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The Battle that Ended Portugal's Days of Glory – Qasr Al-Kabir

posted on: Jan 18, 2022

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

In the annals of mankind there are only a number of battles which have decided the fate of civilizations for decades or, even for centuries to come.  Among these are the well-know ‘Battel of Hittin’ when Saladin crushed the Crusader State in the Levant; the ‘Battle of Ayn Jalut’, when Baybar’s Egyptian army halted the westward advance of the Mongolian tide; the ‘Battle of Waterloo’ which saw the defeat of Napoleon; and in our time, the destruction of the French army in Indo-China at Dien Bien Phu.  Another one of these world-shaking events was the little-known ‘Battle of Qasr al-Kabir’, when in the 16th century, the Moroccans inflicted a humiliating defeat on the invading Portuguese – a people imbued with a burning crusading spirit.

In the 1570s, Portugal was ruled by Dom Sebastian who, at the age of 14, had succeeded to the throne in 1568.  At the time of his ascension, he was a sickly lad, wilful, conceited and a religious fanatic, indifferent to anything but his stubborn impulses.  He had two passions in life:  war and religion.  As the years went by, his obsession was to organize a grand crusade against the infidels.  What he wanted most was to fight God’s enemies and kill Moors.  His primary ambition was to conquer Morocco, but other projects of imperialism in heathen countries also haunted his imagination.  A zealous youth, he was lost in dreams of conquest and expansion of the faith.

His fond hopes intermixed with religious fervour had the support of most of his countrymen.  Ever since the defeat of the Moors in Portugal during the 13th century, there had been an intensification of the crusading spirit, stimulated by the Christian capture of Granada – some three quarter of a century before.  This had driven his predecessors to invade North Africa and set the stage for his grand design.

By the end of the 15th century, Portugal had already gained control of most of the Moroccan coast and was set to take over the whole country.  After occupying Azemmour in 1513, as a prelude to their conquest of the important cities of Marrakesh and Fez, patriotic feeling was stirred throughout that Iberian country.  This is reflected in the words of the dramatist and poet Gil Vincente who wrote:

The King of Fez is fainting,

Marrakesh gives loud cries.

For Africa was Christian;

The Muslims robbed you of it…

But now His Majesty determines

Too magnify the faith,

By making mosque cathedral,

By grace divine, in Fez

For war, yes, war unceasing

Is now his great intent.

In Morocco, the ongoing invasions caused a ferment of feeling which was to give rise ultimately, after years of fragmentation, to the reunification of the country under the Saadian dynasty.  However, Dom Sebastian was unaware of this agitation, or turned a blind eye to what was happening in that land.  He was fired with enthusiasm and working on his plans for the holy crusade against the Muslims.  His aim was military glory, enlargement of the Portuguese Empire, but above all, the conversion of the unbelievers.

The chance to put into motion his plans for the conquest of North Africa came when the Moroccan Sultan Muhammad al-Mutawakkili, a member of the Saadian Dynasty who was a bigoted and treacherous ruler, was overthrown by his uncle, Abdul Malik al-Mu’tasim, an enlightened and well-educated man.  Muhammad turned to Portugal for aid.  Dom Sebastian agreed to help the disposed Sultan.  However, his real motive was the conquest of Morocco and he began to strip Portugal of men and money for an expedition.

The majority of Sebastian’s counsellors were opposed to his project, believing it to be an insane enterprise.  Nevertheless, the half-mad youth, burning to emulate his forbears and egged on b his youthful supporters, refused to heed any warning.  He mustered all of Portugal’s fighting men and hired religious fanatics and other adventurers from England, Flanders, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy and Spain.

Accompanied by this crusading army and all the chivalry and accumulated wealth of the nation, he set out from Lisbon in June 1578 with 700 ships,carrying, according to some historians, 25,000 men – others say 70,000.  On the other hand, Moroccan chroniclers exaggerate this figure to from 60,000 to 125,000.

As the fleet sailed southward, Dom Sebastian was in high spirits.  The approach of Africa excited his desire for glory in war against the infidel. The army landed at Asilah and camped on the beach near town.  Here, the Portuguese waited 18 days for supplies, then encumbered by priests, carriages, courtiers and, as some historians say, 9,000 Andalusian and German prostitutes,made its way magnificently inland.  Dom Sebastian’s plans were to occupy Qasr al-Kabir, then move on to Fez.

On July 24th, a Tetouan Jew appeared before the Portuguese commanders with news that Abdul Malik was at Salé with 70,000 men.  Two days later, a French renegade confirmed that the enemy had 34 cannons, 17,000 good cavalry and 700 harquibusiers. Sebastian’s counsellors urged him to turn back, but he refused to listen to their advice.  His belief in his own infallibility and firm crusading conviction that God was with him left no doubt in his mind that victory was at hand.

Cleansing a heathen land filled him with fiery emotions.  The conversion of North Africa was to be complete.  Besides forcing the Muslims into the realm of Christ, he had sworn to convert or kill every Jew in the country when he became Emperor.  Today, the few remaining synagogues in Morocco still celebrate the anniversary of the Muslim victory which saved them from such a fate.

Abdul Malik knew every movement made by the Portuguese army, but bided his time, refusing o fight except after he had chosen a favourable site.  As the unskilled young Sebastian marched his troops into the arid hill country to the southeast of Asilah, the effects of heat and thirst reduced the morale and strength of the European soldiers. Added to this, the wait by the Portuguese on the Asilah beach had given Abdul Malik time to assemble a large army and organize his forces.  He delayed the battle until he had manoeuvred the Portuguese into an untenable position, setting for them an unsuspecting trap.

On August 3rd, the Portuguese forces forded the Makhazen, a tributary of the Loukkos River.  Here, they found that Abdul Malik had positioned the Moroccan army between the Makhazen and Ouarour streams with the artillery on high ground and the Andalusian troops (Muslims expelled from Spain) to the fore. Dom Sebastian first drew up his forces, encircling the baggage transport, womenfolk and camp followers in a square battle formation.  He then settled in for the night before Malik’s vastly greater army, drawn in a crescent shape, some 12 km (7.5 MI) from Qasr al-Kabir.

On the morning of August 4th, when Abdul Malik saw the Christians moving forward to attack, he prepared for battle.  Dom Sebastian forced Abdul Malik into combat against the advice of his ally, Muhammad al-Mutawakkili, on whose nominal behalf he was supposedly fighting.  Muhammad feared the effects of the burning sun upon the European soldiers and strongly counselled against the attack.

At first Sebastian’s drive routed the flank of the Moroccan army.  Seeing this, Abdul Malik, who was sick and was being carried in a litter, forgot his illness, and insisted on being placed on a horse to rally his men.  The effort caused him to faint.  When he realized that he was near death, he gave orders that no one was to know his condition until the battle was won.  He then named his younger brother, Ahmad, heir to the throne, and in a few minutes fell dead from his horse.  The sultan was carried into a tent and his death was kept secret from his troops.

As the bitterly contested battle raged on, the Moroccans rallied and engulfed the whole Christian army.  They then attacked furiously until the Portuguese were pushed back and their army surrounded.  In the ensuing hours, due to the heat, the resilience of the Andalusian infantry, the ferocity of the Moroccan tribal cavalry, the destruction of an all-important bridge and the strategy of Abdul Malik, the Christian forces were totally defeated.

Dom Sebastian with his nobility fought bravely, but to no avail.  He was eventually killed, as were the cream of Portugal’s ruling class.  In one blow, the country lost its king and its army.  It was the most disastrous battle in Portuguese history.

In what was to become known as the ‘Battle of the Three Kings’, three of the main actors in the confrontation died.  Dom Sebastian and Abdul Malik on the field of battle and Muhammad, Sebastian’s protégé, drowned in the Makhazen River when his horse panicked while he was taking flight.  Over 8,000 of Sebastian’s army were killed and some 15,000 taken prisoners.  Barely a hundred succeeded in escaping.

It was a crushing defeat for the proud crusading army and signalled the decline of Portugal as a great world power, followed by 60 years of Spanish rule.  The country suffered a blow from which it never fully recovered.  Equipping the expedition and the ransoming of prisoners overwhelmed the national economy, and the death of the country’s young king led to Portugal’s loss of liberty as an independent nation.

The winner, Ahmad, Abdul Malik’s brother, was thereafter labelled al-Mansur (the Victorious) because of the momentous victory.  He amassed a fortune from the ransoming of Portuguese prisoners, giving him the means to build up a strong and disciplined army. This provided him with the necessary power to become one of Morocco’s greatest sultans.  The battle, by impressing the Spaniards and the Ottomans in neighbouring Algeria, freed the country from external danger, saving it from being occupied by these powers.  Under Ahmad al-Mansur Morocco became a land to be reckoned with, especially by the empire-seeking European countries.

Strange as it my seem, in Portugal, the humiliating defeat and the disastrous annihilation of the expedition did not result in the ordinary people blaming their king for his headstrong folly and military ineptitude, still less did it lead them to execrate his memory. Sebastian, who only 24 at the time of battle, was last seen fighting sword in hand, among the ranks of the infidel.  His body was never recovered, and this gave rise to the semi-religious cult of Sebastianismo – a messianic-like faith that the lost king would come back to redeem the country and return it to its past prosperity and glory.

Many Portuguese, especially among the peasantry, believed that Sebastian was not dead.  They were convinced that he had miraculously survived and would come back to claim his kingdom.  A number of pretenders appeared claiming to be the returned king, but they were exposed and executed.  The strange mystical cult, leaning toward insane exploits and based on fantastic hope, lasted many years after Sebastian’s death.

Historically, there are only a few men who have led their nations into a terrible disaster, then in death became religious symbols.  Sebastian is one of these figures.  A religious fanatic with a fantastic arrogance, he had a madman’s dream which died at the ‘Battle of the Three Kings’ or ‘Qasr al-Kabir’.  Yet, his memory as a holy character lingered on in Portugal for decades.

On the other hand, in Morocco, it was another story.  The triumph of the Muslims over Sebastian’s crusading army is marked by the Makhazen Railway Station, erected on the site of the battlefield.  Here, the victory is commemorated on August 5th of every year.  It is an annual reminder to the Moroccans of one of Europe’s great Crusades which miserably failed.


Habeeb Salloum M.S.M.




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