28 October 2007

Postcard from Spain

After missing my flight and gaining an extra day in beautiful northwestern Spain, I came home to London and did a little digging about a statue I spotted all too briefly in Gijón. We were visiting a friend, who took us to eat at one of those little places that locals know but never get in guidebooks. It turned out the statue was of Pelagius, or Pelayo, the first king of Asturias.

I've tried to find out some more about him, because subsequently we saw at Oviedo cathedral the cross he is supposed to have carried in the battle of Covadonga against the Moors in 722, generally regarded as the first contest of the Reconquista, the crusade that lasted 750 years and which ultimately resulted in the expulsion of Moslems from Spain. That's ten years before Charles Martel defeated the Arab invader at Tours and allegedly saved Western Europe from an Islamic conquest.

There's not much about Covadonga in English on the Web, but I did a quick search in Spanish found one article that gives some details of the battle. I'll give a summary of the content in English, for those whose Spanish doesn't go as far as mine.

The date of the battle is 28 may 722. Wilder estimates of the Moslem force amount to 187,000, but this is clearly an exaggeration. Pelagius, a descendant of the Visigoths who settled in Spain during the collapse of the Roman Empire, led some 300 men, two-thirds of which he set up in a blocking position through a narrow pass, and the remainder he hid in a cave. The blocking force stopped the progress of the Moslem force by shooting arrows and hurling rocks. The disordered Moslem column then was struck by his ambush emerging from their hiding place in the cave. In the fighting, the Moslem commander al-Kama was killed, and the panicking Moslem troops turned and ran. The major consequence of the victory was that Pelagius was able to establish a focus for subsequent Christian resistance to the complete conquest of the peninsula.

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