In October 1094, citizens of the Mediterranean port of Valencia peered nervously from their white stone walls at a menacing line of wheeled siege towers. A sea of black, camel-skin campaign tents stretched beyond that, the siege deployment of a huge army. For 10 days and nights, the relentless thunder of thousands of enemy drums shook the air, punctuated by war cries and the screams of archers riding up to send a shower of flaming arrows over the city walls. The investing army was Muslim—Moors from the Maghreb, veiled Tuaregs from the Sahara, black warriors from Senegal. Part of a fundamentalist Islamic reform movement, these African warriors—called Almoravids (men of frontier garrisons)—had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to wage holy war on the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula. They followed 78-year-old Yusuf bin Tashufin, a charismatic, religious eccentric whose African empire stretched from the Niger River in West Africa to Gibraltar. His goal: defend the centuries-old Muslim rule in Iberia. At Valencia, bin Tashufin’s victory seemed inevitable. The siege force outnumbered the city’s defenders perhaps as much as six to one. But leading the Valencians was the maverick Castilian knight Rodrigo (Ruy) Díaz de Vivar. Known as El Cid, or “the master,” Rodrigo today is legendary for his exploits during the Reconquista, the long campaign by Christian armies to take Spain back from the Muslim forces that first swept over Iberia in the eighth century. Hollywood would base an epic movie on his feats, the 1961 El Cid, with Charlton Heston in the lead role.
"El Cid" found a weakness in what was supposed to be the Almoravid army’s strength—its strict tactical organization, firm individual discipline, and tight control
At Valencia, Rodrigo added an important chapter to that story. Thanks to an ingenious surprise attack, he routed the Muslim forces, becoming the only Christian leader of the 11th century to defeat the mighty Almoravid army in open battle. It was a victory that inspired Christian Europe, emphatic proof that the long-dominant Muslim armies could be beaten.
Born in 1043 in the northern Iberian kingdom of Castile, Rodrigo was the son of a distinguished knight in the service of King Ferdinand I, who ruled both Castile and León, which lay just to the west. When his father died, the 15-year-old boy became a ward of Prince Sancho, Ferdinand’s oldest son. Raised in the royal court and trained as a knight, Rodrigo grew skilled with the lance and broadsword and won a fearsome reputation as king’s champion in single combats.
After Ferdinand died in 1065, a dynastic war broke out, with Alfonso, Sancho’s brother, challenging for the combined Léon-Castile crown. Rodrigo distinguished himself fighting as Sancho II’s alférez (royal marshal)—the king once remarked that he was worth a thousand men—but Alfonso triumphed when his brother was assassinated in 1072. Though Rodrigo dutifully served the new king, he never won Alfonso’s full confidence and was banished from Léon-Castile in 1081. Becoming a mercenary, he joined the service of al-Mu’tamin, the emir of the northeastern kingdom of Zaragoza, where he led a retinue of 2,000 freelance Christian knights along with al-Mu’tamin’s Muslim troops. His task: protect Zaragoza against encroaching neighbors, whether Muslim or Christian. It was probably al-Mu’tamin who made him a lord, bestowing the Arabic honorific as-sayyid, or El Cid in Spanish.
Alfonso VI, meanwhile, set out to reunite all Iberia under his Christian rule. Since the eighth century, Muslims had controlled as much as two-thirds of the peninsula, with León and Castile the most formidable Christian strongholds in the north. A powerful caliphate governed Muslim Spain—then called al-Andalus—until 1031, and its fall splintered the region into independent but weak Arab-ruled ministates, or taifas. Capitalizing on this fracture, León-Castile and other burgeoning Christian kingdoms in the north began to force the taifas to pay tribute or hire Christian mercenaries for protection.
Alfonso, envisioning himself as the predestined leader of a Christian reconquest of Iberia, declared himself emperor of all Spain in 1077 and increased his tribute demands. In turn, taifa princes petitioned bin Tashufin, the great Berber leader in Africa, for help. Bin Tashufin initially resisted their entreaties; he considered the taifa princes irreligious and indolent. But in 1085, Alfonso conquered Toledo, the largest city in Muslim Spain and a center of Islamic scholarship, and made it his capital. With that, bin Tashufin decided that jihad—the Muslim’s duty to defend the faithful and protect or extend the bounds of Islam against the infidel—obligated him to intervene.
On July 30, 1086, bin Tashufin crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and landed at the port city of Algeciras with 4,000 Berber and African cavalry and infantry. A few days later, he appeared at a large Seville mosque and summoned the Muslims of al-Andalus to jihad. In October, he set off to rendezvous with Andalusian troops at Badajoz, in western Iberia.
Alfonso, meanwhile, scraped up all the men-at-arms he dared from León-Castile—perhaps as few as 2,500, plus crusaders from Italy and France—and headed south. On October 23 the armies met at Sagrajas, a few miles east of Badajoz. In a bitter, drawn-out battle with heavy losses on both sides, bin Tashufin’s army crushed Alfonso’s overconfident forces. Alfonso, himself wounded, narrowly escaped with 500 of his knights. The next morning, the heads of the Christian fallen were lopped off, loaded onto carts, and taken to cities throughout al-Andalus to prove the Almoravid victory.
Bin Tashufin was unable to follow up on this triumph; uprisings in Morocco and other trouble forced his return to Africa. Nevertheless, Sagrajas weakened Alfonso, and taifa rulers entered into alliances with bin Tashufin.
In the wake of the defeat, Alfonso lifted Rodrigo’s banishment and assigned him a key role in a new crusade strategy. The king wanted to regain control of Valencia, the important commercial and cultural center in the east. Alfonso believed the people of Valencia and the small taifas in eastern Iberia might welcome a new ruler. About half were Mozarabs, Christians who favored Arabic speech, dress, and customs. The Andalusian Muslims, meanwhile, split into pro- and anti-Almoravid factions.
As part of his reconciliation with Alfonso, Rodrigo won the right to keep lands he seized from Muslim rule. Within six years of Sagrajas, he had established a protectorate over much of the coast. The climax of his campaign came in May 1094, when he occupied Valencia after an 11-month siege, evicted the governing pro-Almoravid faction, and assumed the reins of power.
About this time, bin Tashufin obtained a fatwa from his great teacher in Alexandria that legitimized the annexation of Andalusia’s 20-odd taifas to his empire. Valencia was the key to his strategy; if he could control it, he could pressure Alfonso in Toledo, as well as al-Mu’tamin in Zaragoza, the last independent taifa.
In August 1094, a huge Almoravid army crossed the Gibraltar Strait. Among the transport ships were galleys towing palm-trunk rafts carrying elephants. Bin Tashufin appointed his nephew, whose name appears to have been Abu Abdullah bin Muhammad, to lead the campaign. The army was divided into two roughly equal corps. The first, under Muhammad’s command, was to take Valencia and rid bin Tashufin of the pesky Cid.
This force enjoyed several advantages over the city’s defenders. It likely boasted 25,000 or more men, while El Cid’s striking force numbered fewer than 4,000 mounted men-at-arms. Also, Almoravid warriors were religious fanatics who, assured of eternal reward in the hereafter, fought to the death. Christian noblemen, meanwhile, typically surrendered when faced with hopeless circumstances, expecting to be ransomed.
The Almoravid style of warfare gave the invaders yet another edge. The modern term “asymmetric” very nearly describes it. Though from different tribes and ethnic groups, bin Tashufin’s warriors were disciplined professionals trained to attack in mixed teams and organized to move en masse, each corps following commands conveyed by flags and drums.
European armies, by contrast, seemed improvised, loosely organized, and slow to react. Knights constituted the main striking force, but they owed only limited military service to their king in exchange for royal recognition of their inherited estates. Individualistic, headstrong, and unruly, they might haughtily ignore battlefield orders, even from the king, if conveyed by a commoner or a nobleman of lower feudal rank. In the melee following a charge, knights sought to fight in single combats rather than in teams, preferably engaging a warrior of equal rank.
The European armies did enjoy one advantage. Their principal tactic was the large-scale heavy-cavalry charge. Launched at a critical moment, tightly massed and with the full weight of men and mounts behind the forged-iron tips of long lances, the charge was a “shock and awe” spectacle that often made defending formations break and run.
Since his armies first faced this charge at Sagrajas, bin Tashufin had modified his organization and tactics to defeat it. Some 80 percent of the Almoravid army was mounted, but because chain-mail armor was expensive and not widely available, most of the soldiers were light cavalry fighting like infantry with little or no bodily protection other than small round shields. Given this handicap, the Muslim warriors could not mount a heavy charge. Bin Tashufin had discovered that his desert cavalry could keep the enemy from organizing and launching its devastating massed charges. Rather than going head-to-head with armored knights, his men fought in skirmishing attacks in which their more agile Berber horses easily out-turned the knights’ destriers—large horses bred to carry the weight of heavily armed and armored riders. The mounted skirmishers would lure impulsive knights into protective spear lines of Berber infantry, who then showered the enemy with arrows and armor-piercing javelins. Horse archers would also dart in close to bring down knights’ horses, spoiling a charge as it formed. Once these tactics had softened the enemy, the Almoravids’ limited armored cavalry might spearhead a charge of their massed light cavalry.Facing these long odds, Rodrigo began to put together his defense. Many details of his battleplan and the events at Valencia are lost to time; even the dates are disputed. What follows is a reconstruction drawn from eyewitness and historical accounts, elements of El Cid lore—particularly the historical novel El Cid, el último héroe, by Spanish historian and author José Luis Olaizola—that are supported by the record, and contemporary analysis of the battlefield.
Literate in Latin and Arabic, Rodrigo had studied the classical sources on battle tactics and siege techniques, sometimes sight-translating passages aloud to his knights. In fact, he had long ago earned the honorific campeador, which came from the Latin campi doctoris (a battle planner and teacher), used in Vegetius’s popular fourth-century Roman treatise, De re militari.
To help ascertain the Almoravids’ weaknesses, Rodrigo turned to his most trusted lieutenant, Álvar Háñez de Minaya, who had fought at Sagrajas. Olaizola’s novel portrays Rodrigo “picking the brains” of Álvar and others, “making copious notes, even drawing maps on parchments showing in different colors the deployments and maneuvers of horse cavalry, camel corps, archers, and foot soldiers.”
Given the Almoravids’ numerical superiority, convention suggested that Rodrigo fight defensively. But he believed he had to destroy bin Tashufin’s army to remove the Almoravid threat to Valencia. That meant taking the enemy by surprise outside the city walls.
Rodrigo had the uncanny ability to spot and exploit his opponent’s vulnerabilities—whether in weapons, tactics, or even cultural practices. Instinctively he found a weakness in what was supposed to be the Almoravid army’s strength—its strict tactical organization, firm individual discipline, and tight control. He concluded that if he could attack before they had organized and deployed, his knights’ advantages—skill at arms, quality and weight of weapons, armor, and mounts, and individual élan—might carry the day.
To attack before the Almoravids could deploy, Rodrigo would have to draw them to a field of battle away from their siege cordon at Valencia. Four miles up the Río Turia from Valencia and northwest of the city lay the plain of El Cuarte (Quart de Poblet today). The Turia fed a network of canals and ditches irrigating huertas (market gardens), beyond which stretched meadows and groves of algarrobos (carob trees). Rodrigo presumed the Almoravids would make their base camp at El Cuarte because the valley was the only place with sufficient forage for their horses, mules, camels, and elephants. To make sure, he had anti-Almoravid Muslims meet the enemy quartermasters, pretend to welcome them as liberators, and direct them there.
Unknown to the Almoravids, the early autumn regularly saw heavy rains in the area around Valencia. And when the rains arrived as late as October, they typically began with a deluge, triggering floods that wiped out harvests.
When spies advised that the Almoravids would reach Valencia in the middle of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Rodrigo saw another way to tip the balance in his favor. During Ramadan, Muslims abstained from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset. After fasting all day, observants usually slept late after a long night of heavy eating—a routine that often left them lethargic and irritable. Rodrigo realized that the Almoravids would be at their most vulnerable at the end of Ramadan, October 14.
Almoravid quartermasters arrived at El Cuarte in mid-September; the column of soldiers, women, children, servants, pack trains, and animal herds took another 15 days to arrive at the campsite. Not a drop of rain had fallen for months, and market gardeners and Valencia’s citizens kept an eye on the sky as October arrived.
According to Olaizola, Muhammad, bin Tashufin’s nephew, presented himself at Valencia’s main gate on October 4. With him were his principal captains and his most imposing units, including a mehala (camel corps). The city, Muhammad said, should surrender without delay. El Cid, however, stood firm.
This first encounter concluded with Muhammad ordering elephants to push forward six wheeled belfries built at El Cuarte. These mobile wooden siege towers must have topped 30 feet—high enough that their storming bridges could be lowered onto Valencia’s battlements. Rawhides covered the front and sides for protection against flaming arrows. The following day, Muhammad strengthened the cordon around the city, deploying archers, spearmen, javelin throwers, and horsemen and making a show of trumpeting elephants.
On each of the next eight days, the Almoravid general came to the gate to renew his surrender demand, taunt Rodrigo for delaying, and admonish Valencia’s Muslims for collaborating with the infidel during Ramadan. On the 10th day of the siege, Valencia’s market gardeners called Rodrigo’s attention to birds appearing from unusual directions and flying so low that they grazed the ground—a sign that the overdue rains were about to begin. That night, the sky filled with black clouds loaded with moisture.
At dawn on October 14, raindrops pattered on Valencia’s empty, eerily silent cobblestone streets. The populace had been warned to stay home. Just inside the city’s main gate, 130 handpicked knights led by Álvar Háñez waited, dismounted. Roused at 3 a.m. for a special Mass, the rest now sat on their high-saddled destriers, standing by in courtyards and marketplaces at the city’s northwestern gates. A low murmur arose as Friar (and future bishop) Jerónimo moved among the ranks with a tall wooden cross for the men to kiss. “I absolve from sin all those who die with their faces to the enemy,” he quietly told them. “God will receive their souls.”
As the sun rose out of the Mediterranean, the west-facing gate opened a crack and Álvar’s knights slipped out. All carried new shields made by Basque craftsmen from tough haya (beech) wood, with forged iron reinforcements. Standing shoulder to shoulder in a single rank, they made a formidable shield wall.
Struggling awake from their Ramadan slumber, the Almoravid sentries squinted into the rising sun. Now Álvar’s knights reached the closest belfry. Though the siege machines had frightened the citizens of Valencia, Rodrigo had seen an opportunity in them. Some of Álvar’s men pushed bundles of dry straw under the rawhide coverings and set them alight. Flames shot up the wooden scaffolds and ladders. Berber warriors reacted with howls and invocations to the Prophet, but their archers’ desultory shots couldn’t pierce the Basque shields.
Meanwhile, behind the walls of Valencia, Rodrigo had divided his main force into two. He took charge of the lead element, according to Abu bin Alqama, the only chronicler to witness the scene. Springing onto the back of his famed warhorse, Babieca, he put spur to flank and led his knights through the gates at the trot. Outside, he drew his bejeweled sword, Colada, and gave the battle cry that would animate the Reconquista for the next 400 years, as well as New World conquests after that: “For God and Santiago [St. James], and at them!”
The knights charged through the pandemonium that was now the Almoravid cordon. The ground trembled under the hooves of the destriers as they trampled lanced Berber warriors, tents, field kitchens, and supplies.
When the knights had passed through the cordon, they rallied around Rodrigo’s banner. Then, with the bewildered Berbers facing this group, the second wing smashed into them from the rear. By the time these knights had joined Rodrigo’s wing, the plain was a scene of chaos, littered with corpses, debris, and soldiers trying to surrender.
The rain now turned into a downpour, and Rodrigo wheeled and led his knights at the gallop toward the enemy’s main camp at El Cuarte. Leaderless and without orders, Berber cavalrymen seized mounts and set off in wild pursuit. As they arrived at El Cuarte, they were shaken by the spectacle: The Turia, swollen by water surging down from the mountains, had become a torrent rushing to the sea, carrying away pavilions, campaign tents, supply wagons, and stores. For Rodrigo had ordered the irrigation weirs opened or broken. As the Almoravid horsemen streamed onto the plain, Rodrigo’s force stormed out from the groves of algarrobos in a classic knights’ charge.
Even as the Almoravids struggled to meet this new assault, their situation took another turn for the worse. Álvar and his knights, who had remained outside the walls of Valencia to round up surrendering Muslim warriors, now rode up and fell on them with such force that organized resistance died away. According to Arab chronicler bin Alqama, the Muslims ran in all directions, with Muhammad the first to take flight. Panicked Berbers drowned; elephants flailed about as they sank into newly formed swamps, killing or injuring others. Some Almoravids fought bravely, trying to protect their women and children, but the knights cut down all who resisted.
According to an account by Rodrigo’s clerics, the victory was “achieved with incredible speed and with few casualties among the Christians.” An Arab chronicler wrote, “Rodrigo—may God curse him—saw his banners favored by victory, and with a scanty number of warriors annihilated sizable armies.”
That night the moon was full. Muhammad was eventually captured, and while bin Tashufin refused to ransom him, Rodrigo freed him anyway. The abundant booty—gold, silver, gemstones, and more—made Rodrigo and his knights rich. Even though Alfonso had not delivered assistance in time, Rodrigo—ever the loyal vassal—sent him Muhammad’s great camel-skin tent, with poles of precious woods worked in gold, along with a thousand Berber horses.
Royal courts all over Europe celebrated the victory; the Almoravids’ military might and revitalization of Iberian Islam had been a dire threat to the Christian Reconquista. Alfonso would fail to capitalize on the victory that Rodrigo handed him, however, and Christians would spend another four centuries trying to force out the Muslims.
But by destroying the Almoravid army at El Cuarte, Rodrigo established the high-water mark for the Muslim advance in the Iberian Peninsula. In the years after the battle, he captured the last two Moorish castles in the region and defeated another Almoravid invasion. All the while, he evenhandedly ruled a region of Muslims and Christians.
Rodrigo died peacefully in bed in 1099, five years after El Cuarte. But when the Spaniards needed a national hero during the next few centuries as they battled the Muslims, the legend of El Cid Campeador would inspire them. In one apocryphal story, El Cid was killed in a siege, but still scared off the enemy when he was lashed to his horse and sent out to face the battle lines. That myth endured for generations, and became the climax for the Charlton Heston movie, with the hero in full armor and fearsome even in death.