Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

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Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

Conflict: Spanish Reconquista
Date: July 16, 1212
Place: Near Las Navas de Tolosa
Outcome: Christian victory
Christian coalition Almohads
Alfonso VIII of Castile
Sancho VII of Navarre
Peter II of Aragon
Afonso II of Portugal
Muhammad al-Nasir
about 50,000 about 125,000
Unknown, but very few about 100,000

The July 16, 1212 battle of Las Navas de Tolosa is considered a major turning point in the history of Medieval Iberia. The forces of King Alfonso VIII of Castile were joined by the armies of his Christian rivals, Sancho VII of Navarre, Afonso II of Portugal and Peter II of Aragon in battle against the African Muslim Almohad rulers of the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula. The African sultan Caliph al-Nasir led the Almohad army, made up of people from the whole Almohad empire, most of the men in the army came from the African side of the empire, which, included Tunisia, Algeria, Senegal, Morocco, Mauritania and the southern part of the Iberian peninsula right below Las Navas de Tolosa line.

In 1195, Alfonso VIII of Castile had been defeated by the Almohads in the so called Disaster of Alarcos. After this victory the Almohads had taken important cities as Toledo, Trujillo, Plasencia, Talavera, Cuenca and Uclés. Then, in 1211, Muhammad al-Nasir had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar taking with him a powerful war machine, he invaded the Christian territory and captured the stronghold of the Calatrava Knights in Salvatierra. After this, the threat was so big for the Iberian Christian kingdoms that the Pope Innocent III called European knights to a crusade. After some disagreements among the members of the Christian coalition, Alfonso managed to cross the mountain range that defended the Almohad camp, sneaking through the Despeñaperros Pass, so that the Christian coalition caught by surprise and smashed the Moorish army that left some 100,000 casualties at the battleground. The battle was a bloody and decisive encounter; the Caliph Muhammad al-Nasir, himself, died shortly after the battle in Marrakesh, where he had fled after the defeat. The culmination of the battle took place when Sancho VII of Navarre, himself, broke into the Caliph's fortified camp, broke up the defensive ring and disbanded the al-Nasir's personal bodyguard; nonetheless Muhammad al-Nasir managed to escape. After that, the Christian army engaged in the annihilation of the Muslim troops, so that very few of them could escape the killing.

The crushing defeat of the Almohads significantly hastened their decline both in the Iberian Peninsula and in the Maghreb a decade later, this would give further momentum to the Christian Reconquest begun by the kingdoms of northern Iberia centuries before; resulting in a sharp reduction in the already declining power of the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula. Shortly after the battle, the Castilians retook Baeza and, then, Úbeda, major fortified cities near the battlefield, and gateways to invade Andalucia. Thereafter, Ferdinand III of Castile retook Córdoba in 1236, Jaén in 1246, and Seville in 1248; then he took Arcos, Medina-Sidonia, Jerez and Cádiz. After this chain of victories, only the Ferdinand´s death prevented the Castilians from crossing the Gibraltar Strait to take the war to the heartland of the Almohad empire. Ferdinand III died in Seville on May 30,1252, when a pestilence spread over the southern part of the Iberian peninsula while he was preparing his army and fleet to cross the Gibraltar Strait. On the Mediterranean coast, James I, Count of Barcelona and King of Aragon, proceeded to conquer the Balearic Islands (from 1228 over the following four years) and Valencia (the city capitulated September 28, 1238), which allowed Barcelona to become one of three great Mediterranean cities of the 13th century (along with Genoa and Venice), with an empire that extended through the Western Mediterranean (from the Balearic islands to Sardinia and Sicily).

By the year 1252, the Almohad empire was almost over, at the mercy of another emerging African power. In 1269, a new association of African tribes, the Merinid, had taken control of the Maghreb, and most of the former Almohad empire was under their rule. Later, the Merinid tried to recover the former Almohad territories in the Iberian peninsula, but they were definitively defeated by Sancho IV, Ferdinand's grandson, in the Battle of Salado, the last major military encounter between large Christian and Muslim armies in the Iberian peninsula.

In 1294 Sancho IV retook Tarifa, key to the control of the Gibraltar Strait; and Granada, Almería and Málaga were the only (current) major cities in the Iberian peninsula still in Muslim hands, these three cities being the core of the Nazhari Kingdom of Granada, which was a vassal state of Castile, until the kingdom was finally taken by the Catholic Kings in 1492. So, the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa seems to have been a true turning point in the history of the region, including the western Mediterranean sea.

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