'The Finest Castle in the World'

Robert I. Burns, S.J., and Paul E. Chevedden describe how a much-besieged citadel became the focus for Christian-Muslim co-existence in medieval Spain.

Medieval Christian and Muslim powers lived by a web of pacts, truces, and alliances, not only among their own religious-ethnic group but frequently with the 'infidel' powers around them. Each contestant in the struggle between Cross and Crescent had to be capable of negotiation. Each treaty or truce represented a unique circumstance, a tangle of options, dangers, opportunities and historical and geographical contexts. The principals in this diplomacy were negotiating to keep or to surrender elements of their identity and their culture. Since Islam and Christendom embraced radically different belief systems, legal assumptions and rhetorical traditions, a Christian-Islamic treaty was not truly a meeting of minds but rather a clash of cultures and political psychologies.

Out of the many Christian-Islamic surrender pacts of the crusader era, only one--the 1244 surrender pact of the city and castle of Játiva--survives with a bilingual Latin-Arabic text. It comes from the mountainous country in the southern coastal part of Mediterranean Spain, which Muslims called Sharq al-Andalus and the Christian conquerors called the Kingdom of Valencia. The document gives a glimpse into the mentality of the signatories and reveals very different understandings of their shared procedure. A wealth of sources exists to help us interpret it: archival, chronicle-based, archaeological, and legal. Prominent among these is the autobiographical Book of Deeds of King James of Aragon-Catalonia, the Christian protagonist of the treaty--a remarkable work and the only autobiography of a medieval European monarch, save for the imitative memoir of his descendant Peter the Ceremonious.

The collapse of western Islam in the early thirteenth century forms the background. After the Christian victory at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, the Almohad empire of Spain and North Africa was plunged into confusion, factionalism and civil war. As Moroccan Marinid and Tunisian Hafsid dynasties struggled to construct new empires from the wreckage, Islamic Spain fragmented into mini-states unable to present a common front against the Christian invader, or even to sustain their own borders. The extensive coastal regions below Tortosa and above Murcia were caught up in these storms [Figure 1: Map of the Realms of Aragon-Catalonia, c. 1250].

An anti-Almohad hero, Ibn Hud, managed to rally most of Islamic Spain around his standard at Murcia, which town he entered in August 1228, proclaiming himself emir of al-Andalus under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Just north of Murcia lay the only Iberian fragment still loyal to the Almohad cause, the Valencian province under its original wali or governor, Abu Zayd. At this very moment, however, Valencia produced its own rebel: Zayyan, a local aristocrat of the Banu Mardanish lineage, drove Abu Zayd to the north and entered Valencia city in triumph in 1229.

While Zayyan fought both Abu Zayd and James, Ibn Hud ineffectively besieged Zayyan in Valencia city. As circumstances dictated, both Abu Zayd and Ibn Hud made overtures to James's rival Christian kingdom of Castile. While Ibn Hud called upon the Baghdad caliph for legitimacy and help, and Abu Zayd looked to the disintegrating Almohad caliphate, Zayyan got his backing and fleet from the Tunisian Hafsid dynasty.

The confusion was even worse at local level. Ibn Khaldun described Islamic Spain between the Las Navas disaster of 1212 and the fall of Córdoba in 1236:

Al-Andalus afforded the singular aspect of a country ruled by as many kings as there were castellated towns in it. The Castilian chronicle of Alfonso X picks up on the same note: 'After the death of Ibn Hud, the land split up among many small kings.' One such semi-sovereignty was Játiva under the Banu Mardanish and then under the Banu Isa.

These were evil days for Islamic Spain. Fernando III of Castile had conquered Córdoba in 1236, and in 1237 James had established his advance post at Puig to besiege Valencia. The turning point came in 1238: early in that year Ibn Hud fell to an assassin's knife; in September Zayyan finally surrendered Valencia to the Christians. The old qa'id of Játiva had died in May 1237; his inexperienced son Abu Bakr backed a brief adventure by Zayyan at Murcia. Zayyan lasted less than two months, however, as 'emir of the East' in 1239. Castile was moving purposefully into Mediterranean Murcia; by 1243 Murcia would submit to Castile as a Mudejar kingdom. James the Conqueror, king of the federated kingdoms of Aragon and Catalonia, meanwhile, came from a dynasty that had long claimed the right to conquer down the coast as far as Murcia.

This movement of expansion, or the Spanish Reconquest, is commonly portrayed as a steady recovery of lost territories over eight centuries, but was rather a series of border brawls and opportunistic seizures, punctuated by radical expansion in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The main surge saw the thirteenth-century crusader kings of Castile-León and of Aragon-Catalonia conquer systematically all the heartlands of Spanish Islam leaving only the rump of Granada. From 1229 to 1245 James subdued and absorbed the Mediterranean provinces of Islam from the Balearic Islands to Murcia. This took fifteen years of diplomacy, military manoeuvre and bluff with, very rarely, a prolonged siege or pitched battle. Surrender agreements left many local Muslim leaders in a strong position, and James had to fight on, sporadically, long afterwards--in a decade-long crusade against an Islamic mini-state in the south of Valencia; in the conquest of Murcia to help Castile; in repression of local revolts; and finally in confronting a major counter-crusade by the Marinid Maghrib empire joined to Andalus rebels.

Valencia had three regional centres, Burriana, Valencia city, and Játiva, and James's main sieges centred on them. The first two brought bloody victory and expulsion of their Muslims. The Játiva siege, though, resulted in a qualified surrender, which ceded considerable powers of autonomy to the Jativans. Despite subsequent expulsions, a Muslim population remained, and the celebrated paper industry continued to flourish. Játiva would serve as a Mudejar centre for generations to come, and was the most populous Mudejar centre in Valencia into the sixteenth century.

James had launched an abortive crusade against Peńíscola in northern Valencia in 1225, wresting an illusory 'vassalage' and an annual tribute from the beleaguered new Almohad wali of Valencia, Abu Zayd. The young King's crusade roused concern in Castile, which already had its eye on the region. Fernando III of Castile also welcomed a visit and 'vassalage' in 1225 by Abu Zayd. Three years later a desperate Abu Zayd, seeking allies against the triumphant Zayyan, opened negotiations with Castile fruitlessly, and even sent secret agents to the Pope.

In 1229 Abu Zayd entered into an alliance with James, by which the King was to keep in vassalage all he could conquer from Zayyan plus a fourth of Valencia's general revenues. James imposed a second agreement in January 1232, reducing Abu Zayd to little more than a puppet of the Christians. By this time the King had embarked on his crusade against Valencia. In 1236 he convened a parliament at Monzón to formalise the crusade again, to rally all his resources, and to begin his drive to take Valencia's capital.

When Valencia city fell in 1238, Játiva remained under the successors of Ibn Hud as a semi-independent entity. With Zayyan removed as a major player, Játiva was now a tempting target for both Castile and Aragon-Catalonia. At first James moved south only tentatively, but the involvement of Castile soon made it necessary to make haste. From the south, the Castilians saw Játiva as a relic of Ibn Hud's Murcia-based realm. As they consolidated their conquest of Murcia, their intentions towards Játiva itself became ever clearer.

By stages Játiva passed under the Christian yoke. James, despite treaties with Castile marking out respective paths of conquest, had to cope with Castilian intrigue, Castilian alliances with James's Muslim enemies, and even Castile's invasion of his agreed zone. At the same time, he was opposing the French occupation of territory in Occitania (southern France under Catalan patronage), while domestic turmoil, too, deflected his energies.

James besieged Játiva briefly and without success in 1239 and 1240. For his efforts, he obtained a palace in the city and extracted from the ruler of Játiva, Abu Bakr, a treaty and a demonstration of loyalty in which 'he accept[ed] Us as lord' in a formal ceremony of submission. Innocuous enough for the Muslims since it entailed no real curtailment of Játiva's autonomy, this action became for the King a true feudal vassalage, and when James next laid siege to the city he would attempt to force Abu Bakr to acknowledge a state of vassalage towards the King in order to gain Játiva's submission. This episode illustrates mutual incomprehension over the relationship established by the treaty and 'submission' of 1240.

James conducted a third and more determined siege of Játiva in 1244, but he could conquer it only by diplomacy. Játiva lay along a crest in a tangle of mountains. Strung out from east to west, its lofty battlements and multiple towers comprised a main castle and a conjoined lesser castle. Further down the slope from the two castles sprawled a large town, enclosed within its own extension of concentric walls [Figure 2: Játiva, Town and Twin Citadels, 1563].

These defences have been described as the most formidable of Islamic Spain's freestanding castles. Játiva's 'strength and beauty' were deemed 'proverbial' by the twelfth-century geographer al-Idrisi. According to the contemporary Bernat Desclot, Játiva's castle held provisions for three years, had its own abundant spring, and a single approach, so narrow that 'twenty men could hold off ten thousand'. Nowhere in the world, he claimed, was there 'a castle so strong or regal'. James has left us his own impressions. At first sight of this 'castle so noble and so beautiful and its countryside so captivating,' the King experienced 'great joy and great happiness in my heart.' Then and there he resolved 'to take the castle for Christendom' and for God's service, and of course for himself. His Hungarian queen, the well-traveled Violant, echoed the King's jubilation: 'It is the finest castle in the world and the wealthiest I or any person has ever seen.'

James laid siege to the city in late 1243 or early 1244. Játiva mounted a defiant defence until James compelled the future King Alfonso of Castile to abandon his own plans for the city in March 1244. Deserted by Castile and cut off from potential Muslim support in Murcia, Játiva now stood truly isolated. It could either allow the war to drag on or negotiate a compromise peace.

Abu Bakr proposed a surrender agreement that gave the semblance of political subjugation while leaving the city with its ruling house, its population, its defences, and its army all intact. Játiva would concede only modest territorial concessions to the victor: the smaller or outlying of the two castles of the town would be handed over to James while the larger castle would be kept by Abu Bakr for two years more. At the final transfer in two years, the King would choose for the Muslims a replacement castle to substitute for Játiva's major castle.

James was apprehensive about leaving Abu Bakr behind the formidable defences of Játiva. When presented with Abu Bakr's surrender proposal, James deliberated before reaching a decision. The queen advised him to accept Abu Bakr's offer and 'not to delay for one castle or two'. After the King's counselors all agreed, James was won over and accepted Abu Bakr's terms. His memoirs express great confidence:

I thought that when the smaller castle was surrendered to me, then the larger one could no longer remain in his hands. The King could not afford a long siege. There were other regions to conquer and other ventures beckoned, including his desire to reestablish his dynasty's hold on southern France and to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. These concerns impelled James to grant generous concessions to Abu Bakr in order to win the prize of Játiva. With the last major Islamic city of Valencia having yielded to James's crusade, the whole of Sharq al-Andalus now seemed open to Christian domination.

Abu Bakr probably feared that the continuation of resistance would result in a less favourable outcome in the future. He decided to reach a settlement while he still retained substantial bargaining assets. Surrender may also have appeared attractive to him as a means of gaining a temporary respite, during which he expected the balance of power to shift in his favour.

The treaty survives in fragmentary form. The charter appears to have separated into two or more sections along fold lines, and the surviving portion was subjected to further ravages by wear and water damage that reduced it to its present state: a crude L-shape with uneven widths (Figure 3: The 1244 Játiva Treaty).

A total of thirty-three treaty provisions have been recovered from this tattered and torn document. Fifteen of the provisions are found only in the Arabic text; thirteen appear only in the Latin text; and five are common to both texts. This lack of congruity between the bilingual texts may be because the order of the items differ in the two texts (with a number of elements in one that are missing from the other) or because each side merely included representative items to convey the common Mudejar privileges or situation.

The treaty allows us to comprehend more broadly the Islamic-Christian confrontation in the Mediterranean world, and to appreciate the world in which the two parties manoeuvred. The Spanish Reconquest was no omnipotent and relentless force, but succeeded by accident as it lurched haphazardly, sometimes blessed with good timing, but more often than not in a messy process of advance, retreat, reorganisation, then advance in a different direction. Only in retrospect does the conquest of Játiva appear as a watershed. In 1244, James had to put the best face on a surrender that was less than a capitulation and had to disguise by bravado his true anguish about conceding considerable autonomy to Játiva.

The provisions of the treaty reveal that James was in no position to dictate terms, but was compelled, on the contrary, to offer incentives to entice Játiva to surrender. Thus, less than a third of the provisions concern duties and obligations of the new subject community. The exemptions, privileges, and rights safeguarded by the treaty attest to the capacity of the Jativans to salvage and preserve their identity and institutions even as the integrity of their society was threatened by political domination. The concessions granted to the Jativans, as well as the obligations placed upon them, illuminate both the common features of Christian-Islamic surrender pacts, as well as special and distinctive elements peculiar to the circumstances facing James and the Jativans.

The standard elements of this pact include the conferral of crown protection for person and property; protection for Muslim travellers; freedom of worship; preservation of religious endowments necessary for the maintenance of Islamic religious institutions; and retention of an Islamic legal system.

The crown protection pledged in Arabic identifies the Jativans as mu'ammanin ('those under the protection [of the King],' or 'those given protection by means of an aman'). The use of this term defines the Jativans as Mudejars for the first time and establishes 1244 as the year Játiva became a subject community. The safe conduct bestowed upon the principal men of Játiva while travelling throughout James's realms and beyond guarantees a degree of protection seldom made explicit in Islamic or Christian pacts of protection (aman/guidaticum). It provides for a protective escort, or actual physical accompaniment under guard, to the leading men of the city.

The religious freedom granted to the Jativans safeguards the fivefold daily prayer of the Muslims, together with the sermon, or khutbah, on Fridays and on canonical feasts. It also confers the right to make the call to prayer from minarets. Muslim communities that surrendered to James commonly requested that the call to prayer be preserved, and James routinely guaranteed that it would be. As a public profession of the Islamic religion, the call to prayer fostered Muslim solidarity and permitted a vanquished community to survive in a mosque-filled milieu apparently unchanged.

The Latin text protects endowment properties supporting mosques in Játiva, while both Latin and Arabic texts safeguard the Islamic non-shari'ah judicial system and most of the jurisdictions affecting the Muslims of Játiva. The Latin text prohibits Christians from bringing lawsuits against Muslims during the period of the agreement, while the Arabic text mandates that lawsuits involving Muslims and Christians are to be adjudicated on the basis of the testimony of two approved male witnesses, one Muslim and one Christian. The Latin text renders the testimony of alien Muslim witnesses in local courts inadmissible unless certain conditions are fulfilled, and recognises the validity of Muslim testimony in Christian courts.

The elements of the treaty that were dictated by the circumstances of strength on either side constitute the distinctive features of the document. These include several provisions pertaining to Muslim and Christian captives, a number of entries regarding taxes and fiscal exemptions, several items dealing with military privileges and responsibilities, articles concerning territorial concessions, provisions pertaining to intercommunal acts of violence, and terms safeguarding political authority and intra-community autonomy.

The provisions pertaining to captives indicate that James was willing to offer generous concessions to facilitate and hasten surrender. The Jativans were granted impunity from prosecution for hiding fugitive Muslim captives and were permitted to retain possession of their Christian captives. The captives were even prohibited from objecting to their captivity. The Jativans skilfully pressed their demands regarding their Christian captives upon James at the eleventh hour, knowing that he was in no position to haggle.

The Christians claimed a modest share of taxes and conciliated the Jativans with some tax exemptions. All the revenues of the markets were to go to the new Christian regime, as well as the tax on livestock, and other unrecoverable taxes. The tax concessions granted to the Jativans provided financial relief to the people of the city. Military obligations were minimal. A requirement of military provisioning and military service was imposed, but only in case of a local Muslim revolt. The Jativans were permitted to undertake construction on the urban defences of the city provided they inform the King of such activity. Allowing the Jativans to undertake military constructions was a significant concession, since any augmentation of the urban defences could be used to good advantage in a future revolt. Even in peacetime, formidable urban defences could enhance a city's diplomatic bargaining power. The King appears to have gained public acknowledgement of Játiva's Mudejar status by granting the Jativans the right to rebuild their military defences. It was a Devil's bargain for James, but he could not attain a better settlement.

Modest territorial concessions were demanded: the immediate transfer of the smaller castle of Játiva to the King and the surrender of the castles in the region of the city. The treaty also confirmed the King's ownership of some item or property in Játiva, perhaps the palace that the King had acquired in 1240.

Two provisions attempt to contain inter-community violence. The first makes attacks upon Muslims a capital offence, and the second stipulates that a Muslim may not be killed for killing anyone who attacks the Muslims. These provisions were included in the treaty to prevent blood feuds from breaking out between Christians and Muslims.

Though the treaty gave the appearance of political subjugation, it guaranteed political succession in Játiva in the lineage of the Banu Isa, thus maintaining the city's ruling family in power. The inhabitants of Játiva remained in place, and its military forces and defences were left intact. Christians were prohibited from residing in or operating shops in the city, and the Islamic character of the city was thereby preserved.

The Játiva treaty is an important document. Firstly, it supports the veracity of James's autobiography, which is particularly detailed for this incident. Secondly, it concerns the most powerful entity James had confronted in Valencia outside the capital city. Thirdly, it is the only treaty for Mediterranean Spain in that century of conquest to survive with a Latin-Arabic text. Fourthly, this treaty marks the beginning of a major multicultural society in the kingdom of Valencia below the Júcar River, where the mass of Muslims remained uneasily subject to a colonial class of Christian administrators and settlers, and where the Jews fleeing persecution converged to constitute a valuable bridge between conquerors and conquered. Fifthly, the conquest of Játiva played a key role in the evolution of the colonial-warrior society, with its osmotic interpenetration of three cultures, which was to define Spain and to colour Spain's actions and institutions in the New World. Finally, this treaty marks the start of the intransigent defence of a Muslim enclave: Játiva/Montesa remained for some time the cultural and political centre of Mudejar Valencia, a beacon for the conquered everywhere in James's new kingdom. The treaty even has significance for our own day, when some twelve million Muslims reside within Europe, so that the Muslim presence and multiculturalism of James's day is once again, over seven centuries later, deeply marking today's Europe.

Robert I. Burns, S.J., is professor emeritus in the Department of History at UCLA and Paul E. Chevedden is a visiting scholar at UCLA's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. This article is adapted from their new book, Negotiating Cultures: Bilingual Surrender Treaties in Muslim-Crusader Spain under James the Conqueror (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1999).




[The] King--may God support him!--[shall be bound to] this agreement by [all of] its articles, as shall the exalted queen, Dona Violant. His son, the Infant Don Alfonso, and all of his descendants shall also be bound to it . . . [and they shall take an oath of fidelity to it in all of] the kingdom. By God Almighty; by the Cross and the Gospel; by all that by which perjury by the oath-taker is prohibited in his community. The King--may God support him!--and his successor the Infant, his son, and his successors shall undertake [all that has been specified.]

[The two qa'ids--may God glorify them!--shall be bound to this agreement by all of its articles. The people of distinction and the leading men of] Játiva and its district [shall also be bound to it], and they shall make it binding on men of lower rank, and they [the leadership of Játiva] shall take an oath of fidelity to it [the agreement]. By God the [Generous; by Muhammad his Messenger--may God bless him and grant him salvation!; by the Koran which was revealed to him. The two qa'ids--may God glorify them!--and their descendants shall undertake] all that has been specified. By God, praise Him!

From the Arabic text of the 1244 Játiva treaty


1. The Realms of Aragon-Catalonia, c. 1250, showing the major components of the medieval dynastic federation: the upland agricultural Kingdom of Aragon; the urban-commercial sovereign County of Barcelona/Catalonia; the two conquests of James the Conqueror (Kingdom of Valencia and Kingdom of Majorca/Balearics); and holdings in Occitania.

2. Játiva, Town and Twin Citadels, 1563, detail of view by Anton van den Wyngaerde, one of the many drawings of Spanish cities that Philip II commissioned from the artist, now in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna (Cod. Min. 41, fol. 70r). In the centre of the town stands the Seo or main church, a fifteenth-century edifice of Gothic design that was built upon the congregational mosque of the city. The view shows the church and the remains of the mosque before the structure was rebuilt in Renaissance style at the end of the sixteenth century. Looming above the town is the rocky ridge of Monte Bernisa with its twin citadels, both of Islamic origin. By the terms of the 1244 Játiva treaty, the smaller citadel, to the left (east), was to be handed over to King James, while the larger citadel, to the right (west), was to be kept by Abu Bakr for two years more. At the final transfer in two years, the king would choose for the Muslims a replacement castle to substitute for Játiva's major castle. The twin citadels have been described as the most formidable of Islamic Spain's freestanding castles.

3. Detail of the Játiva Treaty (1244): top right section of the surviving portion of the document; interlinear bilingual Latin-Arabic text on paper. The treaty survives in fragmentary form. Its present uneven appearance is due to the disappearance of portions of the document and extensive deterioration over the centuries. The document appears to have separated into two or more sections along fold lines. Once this original dismemberment occurred, the surviving portion was subjected to further ravages by wear and water damage that reduced it to its present state: a crude L-shape with uneven widths. Part of the original bottom edge of the document is preserved, stretching for 29.8 centimetres. Ruled lines that guide the layout of the bilingual texts begin a centimetre above this edge. Twenty-nine lines, spaced at 1.2 to 1.3 centimetre-intervals from left to right, extend across a surface that now reaches a height of 37.2 centimetres. The document is horribly worn along its right and left sides, leaving its width uneven: maximum width, 33.2 centimetres at line twenty-one; minimum width, 19 centimetres at line fourteen. The ruled lines drawn across the page from left to right are unusually prominent. These were laid out before any text was emplaced. The Arabic text occupies the first twelve lines. An Arabic witness list, beginning on the right at line eighteen and ending on the left on line seventeen, is especially conspicuous. The first eleven Latin lines of text are positioned interlinearly between the first twelve ruled lines on which the Arabic text is placed, suggesting the sequence as Arabic followed by Latin. Thereafter the Latin is laid out on the ruled lines. The sequence suggested by the notary's clause at the end of the treaty, that he had caused the agreement to be translated from Arabic to Latin, is confirmed by the layout of the texts. An analysis of the content of each text, however, confirms that neither text is a translation of the other. The ur-text for both was the terms brought from Játiva's leaders, as modified during the final acceptance by the king's advisors. The Arabic text then selected and embodied those elements of the accord that were most crucial to the Muslims, not omitting some elements of common interest to both peoples. The Latin text similarly would have emphasised those points basic to the Christians' interest, modelling their text somewhat on the genre of such surrenders in Latin. Thus the notary could honestly feel that he had "translated" or more exactly selected out a Christian counterpart of the Arabic text from the notes constituting the ur-text. Arxiu de la Corona d'Aragó, Barcelona; Cancelleria Reial, Jaume I, Pergamins: Apčndix 41. Photo courtesy of Paul E. Chevedden.

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Orgininally published in History Today, vol. 49, no. 11 (November, 1999), 10-17.
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