Yakub Al-Mansur


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 a battle.

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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