16 July 1212: Christian forces triumph at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

A 19th century oil painting of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.
A 19th century oil painting of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. / SUR
  • The overwhelming defeat of the Almohads gave a further boost to the Christian reconquest

The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, a strategic turning point in the Christian reconquest of Spain, took place in the small town of Las Navas (Jaen) on 16 July 1212. The overwhelming defeat of the Muslim Almohads gave further impulse to the Christian reconquest and hastened the Moors' decline in the Iberian Peninsula.

Known as the Battle of Al-Uqab in Arab history, the conflict was fought by the forces of King Alfonso VIII of Castile, who were joined by the armies of his arch-rivals, Sancho VII of Navarra and Pedro II of Aragon.

King Alfonso had suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the Almohads in 1195, during the Disaster of Alarcos, a battle that shook the stability of the Kingdom of Castile for several years.

In 1211, a powerful army led by the Caliph Muhammad al-Nasir crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and invaded Christian territory. The Almohads captured the Salvatierra Castle, the stronghold of the knights of the Order of Calatrava, a fortification located on a hill at the foot of Mount Atalaya.

The Almohad threat to the Christian kingdoms was so severe that Pope Innocent III called Christian knights to a crusade, bringing King Alfonso together with his adversaries to quash the invasion.

On the night prior to the battle, the Christian forces crossed the mountain range that defended the Almohad camp, advancing through the Despeñaperros mountain pass with the assistance of a local shepherd who was familiar with the area.

The coalition forces caught the Almohad army off guard, smashing through the defensive line of slave-warriors that surrounded the caliph's encampment.

The battle began in the early hours of the morning with a charge from the first line of Christian troops, which put the Muslim vanguard to flight. The Arabic troops suffered severe casualties and the battle ended with a decisive victory for King Alfonso VIII. The victorious Christians seized several war trophies, including Muhammad al-Nasir's tent, which was delivered to Pope Innocent III.

The battle ended with the total defeat of the 24,000-strong Muslim armies, while the Christians are said to have lost around 2,000 soldiers. However, legend claims that the Christian casualties were far fewer.

The caliph escaped the battlefield and managed to make his way back to Rabat. He was assassinated by his courtiers at his palace in Marrakech the following year.