Burn the Ships: Chapter Five

Gibraltar, 711

The Umayyad commander looks out across his army, which is now gathered on the beaches beneath a great mountain of limestone. Having just landed on the southern shores of Hispania, their faces show signs of concern, uncertainty and above all, fear. He addresses the men:

“My warriors! Whither would you flee? Behind you is the sea; before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy.”

While Tariq ibn Ziyad does not have the resume of an conqueror, he is about to lead a campaign against a tyrant whose army outnumbers them nearly 10 to 1. Now, against these impossible odds, there is nowhere to go but forward.

“Remember, that I place myself in the front of this glorious charge which I exhort you to make.”

Tariq’s origins are humble to say the least. He is born a slave in the year 670; a role he maintains for most of his life. Throughout these years, he cultivates a reputation for being innovative, industrious and intelligent. It is the Muslim Umayyad general and governor of North Africa - Musa bin Nusayr - who sees potential in the slave Tariq, granting him his freedom, as well as a position within the army stationed at the coastal city of Tangier. Musa was wise in selecting Tariq, as it does not take long for him to rise through the ranks, becoming commander of the entire military garrison at this strategic port lying on the southern entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

The politics in Tariq’s part of the world are complex at the beginning of the 8th century. Two prominent religious movements have been growing rapidly: the Christians out of Europe, and Muslims out of Arabia; their borders beginning to intertwine around the Mediterranean.

To the north of Tariq’s post in Tangier, across the narrow strait of water separating Europe from Africa, lies the Visigothic Kingdom, who controls the entirety of Hispania (modern-day Spain, Portugal and southern France). Having separated from the Byzantine Empire of Rome, the Visigoths are enduring the pains of cultural transition. Over a century earlier, the sitting Visigoth king converts from Arian Christianity to Catholic Christianity, sparking decades of religious tension across their kingdom. Tensions turn into disputes; disputes into civil wars. Arian Christians, Jews and Muslims throughout the kingdom become targets, initially being lowered in social status or forced to convert. However, towards the end of the 7th century, they become enslaved or executed. After a slew of rulers enter and exit from power, it is King Roderic who violently takes control of the empire in 710.

Roderic is a seasoned military commander; a skill he uses to acquire the throne. Roderic leads his army into the capital of Toledo, seizing it by force and executing much of the standing leadership, including the sitting king himself. This move divides the kingdom, which Roderic mitigates with brutal, tyrannical rule.

“At the moment when the two armies meet hand to hand, you will see me, never doubt it, seeking out this Roderic, tyrant of his people, challenging him to combat, if God is willing.”

The oppressed begin fleeing the Visigoth Kingdom by the thousands, many arriving as refugees in Northern Africa.

The only Christian settlement in Northern Africa is the massive coastal city of Ceuta, lying directly east of Tangier on the same strategic strait. Ceuta, while considered part of the Visigothic Kingdom, is separated from the turmoil occurring back in Hispania, and continues to thrive as a nearly independent center of commerce and culture under the leadership of Count Julius. It is Julius who willfully accepts these refugees; each wave bringing with them graver tales of the violent intolerance occurring in their homeland.

Despite the religious tension to the north, the Christians of Ceuta and Muslims of Tangier are peaceful as neighbors. Julius, becoming increasingly distraught over the state of his homeland, dispatches correspondence to the Tangier commander, Tariq ibn Ziyad. He wants Tariq to assist him in removing the sacrilegious king, Roderic. He even offers the one asset the Muslims lack to take on such a quest: a fleet of ships.

“Should I fall before I reach Roderic, redouble your ardor, force yourselves to the attack and achieve the conquest of this country, in depriving him of life. With him dead, his soldiers will no longer defy you.”

General Musa - the same man who freed Tariq years earlier - has doubts about the proposed invasion, primarily due to the size and reputation of the Visigoth army. He eventually agrees, once Tariq states his intention to lead the expeditionary force himself. Thus, the plan to invade Hispania is set in motion.

And so it was, on the eve of the invasion, Tariq’s Muslim army peacefully marches into the Christian city of Ceuta. Their ranks are joined by thousands of Jewish and Christian refugees-turned-warriors,  increasing Tariq’s strength to 12,000. Together, they make final preparations for battle.

If I perish after this, I will have had at least the satisfaction of delivering you, and you will easily find among you an experienced hero, to whom you can confidently give the task of directing you.”

Looking due north across the strait, they can see their target: the lone mountain that appears to shoot out from the sea - known from antiquity as the northern Pillar of Hercules. Mere miles away, this small peninsula on the southern coast of Hispania will host the main assault. Under the cover of darkness, they depart from Ceuta aboard Julius’ ships.

“If the absolute want to which you are reduced is prolonged ever so little, or if you delay in seizing immediate success, your good fortune will vanish.”

Tariq successfully lands his men on the narrow beaches of the peninsula in the early morning of April 30, 711, and issues the order to set fire to the ships. The men obey without question, and begin gather around him as the vessels begin to burn.

Now, looking out upon the army from atop his horse - an army of Jewish, Christian and Muslim soldiers - as their ships fade away into the Mediterranean, he speaks.

“Do not imagine that your fate can be separated from mine, and rest assured that if you fall, I shall perish with you...or I shall avenge you.”

The words Tariq conveyed to his men that day illustrate the bold nature of leaders who are unwavered by risk; those who scoff at fear when taking on a cause greater than themselves. He was willing to lead the invasion; willing to destroy their only means of retreat; and willing to fight alongside his men for something they all - regardless of their religious differences - believed in. Anyone can set fire to a boat, but it takes a great leader - one who believes in their quest enough to place themselves in decisive battle - to achieve glory.

Although the odds were against them, Tariq believed that together they would be victorious. As they marched north into the mainland of Hispania to face Roderic’s force numbering over 100,000 strong, his men believed it too.

Less than two months after landing on the beaches, his vision is realized. They defeat Roderic at the Battle of Guadalete, killing the oppressive leader himself in the midst of the battle. Tariq’s words become truth, as the remaining Visigothic forces loyal to Roderic succumb to fear and fall into disarray.

Within the year, Tariq’s army marches into the Visigoth capital, Toledo; the gates opened by Jewish slaves who welcome them as liberators.

In 714, Tariq is invited to retire to the Umayyad capital of Damascus, where he lives freely and peacefully until his death in 720. The mountain where he landed would be named in his honor following the invasion. Jabal Tariq - which translates to “Mountain of Tariq” - becomes a metaphor to describe something of unmovable strength, resilience and confidence. The name still remains today in its anglicized form: the Rock of Gibraltar.

With that, this great leader - a slave from northern Africa who won his freedom and rose to lead an army - claims his spot in this saga. Tariq ibn Ziyad united an army that should have never been, and led them to victory, with one action: burning his ships.

Read on:
Chapter 6

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