disaster, the final phase being particularly murderous as survivors tried to break out eastward toward Narbonne.

Al-Samh himself was badly wounded. His second in command, ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi ̶ who re-emerges in command at Poitiers a decade later ̶ was able to march the shattered remnants of the army back to Narbonne. There, shortly after his own arrival, al-Samh died. So serious was the defeat that, each year for the following 450 years, those who died at Balat al-Shuhada’ (Plateau of the Martyrs) were honoured in a special remembrance ceremony.

In subsequent years, with the Garonne Valley closed to them, and no desire to fight another major pitched battle, the Arab forces moved eastward and then north in a series of raids as far as the city of Autun, in east-central France, in the fall of 725. But the raids were clearly meant largely to maintain some portion of the Arabs’ lost momentum, to prevent stagnation and avoid any further territorial losses in Septimania.

However, new and powerful players were waiting to take a hand. Eudes of Aquitaine was well aware that his greatest enemy was not Muslim: the real threat was the Franks under Charles Martel. Charles wanted Aquitaine, and Eudes was not only master of Aquitaine but also the hero of Toulouse and a possible rallying point for those opposing the Franks ̶ in short, an obstacle in the way of Charles’s expansionist ambitions. The two men were inevitably on a collision course.

This explains why, in 730, Eudes opened negotiations with ‘Uthman ibn Naissa (Munuza), the Berber deputy governor of Catalonia, who may in fact have initiated the talks. They led to a peace treaty sealed by the marriage of Eudes’s lovely daughter Lampagie to Munuza. Arab raids on Aquitanian possessions immediately ceased. Peace was restored, and Eudes retired to his capital, confident that Charles would not dare attack him.

But fate took a nasty turn when Munuza revolted against the Arab governor-general of Al-Andalus, with the aim of setting up an independent Catalonia for himself. He was declared a traitor, attacked and defeated in a short, sharp battle and Eudes was accused by the governor-general of abetting the traitor. Eudes was attacked by an Arab army and beaten at Bordeaux, the city the Arabs called al-Burdil, and appealed to Charles Martel for immediate aid, but he had the curt reply that he had betrayed Christianity when he made a treaty with the Arabs. His only salvation lay in submitting to Charles’s authority. He submitted. He submitted.

Bordeaux cathedral photographied by the end of 1880. Photoglob and Co ©Library of Congress

Escena urbana del barrio de Chartrons, en el casco histórico de esta ciudad, con la torre de Cailhau al fondo.

The defeat of Eudes left Charles with an ideal opportunity to strike at ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi, who had also taken losses in Bordeaux. That’s how the relatively small Arab force under ‘Abd al-Rahman ran into Charles near Poitiers and was defeated in October 732. ‘Abd al-Rahman was killed in this skirmish, which was thereafter blown up by chroniclers to heroic proportions, in versions that have travelled unchallenged down the centuries.

Recent research by Toulouse historian Sydney Forado shows that it was in fact the battle of Toulouse in 721, much more than the battle of Poitiers ̶ sometimes called the battle of Tours ̶ 11 years later, which prevented further, and possibly more permanent, Muslim gains in southern France. Just as significantly, Eudes’ victory at Toulouse resulted in a number of Islamo-Christian political alliances in southwestern France, initiating those first crucial cultural and commercial exchanges between Muslim Spain on the one hand and Languedoc, Gascony, southern Aquitaine, the Pyrenees, Septimania and Provence on the other.

Despite Poitiers, the Arabs remained in control of Narbonne and Septimania for another 27 years. The treaties reached earlier with the local population stood firm and were further consolidated in 734 when the governor of Narbonne, Yusuf ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Fihri, concluded agreements with several towns on common defence arrangements against the encroachments of Charles Martel, who had systematically and brutally brought the south to heel as he extended his domains. Charles failed in his attempt to take Narbonne in 737, when the city was jointly defended by its Muslim Arab and Christian Visigoth citizens.

Ibn al-Athir and al-Maqqari both record a powerful increase in Muslim settlement in Septimania, especially in the Narbonne area, between 718 and 755, as well as several minor treaties which suggest that the newcomers had every intention of settling permanently in this fertile land. But Narbonne finally fell, by treachery, in 759 to Pepin the Short, one of Charles Martel’s sons, and the Arabs ultimately decided to withdraw from all of Septimania, due in part to insecurity caused by the political troubles of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus, as well as to a desire to concentrate available Arab and Berber manpower back in the heartland of Al-Andalus. Another factor was the serious famine which hit Septimania and parts of Spain in the second half of the eighth century.

There would be no more full-scale Arab attempts to win lands in Occitania, although an expedition was sent against Narbonne in 793, led by al-Mugith, another in 841 under al-Iskandaruni and a seaborne assault in 1020. This period is also marked by a series of raids in Provence, notably on the coastal cities of Nice, Fréjus and Garde-Freinet, by Maghrib-based Barbary privateers, popularly known as pirates, but like the American privateers of the 18th century, supported by their government.

In cultural terms, the three centuries between 800 and 1095, when the Crusades in the Holy Land began, were marked by a stimulating flow of contacts between Al-Andalus and southern France and peopled by a host of colourful characters who played key roles in these cultural transfers between the Islamic and Christian civilizations.

The Dordogne River in the Garonne River basin.

Deep-rooted affinities ̶ ethnic, cultural and linguistic ̶ linked the peoples of Occitania with the Ibero-Celtic and Visigothic populations across the border to the south, who had also been deeply influenced by Greco-Roman culture. The Arabs of Al-Andalus did little to disturb these native populations and allowed them great latitude in matters of religion and cherished customs. Freedom, tolerance and ease of assimilation were common denominators, indeed hallmarks, of both Al-Andalus and Occitania, which had very apt words of its own: convivenzia, coexistence, or the art of living together, and paratge, sharing.

The region was certainly fertile ground for new ideas; its people were known for their enquiring minds and an almost mystical bent born of long contacts with Greek, Phoenician and Roman thought. Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon scholar and one of Charlemagne’s most trusted counsellors, spoke of the Aquitanians’ strong sense of independence, their love of freedom and the fact that “they prayed directly to God.”

Prime agents in the process of cultural transmission between Al-Andalus and the south of France were the Mozarabs, or arabized Christians, as well as the many Jews who spoke both Arabic and Romance, the lingua franca of the day. Other links in that formative period came via the jongleurs, minstrels, mercenaries and traders who plied among the Arab possessions in Al-Andalus, the pockets of Christian territory, such as Navarre or Aragon, and southwest France. These travellers used either the Mediterranean coastal route across Catalonia and Roussillon, the high passes through Andorra and the Ariège valley into Foix and Toulouse, or the western route through Aragon and Jaca toward Pau, Toulouse and the rest of Aquitaine. The mixed culture they carried with them diffused far more widely.

Philosopher Rudolf Steiner mentions a school of chivalry near Jaca around the late eighth century where Arab knights, calledFida’iyu Ka’s al-Futuwwah, (Knights of the Cup of Chivalry), were reputed to have handed custody of the Holy Grail to Christian knights. The legend of Parsifal was born there, according to Steiner. And Chrétien de Troyes, the 12th-century French poet whose epic Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal circulated widely in southern France, said he had the Grail story from Kyot the Provençal, who in turn attributed it to one Flegetanis, a man traceable to the Toledo area in Al-Andalus a hundred or more years earlier.

The citadel of Jaca with deers grazing inside.

Jaca, a town in present-day northern Spain, lay on the route used by Charlemagne’s troops after they withdrew from their abortive foray against Saragossa (in Arabic, Saraqustah) in 777. The Arab governor of that town, in a bid for independence from the rulers of Al-Andalus in Córdoba, had appealed to Charlemagne for help ̶ but had changed his mind at the last minute.

As we know, Charlemagne’s rear guard, under his nephew Roland, was cut to pieces by Basques in the narrow passes of Roncesvalles, northeast of Pamplona. The fiasco was captured as heroic tragedy ̶ and substituting “Saracens” for the ambushing Basques in the Song of Roland, written some 300 years later. The epic, embraced by the church for its anti-Islamic message, is ironically often cited as an example of the poetic art learned from Arab Spain.

Distant Normandy received Arab culture, among other routes, through the diplomatic missions of the celebrated poet-minister of Al-Andalus Yahya al-Ghazal to the court of Theuda, the Norman queen of the Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre in the early 10th century. Al-Ghazal, whose charm and good looks persisted to his death at age 92, composed pleasing verse in honour of the beautiful Norman ruler. Theuda maintained strong links with her kinsmen barely two days’ ride away in Aquitaine and Poitou, so from an early date the kingdom of Navarre served as a transmission route for the northern flow of Arab music and poetry. It is also worth noting that an important Muslim community in Navarre, whose origins dated back to the eighth century, continued to prosper in an atmosphere of tolerance until that kingdom was absorbed into Castile in the early 16th century.

Monastery of Cluny

The Benedictine order of monks, whose great “reform” abbey at Cluny was founded in 910 by the Duke of Aquitaine of the time, was a very important link in the chain of cultural transmission from Al-Andalus to France. Benedictine monasteries were the most important repositories of learning and literature in Europe, and Gerbert of Aurillac ̶ the French monk who became Pope Sylvester II ̶ was also the first European scholar of importance to study Arabic sciences, spending three years in Catalonia as a young man absorbing mathematics and astronomy. He was responsible for sending many Benedictine study teams into Al-Andalus during the closing years of the highly formative 10th century. One of the greatest intellects of his time, Gerbert, introduced Christian Europe to the Arab classics on algebra and geometry.

The westward flow of Arabic translations of writings by Greek, Persian and other masters, along with Arab commentaries and contributions, had begun around the year 800. By the end of the 10th century, various schools in Córdoba, capital of Al-Andalus, employed hundreds of translators and just as many copyists ̶ many of them women ̶ working closely with Mozarab specialists and interpreters, translating hundreds, perhaps thousands, of manuscripts from Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Alexandria.

At Córdoba’s apogee, its ateliers were producing some 60.000 bound volumes each year. It is safe to assume that a part of this output found its way across the Pyrenees into the abbeys, monasteries and learning centres of Narbonne, Toulouse, Montpellier and Nîmes, as well as into Poitiers, the capital of Aquitaine.

With regular lines of communication established, first Córdoba, then Toledo (in Arabic, Tulaytulah) and finally Oviedo became the main channels for transmitting scientific knowledge from Al-Andalus through Catalonia, Aragón and Navarre into southern France. What began as a movement of poetry, music and literature across the Pyrenees was transformed to a steady flow of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and agricultural expertise ̶ on such subjects as raising Merino sheep, transhumance, irrigation, horticulture and hawking.

By 1031, when Al-Andalus began to fragment under attack by Castilian forces, Mozarab and other exiled from Córdoba and Toledo crossed the Pyrenees into southern France, taking with them, it is said, more than 200 years’ worth of accumulated knowledge, and a good part of the city’s former royal Visigothic library.

Mozarab exiled are also known to have settled in large numbers in Narbonne and Montpellier, where their skills were in much demand, and to have maintained contacts with the famous female Arab poets in the courts of Leon and Navarre. The poet al-Harizi provides a wealth of detail about Arab and Jewish teachers from Al-Andalus in southwestern France at the beginning of the 13th century, particularly in Narbonne and Montpellier.

Montpellier. University building

By that time, as Occitan scholar René Nelli noted, more than four centuries of cross-fertilization of classical, Islamic and Western thought, mediated by the Arabs of Spain and the mixed culture of Al-Andalus, had helped southern France develop its own, unique civilization.

Key elements of the culture of Al-Andalus had been passed on, influencing the development of concepts and doctrines in Occitania that would spread far beyond the region, among them that or courtly love, partly inspired by verses of the troubadours that derived from Muslim Spain, and the positivism of philosopher Auguste Comte, which drew on sociological concepts advanced by Ibn Khaldun. Western Europe in general owes a great deal to this enormously long and rich intellectual flow from Al-Andalus across the Pyrenees into Occitania and Aquitaine. Montpellier’s medical school still stands as a very real monument to the time when knowledge knew no frontiers.

* Ian Meadows. Journalist and writer,
he died in 1998
Article published thank to the collaboration of magazine
AramcoWorld, March-April, 1993


Share This