Born c. 1043
Spanish warrior and hero
T he pages of medieval history are filled with figures whose biographies are equal parts legend and fact—or in some cases, more legend than fact—from the saintly Rabia al-Adawiyya (see entry) to the devilish Vlad Tepes (see box in Tamerlane entry). Perhaps nowhere is this mixture of fact and fiction more evident than in the life of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid.
Mythologized as a valiant Christian knight who fought heroically against the Muslims, he was in reality a soldier of fortune who spent most of his career in conflict with a Christian king, and who at one time served a Muslim emir. At least parts of the legend are accurate: El Cid was without question a brave and talented warrior, and he was at least as honorable as most knights of his time. Certainly there is an air of romance even to the tale of the real El Cid, and it is on this foundation of air that the legend was built.
Trained as a warrior
In about 1043, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (rohth-REE-goh dee-AHZ duh BEE-bahdr) was born to a noble family in the Spanish kingdom of Castile (kas-TEEL). By that time, Muslim forces had ruled southern Spain for three centuries, while Christian kingdoms dominated the north. Of these kingdoms, Castile—so named for its many castles—was the most powerful, and Rodrigo's family belonged to its highly esteemed warrior class. He was well connected on both his mother's and father's sides, and as a child learned to read and write—unusual skills in medieval times, even among the nobility.
Harun al-Rashid (hah-ROON; rah-SHEED; 766–809) served as caliph or ruler over the Arab Muslim empire at the height of its glory under the Abbasid (uh-BAHS-id) dynasty. Like El Cid, he also became a figure of legend, thanks to his association with the famous Thousand and One Nights, known in the West as The Arabian Nights.
The name Harun al-Rashid—sometimes rendered as Haroun and/or ar-Rashid—is Arabic for "Aaron the Upright." Born in what is now Iran, he was the third son of the caliph al-Mahdi and his wife al-Khayzuran (kay-zoo-RAHN), a former slave who became the most influential woman in the caliphate. She used her sway to help Harun rise to power following the death of his father, and at the young age of twenty, he assumed control over the most powerful empire in the world at that time.
During the late 770s and early 780s, before he became caliph, Harun was engaged in military conflicts against the Byzantine Empire, the second most powerful force in the region. His leadership of the troops was largely symbolic, however: the real control rested with Ibn Khalid (IB'n kah-LEED), his advisor. Ibn Khalid and his two sons would hold key positions in Harun's court.
Harun spent much of his reign in conflict with the Byzantines. With Irene of Athens (see entry), he established a successful relationship of non-aggression (neither side would attack the other), but his relations with her successors were not as good. Wisely preferring to use peaceful means to protect the caliphate wherever possible, Harun established a special military province to act as a buffer on the Byzantine frontier.
The threats were not just outside the caliphate: within its borders, Harun had to deal with revolts by a number of national
groups seeking independence from their masters in Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. Toward the end of his life, he sought to ensure a smooth succession through his sons, but they proved not to be as cool-headed as their father, and after his death their greed for power led them into war with one another.
The era of Harun is remembered as a golden age, one closely associated with the Thousand and One Nights. The sultan in the latter book, whose young bride tells him a new tale every night, is said to have been modeled in part on Harun. Also famous is an exchange between Harun and Charlemagne (see entry), to whom Harun reportedly sent the gift of an elephant. It is perhaps a measure of Harun's prestige, and that of the Abbasid caliphate, that nowhere in the Abbasids' official histories is his contact with Charlemagne—the most important figure in the history of Western Europe during the early medieval period—even mentioned.
His father died when he was fifteen years old, and Rodrigo went to live in the household of Fernando I, king of Castile. Fernando's son, Prince Sancho, took Rodrigo under his wing, teaching him military arts that would serve him well in times to come. Though the kingdoms of the north were by then engaged in the Reconquista (ray-kawn-KEES-tah), an effort to place Muslim lands under Christian rule, Rodrigo's first taste of battle at age twenty came in a conflict between two Christian kingdoms, Castile and Aragon (AHdR-uh-gawn).
Conflict between brothers
In 1065, when Rodrigo was twenty-two years old, Fernando died. As eldest son, Sancho received Castile, while his younger brothers Alfonso and García respectively inherited the smaller kingdoms of León (lay-OHN) and Galicia (gah-LEETH-ee-ah). This situation was a recipe for future conflict, but in the meantime, Rodrigo was given the important position of royal standard bearer, which put him in direct control over the king's bodyguard.
Rodrigo proved a faithful servant to his lord, and distinguished himself in battle numerous times. In 1067, he led forces against Sancho's rivals in the kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre (nuh-VAHdR). Soon Sancho and his brother Alfonso squared off against one another, and forces led by Rodrigo scored a decisive victory over Alfonso at Golpejera (gohl-pay-HAY-dah) in 1072. Shortly afterward, Sancho became king of León as well as Castile, and he banished Alfonso.
Sancho held his new position for less than a year: in the fall of 1072, he was assassinated, and suddenly Alfonso assumed control of Castile and León. Not surprisingly, Rodrigo was not among Alfonso's favorites, yet the new king made no move to attack his old enemy. Instead, Rodrigo was stripped of all rank, and military positions were given to various leaders from León, include Count García Ordóñez (ohdr-DOHN-yez).
In 1074, however, Rodrigo recovered much of his former prestige by marrying Jimena Díaz (hee-MAY-nah), the king's niece. It is likely the king himself arranged the marriage, proof that Rodrigo's standing at the court had risen once again. But the soldier would not remain in his master's good graces for long.
Fall from grace
In 1079, Rodrigo made a fatal blunder from the standpoint of his reputation with Alfonso. He attacked a group of mercenaries, or men who fight for pay, in the service of Granada. Though Granada's rulers were Muslims, the men in the party seized and imprisoned by Rodrigo were from León—and they included Ordóñez, one of Alfonso's favorites. Instead of letting them go when he realized they were well connected, however, Rodrigo pressed Ordóñez's family for ransom money, an act that infuriated the king.
Two years later, in the summer of 1081, Moorish bandits from Toledo (doh-LAY-doh) attacked a Castilian stronghold. The king was away, and Rodrigo led the defending force, which chased the invaders to Toledo and proceeded to take some 7,000 prisoners. Instead of being overjoyed when he learned of this, Alfonso was angered that Rodrigo had acted without his authorization, and he ordered the soldier banished from Castile.
Years as a mercenary
Rodrigo spent the next five years in Zaragoza (zah-duh-GOH-zah), serving the Muslim ruler al-Mu'tamin (mütah-MEEN). In 1082, he led al-Mu'tamin's troops to a major victory over Count Ramón Berenguer II (bayr-un-GAYR) of Barcelona. There followed a series of successes, and even after al-Mu'tamin died in 1085, Rodrigo remained loyal to his successor.
In May 1085, Alfonso seized Toledo, which had been in Muslim hands for three centuries, and laid siege to Zaragoza. This prompted the Muslims to call in help from the Almoravids (al-muh-RAH-vedz), who controlled Morocco. The Almoravids, who soon became the dominant Islamic force in Spain, defeated Alfonso in battle on October 23, 1086, and this prompted him to open up communication with Rodrigo once again.
Attempts at reconciliation with Alfonso
Alfonso soon reinstated Rodrigo, and placed him in charge of an army. In 1089, however, Rodrigo failed to reinforce Alfonso's troops in an attack against the Almoravids, and this infuriated the king. Rodrigo's wife and children were briefly imprisoned, and Rodrigo himself was exiled for good.
He moved to Spain's eastern coast, where he became a warlord who answered to no king. This worried Berenguer, who raised a force against him in May 1090, but the outcome of this engagement was that Rodrigo captured Berenguer. As a result, he obtained ransom money and official recognition of his power, and by the end of the year, he held most of the region aside from the city of Valencia.
Rodrigo's interest in Valencia would thwart yet another attempted reconciliation with Alfonso. It so happened that Alfonso, who sent troops into the area in 1092, also wanted Valencia. Rodrigo retaliated by invading Castile and devastating lands under the control of his old foe Ordóñez, acts that resulted in a withdrawal of Alfonso's forces from Valencia. Rodrigo began a siege against Valencia in the summer of 1093, and the city fell to him a year later, on June 15, 1094.
The legendary El Cid
Rodrigo and other leaders of Christian Spain were not the only ones who considered Valencia important: when the Almoravids learned of the city's conquest by Rodrigo, they quickly sent a force against him. Leading a much smaller army, Rodrigo devastated the Almoravids in battle on October 14, 1094—the first time the Moorish invaders had suffered a defeat since their arrival in Spain eight years before.
Ironically, the man who had spent so much of his life in the saddle, sword in hand, died peacefully in his bed on July 10, 1099. Following his death, his wife Jimena struggled to maintain control over Valencia, a conflict in which Alfonso came to her aid. After three years, however, Alfonso could no longer defend the city, and he urged Jimena to give it up and come to Castile. Valencia fell to the Almoravids in May 1102, and it would not return to Christian hands until 1238.
By that time, Rodrigo's life story was being turned into a myth, which became the Poema de mio Cid, a work of anonymous authorship sometimes translated as The Lay of the Cid. The nickname El Cid, meaning "The Master" in Arabic, actually came from Rodrigo's enemies, who were some of his greatest admirers. Thus the Arab historian Ibn Bassam wrote that the legendary foe of his people "was one of the miracles of God." To Spaniards, El Cid became immortal as a romantic hero, a defiant individual who triumphed over powers much greater than himself.
For More Information
Audisio, Gabriel. Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad. New York: R. M. McBride & Company, 1931.
Goldston, Robert C. The Legend of the Cid. Illustrated by Stephane. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.
McCaughrean, Geraldine. El Cid. Illustrated by Victor G. Ambrus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
"Abbasid Caliphate (Baghdad): 750–1258." [Online] Available http://www.campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/Islam/Abbasid.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Battles of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar 'El Cid.'" [Online] Available http://rococo.ele.cie.uva.es/ismael/med/cid.html (last accessed July 26,2000).
"Harun al-Rashid." [Online] Available http://www.deepfield.com/anoot/harun_al.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Legends—Paladins and Princes—The Cid." [Online] Available http://www.legends.dm.net/paladins/cid.html (last accessed July 26,2000).
"The Song of El Cid." [Online] Available http://kuhttp.cc.ukans.edu/kansas/medieval/108/info/el_cid.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
El Cid ★★★ 1961
Charts the life of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, known as El Cid, who was the legendary 11th-century Christian hero who freed Spain from Moorish invaders. Noted for its insanely lavish budget, this epic tale is true to its setting and features elaborate battle scenes. 184m/C VHS, DVD . Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Raf Vallone, Hurd Hatfield, Genevieve Page; D: Anthony Mann; W: Philip Yordan; C: Robert Krasker; M: Miklos Rozsa.
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