The Pillars

The relationship between Morocco and Portugal is tinctured in blood.

On August 25, 1471, a young man looked out from the window at the North African dawn. He saw the souhks of Asilah, quiet now after the battle, faint plumes of smoke rising here and there from the pillaged wasteland…with his father at his side, he had scythed and thrust a red trail from the walls of the opulent city to the final moments at the keep. The Berbers who survived had been left to the bloodlust of the soldiers. Then as now, the ravages of rape and torture spoke louder than emotions of mercy, the primeval flames of human nature erupting in the oxygen of religious fire.

These words, taken from the first page of The India Road, do justice to a relationship written in blood since the days of the caliphate. And yet today, when Portugal is mentioned as you travel in Morocco, the old battles are forgotten—we are merely friends reminiscing ancient times.

By the mid-thirteenth century, the last Saracen bastion in Lusitanian territory had fallen to the Christian army of Afonso III. Muslim occupation in Spain was to last a further two hundred forty-three years. , ending with the siege of Granada.

Supporters of the caliphate today argue Iberia was theirs for longer than it has been Christian—at best this tenuous claim to sovereignty applies only to Aragon and Castile.

By the early fifteenth century, the Portuguese noblemen were straining at the leash. The nation had decisively defeated Castile two decades before, repealing yet another attempt by their principal foe to add Lusitania to the growing list of ‘Spanish’ provinces.

The battle of Aljubarrota, which forced the Spanish to relinquish their ambition to conquer Portugal. The painter, Jean de Wavrin, was only born fifteen years later. The expressions on the faces of the soldiers are amazingly bucolic.

The battle of Aljubarrota, which forced the Spanish to relinquish their ambition to conquer Portugal. The painter, Jean de Wavrin, was only born fifteen years later. The expressions on the faces of the soldiers are amazingly bucolic, it’s often impossible to distinguish the warring parties, and the tactical nuances that won the battle for Portugal are ignored.

Aljubarrota, itself a word of Arab origin, pitched Portugal against Spain. On hand were the usual suspects—English troops on the Lusitanian side, French fighting for Castile.  The battle was won through tactical skill, with the Portuguese troops divided into three wings, or divisions.

This split made the Spaniards believe their opponents were few in number—the Castilian cavalry charged, then fell into staked pits known as boca do lobo—the mouth of the wolf.

The left flank had the romantic name of Ala dos Namorados, the wing of boyfriends, so-called because the troops were young Portuguese nobles of marriageable age.

Two years after the battle, John of Portugal, grandfather of the Perfect Prince, married Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt. The Treaty of Windsor celebrated the alliance.

The sons of those namorados sought to cover themselves with glory in the bloody deserts of North Africa. On August 21st,  1415, the Portuguese army conquered Ceuta, beginning an occupation that lasted two centuries, with enclaves taken, lost, and re-taken.

The Moroccan seaside resort of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast, was the old Portuguese town of Mogador. The Arab name means ‘ramparts’, and the town boasts one of the best natural ports in the region. The Portuguese were by no means the first to understand its strategic value—the Phoenicians built a settlement on the island of Mogador in the 6th century BC.

Mazagão (Mazayan in Berber), was another of the various fortresses established by Portugal on Moroccan lands—all these were considered strategic, and described an arc from Gibraltar to the west, progressing down the African coast. Mazagão was eventually re-taken by the Moors, and became Al Jadida. The name means ‘The New’ (jadid).

Agadir, which the Portuguese called Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), was perhaps the most important of these, and was only reconquered by the Arabs in 1541.

This long and bellicose relationship means that the Portuguese are well-known in Morocco. Unlike the subsequent colonization by the French, this was a fight based on religious differences rather than territorial ambitions, at least as far as North Africa was concerned.

What the Portuguese wanted was an expansion of their operational base for the Gulf of Guinea, and ultimately India, security for their shipping from the pirates of the Barbary (Berber) coast, and strategic protection of their own territory from the Moors.

Five centuries later, the memories of bloody battles have sunk into the desert sands—all that remains is the twin tale of proud peoples with a shared past.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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