El Cid Campeador and the Muslims

Rodrigo Díaz spent a significant part of his life in Muslim lands and his relationship with the people of these lands influenced key aspects of his biography.

David Porrinas González
University of Extremadura

A statue of El Cid Campeador in Burgos. Wikimedia commons.

Spanish version

The career and historical significance of Rodrigo Díaz, the Cid Campeador, cannot be understood in isolation from his relationship with Muslims. The Castilian knight’s interaction with Islam was intense and long-lasting; he may have spent as much of his adult life in Islamic lands as in Christian territories. Modern scholars have labelled Rodrigo Diáz as a “Mozarab” (José Camón Aznar) or as a “cross-border actor” (F.J. Peña Pérez), demonstrating the Islamic imprint on the warrior from Burgos: a man who lived between two worlds without, perhaps, belonging to either of them. The times in which Rodrigo Díaz lived were marked by the political disintegration (fitna) of al-Andalus, a process that began in the first decades of the 11th century and reached its most critical moment at the end of that century, with an epilogue signalled by the entry of the Almoravids into the Iberian Peninsula. Thus the years in which the Cid was most active were also the most dramatic period for the Andalusis, located between the Almoravid anvil and the Christian hammer. Rodrigo Díaz exploited this situation of weakness and disintegration, of confrontation between the taifa states, to carve out his destiny and to conquer and govern his own domain. The success of Rodrigo Díaz cannot be understood in isolation from the fission of al-Andalus into different taifas, forming a patchwork of Islamic states that became a troubled river in which the Campeador swam like a fish in water. It is precisely such a generalized state of violence between rival parties, of persistent confrontation and clashes between different entities that had previously been politically homogeneous, that best provides opportunities for the warrior. In such circumstances a seasoned and experienced war leader finds many more avenues to prosperity and wealth than in a more peaceful situation. It could be said, in short, that one of the main keys to the success of the Cid Campeador is, precisely, the critical state of al-Andalus in his time.

Rodrigo may have entered Muslim lands around the year 1063, if indeed he accompanied Prince Sancho in the campaign that led to the battle of Graus, where King Ramiro of Aragon, Sancho’s uncle, was killed, supposedly by a Muslim warrior named Sadadá. His first extensive contact with the realities of an Islamic city, however, would take place years later when, after the death of his lord Sancho II, he gained a position in the court of Alfonso VI and was sent to Seville with the mission of collecting the parias owed to the Leonese monarch by the taifa kingdom. He stayed in that city for several days, or even months, learning about Muslims, their organization, their economy and their customs, and perhaps achieving a rudimentary knowledge of the Arabic language. It is also in this context that he had his first encounter with Islamic methods of battlefield warfare, and he himself acted as commander of a combined host of Christians, his own men, and Muslims, the warriors of the Sevillian prince. This combining of Christian and Islamic forces would later be one of the keys to the Cid’s military success. He would draw several conclusions from the battle of Cabra (1079), in which he came up against a similarly hybrid army captained by Count García Ordóñez and Abd Allah Ibn Buluggin of Granada. This battle is one of the proofs that the frontiers between Islam and Christianity were not as clear as we may believe today.

His most prolonged and intense contact with the Islamic world would come in the years between 1080 and 1086, the years of his first exile, when he acted in the service of the taifa ruler of Zaragoza. During this period Rodrigo became fully integrated in the princely court of a Muslim lord, even assuming military command of the Zaragozan army. Contemporary Christian and Muslim authors agree that de Vivar acted both as a kind of general for the taifa ruler of Zaragoza, and as defender of the principality. In the course of these years Rodrigo recruited contingents of armed men to strengthen the taifa, men who would be integrated into his own ranks until the end of his days. In Zaragoza he may have acquired some knowledge of astronomy, which would later be of use in the management of his troops, and he improved his Arabic or brought into his confidence a bilingual Zaragozan who could serve him as interpreter in the future. It was during those years that Rodrigo truly became a «Mozarab», and a «cross-border actor». Armed with this wealth of experience he was ready to face the arduous and complex undertaking of conquering Valencia, a city located in a region surrounded on all sides by Islamic powers.

Interior of the Aljafería palace, Zaragoza. Wikimedia commons.

The changing fortunes of war served to increase the size of Rodrigo’s army, as did his military successes and the wealth and fame he derived from them. Many Christians left their places of origin to serve this independent warlord whose campaigns were characterised by good fortune. Even more numerous, perhaps, were the Muslims willing to serve a foreign commander in exchange for a salary, in the hope of bettering their situation in the army of a Christian victor in Islamic lands. Christian authors preferred to draw a veil over such activities, but there are references in the Islamic sources to these recruits in the army of the Campeador, anonymous Muslims who put their weapons at the service of Rodrigo Díaz. The Islamic sources state that on one occasion Rodrigo recruited crossbowmen and local labourers from various areas around Valencia, and that he was helped by the service of these so-called «dawā’ir» («turncoats») in carrying out repression and sowing terror among the population during the Valencian siege. After all, it was nothing new that Muslims dissatisfied with their lords, or simply moved by the desire for profit or by the purest desire for self-preservation, should subordinate the dictates of their faith to the most prosaic pragmatism. Rodrigo Díaz himself would have done something similar during the years he served the princes of Zaragoza, serving a Muslim lord in his wars against Christian enemies. The Campeador also found Valencia a particularly favourable environment for the cultivation of Muslims to swell his ranks. Prior to the irruption of the Cid on the Valencian scene, Álvar Fáñez had acted there as protector of Alfonso VI’s interests in the region. Alfonso’s faithful vassal had been for some time the guarantor of the security of al-Qadir, a weak ruler who had been key to the Christian emperor’s conquest of Toledo. Perhaps trying to repeat the move that had made him the master of such a strategically and symbolically important city, Alfonso manoeuvred the weak-willed al-Qadir into becoming the new prince of a Valencia that was dominated by upheaval, insurgency and frequent changes of governance. Alfonso hung onto control of his remote principality through his trusted Campeador with an army of Christian knights and local Muslims, whom the sources called «malefactors», «garzones», “traviesos» («rogues”) and «almogávares».

Rodrigo did not use Muslims solely as warriors in the Valencian context, but he also appointed Muslims to important administrative and organizational positions. Such is the case of his almojarife Abenabduz, who controlled the collection of taxes (tithe) and administered the landholdings of the Campeador, and who would act as his agent in managing the rights of Muslim taxpayers in the newly-captured suburb of Alcudia, before the conquest of the city itself. In this suburb of Valencia Rodrigo Díaz established a prototype Islamic village, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together, Islamic law was applied, and there was a degree of freedom of worship. The Campeador acted as guarantor of the rights of the inhabitants of Alcudia, stimulating the organisation of markets and the flow of goods and wealth. Soon this «city» prospered, as did the fortified town of Juballa, fifteen kilometres from Valencia, which became a parade ground for the Cid, a trading centre and the place where the booty taken in war by Rodrigo Díaz’s men was gathered. Even before taking control of Valencia, Rodrigo was acting as a kind of taifa prince, guaranteeing the security of the Muslim inhabitants of his region who were loyal to him and making his own men swear an oath to protect these subjects, especially the farmers, so that economic activity could flourish. He even went so far as to threaten with beheading those of his own men who violated the Muslims who were faithful and subject to his own particular tax system.

Once the city was conquered – which involved a tortuous process of military operations, truces and negotiations – Rodrigo acted in Valencia in the manner of an Islamic taifa prince, not only because of his obligations to the conquered under the terms of their capitulation, but also through simple pragmatism. He had tested this formula in the suburb of Alcudia and proved that it worked. The size of Campeador’s Christian contingent at that time was considerably inferior to the number of Muslims who served him, both in actuality and as potential recruits. In this situation he had to show himself more like a Muslim lord than a Christian conqueror, for he needed the support of the local population to consolidate his dominion over the city and its territory. Rodrigo would not have expected large numbers of Christians to arrive and settle in the city, at least initially, and this forced him to temporize as much as possible with the indigenous Muslim element. Not that all of these Muslims went along with with Rodrigo’s plans; we know he would be forced to purge potential enemies, neutralizing, and in some cases executing, some of the city’s notables. Just as in the conquest and dominion of Mexico the Totonacs and Tlaxcalans were essential for Hernán Cortés and his followers, many Muslims would be no less fundamental for Rodrigo Díaz to complete his enterprise successfully. It is important to keep in mind that we do not know of any reinforcements sent to Rodrigo by Christian allies. Only after the conquest would he receive occasional help from Pedro I of Aragon, who added his forces to those of Rodrigo in the campaign that culminated in the battle of Bairén against the Almoravids, which was fought in January 1097, some two and a half years after the conquest of the Valencian capital.

Rodrigo Díaz was a man who not only lived in Muslim areas for a significant part of his life, but whose relationship with the people of those areas influenced key aspects of his biography. Rodrigo knew how to adapt to his time and to its particular circumstances, showing himself to be a commander skilled in the application and use of geopolitical and geostrategical concepts such as insurgency and counterinsurgency. The Campeador did not lose any opportunity to stimulate insurgent and counter-insurgent movements inside Valencia during his siege of the city. We know that on several occasions he tried to introduce insurgent vectors within the walls, taking advantage of old quarrels between different Valencian factions and families. Once he became lord of Valencia, and even before this in Alcudia, he promoted measures that parallel the methods of counterinsurgency that have been developed, with different degrees of success, in various conflicts in modern times. In fact, current American ways of waging war are based more on the application of counterinsurgency techniques and practices and the use of elite commandos and intelligence to neutralize dissident leaders and win the good will of the people, than on the mobilization of large armies («putting boots on the ground»). Propaganda and counterinsurgency, so much encouraged now in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, were skilfully applied by Rodrigo Diaz in Valencia and the surrounding area. In 1895 Louis Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934), French general, marshal and later minister of war, coined an expression that sums up the essence of counterinsurgency policy. In the context of the tensions provoked on the border between China and Indochina, where France had colonial interests, and in the face of insurgent actions carried out by the Chinese group Black Flags, the French general stated that the key to French success in that complex scenario was to «win the hearts and minds» of the local population. Rodrigo’s actions show that such would be his objective in Valencia, to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim population as a necessary step in converting military conquest into a prosperous and well-governed lordship.

Diploma of endowment of the Cid to the cathedral of Valencia. (1098). Archivo de la Catedral de Salamanca, caja 43, leg. 2, n.º 72. Wikimedia Commons.

For Rodrigo Díaz not all Muslims were the same, it seems and this holds true for the authors who described them from a Christian perspective. The anonymous author of the Historia Roderici, a complex text that may have been written shortly after the death of the Cid and reworked decades later, establishes subtle distinctions amongst the different Muslims with whom Rodrigo came in contact. He divides them into three categories: «Saracens», the most generic denomination and most often used in his discourse; «Ishmaelites» and «Moabites». For this writer the “Ismaelites” are the Muslims of al-Andalus and the «Moabites» are the Almoravids, whom on some occasions he calls «barbarian Saracens», which may be interpreted as «foreign Muslims, foreigners». Those Muslim leaders with whom Rodrigo maintained a friendly relationship are never called «Saracens», nor «Ismaelites», they are simply mentioned by name, as is the case of the taifa ruler of Seville Ibn Abbas and the princes of Saragossa al-Mutamin and al-Mustain. It is not surprising that Christians such as the author of the Historia Roderici drew such distinctions, since the Andalusians themselves were aware that they were somewhat different from those others, also Muslims, who had come from the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar under the command of Yusuf ibn Teshufin. «I would rather be a camel driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile» is a phrase attributed to the aforementioned al-Mu’tamid of Seville by later Muslim chroniclers (Ibn Simāk and al-Ḥimyarī, 13th-14th centuries), which would come to illustrate the general feeling of some taifa rulers threatened by the Christians from the north, who would see as their only hope of salvation these horsemen of the desert who had taken control of a good part of West Africa and the Maghreb. Christian rulers, including Rodrigo Díaz himself, also recognised a distinction between Andalusi Muslims and the Almoravids. The Andalusis were neighbours who could be squeezed, dominated, subdued or conquered; lacking optimal military resources they dedicated themselves to economic and cultural activities rather than to war.

Historia Roderici. Ms. RAH 9/450.

The Almoravids, on the contrary, were characterized by a Spartan and warlike way of life, with notions of honour and valour similar to those of the battle-hardened Christian knights, and a similar warrior ethos. The remains of a once glorious caliphate finally dissolved in the times of Rodrigo Diaz, who knew how to behave as a Muslim ruler when it was timely and as a Christian prince when it was appropriate. Indeed, he was the only Islamic «taifa lord» and Christian «prince» who managed to defeat the powerful North African war machine on the battlefield on two separate occasions during its first two decades of action in the Iberian Peninsula. And this may have been, among other things, because Rodrigo Díaz was the only leader amongst his contemporaries who acted as a pure hybrid, knowing how to make the most of what was Christian and what was Muslim in a world ruled by chaos, war and change, in which ideological boundaries were not always clearly defined.

Further reading:

  • CAMÓN AZNAR, José: «El Cid, personaje mozárabe», in Revista de Estudios Políticos, no 31-32 (1947), pp. 109-144.
  • DÍAZ PLAZA CASAL, Adrián: El Cid: entre el romance y la historia, Madrid, 2018.
  • FLETCHER, Richard: El Cid, 2nd ed., Madrid, 1999, (translated from the original English The Quest for El Cid, London, 1989).
  • MARTÍNEZ DÍEZ, Gonzalo: El Cid histórico. An exhaustive study on the real Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, Barcelona, 1999.
  • PEÑA PÉREZ, Francisco J.: El Cid, History, Legend and Myth, Burgos, 2000.
  • PORRINAS GONZÁLEZ, David: «Rodrigo Díaz, el Cid Campeador, un conquistador en el siglo XI», in Martín F. Rios Saloma (dir.), El mundo de los conquistadores, Madrid, Sílex Ediciones, 2015, pp. 489-522.
  • PORRINAS GONZÁLEZ, David: El Cid, historia y mito de un señor de la guerra, Madrid, Desperta Ferro Ediciones, 2019 (6th edition 2021).
  • VIGUERA MOLINS, María Jesús: «El Cid en las fuentes árabes», in El Cid, Poema e Historia, César Hernández Alonso (coord.), Burgos, 2000.

The translation of this text made with Deepl.translate has been revised by Ann Christys.