GREATEST OF THE MOORISH RULERS OF SPAIN (1149-1199)
YAKUB IBN YUSUF, better known as Al-Mansur, was the
ablest and most powerful of the Moorish rulers who dominated Spain
for 500 years. He was also one of the most enlightened, most just
and magnanimous. His surname, Al-Mansur, means "The Invincible."
This was no braggadocio. He defeated all his enemies and never lost
Like nearly all the rulers of Morocco he had a Negro strain. Not only
was his father Yusuf of Negro ancestry, but his mother was an unmixed
Negro woman, a slave, probably brought from Timbuctoo or Senegal.
Ali Ibn-Abd Allah, celebrated Moorish historian, writing in 1326,
says in his Roudh el Kartas (History of the Rulers of Morocco), "He
was the son of a Negro woman who had been given to his father and
he was born in the house of his grandfather, Abd el Mumen."
Mansur came to the throne when his father was killed while beseiging
Santarém, Portugal, in x I84. He swore a great oath of revenge
for his father's death but internal troubles with the Almoravids,
the dynasty which his family, the Almohads, had ousted from the throne,
detained him in Africa. At last having defeated the Almoravids and
their allies, the Arabs, he gathered an army for the invasion of Spain
and Portugal and in 1189, with 10,000 of his redoubtable cavalry and
foot soldiers, he landed at Algeciras, Spain. Marching on Santarrm,
the scene of his father's death, he destroyed it, and continuing to
Lisbon, captured that city. Hearing that the Almoravids had taken
advantage of his absence to rebel again, he returned to Africa laden
with spoils and Christian captives, 3000 of whom were young women
and children. At his coming, however, the leader of the rebels, Yahya,
fled into the Sahara Desert.
The Christians of Spain, who were whites, mostly of Germanic descent,
hearing of the new revolt in Africa, began an all-out attack on the
Moorish kingdoms in Spain. Aided by the English Crusaders who were
on their way to Palestine, they swept through Andalusia and other
nearby regions, capturing Silves, Beja, Vera, and other towns. Mansur,
on this, landed in Spain in 1191 and again defeated the Christians.
Chaining them fifty by fifty, he took a great number of them to be
sold into slavery in Africa.
On his return there, he was stricken with fever, and the Christians,
thinking the time propitious, gathered an immense army, aided by the
Crusaders, to drive the Moors out of the Peninsula once and for all.
The three principal leaders were Alphonso IX, King of Lern, in supreme
command; Alphonso III of Castile; and Sancho I of Portugal. The Christians,
winning victory after victory, neared Algeciras on the Mediterranean.
Alphonso, feeling certain that Moorish rule was now at its end in
Spain, sent a message of defiance to Mansur. "If it is too difficult
for you to come to Spain," taunted Alphonso, "send me enough
ships and I will come to Africa to beat you there."
Mansur sent back in hot haste, "We are coming to Spain! We are
coming with an army that will teach you a lesson. We intend to chase
you out of Spain, debased and humiliated."
Mansur sent his emissaries over his vast domains, which stretched
from the Atlantic across the length of Africa to the borders of Egypt,
to come to the succor of Islam. They came in vast numbers and were
of all "races" and colors. In 1194 he sailed from Alcassar
and landed at Algeciras, Spain.
Alphonso, with an army of 300,000, one of the vastest ever assembled
up to that time, awaited him near the fortress of Alarcos on the plains
of Zalacca, where in 1086, 108 years before, an Almoravid Negro ruler
from Morocco, Yusuf ben Tachfin, had annihilated another immense Christian
army under Alphonso VI. (See "Yusuf I, Sultan of Africa and Conqueror
of the Champions of Christendom.") Mansur marched to Zalacca
to meet Alphonso and lost no time in giving him battle.
Mansur, as did Yusuf before him, resorted to strategy. Feeling sure
that Alphonso was going to direct his chief attack on that part of
the Moorish army where the royal standards were (since that was where
Mansur would be), he shifted another commander, his uncle, to that
place and went off to another himself. He also placed a number of
his men in a position to cut off the retreat of a possible Christian
force coming toward the royal standards.
Alphonso did exactly what Mansur had suspected. Selecting 10,000 of
the elite of his knights, he gave them the honor of drawing first
blood and bringing Mansur a captive. Encased in their bright armor
and mounted on mettlesome horses, lances set, they swept down on the
Moors. But Mansur's men stood firm, and dosing in on the Christian
knights, hamstrung their horses and cut the riders to pieces. Alphonso
gave the order for a general advance and his vast army swept down
on the foe, the beat of his drums and the tramp of his men and horses
shaking the ground like an earthquake. But again the Moors held their
ground and fought back with incredible fury and fanaticism, shouting,
"There is no other God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet! God
alone is invincible!"
For hours the Christians tried to pierce their ranks in vain. They
were pushed back and back until their retreat became an ignominious
flight. Alphonso, wounded, fled to Toledo, while the surviving noblemen
of his army took refuge in the fortress of Alarcos where Mansur besieged
them and forced them to surrender.
The number of Christians slain was immense. The estimate varies. Some
historians say 30,000; others as high as 146,000. Makkari, Arab historian,
gives this latter figure. As for the spoils, he says that some authors
say 158,000 tents; 80,000 horses; 100,000 mules; 400,000 asses; 60,000
suits of armor--"while the money and the jewels were beyond calculation."
Mansur reserved 5 percent of the booty for himself and gave the rest
to his men.
Going to Seville, Spain, Mansur made that his headquarters and then
swept northward capturing the principal Christian strongholds of Calatravas,
Guadalajara, Madrid, Salamanca, and Toledo, where Alphonso and his
family had taken refuge. Cutting off all water and supplies from Toledo,
he was about to destroy the city when Alphonso's mother, wife, and
children came to Mansur's lines to beg for mercy, tears in their eyes.
Mansur, generous always, not only granted their request but sent them
back laden with rich presents.
As for the 24,000 Christian prisoners he had captured at Alarcos,
he set them free also. Mansur declared on his death bed, however,
that this noble act had been one of the three mistakes of his life,
as the freed Christians had taken advantage of his kindness to keep
up the fight against him.
With the greater part of Spain and Portugal in his power, he yielded
to the Christian pleas for a truce of ten years, and returning to
Africa began to meditate on a project he had long in mind: the invasion
of Egypt. But before he could set his plans in motion he died on March
20, 1199, at the age of fifty and in the fifteenth year of his reign.
Mansur was not only a great organizer and a military genius but a
patron of the arts and a lover of justice. The chief virtue of a king,
he would say, was justice and a king who did not place it first was
like "a cloud that brings no rain." On coming to the throne
his first act was to distribute vast quantities of food to the poor.
"A rich man who does not practice charity," he said, "is
like a tree that bears no fruit." He also freed all who were
unjustly held in prison and reformed the laws to prevent others from
being so held. He gave larger salaries and pensions to the holy men
and began a vast public works program, rebuilding cities and erecting
mosques, schools, hospitals, and aqueducts. He built the city of Rabat,
now capital of Morocco; Alcassar, near Sallee; Mansura; and other
cities. He also built the famous Kasbah of Morocco as well as the
Giralda, one of the greatest monuments of Moorish rule in Spain, at
Seville. It was the impetus given by Mansur that led to such immortal
specimens of architecture as the Mosque at Cordova, and the Alhambra
and the Generalife at Granada.
Ali Ibn-Abd Allah, fourteenth-century historian, says of him, "His
reign was remarkable for the tranquility, the safety, the abundance,
and the prosperity that reigned everywhere.... His government was
excellent; he increased the treasury; his power was exalted; his actions
that of a most noble ruler; his religion was sincere and deep; and
he was a great benefactor of Islam." Biographie Universelle says
he was "the most magnificent and the most powerful of the Moslem
rulers" since the caliphs of Bagdad. In fact, the great Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, appealed
to him for aid against the Crusaders, whose alleged motive was to
free "the tomb of Christ" from Islam.
Mansur was not only the most powerful ruler in the West-that is, of
Africa, Europe, and eastern Asia--but in his time probably in the
world. His kindgom stretched from the Atlantic along the Mediterranean
to the borders of Egypt and included Mauretania,
Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Tripoli, the Balearic Islands, and most of
Spain and Portugal.
One of Mansur's most noted sayings was, "Nothing exhales so sweet
an odor as the dead body of an enemy, and especially a traitor."
Because of the great wealth he brought into Morocco and his patronage
of the arts he is often called "The Golden." But to the
common people, who adored him and repeated his sayings, he was known
as "The Black Sultan."
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