The Role of Hispanic Muslim Architecture in the Conquests of James I of Aragon. A study on the ‘Llibre dels Feits’
This paper was originally published at ‘Roda da Fortuna. Electronic Journal about Antiquity and Middle Ages’ 2019/1
The Llibre dels Feits, traditionally translated into English as The Chronicle of James I of Aragon, or more recently, The Book of Deeds, relates the major events occurred during the reign of James I of Aragon, known as The Conqueror (r. 1213-1276). It is written from the king’s perspective and it focuses on his military campaigns, mainly the conquests of Majorca, Valencia and Murcia.
Experts on the book have concluded that James I was actively involved in the writing of the text. It has been suggested that the chronicle might have an oral origin and was aimed to be read out loud. The king could have initially commissioned the creation of poems to celebrate his military victories to one or diverse troubadours, or he could have recounted his experiences to knights of his household while a scribe wrote his words down.
Although it is essentially a military work, the many personal memories in the text reveal a vivid picture of the times and an intimate self-portrait of the monarch. The king’s account of his own life and reign is sometimes slightly inaccurate and inevitably partial, but I will stick to his story for the sake of space.
James I was not especially fond of architecture, but he occasionally expressed great pride in his kingdoms’ ancient buildings, particularly when that offered the opportunity to praise his ancestors. It would be the case of the “ancient palace, which had been built by the count of Barcelona”, or “the monastery that was built by Queen Doña Sancha, who was our grandmother”, referring to the Barcelona Royal Palace and the Royal Monastery of Santa María of Sigena, respectively.
He also shows an aesthetic appreciation of the castles and cities in his territories and beyond. In 1239, a number of noblemen from Montpellier wronged James I and escaped the city to avoid being summoned before the king. He decided to punish the leaders of the revolt by demolishing their houses. The destruction of castles and towns was a usual practice, especially in response to treason. Nonetheless, in the case of Montpellier, the monarch’s place of birth, he made sure the city’s appearance was not greatly affected by his decision.
“[…] we ordered the houses of those who had fled to be pulled down, that is to say, three or four houses of those who had stood out as leaders of those who had escaped us. And we left the others so the town would not look ugly afterwards.”
Similarly, he often praises the beauty of Hispanic Muslim architecture, maybe to magnify his subsequent conquests. A fine example would be his evocation of the city of Majorca after the first battle in the island, which “[…] seemed to us and to those who were with us, the most beautiful we had ever seen.” He also demonstrates his knowledge of the structural soundness of Andalusian fortresses in passages like the description of Puig de Santa Maria to his uncle, where he “explained to him that the castle was located on a hill, and it was good and strong and well constructed […].”
Furthermore, the Conqueror was aware of the key role of construction in warfare and occupation of newly conquered territories. In addition to military tactics like cutting off the water supply during a siege, ravaging crops or taking cattle to starve the population, the book describes other techniques which were common at the time, such as digging the foundations of walls to make them sink, or levelling moats and excavating underground tunnels to access fortresses.
More relevantly, it is also known that troops included master builders who were capable of transporting, assembling and even building from scratch a great variety of siege devices. On one occasion, the chronicle mentions an Italian master who volunteered to erect a “wooden castle” in eight days during the siege of Borriana. That “wooden castle” was a complex structure with two stories above the ground, which allowed the crossbowmen to gain height and the soldiers to safely approach the walls. In addition, it provided them with direct access to the different levels of the fortresses from the outside. In this case, it is remarkable that James I remembered the master from the conquest of Majorca, which had taken place four years before. The king also specifies his name and place of origin, Nicoloso of Albenga.
Those master builders frequently had an important role after the occupation of a town, completing the reconstruction of newly occupied fortresses that had been damaged or demolished during the military campaigns, or erecting walls to divide the Saracen properties from the ones that would be occupied by the new Christian settlers, among others.
2. Occupation of Andalusian buildings
During the Christian conquest of Al-Andalus, the discovery and appropriation of Hispanic Muslim architecture, as well as the demanding technical requirements resulting from the continuous movement of the borders, gave rise to the Christian reuse of Andalusian constructions. That phenomenon proved decisive when it involved socially significant buildings, such as palaces and temples.
The turbulence of the period, especially up to the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, resulted in the constant movement of the borders and a large number of cities changed hands repeatedly. The temporary nature of the military advances and the subsequent precarious situation are likely to have favoured the reuse of Andalusian buildings. That practice was probably consolidated by the time Toledo was conquered in 1085.
2.1 Palaces and fortresses
The reuse of Hispanic Muslim palaces was a common practice since the earliest Christian advances on Al-Andalus. In fact, many fortresses built by the Saracens were still standing at James I’s time in territories conquered long before, such as the castles of Lleida and Tortosa.
The Conqueror himself called his palaces in the city of Zaragoza by their Arabic names. The Book of Deeds refers to the royal palace as Zuda, from the Arabic sudda, which was used in Eastern Al-Andalus to refer to the residence of the Taifa princes. The royal country residence in the suburbs was and is still known as the Aljafería or Aliafaria in the documents of James I’s chancery. This name is a deformation of the Arabic al-Qasr al-Yafariyya, which can be translated as Abu Yafar’s palace.
As for the fortresses taken over by James I, he occasionally changed their Arabic names. It is the case of Puig de Santa Maria, previously called Enesa by the Saracens and Puig de Cebolla by the Christians. However, it was very common to keep calling these fortresses alcàsser, which is a term that was adopted by the Spanish and Catalan languages (alcázar and alcàsser respectively). It comes from the Arabic word al-qaṣr, originally from the latin castrum (camp or castle). More exceptional is the case of Mallorca’s castle, which maintained the name Almudaina. Most probably, this designation derives from al-mudayna, which is a diminutive of the Arabic word for town.
Occupying Hispanic Muslim castles after the appropriation of a city was extremely beneficial. In addition to the obvious economic and technical advantages, Islamic fortresses were a potent symbol of power, and a major military asset for the effective defence of the territory against later revolts. Their strategic importance was so critical that James I became fiercely indignant when he was told that the castle of Enesa had been demolished by the Saracens while he was planning its conquest, because it meant the loss of a strong military base to attack Valencia, his ultimate goal. He was forced to change his plans and secretly started making preparations to rebuild a new castle, even before the city surrendered . The reconstruction of the Puig’s fortress, which became the king’s operations centre during the Valencia campaign, lasted two months.
Maybe even more significant is his advice to Pope Gregory X about his plans for a crusade to recover the Holy Land during the Second Council of Lyon. In 1274, at the age of 66 and according to his own recollection, the Conqueror recommended to send 2,500 men to the Holy Land not to fight, “[…] but to garrison1 the castles and the places that need to be garrisoned […].”
Apart from those practical reasons, the king grew to admire Arabic art and culture. Xàtiva was arguably James I’s favourite conquest not just for its strategic value, but also for its beauty. The king relates how he decided to conquer the city when he went there to negotiate the liberation of Don Pedro de Alcalá, who had been made prisoner, and saw how beautiful the place was.
“[…] we saw the castle, so noble and so beautiful; and such a beautiful huerta. And we felt great joy and great happiness in our heart; for it seemed to us that not only for Don Pedro de Alcalá did we have to go upon Xàtiva with our army, but also to win the castle for Christianity […].”
Besides the military occupation of fortresses, the king occasionally took the best Andalusian palaces as royal residences, sometimes immediately after the occupation of a city. The most graphic description of that process provided in the Book of Deeds is the case of Almenara. After the conquest of Enesa, the neighbouring town of Almenara offered James I a capitulation. An agreement was reached after a few days and James I entered the town and the castle. Meanwhile, he sent word to the queen, who was lodged at Borriana, about 16 miles away. At her arrival, they entered the castle for the first time and had dinner there.
“And so, with that, we had the castle. Meanwhile, we sent two knights to the queen, telling her that she should come quickly, as Our Lord had shown us such grace and mercy that He had given us the castle of Almenara, and she would be better off and more comfortable there than at Borriana. […] And we waited there until she arrived, then we went out to the slopes at the foot of the castle, and we and she entered the castle happily and ate with great joy.”
It is worth mentioning that at least in the cases of Almenara and Murcia, Muslim rulers “prepare to come out”, and “left the Alcazar clear for us”. However, there were no apparent changes to the previous state of the building, furniture, or equipments before the monarchs occupied the castle.
Regarding the political and social significance of the appropiation of Hispanic Muslim fortresses, the text includes a few standard conventions such as hanging the corpses of traitors and enemies from the walls of the castles or more crucial in the king’s narrative, flying the victor’s flag and banner in the main structures of the city.
Nevertheless, what seems to be more meaningful, at least to the royal court, is accommodating the queen. At certain times, that was seen as a considerable asset, and had a major impact in the Valencia campaign. One of James I’s arguments to persuade Aragonese and Lleidatan noblemen to follow his strategy was that “when we have taken Borriana, we will have the queen our wife go there, so that the people understand that we are determined to stay there.”
In a similar way to civil buildings, the reuse of mosques as churches was very common long before James I’s reign. There is archaeological and documentary evidence of this practice at least from the 11th century, and all over the former Al-Andalus. One of the earliest documents is Peter I of Aragon’s endowment of Huesca Cathedral on the day of its consecration. It dates April 1097, just a few months after the conquest of the city, and it is aimed at converting the former Huesca Great Mosque into a church.
Other Iberian contemporary chronicles, especially De rebus Hispaniae and Estoria de España, narrate the occupation and consecration of mosques after the conquest of the most important strongholds in Al-Andalus. The ceremonies are described as part of the rituals to take possession of Hispanic Muslim cities, which also could include royal parades, Christian hymns and triumphal Mass.
Those epic stories clearly illustrate the almost military character of the appropriation of great mosques as a triumphal sign. The description of the conquest of Coria in the 12th cent. chronicle of Alfonso the Emperor, for instance, mentions the restoration of the city to its “former state when an episcopal seat had been there during the time of Archbishop Ildefonso and King Recaredo”, that is to say, in Visigothic times (6th – 7th cent.).
That early example demonstrates that, at least in part, there was a deep religious motivation started long before James I’s time, fuelled by the deep-seated belief that, in short, it was essential to return to what was considered a legitimate past. That stimulus remains very much alive in the Book of Deeds, where the Conqueror states two reasons to conquer Majorca, that is, “to convert them or to destroy them, and to return that kingdom to the Faith of Our Lord.”.
Such political and religious ideology was surely a high motivation, but strong practical reasons cannot be undervalued. To begin with, there were huge economic and technical advantages. A place of worship needed to be set up immediately after the occupation of the cities, not just to satisfy the religious needs of the new settlers, but to make possible for the ceremonies described above. The purification of the great mosque was a quick and easy way to get a big enough church in the centre of the city. After this initial arrangements, of course, the building usually endured much more relevant interventions, mainly the change of orientation of the temple and the addition of bells to the minaret.
Urban and organisational factors need to be taken into account as well. Great mosques were strategically located within Hispanic Muslim cities, in a central position with road links to all the city gates. They were also the largest public buildings, since they needed to accommodate the whole community during the communal Friday prayers. On the other hand, neighbourhood mosques were not just used for religious purposes, but also as administrative centres. Especially from the 13th cent., when Muslim population was expelled from cities like Córdoba and Seville, neighbourhood mosques were also consecrated. In addition to be places of worship, these parish churches maintained their former administrative role.
Another key factor was the substantial economic benefit obtained by the bishops, since by receiving the great mosque in the distribution of the conquered land, they secured all of the mosque properties and endowments for their diocese. In contrast, military orders often built their temples in uninhabited areas because whoever built new churches in deserted places taken from the Saracens had pontifical immunity, that is, full authority and right over them. The latter option, though, required time, economic resources and defence capability.
In relation to James I’s perception and experience of mosques converted to churches, it deserves mentioning that the memory of many former great mosques in his territories was still very much alive. In Lleida, for instance, the building of the former great mosque was demolished in the last years of James I’s father life, and the works to build the new Gothic temple went on during all of his reign. Another example would be the privileges granted to Huesca Cathedral to be rebuilt according to the Christian tradition by James I himself in 1273, since the building of the former mosque was still used as a cathedral 176 years after its consecration.
James I makes clear in his book that “in all the great towns that God has given unto us to win from the Saracens we have built a church of Our Lady Saint Mary”. That process is described in detail in the account of the capitulation of Murcia, where the king offered the ornaments of his own chapel for the consecration ceremony. The king heard Mass every morning, and this chapel probably refers to a mobile chapel he took with him during his military campaigns together with his tent.
“On the second day, when the altar was prepared, we had it decorated in the early morning with the cloths of our chapel, very honourably and nobly. […] We had all the clergy who were there dressed in cloaks of samite and others in cloth decorated with gold. And with our crosses and with the image of Our Lady Saint Mary we went out from our quarters in the camp. On foot, we entered through the town into the church of Our Lady Saint Mary that we had built.”
In this passage, what the chronicle describes as “building a church” takes place in just two days, and it clearly refers to the process of cleansing the mosque, setting up a Christian altar and having it consecrated by a bishop. In a previous section about his stay in Majorca, the king mentions that “we have built here a church dedicated to Our Lady Saint Mary, (and so many others that will be here)”. That statement was made thirteen months after the conquest of Majorca and could also refer to the conversion of a mosque. However, the possibility that the works for a new cathedral had started by then must be acknowledged.
Despite being merciless to anyone who challenged his authority, the Conqueror was usually willing to negotiate a capitulation with the rulers of Hispanic Muslim cities to avoid armed confrontation. One of the key questions considered in those treaties was whether the Muslim community would be allowed to practise their religion under Christian rule, which apparently was mostly granted. The Book of Deeds tends to associate the fact of preserving the Islamic religion with keeping at least some of the mosques.
Another interesting chapter about the occupation of mosques by the Christian invaders describes the negotiations to keep a particular mosque in Murcia. It proved to be a very difficult process, which may be the reason why it is included in the chronicle. After the signing of the city’s capitulation, while the king was dividing the land and properties, he realised that one of the mosques was very close to the fortress, so he demanded to have it for himself.
“And we said […] that that mosque should be included in our part. They said that that had not been agreed and their documents said that they would keep their mosques and that they would have them as they had them in the time of the Saracens. And we said […] that church shall be at the gate of the fortress. And that from there “Alàlosabba” should be cried near to my head when I am sleeping… that, as you can well understand, is not fitting. Now, you have some ten mosques in the town. Make your prayers in those and leave this one to us.”
The fact that the book uses the word “mosque” and “church” (italicised by me in the quote above) without distinction to refer to the same building at the same moment in time is very significant. It suggests that once the king resolved to secure a temple for the Christian community, he was completely indifferent to the origin of the building and regarded it as a church.
3. Temporary architectures of power
Beyond the approach to Andalusian buildings, the careful arrangements made by James I in his military camps when he met with representatives of Muslim communities are particularly revealing of their strong influence upon the Conqueror. The narrations of these episodes vividly illustrate the intense power relationship established between the different rulers engaged in the negotiations, and show the deep knowledge of Arabic culture the monarch acquired over time.
The first of those meetings was actually organised by the king of Majorca, who requested James I to send Don Nunó as his messenger during the siege of Majorca. Don Nunó was cousin of James I’s father and one of the most important members of the court. The Book of Deeds simply relates that “the king of Majorca came out through the gate of Porto Pí, and ordered a tent to be prepared and seats so that he and Don Nunó could sit there.”.
In 1231, just a couple of years after conquest of Majorca, James I followed the advice of the commander of the Templars in the island and sent messengers to Menorca to negotiate its submission. These messengers were welcomed by the governor and other leaders of Menorca, who “had sent for mattresses, mats and cushions, so that they could sit down and assemble”. These arrangements were made at a moment’s notice and outdoors, somewhere between the harbour and the town of Ciutadella, Menorca’s capital.
The king had moved from his quarters at the Almudaina, the recently occupied fortress in the city of Majorca, and set up a military camp on the coast facing Menorca. Eventually, he met with representatives of Menorca in the house he was temporary staying. He was 23 years old at the time and it was the first time he held one of these meetings, so he probably had not anticipated the requirements for such an occasion. In fact, he narrates how he had to be told by his men to arrange his rooms and how he had to improvise in the last minute.
“And our messengers sent word to us that we should prepare the dwellings which we were in fittingly. And we ordered them to be decorated and adorned with much fennel, because we had no other type of reed, and we placed our bedcovers and those of all who were with us on the walls of the house, in the part where we would receive them. […] And when they were in our presence, they greeted us with great reverence and went down on their knees […].”
The king clearly disliked being put in that almost embarrassing position, particularly when compared to the welcomes received by his men in the past. From then on, he made sure he was never placed in a similar situation. The Book of Deeds details the careful preparations for the following meetings with Muslim rulers in military camps. It is also specified that the king personally ordered suitable arrangements or supervised them, as illustrated in the three examples below.
During the siege of Valencia (1238), when the nephew of Valencia’s king “entered our quarters (which were very tidy and adorned) and was near us, we got up for him.” After lengthy negotiations with the alfaquim of Xàtiva (1240), the alcaid and the best hundred men of the town finally sworn fealty to James I, “And all participated in that oath. And we had seats prepared in the reyal we had given to the bishop of Valencia […].” The reial or reyal was the site where an army camps, and especially the tent or lodgings of the king or the general. After besieging Murcia (1266), the Conqueror sent for the governor “to speak to him for his good and that of the townspeople.” The king explains that:
“And when we learnt that they were coming, we had our house draped with good cloths and fine couches prepared. And we ordered that they should have live fowl, sheep and goats prepared, so that when they arrived these might be slaughtered, and that the guests should remain with us.”
The instructions given by the king about the food in the previous passage reveal not only the considerable knowledge of Islamic culture he had acquired, but also his determination to be considerate towards Muslim rulers in an attempt to win them over. Another clear example of the latter would be the following anecdote about the surrender of Peníscola. When the king relates his arrival to the outskirts of the town and the organisation of the camp, he says:
“At night, because it was a calm night, we ordered sleeping quarters to be made out of rugs and blankets that we had brought, as we had forbidden anybody to cut down the trees, since it would have greatly upset the Saracens if we had cut them down on our first visit.”
With regard to James I’s familiarity with Arabic lifestyle, it also deserves mentioning the allusion to a “tent from Outremer” in the chronicle. In their Spanish translation of the book, Flotats and Borafull suggest this tent was a gift from the sultan of Egypt to befriend James I, in a period when it seemed plausible that the Conqueror could bring together many Christian princes to conquer Holy Land. However, Flotats and Borafull do not provide a source and their theory remains unconfirmed, so it needs to be acknowledged just as a possibility.
James I’s attitude towards the Book of Deeds is far from the systematic approach adopted for other contemporary chronicles. The works produced in the court of Alfonso the Wise mentioned above, for instance, are far more systematic and almost seem to establish proper occupation procedures to be followed in the future. On the contrary, the Conqueror’s intention is not normative, and it is repeatedly made clear in the book that its goal is not to be exhaustive.
Indeed, James I’s depiction of Andalusian heritage can be considered as a marginal section of the text. That neglect could be attributed to the personal preferences of the monarch. However, it could also be due to the fact that the knowledge, appropriation and assimilation of Hispanic Muslim architecture were deeply embedded in daily life by that time and therefore, considered superfluous in the narration of the “matters which were great and good”. On the contrary, the Conqueror’s chronicle vividly describes the king’s deep religious devotion, his vast knowledge of Arabic culture and his intense emotions after the seize of a town or when seeing his flag in a conquered castle.
In spite of the scarce references to Hispanic Muslim architecture in the chronicle, when considered as a whole they give a complex and representative picture of the general attitude towards Arabic culture during the reign of the Conqueror. Hispanic Muslim architecture is characterised in the Book of Deeds in three different ways, according to its value for the Christian community after the conquest:
Firstly, it was a political and military asset. A significant number of Hispanic Muslim buildings served an essential function as subjects of negotiation in the surrender treaties, strongholds to support the control of the territory, or ultimate symbols of power. That role made them powerful instruments for the continuing occupation of the land.
Secondly, it was part of the spoils of the war. The newly seized properties were distributed among the Christian occupiers according to the economic or in-kind contributions of each nobleman to the campaign. That patrimony included all types of properties, from structures with an eminently practical use to symbolically relevant buildings. The reuse of the latter was part of deep-rooted traditions and implied significant architectural adjustments, especially in the case of mosques converted into churches.
Thirdly, it was part of a foreign heritage. Jaume I’s knowledge of Andalusian customs proved to be an invaluable resource to favour the Muslim community submission and to facilitate the monarch’s relationship with his new subjects. On the other hand, a real aesthetic appreciation of Hispanic Muslim art and architecture was developed by the monarch, and was gradually assimilated by the Christian communities in the peninsula. Mudejar architecture, largely based on Andalusian heritage and techniques, is a paradigm of that process and became an essential part of Iberian visual culture transcending any ethnic and religious associations.
*To see the original paper published at Roda da Fortuna, including the references, please click here.