The Castle of Gormaz: the largest Arab fortress in Europe

Krak des Chevaliers, the Loire or Edinburgh castles are world famous. Places known either for their stubborn defensive capacity or for palatial sophistication. However, the name of Gormaz will sound less familiar. This does not make sense, since it was the most decisive enclave in the war between the Muslims and Christians during the Middle Ages. The largest that the Caliphal Muslims built in Europe and one of the greatest works of military architecture of the time on the continent, its walls have seen time pass in the Soria plain for more than 1,000 years.

Extremo del alcázar desde la llanura de Gormaz

Side of the fortress from the plain of Gormaz. | Shutterstock

An Arab spearhead beyond the Duero

The 10th century in the Iberian Peninsula was defined by a clear axis: the Duero. This river cut the territory in two halves from east to west. To the south, the Arabs dominated. To the north, the Christians. In the middle there was a dead zone plundered by both sides. This was the time when the emirate of Cordoba would become the Caliphate, when León would consolidate as a local power, despite the weakness that resulted from its continuous internal wars. Years of legend in which Gormaz stood out as an essential strategic point, a critical advantage for the people of Cordoba.

The main characteristic that gave importance to the current Castilian-Leonese fortress at the beginning was its location. It was on the other side of the river, from the Muslim perspective. In addition, it defended the only passage for miles around. It was a safe-conduct to the Christian lands, a way to assure that year after year the raids could be carried out. These punitive expeditions, formed most of the time by a few dozen men, destroyed everything in their path. Abd al-Rahmán III, Caliph General Gálib and Almanzor made good use of it.

Extremo oeste y campa interior del castillo de Gormaz

West side and interior field of the castle of Gormaz. | Shutterstock

From a small castle to the largest fortress in Europe

The great hill on which it is located makes the whole of the citadel and fortress look like a spear. Its remote past dates back to pre-Roman and classical times, when it is considered that it was fortified and inhabited for the first time. Arevacos and Romans would have already benefited from its great strategic position. But it was in the Middle Ages that it gained importance. A castle emerged in the 8th or 9th century. It is not known which of the two opposing forces did it.

A bridge over the Duero was originally the great value to be protected. However, the fortress was not particularly noteworthy. Very much contested since this time, during the first third of the 10th century it changed hands several times. It is certain that in 925, it became Arabic. The give and take corresponded with that of any other point of the so-called extremes, the collision zones in constant battle that in its western part gave name to the current Extremadura. Four years later, Abd al-Rahmán III would cause a shock when he established the Caliphate of Córdoba.

Patio del alcázar de Gormaz

Courtyard of the Alcazar of Gormaz. | Shutterstock

The chronicles of the time point to another Muslim reconquest in 940. Abderraman III would carry out a first phase of reinforcement that would help consolidate the territory. However, it would be his son, Al-Hakam II who would order it to become one of the most powerful castles in Europe. Under the supervision of the veteran general Gálib, who had already served the previous caliph for decades, Gormaz expanded in such a way that it was able to protect a command corps as well as shelter thousands of men inside. The year was 965.

Gormaz, over a kilometre of walled perimeter

There are two very different parts in the Gormaz of Gálib, the one you can see today. On one side is the 1,200-metre-long fence with walls about ten metres high. The base of the same was solid, giving an enormous solidity to the whole. In total, from east to west it extends for a length of more than 440 meters, with a variable width that reaches 60. The space not occupied by the fortress, most of it, corresponded to a field prepared to supply animals and to keep ready an army of more than 2,000 warriors. The cisterns are an example of its internal infrastructure. Moreover, in case of need, the plains surrounding the fortress allowed many thousands more to camp.

Las interminables murallas del castillo de Gormaz

The endless walls of the castle of Gormaz. | Shutterstock

The walls have 28 square towers. Be that as it may, these points of reinforcement are deployed around the perimeter to ensure defense from any front. At the western end, on the outside, there is a stele associated with protection against supernatural elements. The main entrance door is in a totally Caliphal style, with a horseshoe arch over each span. There are two of them, since a gap was left between the exterior and interior light, very useful for riddling and harassing the enemies in case they had arrived there. Another door allowed access to the fortress, while a couple of gates, minor entrances, completed the set. A third one was added later.

For its part, the fortress was a more palatial place but strongly defended by seven towers. The most famous are those of Almanzor and the homage tower. Christian touches did not prevent them from losing their Muslim character, as in the case of the main tower of the Templar castle of Monzón. The rooms can be sensed, including a weapons room and a cistern. This last stronghold had defenses against an eventual conquest of the outer fence. In conclusion, it was superior to its northern counterparts in everything.

Vista interior de la doble luz de la puerta califal del castillo de Gorrmaz

Interior view of the double light from the Caliphal entrance to the castle of Gormaz. | Shutterstock

A control that reached Medinaceli

Although it was on the other side of the Duero, Gormaz was not an isolated place. Gálib, astute and veteran, promoted a series of watchtowers that allowed this mass to communicate in a matter of minutes with Medinaceli, the Arab head of the Middle Border almost 70 kilometres away. An intelligent system that improved Arab responsiveness enormously. The fact that these towers were located in the Moorish area of the Duero made it easy for them not to fail and it was almost impossible for Christians to assault them.

Extremo oriental del castillo de Gormaz, con el alcázar

Eastern side of the castle of Gormaz, with the alcazar. | Shutterstock

Defensive effectiveness was proven when a coalition led by the Count of Castile Garcia Fernandez besieged Gormaz in 975. Helped by Ramiro II of Leon and Sancho II of Pamplona (the predecessor kingdom to that of Navarre), he took advantage of the lack of men in the fortress to try to take it. However, heroic resistance and the arrival of the armies of Gálib caused a tremendous setback, which extended to San Esteban de Gormaz and Burgo de Osma.

Defeated, the Castilian Count did not surrender and achieved a brief control of the castle of Gormaz between 978 and 981. Then Almanzor appeared to conquer it again. In that year the nobleman from Cordoba consummated his rise to power. His struggles with Gálib, who was also his father-in-law, were settled in the lands of Soria, in the battle of Torrevicente. Shortly before, in Atienza, the almost 80-year-old general almost killed the youngest one during an argument. This confrontation in Guadalajara degenerated into an internal campaign in which Gálib obtained Christian support.

Puerta califal del castillo de Gormaz

Caliphal entrance to the castle of Gormaz. | Shutterstock

Almanzor means “The Victorious One”. This nickname came to Abu Amir Muhammad precisely from defeating Galib. Although he began by losing the decisive battle, he ended up winning thanks to a somewhat casual element. It is said that, after leading several charges personally and destroying the flanks of Almanzor, the 80-year-old general cried out to the heavens to kill whoever was least useful in ending the conflict and focusing the forces on the real enemy, the Christians. The fact is that he was found dead on his horse.

The leadership that Almanzor obtained led him to destroy the kingdom of León, from Zamora to Santiago de Compostela. Gormaz, loyal to him in his war with Gálib, would remain a stronghold even after the fall from grace of the Caliphate, decades later. Only by capitulation, in 1059, did it pass into the hands of the Leónese. El Cid was one of its most famous regents, in the 80s of the 11th century. In The Cantar del Mio Cid, the fortress is described as extremely strong.

Alcázar del castillo de Gormaz

Alcazar from the castle of Gormaz. | Shutterstock

Castle without war

The transitory nature of the Caliphate, which is perfectly reflected in Medina Azahara, meant that Gormaz soon lost its star. The Taifas of the north and centre, although some were powerful, such as Toledo or Zaragoza, fell relatively quickly. Aragon burst in as a new force that contributed decisively to pushing the Muslims south. As the years passed, the previously indispensable Duero took a back seat. Granada began to establish itself as a kingdom to be reckoned with and Seville gained in full as a place of reference.

Ermita de San Miguel en Gormaz

Hermitage of San Miguel in Gormaz. | Shutterstock

The castle of Gormaz continued to have prestige and functioned as a prison. It had distinguished regents, such as Doña Berenguela of Castile or Juan Hurtado of Mendoza. However, its powerful walls had no borders to defend. Nearby was the hermitage of San Miguel, which surprisingly survived the Caliphate period. Of Visigothic origin and Romanesque character, today it appears consolidated. Its Romanesque frescoes are of great interest. The town of Gormaz is small but pleasant.

The entrance to the enclosure is free and easy to reach thanks to the A-2. It is an Asset of Cultural Interest and is in a consolidated state of ruin. Together with fairytale fortresses such as Ponferrada, a Templar but with more interventions, it is one of the most important defensive monuments in Spain. One of the great Arab legacies next to the Alcazaba of Malaga, that of Almeria, the Giralda of Seville, the Mosque of Cordoba or the Alhambra of Granada. This is how the castle that kept the Christians on the edge for decades survives.


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