For a period of just over 130 years two very different cultures, their geographical and ethnic origins far apart, clashed at the outer limits of their respective territories, the open sea and coastlines of the Iberian peninsular and North Africa their battleground. Most of the countries that felt the fury of the Northmen during the main period of Viking raiding had clearly been visited by Scandinavian merchants of an earlier generation, whether in Russia, Central or Western Europe, or the British Isles.
The Muslim territories of Andalus and Morocco are unlikely to have been different. Here the Scandinavians or Norsemen were generally known as Majus or 'Magi' because Arab explorers noted an apparent similarity between fire-worshipping aspects of Nordic paganism and the significance of fire to the Zoroastrians or Magi of Iran. Sometimes, however, the word Majus simply meant pagans, and so the exact identity of those Majus who helped King Alfonso II of Galicia against an Andalusian Islamic army in 795 AD remains unclear. Most scholars believe them to have been Basques, since paganism was still strong amongst these people, but the possibility that they were early Viking visitors cannot be entirely ruled out.
The Majus who attacked Andalus in the 9th and 10th centuries were clearly Scandinavian; mostly Norwegians and Danes based in Ireland or enclaves along the French coast. In Latin and Spanish Iberian sources they are usually known by variations on the name Normanni, but sometimes they were called Almajuzes, Almozudes or Almonides, all of which stem from the Arabic word Majus.
On 20 August 844 AD Wahb Allah ibn Hazm, the Arab governor of Al-Ushbuna (Lisbon), reported that fifty-four unknown longships had appeared in the Tagus estuary, plus the same number of smaller vessels. The larger type of ship he called a markib; the smaller a qarib. The raiders came ashore to be challenged by local Muslim militias and garrisons in three fierce battles. After thirteen days of pillaging the surrounding countryside the raiders sailed on. But by now Wahb Allah ibn Hazm's report had reach the capital, Cordoba, and the Umayyad Amir or ruler of Andalus, Abd al-Rahman II (822-852 AD), instructed the military governors of his Atlantic coastal provinces to be on their guard.
Vikings tactics were to find large rivers that enabled them penetrate deep inland with their ships. As a result, when the Vikings reached the broad Guadalquivir most of their fleet sailed up river. Meanwhile other ships landed further south in the province of Shadhuna (now Medina Sidonia).
Their crews made an armed reconnaissance inland and then occupied the ancient port of Cadiz. According to the Arab geographer Al-Bakri, writing in the 11th century, the Moroccan port of Asila was also twice 'attacked' by the Majus, as the Viking raiders were called in Arab sources. The first time was before they attacked Seville and probably involved some of the ships that had taken Cadiz. When the Viking Majus moored near the ribat, or coastal fort, that protected Asila's harbour, they announced that they came in peace and would not attack unless they themselves were attacked. They then assembled or purchased from local merchants a large pile of millet that the Vikings clearly needed for food. This suggests that the newcomers knew exactly what they wanted and where to find it. Unfortunately some local Berber tribesmen or nomads saw the millet shining in the sun and thought it was gold! They charged and the Vikings fled to their ships. The Berbers apologised when they found that the bright yellow pile was grain not bullion, but the Vikings said they no longer trusted the Berbers and so sailed off to join in an attack on Seville.
Between Seville and the sea there is a large region of marshes, narrow channels, lagoons and twisting river channels. On 29 September the main Viking force selected the island of Qubtil (now Isla Menor) near the head of the estuary as their base. The island was also an important horse-raising centre and this, as well as its strategic position, must have attracted the Vikings. Next day four ships ventured further upriver, attacked a village today known as Coria del Rio and massacred its inhabitants. The people of Seville soon caught sight of the Vikings' sails that they described as brown, perhaps in contrast to the white canvas sails of Andalusian ships. They tried to organise a defence but Seville was at that time an unfortified city and the local militias could do little. The few ships that they sent against the Vikings were showered with arrows and set on fire, so the bulk of the population fled and the raiders entered Seville. Of those inhabitants left behind, the men, the old and the disabled were slaughtered while women and children were taken captive. The pillage of Seville lasted seven days and the Vikings even tried to burn down the great mosque, though without success.
The Vikings now found that the Guadalquiver was difficult to navigate in late summer and decided not to sail further upstream towards the Umayyad capital of Cordoba. Meanwhile the Umayyad Amir Abd al-Rahman II had hurriedly raised an army to face this sudden assault from an unexpected quarter. The first troops on the scene were light cavalry who used the surrounding hills as bases from which to harass the invaders. Soon, however, they were reinforced by a substantial number of infantry and perhaps some ships.
On 11 November 844 AD, on or around another island in the Guadalquiver called Talayata (today Tablada, just south of Seville and having an airfield), the Majus were defeated in a bloody river battle. Over a thousand were killed and four hundred taken prisoner to be hanged on gallows and trees within sight of the survivors. On the other hand the Vikings themselves, though now trapped, also had many prisoners so the victorious Andalusians were willing to negotiate. A ransom was agreed and the captives were freed in return for food and clothing rather than booty because the raiders were running seriously short of both. The Vikings were then allowed to sail away in peace, though winter weather probably stopped them leaving before the spring of 845 AD. Thirty of their ships were abandoned, presumably because there were no longer enough men to crew them, and the victors burned these.
Abd al-Rahman II sent the pickled heads of some dead Majus to neighbouring rulers with an announcement that he had defeated these savage sea raiders, but is clear that not all the Vikings left Andalus. Isolated groups continued to be recorded as bandits around Qarmuna (today Carmona) and Mawrur (today Morón de la Frontera) while others settled on islands in the Guadalquiver estuary. They were eventually pacified by Muhammad ibn Rustum, the general credited with victory at Tablada. Subsequently their descendants converted to Islam, became cattle ranchers and makers of excellent cheese. Meanwhile Abu'l-Fath Nasr, another senior officer who had faced the Vikings along the lower Guadalquivir, rose to high command. He too was a convert to Islam, though as a Christian Andalusian eunuch his origins were more local.
Following the shock of this unexpected invasion, Abd al-Rahman II ordered Seville to be surrounded by a defensive wall, particularly on the river bank, and for observation posts be established along the Atlantic coast. These were manned by Muslim volunteers who would serve time in such ribats as a religious duty, keeping watch, praying and, when necessary, fighting the pirates. Immediately after the 844-5 AD attack the Umayyad Andalusian government also started to take a more serious interest in its navy. A much larger and more powerful fleet was constructed, as were shipbuilding facilities and arsenals, of which the most important was in Seville. As a result the Andalusian Umayyads could soon sent a fleet of 300 assorted ships to crush a rebellion in the Balearic Islands in 848-9 AD.
There is strong, though not conclusive, evidence that in 845 AD Abd al-Rahman II also sent a high ranking embassy to what was believed to be the country of 'The King of the Majus.' This might have travelled to king Horik in Denmark, but seems more likely to have gone to the important Viking city of Dublin in Ireland which was dominated by a man called Turgeis.
The head of the Andalusian deputation is said to have been the fifty year old poet and experienced diplomat Yahya ibn Hakam al-Bakri al-Ghazal who had led a similar embassy to the Byzantine Emperor in 840 AD. Their trip took nine perilous months and may have been as much to encourage peaceful trade as to learn more about these fearsome northerners. According to the only surviving later account of his journey, Yahya al-Ghazal sailed to a large island 'three days journey from the mainland' (Britain or Brittany). This island had flowing streams and fine agriculture. Its ruler also controlled the neighbouring 'mainland' and had a wife named Noud (Aud?). Al-Ghazal, as a good Muslim, was shocked but flattered by the way this lady not only made it clear that she found him attractive but that her husband the 'king' did not mind such behaviour! Al-Ghazal even reported that Majus women were free to change their husbands if they were not satisfied.
By the time the Vikings launched a second serious raid against Andalus the Islamic Andalusians, under Muhammad I as Amir of Cordoba (852-886 AD), were ready for them. Unlike the first raid the leaders of this second Majus fleet are known. They were Björn Ironside, son of Ragnar Lodbrok, and Hastein or Hasting. Both were already well known Viking commanders and their remarkable new expedition may have been seeking fame as much as profit. After raiding northern France and then being besieged by the French on Oissel island for twelve weeks, Björn Ironside was besieged for a second time by a rival Viking leader named Weland who was acting on behalf of the French king. Björn had to pay a large ransom before he and his men were allowed to leave. They then began an epic four-year voyage around the Iberian peninsula, into the Mediterranean and back.
Together with Hastein's ships, this Viking fleet of 858 AD had sixty-two ships but once again it fared badly off northern Spain. The entire coast as far as the French frontier may now have been patrolled by Andalusian vessels and there are suggestions that Andalusian warships even attacked Viking vessels in the Bay of Biscay - effectively in their home waters. They certainly kept watch as far as Cape Finisterre. Driven from the Galician coast by a certain Count Pedro, the Vikings under Björn and Hastein turned south. Some Majus ships sailed ahead of the main fleet as scouts, two of these being intercepted and captured off the Algarve by an Andalusian naval patrol. They were already full of gold, silver, prisoners and supplies so the Viking raiders must already have had some success.
The main fleet pressed on but decided not to sail up the broad Guadalquivir as their unfortunate predecessors had done because a large army, and probably also an Andalusian fleet, defended it. Instead the Vikings attacked Jazirat al-Khadra (today Algeciras). At the time this was the main port on the northern side of the narrow straits; the harbour of Gibraltar not being developed until the 12th century. Björn and Hastein's men plundered Jazirat al-Khadra and burned down the local mosque as a change from destroying churches further north. Once again, however, they were badly cut up by a local Andalusian militia who then built a new mosque whose doors were made from the wood of a captured Viking ship.
The Vikings sailed on through the straits before crossing to the African shore where they had better success at Nakur, the oldest Islamic settlement in Morocco. They were now in the Mediterranean and here, paradoxically, the Viking ships suffered fewer defeats at the hands of Islamic fleets than they and their predecessors had in the Atlantic. This seems strange given the fact that several large and efficient Islamic, Byzantine and even Italian navies were already struggling for domination of the Mediterranean. The Vikings certainly raided the eastern coasts of Andalus, southern France, north and central Italy, probably reaching Alexandria in Egypt and perhaps even ventured into Byzantine waters where, however, their exploits have probably been confused with those of Viking Varangian Rus' arriving via the rivers of Russia.
Inevitably the Viking fleet lost many ships and their epic cruise has been elaborated by several legendary episodes. It is not even entirely clear what route they took home. Some sources seem to suggest that the Vikings sailed up the Ebro river in northern Spain, attacked Pamplona then somehow portaged their surviving ships across the foothills of the Pyrenees before relaunching them into the Bay of Biscay. This was, of course, impossible. In reality the surviving Viking adventurers must have sailed home the same way they arrived, via the Straits of Gibraltar. Here in 861 AD they again ran the gauntlet of narrow seas patrolled by the Andalusians. They were apparently challenged and lost at least two ships burned. They are also said to have had four ships 'confiscated' by the Andalusians while another forty were lost in a storm off Gibraltar. The idea that fearsome Vikings would have consented to Andalusian customs officials 'confiscating' any ships seems almost as unlikely as hauling such vessels over the Pyrenees. More probably Björn Ironsides and Hastein were simply beaten in a sea battle.
One of the Andalusian naval patrols which defeated these Vikings, either off the Algarve as they arrived or near the Straits of Gibraltar as they left, was commanded by Khashkhash ibn Sa'id ibn Aswad. He came from a prosperous merchant family from Bajjana (today Pechina near Ameria). Subsequently Khashkhash became even more famous as a leader of the co-called 'Adventurers of Lisbon' who made a number of voyages far into the north Atlantic and southwards along the African coast. They, like their Portuguese successors in the great Age of European Discovery, were almost certainly trying to open up new trade routes.
Meanwhile the surviving Viking ships had sailed round the Atlantic coast and it was almost certainly when they reached the vicinity of what is now San Sebastian that they launched a final raid inland towards Pamplona. One way or another the Vikings captured King García Iñíguez whom they subsequently released for a huge ransom. Apparently the Vikings had already raided Galicia to the west where they captured a certain Sa'dun al-Surunbaki. He had been a companion of Abd al-Rahman ibn Marwan al-Jilliki, the leader of a revolt against the Umayyads in alliance with the Christian kingdom of Asturias. Sa'dun al-Surunbaki was himself ransomed from the Vikings by a Jewish merchant and spent the rest of his life as a brigand around Coimbra and Santarem in what is today Portugal. Some time in 862 AD the remaining Majus ships returned to their starting point in the estuary of the Loire in France, after a four year voyage which must rate as one of the most extraordinary exploits in Viking history.
Vikings would not reappear on the Andalusian coast for another seventy or so years, but their first two raids were already famous in the far north. They also some rather strange results. Björn Ironside and Hastein sold most of their prisoners for ransom but some unfortunates were kept because of their exotic appearance. These included black African, or very dark-skinned Saharan Berbers, captured at Nakur. Some ended up in Ireland where they were mentioned in early Irish annals as fir gorm 'blue men' or blámenn 'black men.' When the Irish retook Limerick from the Vikings their booty also included a magnificent Moorish saddle and coloured silk garments from the Islamic lands. For his part Hastein, or Hasting, remained an important leader of the Loire Vikings for another thirty years; almost achieving the status of a local king.
In 964 AD the Caliph, as he now claimed to be, of Cordoba, Hakam II (961-976 AD) personally inspected the naval base at Al-Mariya (today Almeria), the Umayyad fleet of over three hundred ships and a nearby ribat fully manned by religious volunteers. He was probably concerned about a threat from the rival Fatimid Caliphs based in North Africa but Al-Hakam's naval preparations also meant that the Andalusians were prepared when a new Viking fleet suddenly appeared in the Atlantic two years later.
This third major attack was carried out by pagan Danes whom Richard I, Duke of Normandy, had urged in the direction of Spain in order to rid him of their embarrassing presence. At first they reportedly attacked the Christian coasts of northern Spain. Then, on 23rd June 966 AD, the Caliph Al-Hakam II received a message from the governor of Qasr Abi Danis (also called Qasr Banu Wardas; today Alcacer do Sol) stating that a fleet of twenty-eight ships had been seen in the area. As these Vikings ravaged the region around Lisbon, a local Andalusian force was sent against them. Both sides suffered heavily in the subsequent battle and the Vikings took many prisoners. Meanwhile an Andalusian fleet from Seville set sail and found the Viking ships off the mouth of the river of Shilb (today Silves; actually the estuary of the rivers Odelouca and Arade). Many Viking vessels were destroyed and Muslim prisoners rescued.
The surviving Viking ships fled, though news continued to reach Cordoba concerning their activities along the Atlantic coast. The Andalusian fleet returned to the Guadalquivir and, although the Majus had been driven off, the continuing threat was serious enough for the Caliph Al-Hakam II to order his admiral, Ibn Futays, to keep the fleet in readiness. According to the Moroccan historian Ibn 'Idari al-Marrakusi:
That same year Al-Hakam ordered Ibn Futays to . . . construct ships of the same type as those used by the Majus, may God curse them, in the hope that they would approach his ships.
Although the Andalusians might well have hoped to lure future raiders into close-quarter combat, they may also have hoped to emulate the ocean-going capabilities of Viking ships.
In the event the Scandinavians did not return, at least not in strength. In 970 AD some Vikings attacked Galicia and briefly occupied the Christian sacred city of Santiago de Compostella. Some may have remained in this area and have been responsible for alarming reports of numerous Danish ships off the Atlantic Andalusian coast late in June 971 AD. This time the Caliph Al-Hakam II ordered the commander of his Mediterranean fleet, Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn al-Rumahis, to join the Atlantic fleet at Seville. They then jointly patrolled the Atlantic coast though on this occasion the Vikings did not venture ashore. A somewhat unreliable later account describes Vikings landing in the Tagus estuary or Lisbon in June 972 AD where they were defeated by the joint Atlantic and Mediterranean fleet. This same source also mentions an Andalusian army which went to the Algarve, then marched northwards to Shantarin (today Santarem) and back to Corbova between June and September 972 AD in what may have been the last known Viking raid on Andalusian territory.
The Umayyad state, and to a lesser extent the Christian principalities of the north, had proved themselves militarily effective against the Viking threat. They had fleets, fortifications and well-organised armies. The peoples of the Iberian peninsula also had naval capabilities which enabled them to face Scandinavian pirate fleets at sea as well as on land; something few other early medieval peoples could do. As far as the Vikings themselves were concerned, these raids were led by freebooters rather than Scandinavian rulers, and were mostly carried out by men from coastal enclaves on the French coast. It is also important to remember that during such long distance voyages Vikings ships would probably not have carried more than thirty men, unlike the more crowded ships used in short range Nordic raiding. Perhaps as a result those Vikings who raided Andalus tended to be beaten when they came up against a proper defending army.
On land Viking raiders tried to seize horses whenever the could and constructed bases, sometimes fortified with earth and timber, on islands or other such defensible locations close to their ships. In battle they almost inevitably relied on infantry drawn up behind a 'shield wall' and probably supported by archers using longbows. When not actually raiding, their tactics appear static and old fashioned. Andalusian armies, in contrast, were heirs to a highly sophisticated Islamic military tradition which drew upon the heritage of the Semitic Middle East, the Roman and Byzantine Empire, the Sassanian Persian Empire and to a lesser extent India. Islamic armies further east were also learning from the Turks and even Chinese, though these latter influences had not yet reached Andalus. Furthermore Arab-Islamic Andalus was a highly structured state with a sophisticated bureaucracy, administration, taxation, communications and widespread literacy. Its armies were large, effective, frighteningly disciplined in the eyes of their Christian rivals, and well equipped. In battle they relied on close co-ordination between generally lightly armoured cavalry and infantry. The latter included archers and javelin throwers in steady ranks, as well as highly developed pyrotechnics. Small wonder, then, that the Viking raiders fared badly in open battle against such opponents.
The Andalusians' successes against the Vikings at sea seem, at first glance, more surprising. Viking ships and seafaring skills were undoubtedly the finest in the Atlantic while many if not most of the Andalusians would have been relative newcomers from the Mediterranean. Some Andalusian sailors and perhaps commanders would have had experience of the Atlantic, but it was not yet their natural element. Andalusian fighting ships were shini galleys and, although some may have been more strongly built with a higher freeboard to cope with the open ocean, there is little evidence that they differed much from normal Mediterranean galleys. These in turn had developed from earlier Roman galleys. But they were more strongly built than their predecessors and had boarding beaks on their prows rather than the low-lying ship-breaking rams of earlier naval warfare. Some centuries later Genoese, Venetian and Spanish galleys would appear in the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel and North Sea where they proved themselves to be the most effective warships of their day. Such vessels were certainly stronger and in some cases larger than the ordinary medieval Mediterranean galley, but how far the Andalusians had taken this development is unknown.
Nevertheless in fair weather a shini galley under oars would have been able to outmanoeuvre a Viking longship in narrow water. A typical Arab shini of the eastern Mediterranean carried from 140 to 180 oarsmen, up to 150 marines, and had one or more superstructures which gave it a height advantage in battle, particularly when using naft or Greek Fire. The oarsmen were volunteers, not slaves, and, unlike the oarsmen in rival Byzantine galleys, they were expected to fight. Sailors and marines were commanded by officers who had recognised ranks, just like those in Islamic armies. Other evidence, again from the Arab Mediterranean, shows that galleys fought in crescent or in more compact formations, used feigned retreat and launched ambushes from behind islands. If these capabilities were brought into the Atlantic, and if the weather was fair enough for shini galleys to operate freely, then it is hardly surprising that the Vikings got a bloody nose, especially if caught in a river estuary by a superior number of Andalusian galleys.
Some scholars have described the Viking raids on the Iberian peninsula as 'famous but wildly speculative operations.' They could also be described as long-range experiments that did not succeed. The expedition to Seville in 844 AD resulted in a particularly bloody repulse while that of Björn and Hastein set out with sixty-two ships but came back with twenty or so. Both failed because the defences of well established states were fully capable of dealing with pinprick Viking raids. This was even truer of the second phase of Viking attacks in the mid-10th century AD.
The sudden Viking assault and the terror it they inspired were, however, long remembered in Andalusian Arabic literature. They also stimulated a greater interest in the northern lands. Even if the embassy of Yahya ibn Hakam al-Bakri al-Ghazal was a later myth, the information contained in a 13th century report of this supposed visit reflects accurate Andalusian knowledge of the Vikings and their homelands. It correctly reported that Christianity was spreading amongst the Vikings while old-fashioned fire-worshippers tended to be confined to outlying regions or islands. The Viking Majus were also known to be essentially the same people at the Scandinavian Rus' who made their way to the central and eastern Islamic lands via Russia.
A comparable degree of knowledge was not apparent in the opposite direction. In the British Isles, for example, the Muslims of Andalusia played a prominent role in a famous early English epic tale, King Horn, which survives in a slightly later medieval form. Here, however, these 'Saracens' are portrayed as cruel men from the sea who invade Westire (Ireland) before being defeated almost single-handedly by the hero Horn. In fact English and Irish memories of Viking brutality had been shifted to those Islamic peoples who, by the 12th and 13th centuries, had become the new bogeymen of Christian Europe. Nevertheless, hidden in King Horn, there may be dim recollections of Andalusian merchants, fishermen, whaler hunters and otherwise unrecorded maritime rivals.
by David Nicolle PhD
About the author
Dr David Nicolle worked in the BBC Arabic Service, gained an MA from the School of Oriental and Asian Studies and a PhD from Edinburgh University. He taught world and Islamic art at Yarmuk University, Jordan, and is one of Osprey's most prolific and popular authors. He has contributed more than 20 titles to the series and is currently working on Men-at-Arms 348: The Moors.
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