The quiet of the night was broken only by the soft splash of oars beating rhythmically into the quiet waters of the Mediterranean off the French coast. The blackness of the night lay around the galley like a shroud until the lookout spotted a light on shore.
"Sir Captain," he whispered in the accents native to Islamic Spain, "I think we have arrived. Look, up there in the hills!"
Captain Ahmad Tariq turned to where the lookout was pointing. A light, indeed—but was it the signal they were waiting for? Six times the beam blinked on and off, a pattern repeated after an interval, then repeated again.
"Yes, we are here," replied the captain to his lookout. Then, to his boatswain: "The next headland is the one we desire. Bear to the left when we reach it and pull ashore." With a hand lantern he returned the signal.
The galley rounded the peninsula that is today known as the Moulins de Paillas, swung gracefully past the spot where the city of St. Tropez would one day stand, and edged up to dry land. A band of men materialized out of the darkness to meet them. The crew and passengers stepped out of the vessel for a long stretch and a few minutes of fraternizing, but there was little time for pleasantries. The galley had come laden to the gunwales with food, arms, tools and the odds-and-ends that soldiers needed to survive against powerful enemies. Several bales contained such items as Spanish lace, embroidered slippers, and gold ornaments—obviously intended for the ladies. This cargo had to be unloaded and moved inland before daybreak.
Busily they set about it. Those who had been waiting for the galley moved out in a long file with their burdens on their shoulders, followed by the passengers who had made the voyage, twenty soldiers and three civilian officials. As they disappeared, the rowers returned to their oars, pulled out into deep water, and pointed their ship's prow west toward Spain.
Who were these men of Islam? What were they doing on the Riviera? The answers to these questions involve one of the forgotten pages of European history. Yet it is a page without which some of Europe's present-day geography is unintelligible.
Consider the following place-names on the map. In the south of France, between Hyeres to the west and Frejus to the east, there is a whole province called the Mountains of the Moors. Nice has its Saracen Quarter, La Garde Freinet its Saracen Chateau. An Alpine peak between France and Italy is known as Monte Moro. The Swiss topographical designations Almagell and Allalinhorn are thought by some philologists to be of Arabic origin.
In other words, the Arabs were there, and they left an indelible imprint on the geography and the speech of modern Europeans.
They got there from Spain in the eighth century, when Moorish armies marched across France to the Alps. The Frankish counterattack under Charlemagne and his successors cut them off by reaching the Mediterranean between the Pyrenees and Hyeres. But roving bands of Saracens held out east of Hyeres in the mountain fortress that came to be called after them the Mountains of the Moors. They made their survival known to the caliphs in Cordova, and as time passed they received reinforcements by the maritime route from Barcelona. Men and women came. A new state grew up amid the European duchies and counties along the coast and inland to the north. The Moors extended their power through the Alpine passes from France to Italy, and they ascended the Rhone to Switzerland.
This was Alpine Islam.
Its great age came in the first half of the tenth century. No unified power could be thrown against the invaders since Europe, following the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, disintegrated into a chaos of petty provincial lordships. The King of France held no power on the Riviera, which belonged to the Count of Provence, while the sub-Alpine territories of Italy belonged to the Count of Turin.
The genius of Alpine Islam was Mohammed Al-Qasam, who saw that he and his followers, once entrenched in the Mountains of the Moors, with access to the sea and the maritime route to Spain, could maintain themselves indefinitely. He chose the spot to build Great Fraxinet, his central stronghold, part of the original walls of which can still be seen in the French town of La Garde Freinet. Around Great Fraxinet, on the summits of the billowing crystalline rocks, he established sentry posts which could flash word in a few minutes on sighting an approaching enemy whether by land or by sea. Big armies could be stopped by relatively few men stationed at the throats of the mountain passes.
Virtually an armed camp in a hostile country, Alpine Islam could not adopt a settled existence based on farming or trade. As the name implies, it derived much of its livelihood from operations in the Alps. Occupying the main passes of the Western Alps—Mont Cenis, Mont Genevre, Great Saint Bernard—the Saracens levied tolls on travelers, of whom there were many, for the tenth century was a classical period for the pilgrimage to Rome.
When the Alpine tolls were not enough, Mohammed Al-Qasam sent expeditions into Italy, Switzerland and France to bring back what was needed at Great Fraxinet. And the Spanish base of supplies remained open, at least by night when Islamic galleys could slip past the shore patrols of the local dukes and counts. Thus did the Moors remain masters of the Maritime Alps for a century.
But brilliant as this achievement was, it could not last in the face of the rising powers all around. Alpine Islam was bound to fall eventually. Appropriately, the spark was fired in the high mountains that led to the conflagration in which it disappeared.
The Abbot of Cluny was returning from Italy to France in the year 972, his mule jogging through the Alps, a long line of ecclesiastics and laymen strung out behind. They took the famous route of the Great Saint Bernard Pass, and were entering the foothills, when suddenly they found their way blocked by a barrier of stones and logs. The Abbot reined in his mule as a din of shouting broke out at the rear of the caravan. The Saracens had trapped them, and now carried them off to Great Fraxinet as hostages.
Although they were freed unharmed after being ransomed, the incident involving the Abbot of Cluny proved to be more than the local lords were willing to endure. They had been harassed for too long, their political and military strength had been growing, and they felt that now was the time to do something about the warriors from Spain.
The Count of Provence and the Count of Turin joined forces. They entered the Mountains of the Moors with the mightiest army that Provence had seen since Carolingian times. Scattering the Saracen outposts, capturing the hilltop forts, fighting doggedly through the passes, they pressed on toward Great Fraxinet.
A medieval chronicler suggests that the stronghold was betrayed from within by a defender whose lady love had been stolen by his commander. Whether this tale was true or not, the Europeans stormed into Great Fraxinet and destroyed it.
As with the Roman Empire, the puzzling thing is not why Alpine Islam fell, but how it managed to remain standing for so long. The geographical setting, the international conditions, the fortitude of a few men and women (Great Fraxinet held about one thousand people during its heyday), these are the basic facts.
Alpine Islam did not decisively alter the course of history, but it wrote a fascinating chapter in the annals of the Alps, and it remains an eloquent witness to the remarkable vitality of the Saracens in the Middle Ages.