The 300 Asturians
This. Is. Asturias!Don Pelayo de Asturias
Ever imagined the Caribbean as a Muslim world? Maybe even America?
In any case, the Americas became a Christian world because of one man who refused to pay his taxes, fought with only 300 men against a massive army and caused a landslide… literally.
Don Pelayo of Asturias
The year is 722. Iberia is entirely occupied by the Muslim Umayyad Moors. Well, not entirely… one small band of indomitable Asturians still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Moors who garrison Covadonga.
The leader of the Asturians was a man called Pelagius, or Don Pelayo in Spanish. Information about him is apocryphal and traditional for the most part, but what we do kind-of know is that he was a Visigoth nobleman who was elected as the leader. And lead he did. All non-Muslims had to pay the Jizya tax and — wouldn’t you know it — he refused. Imagine that. A rebellious goth.
Islamic forces were way too busy trying to deal with getting beat for the first time by some Gauls in Toulouse to worry about a minor rebellion. Hence nobody really paid attention at first to Pelayo. After all, the Moors thought Pelayo was an ass. No, really. That’s what the history books say they called him. A wild ass.
Eventually the provincial governor Munuza in Cordoba asked the Umayyad commander Al Qama to head on over there and beat some sense into Pelayo. Still reeling from his defeat against the Gauls, Al Qama figured it would be a great opportunity to return some morale to his men. Some Muslim sources say his army was 185.000 strong, but more modern estimates set it at about 800 to 1,400. So let’s split the difference and say 1000 men. Still a formidable army.
And Pelayo? He had rounded up about 300 men who had escaped the initial invasion and were now eager to kick Moor butt — because, you know, 300 is the amount of men you historically have for a rebellion against an overwhelming force. Or so it seems.
Asturias is a mountainous region, with rough and complicated terrain. There are a lot of steep hills and deep valleys — in short, no place for a large army or a broad-fronted attack. It seems Al Qama didn’t count on guerrilla warfare. Or ever read Sun Tzu. In any case, he walked straight into a natural trap. While Muslim historic records claim it was just a minor border skirmish, it certainly wasn’t a fun time for the Moors.
Rock & Roll
Somewhere around Covadonga Pelayo and his men raided them over and over again, bit by bit decimating the forces. Throwing rocks at them, raining down arrows from the heights of the hills, charging down unexpectedly and making a general nuisance of themselves. Before soon over 600 Moor soldiers and Al Qama himself lay dead in the hills and valleys. Of course, it didn’t go so well for Pelayo and his forces either. Of the 300 only 10 and Pelayo survived. Records are scarce as to how exactly the battle went, but a Christian legend says Pelayo and his men hid in a cave overlooking the Covadonga valley at one point and the Virgin Mary appeared to him, promising victory. You know how nowadays the Virgin seems to appear on toast? Back then she would appear in caves. Other sources indicate he only found a statue of the Virgin someone had hid there and prayed to her. Today a monastery stands at the cave to commemorate the event/appearance that may or may not have occurred.
The legend (and we use the term loosely) explains that the Moor soldiers fired at the Asturians in the cave, but it being so high up their arrows returned. Then, with a little help from Pelayo’s men, the falling rocks and trees thundered into the valley and literally crushed the rearguard, killing even more of the Muslim troops. Leaderless and hopelessly confused, the remaining Muslims retreated.
Throughout Asturias people took courage. What had seemed like an invincible force could be defeated. Pelayo established his leadership as the first king of Asturias and in the following years he and other kingdoms that established in the wake of his victory in Covadonga began to drive back the Moor invaders in what would be known as the Reconquista — the reconquest of Spain.
It took the Muslims about ten years to invade and conquer Iberia — it took only about 783 years for the Spaniards to get it all back. For almost a millennium Ibera was a battleground between Christians and Muslims. They would kick each other around, occasionally live peacefully side-by-side and then again lunge at each others throats. But gradually the Muslims fell back, until the last stand at Granada. Here King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella at last managed to end the long blooddrenched era. The Moors had been expelled from Iberia.
Just about 7 months after the Muslims surrendered at Granada, Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, initiating the Spanish conquest of the Americas and a whole new blooddrenched era.
The Butterfly Effect
If Pelayo had not beat the Muslims at Covadonga almost 800 years earlier, it’s possible nobody would have had the guts or chance to stand up against the Muslim invasion. That would mean they could have established all of Iberia as a firm Islamist caliphate and Columbus would have been born into a Muslim world — if at all. While others tried, it is well documented that it was this Asturian uprising that ended up being the beginning of the end for the Moor invasion of Spain. No wonder the Asturians to this day have a saying: “Asturias is Spain. Everything else is conquered land.”
Of course, we don’t know if that’s how events would have played out. History is a fickle mistress and butterflies do as they please. Any other event could have turned the tides one way or the other. Someone else might have eventually led a rebellion against the Umayyad… maybe even Charleston Heston. In any case, either a Muslim Columbus or someone else from the Muslim world could have sailed west and hit the Americas… and the American continent and all its natives might have become Muslims.
Or not. We may never know for sure.
Fortunately it was the good Christians that ended up here, with all their wisdom, kindness and brotherly love. Sorry, did that sound sarcastic? Good.
It is also fascinating to note that nearly a thousand years of Muslim rule over Spain did leave a massive amount of Arab culture behind that eventually also made its way to Kiskeya. Arab leftovers can still be found here on the island. But that’s a different story.
Like a boss: Don Pelayo in appropriate heroic pose. If you battle with only 300 men against overwhelming odds, you wear no shirt. Heck yeah.
Pelayo ordering his men to throw rocks and fire arrows.
Rock and roll: The Virgin appears to Pelayo as the landslide takes down the Moors.
Charleston Heston as El Cid who united warring Spanish kingdoms against the Moors. Probably.