This simple shepherd saved the day on two important occasions in medieval Spain. Maybe.
The Gate of Aljaraz (The Sheep Gate) in Cuenca, also known as the Puerta de San Juan for a nearby church. Photo by Sue Burke.
Legend says a shepherd named Martín Alhaja helped Christian troops defeat the Moors in Cuenca in 1177 during the Reconquest. Then, in 1212 in Andalusia, he help the combined Christian armies find a mountain pass so they could fight in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.
Like so many Spanish legends, the story is better than the facts – which makes it worth telling.
Cuenca is a city in Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain located on a spur of rocky cliffs between two rivers, the Júcar and Huécar. The gorges make the city breathtaking, a World Heritage Site popular with tourists. When the Moors arrived there in 714, there was no city yet, but they recognized that the site would be strategic and impenetrable with the addition of walls at the east and west end, so they built a fortress there. Soon a prosperous city grew up on top of those cliffs.
Starting in the late 1000s, the Reconquest was being fought in earnest in La Mancha, and the city passed from Moorish to Christian hands several times. Finally in 1177, King Alfonso VIII of Castile laid siege to the city.
Here’s where Martín Alhaja comes in. This shepherd had received a visitation from the Virgin Mary telling him he would play an important part in the victory for the Christians. So one day, September 21 to be exact, while he was outside the city tending his flock, he met some Christian soldiers and told them of an easy way to enter the city in secret: kill some sheep, cover themselves with the skins, and accompany him back into the city. The guard at the Gate of Aljaraz was blind and trusted Martín, so the knights could sneak past. They did, and the city fell.
Well, Cuenca did fall to King Alfonso’s troops on September 21, 1177. Martín’s story appeared in a historical account several centuries later, but in following centuries less credulous historians rejected it and showed that the original source, supposedly from the 13th century, was a fabrication. In fact, the episode seemed suspiciously similar to an episode in Homer’s Odyssey involving Odysseus and the giant cyclops Polyphemus.
But that was not the end of Martín’s legendary adventures, although this time the shepherd might have instead been an apparition of Madrid’s patron saint, Isidro (Saint Isidore the Laborer), in disguise.
Here’s the situation: in July of 1212, King Alfonso VIII was again on the march against the Moors, this time united with other Spanish Christian kings. However, their troops were stopped at the mountain pass of La Losa in southeastern Spain, held by Moorish guards. Then a shepherd appeared as a “godsend,” according to King Alfonso’s letter to the Pope, written after the battle. This shepherd showed them a different, safe pass through the Sierra Morena. The troops marched on and won the decisive Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.
Starting in the 16th century, some chronicles began to name this shepherd as Martin Alhaja and later as Saint Isidore, and they added other details, including the miraculous appearances of El Cid, Santiago (St. James the Apostle, who killed a lot of Moors during the Reconquest), various angels, and Count Fernán González, in the battle.
In this case, there may have been a shepherd who helped the troops find their way, but it seems it was our friend Martín.
By the way, as far as I know, “Alhaja” is not used as a last name in Christian Spain. It comes from an Arabic word meaning “jewel” or “outstanding person.” Clearly, Martín Alhaja is outstanding – a gem of a story to tell friends over a bottle of wine at a cliffside café gazing out over a stunning sunset view of Cuenca.