The Finest Castle in the World
By Robert I. Chevedden
History Today, Vol. 49:11 (1999)
Introduction: 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.