Skip to content

Farakhsha – The Story of Muslim Rule in Provence

Between the 9th and 10th centuries CE, Muslims of Andalusian origins ruled what is now called Switzerland; I took the liberty of picking out interesting niche topics from my private historical compositions, and this topic is not very well-known in modern times.

Map of Farakhsha / Provence During Muslim Rule

Farakhsha aka Fraxinetum

The history of Islam in Francia during the early Middle Ages is an overlooked and understudied topic. Many experts on medieval Europe and the Islamic world believe that the defeat of an Umayyad force by a Frankish army at the Battle of Tours in 732 CE and the subsequent conquest of Narbonne by the Franks in 759 CE marked the end of Muslim involvement in Francia. However, this perspective is not entirely accurate.

In reality, the tenth century saw a resurgence of Muslim authority in southeastern Francia, but in a different form than before. This article will explore the emergence of an Islamic frontier state, known as Fraxinetum, in Provence during the late ninth century and how it allowed Andalusians to play a more significant role in southern Francia throughout the tenth century than previously thought. (Fraxinetum or Fraxinet; Arabic: فرخشنيط, – Romanized: Farakhshanīt or فرخشة / Farakhsha, from Latin fraxinus: “ash tree”, fraxinetum: “ash forest”)

Contrary to popular belief, the Muslim military, cultural, and religious presence in Gaul did not truly come to an end until the late tenth century, nearly 250 years after Charles Martel’s victory at Tours. Despite the lack of contemporary Muslim/Arab sources, many scholars before the 1970s and 1980s dismissed the Muslims of Fraxinetum as “robbers” or “pirates” and their settlement fortress as a “corsair’s nest” not worthy of further attention. But the available records paint a different and more nuanced picture of these Muslims, their activities, and the nature of their presence in Gaul.

This article will uncover the truth behind the often-misunderstood Muslim presence in Francia during the early Middle Ages. Rather than being portrayed as bandits, the Islamic frontier state of Fraxinetum was in fact a thriving political, military, and economic center, largely populated by ghäzis or mujahidin (Islamic frontier warriors) from al-Andalus. This frontier state was a self-sustaining entity existing on the boundary between Iberian Islam and Frankish Christendom, serving as the focal point for several autonomous bands of Andalusian Muslim ghäzis in Provence and the Alpine passes.

Despite the lack of a centralized authority regulating the activity of these warrior groups, their coordinated attacks on neighboring principalities give the impression that they formed a single, unified front. It is important to note that the motivations for the establishment and maintenance of a Muslim presence in Provence were not solely religious, but also economic. Additionally, the interactions between the Muslims and their neighbors varied greatly, from violent battles to commercial relations, reflecting the diverse motivations of those residing in Fraxinetum.


Origins

In 838 CE, Marseille faced the devastating consequences of Muslim raiders who plundered the city’s religious houses and took both men and women as slaves. Arles faced similar raids in 842 and 869 CE, with the archbishop being captured and ransomed, only to be handed over dead. As a response to these attacks, a castle was built in the Camargue to deter raiders which ultimately led to the establishment of a permanent Muslim base (or frontier state), known as Fraxinetum, in the region.

The origins of this Islamic frontier state of Farakhsha, aka Fraxinetum, can be traced back to the year 887 CE. A small vessel carrying around twenty Andalusian sailors landed on the Provençal coast near the modern town of St. Tropez, whereby they forcibly seized the neighboring settlement of Freinet. The Andalusians then proceeded to occupy the fort on the mountain above the town, which had been known as Fraxinetum since Roman times.

View of the Fortress’ Ruins at Farakhsha

The fortress city that they established was highly defensible, protected by the sea on one side and large forests of thorny trees on the other. The fort could only be accessed through a single, narrow path leading up the mountain.

Tenth-century Muslim geographers, such as Muhammad Ibn Hawqal in his Surat al-Ard (977 CE) and al-Istakhrî in his Kitäb al-Masälik wa al-Mamâlik (951 CE), referred to the fortified port of Fraxinetum as Jabal al-Qilal (Mount of Lumber/Timber) and described it as a vast mountainous region with rivers and fertile soil that took two days to cross. They also noted that it was dependent on the Umayyads of Cordoba, as indicated by its cartographic representation as an island at the mouth of the Rhone River, close to the Iberian Peninsula, similar to the Balearic Islands.

View of Modern Day Farakhsha

The Andalusians who settled at Fraxinetum did not waste any time in building their power and strength, they quickly called upon their fellow Muslims in Iberia and the Balearics to join them. Around one hundred warriors answered the call, driven by their religious fervor and the promise of wealth from raids. Although it is possible that Muslims from Sicily and North Africa also participated in the raids in Francia, it is more likely that most of the raiders were from Fraxinetum and the coastal regions of the Iberian Peninsula.

Within just a couple of decades of their arrival, the Andalusians had conquered all of Provence with relative ease, thanks to the divisions and internal conflicts that had plagued the region since the fall of the Carolingian Empire. They met little resistance from the Provençals and by 939 CE they had crossed the Alps, taking advantage of their mountaineering skills and raiding what is now northern Italy as well as southern Switzerland, where they attacked the renowned monastery of St. Gall and destroyed the abbey of Aguane in the Valais.

The Andalusians established numerous fortresses throughout Provence and the Rhone Valley, which the Latin chroniclers in the raided regions all referred to as Fraxinetum or some variation of the name (Frassineto, Frascendello, Fraxinth, etc.). These fortresses served as the backbone of their expansion and helped them dominate the region. From their main base at Fraxinetum, the Muslims extended their raids into Alemannia and Rhaetia in the north, Grenoble in the west, and Lombardy in the east.

Even though Provence and parts of Piedmont were nominally under Andalusian control, the local administrative and religious infrastructure was left intact, allowing most Provençal towns to be relatively self-governing, as long as they paid taxes to Fraxinetum. The extent of the Andalusian’s influence and impact on the regions they conquered or raided is evident in the place names of the region, which allude to the “Saracens” and their base at Fraxinetum. The mountainous region of southern Provence, where the principal base was established, is still known as Massif des Maures (Mountain of the Moors) today, a testament to the lasting impact of the Andalusians on the region.


The First Christian Response

The Andalusians of Fraxinetum had grown increasingly powerful, and their raids had become more frequent and destructive, with the sack of Genoa in 935 CE (in participation alongside Fatimid ghazis) and the destruction of the important Provençal port of Fréjus in 940 CE. The raids had also extended beyond the Alps, and it became clear that something needed to be done. King Hugh of Aries of Italy decided to act against the Muslims of Fraxinetum, and in 941 CE, he summoned a fleet from the Byzantine emperor, Romanus Lecapenus, to attack the fortress both by land and by sea. He hoped to crush Fraxinetum and break the power of the Andalusians in the trans-Alpine region.

However, at a crucial moment during the two-pronged attack, when Fraxinetum was on the brink of falling to his forces, King Hugh made a sudden and unexpected move. He decided to halt the offensive and form an alliance with the Muslims. He made this decision because he had received word that his rival for the Italian crown, Berengar of Ivrea, intended to cross the Alps with reinforcements from Saxony and invade Italy. It’s also possible that his accommodation with the Andalusians was part of a broader rapprochement with AbdulRahman III, ruler of al-Andalus, with whom he had entered into trade relations around 941 CE.

Concept Art Depicting Muslim Warriors

King Hugh of Aries reached an agreement with the Andalusians of Fraxinetum, which allowed them to continue to occupy and control the Alpine passes. They had entrenched themselves in these passes since 921 CE, effectively cutting off the connection between France and Italy, and preventing any hostile armies from reaching his kingdom. The Muslims of Fraxinetum was more than happy to comply with this agreement, as it allowed them to acquire vast amounts of wealth by controlling the movement of soldiers and pilgrims traveling through the Alps between Francia and Italy.

It was during this period of control over the Alpine passes that Fraxinetum reached the height of its power, and the raids by the Andalusians became the most devastating and deadly. Latin chroniclers report that the Muslims of Fraxinetum sacked numerous monasteries and indiscriminately killed hundreds of pilgrims on their way to Rome. Whether this account is exaggerated or not is uncertain, as the chroniclers that reported this are Latin and the period has a lack of Muslim chroniclers. Nevertheless, a Muslim scholar confirmed that the Abbey of Saint John at Mustair was spared harm or deprivation during the Muslim invasion of Switzerland.


Challenges and Obstacles

Fraxinetum was a hotbed of activity during this time, a refuge for rebels and renegades on the run from powerful authorities in Germania, Francia, and Italy. The Muslims constructed an elaborate line of defensive fortresses along the mountain range to consolidate their power and further extend their reach. But their unwarranted confidence would eventually prove to be their undoing. When they recklessly launched raids into the Upper Rhine Valley – the domain of Otto I – they underestimated the consequences. Otto I was driven to appeal to the Caliph of al-Andalus, AbdulRahman III, to put a stop to the hostilities. This pivotal event between two of the most powerful rulers of Western Europe demonstrates how Fraxinetum had the capacity to alter the delicate balance of power between the Muslim and Christian forces of the region.

Get a Feel of the Lasting Legacy of Andalusi Muslims in the Massif des Maures Region, Known as Fraxinetum in the Past, an Evocative Reminder of their Presence in History.

The northward advance of the Muslims of Fraxinetum also brought them into contact with the Magyars, who were raiding westwards. This resulted in a confrontation between the two sides in 954 CE, which was taken advantage of by Conrad of Burgundy, who massacred the survivors from both sides. Following their defeat at Lechfeld, Otto I began to encourage and sponsor Christian resistance against the Muslims of Fraxinetum, and the latter was forced to retreat from the 950s onward.

The second major misstep made by the Andalusians, which ultimately led to the downfall of their dominion, was their capture of Maiolus, the abbot of Cluny, who was considered a living saint by the rulers of western Europe. This prompted a coalition of nobles to launch a semi-crusade to remove the Muslims from Francia.


All Good Things Come to an End

The expedition was a grand adventure led by the fearless Guillaume I of Provence, but it was not just him who embarked on this journey. Aristocrats from the Northern Italian regions, Provence, and Septimania also joined the expedition. They all set out to face their enemy, the Muslims, at the historic battle of Tourtour, in the upper regions of Provence, during the scorching summer of 972 CE. The Frankish forces were fierce and determined, they met the Muslims in battle and decimated their ranks, leaving no survivors before moving on to their main base at Fraxinetum.

Fraxinetum was not prepared for the Frankish onslaught as they did not receive any reinforcements from al-Andalus. The Frankish forces launched a short but intense siege, and it fell in late 972 CE, although some sources claim the date was as late as 990 CE. After the destruction of Fraxinetum, the Muslim inhabitants of Provence were either killed, enslaved, or exiled, and their lands were divided among the lords who took part in the expedition to expel them from Provence. This victory of the Provençals over the Andalusians of Fraxinetum marked the end of Muslim control over southern France, almost 240 years after Charles Martel’s defeat of AbdulRahman al-Ghafiqi at the Battle of Tours in 732 CE.

Map of Farakhsha / Fraxinetum as Illustrated on al-Istakhri’s Work

Concluding Remarks

In summary, Fraxinetum was both a strategically important timber depot and a valuable naval base for the Muslims in the Mediterranean. This ninth-and-tenth-century Muslim maritime expansion – which also included Crete, Bari, Monte Garigliano, Tarentum, and Brindisium – was an opportunistic and wealth-driven affair, and its success was enabled by the decline of centralized Islamic authority. These developments gave rise to ghazi warfare and ultimately led to the establishment of frontier states like Fraxinetum.

Unfortunately, many historians have inaccurately labeled the Andalusian settlement as a “pirate base” and interpreted the actions of the Muslims there solely within the framework of Muslim “piracy.” The debate over whether Fraxinetum was a “corsairs’ nest” or an Islamic frontier state primarily revolves around different interpretations of primary documents. This binary of piracy/jihad is also misleading — the Muslims at Fraxinetum were neither ruthless zealots nor selfish opportunists but rather driven by a sense of religious mission while engaging in commercial activities such as raiding and trading, which did not interfere with their commitment to jihad. The idea of Fraxinetum as an Islamic frontier state in this article is not meant to perpetuate the piracy/jihad dichotomy, but instead to integrate an understanding of the Muslim presence in Provence within the broader context of ghazi warfare and Islamic frontier states in the 10th century.


Highlights

To conclude this article, I’ve summarized and highlighted the essential annals of Fraxinetum:

  • In 889 CE, a group of twenty Andalusians set sail on the Gulf of St. Tropez and founded a colony at Fraxinetum. This was just the beginning of their journey, as they were determined to expand their reach.
  • In the year 906 CE, Muslim invaders swept through the regions of Piedmont, Liguria, and parts of Switzerland, taking over these lands with ease. Cities such as Grenoble, Frejus, Marseilles, and Nice soon fell to the Muslim conquerors. Also, in 906 CE, the Muslims crossed the treacherous defiles of the Dauphiné and Mont Cénis, determined to conquer new lands. The following year, they occupied the Susa Valley, and in 911 CE, they held the Alpine passes. Their power and influence continued to grow.
  • However, the Andalusians faced a setback in 935 CE, when Sa’id died at the Battle of Acqui. But they didn’t let this defeat discourage them. They continued to press forward, and in 940 CE, they occupied and colonized Toulon. In 942 CE, they established settlements in Nice and Grenoble.
  • By 952 CE, the Muslims had taken control of all of Switzerland. Their presence in the area was evident in the names of many locations, such as Monte Moro (lit. Mount Moor) on the Switzerland-Italian border, Mont de Maures in southern France, Pontresina (aka Pons Saracenorum), a town on the Bernina Pass Road, Almagell (aka Al-Mahall; lit. “the place”), a village near Mont Moro, and Allalin (aka Ala al-Ain; lit. “to the source”), a mountain near the head of the Saas Valley.
  • In 954 CE, the Muslims even went so far as to sack the Abbey at St. Gallen and Grenoble. However, during this time of turmoil and invasion, the Abbey of Saint John at Mustair was spared by the Muslims from any harm or deprivation, regardless of false accusations made by Christian chroniclers. From 850 to 975 CE, it remained untouched, a beacon of hope and safety amidst the transborder conflicts.
  • But their journey was not without challenges. In 970 CE, they evacuated Grenoble, Savoy, and Gap. In 972 CE, they detained Majolus of Cluny at the Great St Bernard Pass. And in 973 CE, after the Battle of Tourtour, the Andalusians were forced to evacuate Fraxinetum.
  • Despite all these setbacks, the Andalusians continued to be a formidable force. In 1047 CE, they launched a raid on Lérins Islands, a testament to their enduring strength and determination. Throughout their journey, they faced many challenges, but they never gave up, and their legacy lived on.

Feel free to check out some of my other articles; for example, here is a vividly-detailed account of the Muslim conquest (and rule) in Sicily.


Historical Sources

This article used a variety of references from Fraxinetum: An Islamic Frontier State In Tenth-Century Provence by Mohammad Bailan, who stated that Liutprand of Cremona’s Antapodosis (circa 963 CE) as the Latin source most commonly used. For your reference, I’ll mention some of the other sources that mention a thing or two about this forgotten part of southern French history.

This Lombard historian and bishop of Cremona provides a wealth of information about the Andalusian base at Fraxinetum, the Muslims residing there, their activities, and the relationship between them and the king of Italy, Hugh of Aries. The Royal Frankish Annals (Annales Regni Francorum) and Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne (Vita Karoli Magni) also serve as important sources, as they include multiple mentions of the political situation in the Carolingian Empire in the early ninth century, which set the stage for the arrival of the Andalusians in Provence.

Ecclesiastical works, such as the Annals of St. Bertin (Annales Bertiniani), the Annals of Flodoard of Reims (919-966 CE), the Casus St. Galli by Ekkehard (d. 973 CE), the Annals of St. Victor in Marseille (circa 838-1000 CE), and the Chronicle of Novalesa (circa 1050 CE), offer invaluable insight into the Muslim incursions in southern France, the foundation of Fraxinetum, and the extension of Andalusian raids into Piedmont, Rhaetia, the Alpine passes, and the upper Rhine Valley. Although many of these events are interpreted through a biblical lens, these ecclesiastical sources still provide a wealth of information about the chronology of Fraxinetum and the Muslim raids in Provence, Rhaetia, and Piedmont.

Several other Latin sources pertaining to Fraxinetum have been neglected by many scholars. One such work is the Life of Beuve of Noyers, or the Vita Sancti Bobonis (circa 896 CE), which recounts the tale of a Frankish knight’s battle against the Muslims in Provence and details the establishment of the Andalusîs at Fraxinetum. Another source that is inadequately utilized is Syms’s Life of Maiolus (Vita S. Maiolus), a biography of Maiolus of Cluny which mentions the capture of the abbot by Andalusians from Fraxinetum and offers important insights into the interactions between him and his captors. The Life of John of Gorze (Vita Iohannis Gorziensis), a chronicle of the life of a German monk and ambassador of Otto I composed around 960 CE, also mentions the envoy’s mission to Umayyad Spain to encourage the caliph AbdulRahman III to end his support of the Muslims of Fraxinetum. This document has mainly been used by scholars studying the diplomatic exchange between the Holy Roman Empire and al-Andalus in the tenth century.

While the existing Arabic evidence about Fraxinetum is sparse, it is nonetheless invaluable. The most noteworthy of these texts is the Muqtabis, the renowned chronicle of Umayyad historian Ibn Hayyan al-Qurtubi (d. 1076 CE), which offers a wealth of information about the tenth-century politics and diplomacy of al-Andalus and explicitly mentions Fraxinetum. Ibn Hawqal’s Surat al-Ard (circa 970 CE), a revised edition of al-Istakhri’s Kitäb al-Masälik wa al-Mamâlik (circa 950 CE), is another essential text, as it is both a geographical treatise that includes textual and cartographic evidence and a valuable source of information for Fraxinetum studies. Additionally, an anonymous Iranian geographic work written in the late tenth century, entitled Hudud Al-Alam, can give us an idea of how Fraxinetum was perceived by contemporary Muslims.