The life, times, and legacy of El Cid, hero of the Reconquista

Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2015, he has an undergraduate degree in the Classics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts as well as a Bachelor of Sacred Theology, Master of Divinity, and a Master of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. In addition to his parochial duties, he writes for The Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Register, and The Wanderer.

Detail from Charles de Steuben’s “Bataille de Poitiers en octobre,” which depicts Charles Martel (mounted) facing Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours. [Wikipedia]

Recently, I had the opportunity to lead a pilgrimage to the major shrines of Portugal, Spain, and France. The meaning of each stop was known to me prior to our journey: the Mother of God’s presence at Fatima and Lourdes and St. Teresa’s birthplace at Avila, to name a few.

A great surprise to me along the way was the significance of the city of Burgos, the historic capital of the Kingdom of Castile. The city was a major stop for pilgrims along the French Way of the Camino de Santiago and became important in the Reconquista, the centuries-long struggle to push the Moors back into North Africa from where they came.

The city is home to a magnificent cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction began in 1221 and lasted until its completion in 1567. It is appreciated for containing in its architecture the entire history of Gothic art, displaying the development of style in this art form across the centuries.

I was not very familiar with the history of the Reconquista, so another surprise was to find the tomb of the famed El Cid at the very center of this awe-inspiring cathedral.

I was only vaguely familiar with El Cid’s story from a few scenes I remember of the 1961 film about his life and glories when he was played by Charlton Heston. The film ends with the Christians and Moors alike in prayer for God to receive the soul of El Cid, “the purest knight of them all.”

After I visited Burgos, I picked up Raymond Ibrahim’s recent book Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam  (2022), to read the chapter dedicated to “The Cid: Master and Lord of War.” I also reached out to the author to seek answers to a few questions about El Cid, motivated by a prescient point that Ibrahim made in the introduction to his superb book.

Ibrahim mentions how the eight men he profiles were once admired as iconic heroes of self-sacrifice, without whom Western civilization would have been lost. But, today, they are either forgotten by their Western descendants or are largely seen as embarrassments and exemplars of patriarchy, “toxic masculinity,” xenophobia, and racism.

Ibrahim is an expert in Islamic history and doctrine and has also published Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West (2018), a book that was met with some controversy.

Here, Ibrahim sheds some light on the life, times, and importance of one of the subjects of his book, the great hero of the Reconquista known as El Cid.

CWR: When and in what manner did the Moorish invasion of Spain take place?

Raymond Ibrahim: A few decades following the death of their prophet Muhammad in 632, the Arabs had conquered most of ancient Christendom—from Syria in the east to Morocco in the west. Not content, and fully intent on bringing the Koran to the known world, in 711 hordes of North African Muslims (“Moors”) “godlessly invaded Spain to destroy it,” to quote from the Latin Chronicle of 754.  They did not pass “a place without reducing it, and getting possession of its wealth,” boasted al-Hakam, an early Muslim chronicler, “for Allah Almighty had struck with terror the hearts of the infidels.”

Such terrorism was intentionally cultivated (in keeping with the Koran, e.g., 3:151, 8:12). The invaders slaughtered, cooked, and ate—Muslim historiography says they only pretended to eat—their Spanish captives, prompting hysteria among the people “that the Muslims feed on human flesh,” and thereby “contributing in no small degree to increase the panic of the infidels,” wrote another Muslim chronicler.

By 712, one year after the Islamic invasion, the Muslims had, in the words of the Chronicle of 754, “ruined beautiful cities, burning them with fire; condemned lords and powerful men to the cross; and butchered youths and infants with the sword.”  Several other early sources corroborate the devastation and persecution.  The oldest account, the Tempore belli, tells of Muslims “sacking Christian temples and homes, burning the cities of those who resisted, and taking their young women as sexual slaves, all creating an indescribable terror,” to quote historian, Darío Fernández-Morera.

CWR: What are the origins of the Reconquista at Covadonga?

Raymond Ibrahim: After the conquest of Spain, many Christians opted to “flee to the mountains,” continues the Chronicle of 754, “where they risked hunger and various forms of death.” This is a reference to the inhospitable regions of Asturias in the northwest quadrant of Spain, Due to its rough terrain and remoteness, it remained largely free of Muslim control, and—despite the severe difficulties of eking out a living off it—was the destination of every Christian fugitive who wished to live free of Islam.

Pelagius (or Pelayo, 685–737), a relative of Roderick, the “last king of the Goths,” who was slain by the Muslims at the Battle of Guadalete (711), also fled there. In the mountains of Asturias, he “joined himself to as many people as he found hastening to assemble” and became their new king.

Before long, a massive Muslim army was sent to bring these infidel rebels to heal. With them came Christian subjects of the Moors who urged Pelagius not to waste his life in an unwinnable battle, but rather to “enjoy the partnership [of the Arabs].” “I will not associate with the Arabs in friendship nor will I submit to their authority,” Pelagius retorted, adding, “Christ is our hope that through this little mountain”—which he likened to the “mustard seed” of the famous parable that eventually grows into something great (Mark 4:30–32)—the “well-being of Spain and the army of the Gothic people will be restored.”

The battle commenced there and then at Covadonga—meaning “Cavern of the Lady”—sometime around 720, and, due to the terrain which was conducive to their guerilla tactics, the vastly outnumbered Christians prevailed, thereby permanently establishing their presence in the northwestern-most tip of Spain.

CWR: When was El Cid born? What was his upbringing like and how did he gain a reputation as a great warrior among both the Spanish and the Moors?

Raymond Ibrahim: Roderick (or Rodrigo) Díaz (b. 1043) was born in Vivar, a village near Burgos, the capital of León-Castile, which grew out of the Asturian kingdom. Raised in the arts of war by his father, a minor noble, Roderick was knighted during his late teens and entered into Ferdinand the Great’s service by joining the entourage of Sancho, the king’s eldest son and heir apparent. By the age of twenty-three, and as a testimony to his prowess, Roderick had risen to become the prince’s second and standard bearer. It was during these early years that he became known among his compatriots as “the Campeador”—“the master of the battlefield” in Old Spanish (from the Latin, campi doctor). Later, once his prowess became known to the Moors, they too referred to him as “the lord” (al-sayyid, or, El Cid).

Of his physical appearance, he was a “sturdy man, very tall and very hairy, a rough warrior in a leather jerkin.” His most distinctive feature in later years was, in the words of the Poem of the Cid that would later immortalize him, “his long, flowing beard [which] was a wonderful sight!” He strokes it when pondering weighty matters, and ties it around his waist during battle.

CWR: The Reconquista reached a “watershed” moment with the capture of Toledo in 1085. The Moorish rulers were forced to resort to bringing in the Almoravids for help in fighting the resurgent Christians. What was this Islamic sect? What impact did they have on the geo-political landscape of Spain at the time?

Raymond Ibrahim: After the Christian liberation of Toledo, the Muslim emirs of al-Andalus had to act fast for “the arrogance of the Christian dogs,” to quote one Muslim, had “waxed so great.” So they called on the aid of their coreligionists across the Straights of Gibraltar in North Africa. Austere and pious, the Almoravids were Muslim zealots who devoted their lives to waging jihad along the frontiers of the Niger and Senegal rivers. They enforced the draconian dictates of sharia on their subjects and warred on infidels. They were, in short, what groups such as the Islamic State (“ISIS”) aspire to be—including in appearance: their traditional attire consisted of black tunics, black turbans, and black veils covering all but their eyes.

In 1086, thousands of them poured into Spain and annihilated the Christians at the Battle of Sagrajas. There, they built a minaret of 2,400 Spanish heads, whence they called the faithful to prayer.

CWR: El Cid was brought into the fight with the arrival of the Almoravids. What motivated him to fight and what was his greatest victory?

Raymond Ibrahim: Due to their ferocity, no one could stand against the Almoravids—not even Alfonso VI, the hitherto victorious emperor who captured Toledo in 1085. But when they, through treachery, conquered the Moorish kingdom of Valencia, which had been under El Cid’s protection, it became personal, and Roderick hurled himself into the fray. To quote from the Cid’s premiere modern biographer, Professor Ramón Menéndez Pidal (d. 1968):

[W]ith the invasion of the desert races and the recrudescence of Islamic fanaticism, a new chasm opened out between the two. And, on the Christian side, it was the Cid who, as the leader of the resistance against the victorious invaders, showed himself the most determined to carry on the war without giving or seeking quarter. … [I]t was upon the Cid that the task devolved of resisting, unaided, the whole might of Islam.

On learning of the Moors’ treachery and murder of his vassal, the Cid’s “anger was kindled, and his soul was inflamed,” writes the Muslim chronicler al-Maqqari.  Like a fierce storm, he came and with extreme violence thrashed the Valencian countryside, taking all the castles and suburbs up to the city’s very walls.  He “fought so fiercely,” writes Ibn al-Qama, who was present in Valencia, “that the Moors were terrified at the havoc he played among them.” Not only did he manage to recapture Valencia, but he defeated the Almoravids in at least two epic battles (closely detailed in the book).

CWR: What is El Cid’s lasting legacy and why is he a rightly revered historical figure?

Raymond Ibrahim: Due to the Cid’s prowess—never once was he defeated, no matter the odds or situation—he became a legend in his lifetime. More contemporary poems and chronicles were devoted to him than to most kings—a thing unheard of then. Almost a millennium later, he remains a popular folk hero and national icon in Spain. Countless movies, plays, novels, songs, and even video games feature him.

He is best known as the subject of one of Medieval Europe’s greatest epic poems, The Poem of the Cid, which appeared a few decades after his death. As a sampling, it relays that, after one battle, when he was “sated with slaughter,” the “Cid returned to his wife and daughters, his helmet gone, the hood of his coat of mail thrown back and the linen under-cap pushed over his brow.  His sword was dripping with blood, which had run up the blade to the hilt and along his arm up to the elbow.” With the other arm, he hurled a mutilated drum at their feet—the pounding of which had terrified the women—crying, “Thus are Moors vanquished!”  In terror and awe, they fell to the ground before him—“We are thy servants!”