With steel, courage, blood, and death. This is how the 300 soldiers under the command of Don Pelayo, the first monarch of the kingdom of Asturias, defeated the thousands of Muslims who dared to besiege Covadonga, the last Christian enclave that still resisted in the Iberian Peninsula after the Arab invasion. At that time, the year 722, a small part of Asturias was the only thing left on the map of the land that the Visigoths had once dominated. However, it was home to a tiny redoubt of soldiers who, after defeating and putting the Muslim army to flight, began the Christian Reconquest to the south, an adventure that would end eight centuries later when the Muslims were expelled from Granada.

Covadonga was the starting gun of the process that would lead to the birth, in the future, of the different Iberian kingdoms at the cost of the expulsion of the Muslims. However, it was also the belated reaction of a people that, in just ten years, had lost most of the territory in which it had once settled to the invader. To know the reasons why Don Pelayo had to initiate the Reconquest it is necessary to go back to the year 711. At that time, control of the Iberian Peninsula, Hispania, belonged to the Visigoths, a Christian people under the command of King Don Rodrigo. This one had seized the throne after maintaining a strong civil war with the supporters of the previous and deceased leader Witiza, which finally had won.

The invasion begins

The taste of victory would not last long for Don Rodrigo, as the journalist and high school teacher Domingo Domene Sanchez explains well in his book “Year 711, The Muslim invasion of Hispania.” “In the year 710, the widow and children of Witiza possibly arrived in Ceuta (Muslim territory) in search of help to regain the throne,” the expert determines.
The descendants of Witiza, obsessed as they were to obtain the throne of “Hispania” – the one they considered theirs by right – had no qualms about asking the Muslims for help. The call to forces that we could call foreign to achieve power or to establish themselves in it was not new. On the previous occasions, on the other hand, foreigners had not aspired to dominate all of Hispania, they had received their help in money or territory and they had left things as they were, adds Domene.

This would not be the case of the Muslims who, aware of Christian weakness, saw in this internal struggle a perfect moment to invade the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, Musa ben Nusayr -Muslim governor of Ifriqiya (Tunisia) – decided that it was time to seize the riches of Hispania, a company that commissioned an army of 11,000 Berbers under the command of Tariq, one of its most renowned generals. To confront them, the newly crowned Don Rodrigo set out on forced marches to Cadiz, where he would battle alongside the Guadalete River under the command of an immense host of Visigoth soldiers.

Guadalete, the great defeat

Don Rodrigo arrived in Cordoba and there he concentrated his army for the war expedition. It is believed that he was carrying 40,000 men  and that he took the Roman road Córdoba-Ecija-Cadiz, while Tariq advanced through the Algeciras-Seville . On July 19 they were found near the ruins of the city of Lacey, in the Muslim Wadi-Lakka that we call the Guadalete River, ”explains the expert in his text. However, contrary to what may appear at first glance, the Christian side did not have an overwhelming advantage by any means. “In any activity, the professionals have an advantage over the amateurs and the Muslim army consisted of professional soldiers, while the Goth consisted largely of slaves forced to fight. There was, therefore, no advantage for either side, “adds Domene.

In turn, what finally tipped the balance in the battle was the betrayal of the two officers who led the flanks of Don Rodrigo’s army, something that is explained in the book “Collection of traditions: Anonymous Chronicle of the 11th century.” Rodrigo and Tariq met in a place called the lake, and they fought fiercely; plus the right and left wings, under the command of Sisberto and Obba, sons of Gaitixa (Witiza), started to flee, and although the center resisted for some time, at the end Rodrigo was also defeated and the Muslims made a great slaughter. After the great defeat, the whereabouts of Don Rodrigo was never known again. Many claim that he fled to die shortly after his injuries, while some Muslim historians determine that he died in single combat against Tariq, who killed him with a spear.

The painting recreates the battle of Guadalete 10 years to take Hispania. Regardless of the king’s fate, what is indisputable is that after his defeat, there was no one left to face the Berber army. In this way, and just 10 years, the Muslims carried out a rapid conquest of Hispania that relegated the Visigoths to the north. Although when both the Romans and the Muslims conquered Hispania,  historians have wondered how the time spent in the conquest was so different in the two cases (200 years by the Romans and 10 in the case the Muslims), determines the expert. However, for Domene the causes are clear Pre-Roman Hispania was not a political unit There was, therefore, no supreme authority for the entire country capable of bringing together resistance or proposing surrender against the invader, but rather multiple supreme chiefs to which it was necessary to submit one by one. On the contrary, the Hispania ruled by the Goths was indeed a political unit, ”says Domene. In this way, with the disappearance of Don Rodrigo, the entire territory fell under a single blow.

In their invasion, the Muslims found significant internal support. In turn, the Hispanic people did not oppose too much resistance to the Muslims, since at first, they understood that their arrival would free them from the abuse of the noble Goths, who used to demand large tributes from the population. In this way, the invaders were able to gain the trust of society by eliminating various taxes. Finally, one of the main causes of the rapid conquest was the livelihood that the Muslims had in the Peninsula. ‘The Romans did not have significant internal support and the Muslims did. In addition to the Citizens, the Muslims counted on the collaborationism of the Jews, “adds Domené in his text.

Resistance begins

Despite the rapid conquest, the Christians still had an unpleasant surprise for the Muslims because, in the north, a resistance against the invasion began to develop. Specifically, hundreds of Goths began to settle on the Cantabrian and Pyrenean mountain ranges.Under the geographical fact of the division of the Cantabrian-Pyrenean strip into four zones  we can consider that there were four nuclei of anti-Muslim resistance which, for simplicity, we will call the Asturian-Cantabrian nucleus and, in the Pyrenees, the Basque-Navarrese, Aragonese and Catalan, says the expert in his book. Although these small groups of Christians still could not stand up to the invaders, they decided to defend their territories at all costs, so that the Muslims had no choice but to abandon the idea of ​​conquering them. On the contrary, they limited themselves to demanding heavy taxes from them and establishing fortifications near them to control their expansion.

At last, the first resistance began to develop throughout the mountainous territory, although especially in the Asturian nucleus. It wasn’t long before this small group from the north saw a leader rise to power who would lead them to victory, Don Pelayo. This supposed nobleman took power at the end of the year 718 when, tired of the heavy tributes to Muslims, he convinced his compatriots to stop paying taxes. “Pelayo should have encouraged them not to pay with an argument as simple and powerful as that if the Muslims wanted money, they should go look for it there, in the mountains”, determines Domené.

Covadonga, start of hostilities

However, the Muslims reacted as expected: they formed a powerful army and went decisively to the Asturian nucleus determined to put an end to the rebellion once and for all. For their part, the Christians, at the hands of Don Pelayo, decided to stand up to the Muslim army. The enclave to resist the Arabian armies was Covadonga, a place located near Cangas de Onís (east of Asturias).Specifically, Don Pelayo protected this territory with the few soldiers that he could gather. “Faced with Muslim harassment, Pelayo and his men, about 300, took refuge in Covadonga, a cave on Mount Auseba that is at the bottom of a narrow valley in the Picos de Europa,” explains the expert. At this point, the story is diluted and varies depending on whether the chronicler is Christian or Muslim. This is because the former treated the event as a battle of epic dimensions while the latter ignored this event and considered it of little importance.

Roman bridge of Cangas de Onis

According to Christian chroniclers, before the battle, a former Visigothic bishop named Don Oppas – bought by the Muslims – tried to convince Don Pelayo to surrender. However, it held its own until the end. Pelayo was with his companions on Mount Auseva and Alqama’s army came to him and pitched countless tents in front of the cave entrance. The predicted bishop (Archbishop Don Oppas, son of Witiza) climbed a mound located in front of the Lady’s cave and spoke thus to Pelayo. The whole of Spain was united under the rule of the Goths and it shone more than the other countries for its doctrine and science, and yet, having gathered the entire army of the Goths, it could not sustain the impetus of the Ismailis. Can you defend yourself on top of this mountain? I find it difficult. Listen to my advice: return to your agreement, you will enjoy many goods and you will enjoy the friendship of the Chaldeans ”, explain the Christian chronicles written in the time of Alfonso III.

Pelayo replied, “Didn’t you read in the Holy Scriptures that the Lord’s church will become like the mustard seed and will grow again by the mercy of God?” The bishop could not help but answer that it was so. The decision had been made, Don Oppas knew that it would be necessary to fight to expel the Asturians and so he let the invaders know. The Muslim officer then ordered his soldiers to arm the catapults and destroy the weak Christian defense. “The slings were prepared, the swords flashed, the spears were curled and arrows were thrown incessantly”, narrate the ancient texts.

According to Christian chroniclers of the time, a divine force joined Don Pelayo However, and according to Christian chroniclers, at that time a divine force joined Don Pelayo giving him victory against the 188,000 soldiers of the Muslim army. At once the magnificents of the Lord were shown: the stones that came out of the foothills (catapults) and reached the house of the Virgin Saint Mary, which was inside the cave, turned against those who shot them and killed the Chaldeans (Muslims).  125,000 Chaldeans died in the same place and the remaining 63,000 climbed to the top of Mount Auseba, ”the scriptures determine.

Covadonga, according to Muslims

Then, and always according to Alfonso III’s scribes, God intervened again,Not even these escaped the Lord’s vengeance; when (the Muslims) were crossing the top of the mountain on the banks of the river Deva  the Lord’s judgment was fulfilled: the mountain, breaking off its foundations, threw the 63,000 Chaldeans into the river and crushed them all. By contrast, Muslim scriptures hold a far less heroic view. In it, it is stated that a few thousand soldiers came to Galicia to fight against “a wild ass called Pelayo.” In fact, in the words of the Islamists, the Arab soldiers encircled the Christian troops until they almost entirely died of starvation.

The (Muslim) soldiers did not stop attacking him until his soldiers (those of Pelayo) died of hunger and only thirty men and ten women were left in his company. The situation of the Muslims became painful and in the end, they despised them saying: “Thirty wild asses. What harm can they do us? ”, Affirm the chronicles translated by the Spanish Alcantara and Albornoz. Centenary of the Battle of Covadonga. The flag was given to the Covadonga Regiment

What happened?

Despite the multiple versions, Domené Sánchez exposes a more realistic and possible version within the text: According to the professor, Al Qama and his people were forced to penetrate a narrow valley to stand up to the Asturians. The narrowness of the terrain did not allow them to spread out. So they had to advance in line. It was relatively easy for Pelayo’s followers, located on the slopes, to make them go back by a procedure as simple as that of uprooting rocks and throwing them down the slope, ”says the expert.

in turn, it determines that what the Christian chronicles explain as a miracle – that the hillside and the river swallowed up thousands of Muslims – could have been rather a fortunate landslide. Finally, the professor is quite skeptical about a large number of deceased Muslim soldiers, “The chronicler Was excessive in saying that the Muslim army had 188,000 soldiers.” Be that as it may, the truth is that the victory of Covadonga marked the beginning of the Christian Reconquest, which would last no less than eight centuries. And you know what the saying goes. Asturias is Spain and the rest is a conquered land.