After the opening of Al Andalus, the Muslims reached the Pyrenees, the mountain range separating the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe. It stretches more than 430 km and rises higher than 3,400 m in elevation. They opened the cities of the northern Spanish Provence Navarra and the southern French city Avignon. In 719, they reached the Frankish province of Septimania with its capital Narbonne which was fortified and garrisoned by Muslim troops.
Two years later, the ‘Saracens’, as the Muslims were called in this part of the world, reached Acquitaine’s capital, Toulouse, where they were overwhelmed by the Franks and had to retreat. In 725 however, the Muslims managed to open Carcassone and Nimes but had to give up the Pyrenees by 726 and to return to Andalus. By 729, many places in nowadays France became part of the Muslim empire such as the towns and cities of Lyon, Macon, Chalons-Sur-Rhone, Beaune and Autun, all close to the Swiss border, as well as Arles, Bordeaux and Besançon.
Image Represents the advancement of the Muslim forces through France
In 732, about twenty kilometres northeast of Poitiers, the Muslims were defeated and 'Abderrahman al-Ghafiqi fell in this famous battle of Poitiers.
Flourishing cities such as Bezier, Agen, Nimes and Maguelone were destroyed by the Franks.
By 755, only the city of Narbonne remained in Muslim hands. The Franks besieged the city for 4 years and because of help from the city’s Christian inhabitants, they managed to capture Narbonne and to massacre all Muslims in it.
However, about a century later in 889/890, a group of Muslims from Andalus sailed up the Gulf of St Tropez and without being bothered found a new Muslim settlement called Fraxinet or Fraxinetum. It became the Muslim base from where the Muslims marched into the Alps and northern Italy, reaching as far as the present country of Switzerland by 906.
Image of the 'Saracens' (Muslims) landing on coast of Gulf of St Tropez
Here, King Hugh of Arles recognised a big part of the Alpine region as an independent ‘Saracen’ state in the south of Switzerland. We speak more about the Muslims in Switzerland and their influence in another blog Link Here: "Link".
In 972, the Muslims were defeated in this region and had to abandon the Alps. In about 975, the Christians overcame their differences, joined forces with Count William of Arles and together managed to destroy Fraxinet.
As Fraxinet was the administrative capital of all Muslim settlements in France, northern Italy and Switzerland, it was wealthy and the treasure was distributed among William and his men. The ruling Grimaldi family of Monaco received the area where the hillside village of Grimaud stands today, overlooking the port of St. Tropez. The family’s feudal castle was built in the so-called ‘Saracen’ style. Its ruins can still be found crowning the village. So, Grimaud in itself and many other fortified hill villages are reminders of the Muslims’ presence in this region of France.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot that has remained from that time, but one can still explore the ruins of the so-called ‘Saracen towers’ erected for defence and as watch posts. Some were made by the Muslims and others the Franks copied all along the coast, as well as in nearby valleys.
Image of the 'Saracen tower' in Southern France
Some French scholars believe the Andalusis of Fraxinet introduced the cultivation of buckwheat, a grain that has two names in modern French:
blé noir (black wheat) and blé sarrasin (Saracen wheat).
They also taught the villagers medical skills and introduced both ceramic tiles and the tambourine to the area.
The presence of the Muslims in the Provence and their legacy form part of the folk memory of this region:
the place names, the cork industry, the ruins, the local agriculture, the ceramic tiles, the tambourine and the poetry of the troubadours are all reminders of a flourishing Islamic culture and civilisation in this part of the world.
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