Are you ready to uncover a hidden chapter in Andalusian (and Viking) history? One that has been shrouded in mystery for far too long? Allow me to take you on a journey back in time to the fascinating world of Nordic-Muslim encounters.
Imagine fierce Viking warriors, wielding their battle axes and sailing the seas in search of new lands to conquer. Now, picture the Muslim inhabitants of Iberia, fiercely defending their homes and their way of life against these ruthless invaders. This is the story of the Viking attacks on Iberia in 844 CE, a tale that has been all but forgotten until now.
You may have caught a glimpse of this story in the popular TV series “Vikings”, where the city of Altagracia is plundered and pillaged by the Vikings. But that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complex interactions between the Northmen and the cultured Muslims of Iberia.
And, did you know that Muslims once controlled much of what is now Switzerland for over 150 years? A topic that is worth exploring further in my Historical Blogs collection. If you’re looking for a more visual experience, I recommend checking out Dr. Omar Faruk Abd Allah’s video on YouTube. This is a great way to learn more about this fascinating period of history without having to spend hours reading through lengthy texts:
Are you ready to step back in time and explore one of the most intriguing moments in history? The year 844 CE was a turning point in the relationship between the Northmen and the Muslims of Iberia. It was a time of great conflict, as Viking warriors swept across the land, from Britannia to Francia to Iberia, plundering and pillaging as they went. But it was also a time of great resilience and determination, as the Muslim inhabitants of Iberia fought back with all their might to defend their homes and their way of life.
Join me as we take a stroll down memory lane, and delve into the gripping world of the Viking attacks on Iberia. Discover the strategies and tactics used by both sides, and learn about the impact that this momentous event had on the people who lived through it. This is a journey through time that you won’t want to miss.
The Andalusian Legacy I:
How the Andalusians Fought Back Against the Viking Raid of 844:
During the 9th and 10th centuries, the Muslims under the Umayyad dynasty, with their capital in Cordoba, had a level of civilization and culture that surpassed any country in Europe. When it came to science and learning, art and literature, they were “the masters at whose table Europe picked up the crumbs”, as Jón Stefánsson put it. They overachieved excellence in peace as they did in war, and it wasn’t until the middle of the 9th century when their excellence in the skills and art of war was put to the test at the hands of a warmongering, adventurous band of Vikings from the Norse lands. While every victim of the Vikings before then crumbled easily due to their deficient organization, what the Northmen didn’t know was that this new adversary, the Muslims of Iberia, wasn’t like any other they had encountered before.
The Andalusians had highly efficient and organized legions, fresh from past and recent conquests throughout the entire Mediterranean Sea and the Iberian Peninsula; they were simply one of the best armies at the time.
This article will be based on multiple Andalusian sources (Ibn Idhari, Ibn Hayyan of Cordoba, and Ibn al-Qutiyya), for their sources were “so superior to the chronicles of Christian Spain, with their credulous exaggerations and meager facts,” as Stefánsson referred to it; furthermore, Christian sources deal mainly with Viking attacks on Galicia with little to no mention of any other Viking attack elsewhere whatsoever. In regards to the attacks on Galicia, it’s evident that the three Muslim chronicle’s reporting was far more credible, reliable, and in greater detail than that which was written by their Spanish contemporaries.
The first incursion of the Vikings in Iberia has been characterized as probably the most significant episode of the whole period of Viking activity in Iberia (and that part of the world in general). Right before making their way onto the Iberian Peninsula, Hastein and Björn Ironsides and their comrades were strolling along the French coast from Seine, Loire, and Garonne, before reaching the northern coast of Iberia. According to the Annales Bertiniani, in August 844, a group from a plundering expedition entered the Garonne and reached Galicia. A local Galician legend also claims that when the Vikings arrived at the mouth of the river Masma, in northern Galicia, Gonzalo, the holy Bishop of the local diocese of Britonia, prayed for divine protection from atop a hill against the forthcoming attack; to his delight, a major storm was unleashed, sinking most of the flotilla but one that could flee to warn the rest of the fleet who had previously scattered around the Galician shores in search of plunder elsewhere. Despite storm damage, some proceeded to the southwest. According to the Chronicle of Alfonso III, the Vikings afterward plundered many coastal villages until they were ultimately repulsed in Coruna, near the vicinity of the Tower of Hercules. Ramiro I of Asturias gathered his mountaineer troops from all over Galicia and Asturias for the counter-attack when the Vikings fled to their ships; the Galicians requisitioned much of the plundered booty and burned over 70 Viking ships. After the Asturian victory, the remaining Vikings continued their voyage south, in the direction of Lisbon.
In Spain, the words used to refer to the Vikings are usually ‘Northmen’, lordemanos (also the name of a town in modern-day Spain that was named after the Viking settlers), or vikingos (aka Vikings in Spanish). The Muslims in particular referred to the Northmen as Majus, aka “fire-worshippers”, the same term that we use to refer to pre-Islamic Iranians of Persia.
The Viking attack on Lishbuna (aka Lisbon) in 844 was the first confirmed large-scale Viking incursion on the Iberian Peninsula. The Vikings, led by the notorious Björn Ironside and Hastein in a fleet of 80 ships, sailed up the Rio Tinto to Niebla, famous for its silver mines, and sacked the town in August (or September). The people of Lisbon were caught off guard by the sudden Viking attack; the city’s defenses were quickly overrun. The Vikings looted and burned much of the city, and many of the inhabitants were taken as slaves. The Vikings also attacked the surrounding areas, plundering the countryside and destroying many of the villages and places of worship. This attack on Lisbon was a significant blow to the region, as the city was a major center of trade and commerce. The loss of the city’s wealth and resources was a major setback for the people of the region, and it also allowed the Vikings to establish a minor foothold in the area, from which they could launch further attacks. The attack on Lisbon also had strategic importance, as it allowed the Vikings to control the mouth of the Tagus River, cutting off communication and trade between Lisbon and the rest of the region. For a brief period, this made it easier for the Vikings to raid and plunder the surrounding areas while making it more difficult for the local Muslims to mount an effective defense against the northern invaders. Arab sources note that the Vikings held the Lisbon area for a total of 13 days; during their occupation, the Vikings engaged in various skirmishes with the Muslims and kept looting and pillaging the city until they squeezed it dry. The governor of Lisbon, Wahballah ibn Hazm, wrote to Emir Abd al-Rahman II, informing him of these dire happenings around his province. According to Ibn Idhari, the governor wrote to the Emir as soon as the Viking ships were spotted before landing on Iberian shores.
After leaving Lisbon, the Vikings sailed further south and raided the Spanish towns of Cadiz, Medina Sidonia, and Algeciras, and possibly the Abbasid-controlled town of Asilah in modern-day Morocco. On the morning of Thursday 25th September 844 CE, the citizens of Isbiliya (aka Seville), were horrified to see, emerging ghostlike from the morning mist, 54 longboats led by the infamous Björn Ironside and Hastein, loaded with heavily armed Viking warriors. The Northmen set up a base on Isla Menor, a defensible island on the Guadalquivir Marshes. Four days later, a local Muslim dispatch tried to engage the Vikings in a skirmish but was defeated.
After a brief siege and fierce fighting, the Northmen stormed Seville’s city fortifications in early October 844 CE; within minutes, hundreds of Vikings had rushed into the unfortified city. Wielding their customary axes and screaming war cries, the Vikings spent the day wreaking havoc. They took vast quantities of booty and captives before retiring to their camp on the Doñana Estuary. However, local resistance continued from the citadel, which was held firm by the solid defenders and never fell; it eventually took the arrival of Muslim reinforcements to defeat the Vikings and drive them from the city.
By the time the news of the attack reached the Emirate of Córdoba, Emir Abd al-Rahman II mobilized his forces under the leadership of his hajib (lit. to block or prevent; a person who prevents another person from entering a place; in Andalusia, it was a prestigious title), Isa ibn Shuhayd, and sent them to Axarafe, a hill near Seville, where they set up their base of operations against the Vikings. According to Ibn Idhari, Isa was the Prime Minister of the Emirate. The Emir’s reinforcements included the finest Umayyad cavalry in the entire hemisphere. More and more reinforcements joined the plight; even the Emir’s political rivals rushed to join the fight from all neighboring parts of the Andalusian domains – such is the beauty of a brotherly call-to-arms in desperate times (unfortunate to say, it wasn’t always that way).
One of the Andalusian border chieftains, Musa (possibly one of the Emir’s rivals), shared some intelligence that stated that the Vikings regularly sent detachments towards Firrich, Lacant, Cordoba, and Moron. The other chieftains then asked whether there was a place near Seville where they could lie waiting in ambush without being seen by the Northmen; in response, Musa suggested the village of Quintos-Maafir, southeast of Seville.
So, the Muslim armies moved there in the middle of the night and sat in ambush; they assigned one of their men with a bundle of faggots to keep watch from the tower of the village church. By sunrise, the guard announced that more than 16,000 Vikings (when it comes to chronicler’s quantitative details, feel free to take what you read with a grain of salt!) were marching on Moron; the Muslim armies allowed them to pass as they laid waiting in ambush, cut them off from Seville, and then slaughtered them; it was reported that over a tenth were killed, most of the generals captured alongside hundreds of their troops. The Muslims also made good use of Greek Fire, an incendiary liquid thrown by catapults, to burn the invaders’ ships in the process; over 30 ships were reported to have been burned.
Another chronicle also states that between 500 and 1,000 Vikings were slain while at least 400 others were captured – many of whom were hanged from the palm trees of Talyata. The remaining Vikings retreated to their vessels and sailed downriver while the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside pelted them with stones. When the Northmen had arrived a mile below Seville, the Vikings shouted, “Leave us in peace, if you wish to buy prisoners of us.” People then stopped throwing stones at them, and the Vikings allowed everybody to ransom the Andalusian prisoners. A certain sum was paid for most of them, but the Northmen refused to accept either gold or silver; they would only accept clothes and food.
The Muslim leaders and their armies then advanced towards Seville; upon entering, they found the city’s commander being besieged in the castle by a detached group of Vikings that stayed behind when their brethren advanced towards their ambush (and demise). The Andalusians finally joined forces, and shortly thereafter, Seville’s inhabitants returned to the city in multitudes. Aside from the large Viking army that had been cut down, the two other Viking armies had moved out, one towards Lacant, and the other towards the quarters of the Beni-al-Laitb tribe in Cordoba. However, when the Vikings who remained in Seville saw the Muslim army coming and heard of the disaster that the detachment marching on Moron had met with, they suddenly embarked on their ships and scattered. One of the Muslim sources notes that all this took place either on the 11th or the 17th of November at Talyata (aka Italica). The same source also mentioned that before this major Muslim victory, the two sides clashed multiple times beforehand in a series of tit-for-tat skirmishes with wins and losses for both sides.
After the Viking attack in 844, the impact of the raid was felt throughout al-Andalus. In response to the attack, the Emir of Córdoba, Abd al-Rahman II, established a naval arsenal (Dar al-Sina’a) in Seville, built walls around the city and other settlements, raised troops, and built ships and other military equipment; a sophisticated messenger network was also set up to fend off similar threats in the future. This event also led to increased contact and interaction between the Norse and other cultures in Europe. Moreover, the Vikings were discouraged from attempting any more brazen attacks due to the quick military response of 844. As mentioned earlier, this attack was the first reported large-scale Viking incursion on the Iberian Peninsula which marked the beginning of a period of increased contact between the Muslims and the Norse. The following year, Abd al-Rahman II sent the poet Yahya ibn al-Hakam (aka al-Ghazaal) as an ambassador to the Viking court as a courtesy to the Viking ruler who sent one of his dignitaries to the Cordoban Emir’s court.
After this ordeal, the Vikings made their way to the Mediterranean Sea and continued their raids in the area. They sacked Algeciras and burnt down its great mosque before plundering the surrounding countryside. Algeciras became the fleet’s base, and ships sailed over to Morocco, hunting for thralls (aka slaves). After terrorizing the entire coast, they continued to raid Malaga and Cartagena and went as far as Barcelona and the Balearic Islands. Most of these invasions were mere coastal plundering and the overall campaign didn’t quite affect the Andalusians as the 844 attacks did. In 860 they managed to take the town of Pisa in Italy and 863, they managed to take the town of Ostia, right next to Rome. The following year, they attempted to attack Rome but were unable to take the city. The final attempt on Muslim Iberia was at around 966 but the Andalusians successfully repelled it. The raids against Galicia hereafter devastated the Spaniards for many years to come. According to one of the Muslim chroniclers, some of the Vikings settled in Andalusia, converted to Islam, and became cheese traders.
The attempts made by the Northmen in 859 and 966 were well-documented in both Arabic sources – I’d strongly advise you to read about them (particularly from al-Bakri’s chronicles). In the later Viking attempt, however, the future Caliph would devise a brilliant stratagem to annihilate the incoming Viking fleet by disguising his own fleet as though it were a Viking fleet that had been stationed there for some time.
Thank you for reading, wherever you are; fair fortune to you.
- I’d strongly suggest you check out original (or originally translated) chronicles from any historical period, especially the Andalusian ones – you will learn a lot more than Wikipedia or online articles. At the same time, keep your eyes open for varying sources as chroniclers and historians sometimes love to get carried away in the details