The swift conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Umayyad Caliphate, taking advantage of the Visigothic kingdom’s succession civil war, cannot be explained so much by the strength of those troops, which were few in number, but by the implementation of a strategy of pacts that followed the initial resistance—especially in the south—after the Battle of Guadalete. Among those pacts, one of the oldest, signed in the year 713, is the one known as the Treaty of Orihuela or Pact of Theodemir, which we will examine below.

As is well known, the Umayyads landed in what they called Al-Andalus in the year 711 and took control of most of the territory in an astonishingly short time; so much so that in just fourteen years, by 726, they could consider the conquest complete, leaving only a part of the irreducible Cantabrian strip free. This speed is often explained because, frequently, they replaced the force of arms with a negotiated capitulation with local authorities through a type of agreement called sulh.

This term can be translated as “arrangement” or “resolution” and, in fact, appears in the Quran to define a pact that ends a dispute over property. Actually, the concept was earlier and came from the negotiations that Bedouin tribes engaged in during their frequent conflicts, for which they agreed on a hudna (truce) and appointed one or more mediators. The final decision of these mediators, endorsed by the qadis, was publicly and unreservedly accepted for reasons of honor, which served to prevent falling into a cycle of revenge.

Division of the Visigothic kingdom due to the succession war, before the Muslim conquest
Division of the Visigothic kingdom due to the succession war, before the Muslim conquest. Credit: Chabacano / Wikimedia Commons

With the expansion of Islam, it began to be applied to military campaigns to negotiate the surrender of cities or regions. Thus, the expression Dār aṣ-Ṣulḥ was used to refer to a non-Muslim territory that signed an armistice and declared itself tributary in exchange for protection, then becoming known as dhimmī. Their status depended on the faith they practiced, with the so-called People of the Book (those who practiced written religions, especially Abrahamic ones like Christianity and Judaism) being given more consideration than polytheists and pagans.

It is not known if Musa ibn Nusayr, then governor of Ifriqiya (the western part of North Africa, from Tunisia to Libya passing through Algeria) ordered his lieutenant, a Berber freedman named Tariq ibn Ziyad, to conquer what was known in the Muslim world as Al-Andalus, or if he started it on his own. In any case, he landed in present-day Algeciras with about seven thousand men and managed to establish a beachhead in Gibraltar (to which he gave its name) to receive reinforcements and launch incursions.

He was fortunate that the count of Baetica was absent, fighting the Basques with King Roderic, which, along with the fact that North African raids were as common as they were short-lived, allowed Tariq to advance with little opposition. When opposition finally came, at the Battle of Guadalete, several months had passed and the Muslims already had more troops. The defeat and death of the Visigothic monarch worsened the succession problem between the supporters of Agila II and Oppas; the latter even sought help from Tariq, who provided it, aware that this would further weaken the enemy.

Tarik ibn Ziyad in a nineteenth-century illustration by Theodor Hosemann
Tarik ibn Ziyad in a nineteenth-century illustration by Theodor Hosemann. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The arrival of new reinforcements allowed the expansion to continue. Some cities were subjected manu militari, like Seville, Córdoba, or Zaragoza, which experienced episodes of extreme brutality (fires, crucifixion of prisoners, enslavement of women and children); others, like Málaga, Granada, or Toledo, offered little resistance; the majority, however, avoided conflict by agreeing to a sulh, like Gijón. The conditions depended on each case; in Mérida, for example, submission and the surrender of ecclesiastical goods were agreed upon in exchange for the inhabitants being able to keep theirs and maintain their faith.

But Tariq had operated with too much initiative, even disobeying the order from his superior Musa to return to Africa or wait for him. When Musa arrived, his subordinate had already subdued all of the Levant and reached Guadalajara. They met in Toledo, where sparks flew between them due to one’s excess of initiative and the other’s demand for the obtained loot to be handed over. This rivalry must have reached the ears of Walid I, the caliph of Damascus, on whom they depended, who summoned both of them.

Musa was subjected to a trial for acting without the permission of the wali of Egypt, his superior; Tariq himself acted as the accuser. However, Walid I’s death interrupted the process, and the new caliph, Suleiman, showed no interest in resuming it. Tariq spent the rest of his life in Damascus and died in 720, four years after Musa, who was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Abdelaziz. The latter returned to Al-Andalus in 714, where he had already been during the conquest; his experience was what led to the Treaty of Orihuela.

The Muslim conquest
The Muslim conquest. Credit: NACLE / Wikimedia Commons

And it was he who was responsible for obtaining the aforementioned pact of submission of Mérida, a model of efficiency because he managed to subdue the southern peninsula while his father and Tariq dealt with the north. Part of that success was due to his negotiating disposition, which led him to marry Egilona, the widow of King Roderic, in 713, trying to win over the Visigothic nobility; another part should be credited to the good work of Habib ibn Abi ‘Ubayda, a counselor and general his father assigned him, who enjoyed great prestige among the yund (the Muslim colonies).

Established his court in Ishbiliya (Seville), Abdelaziz set the objective of securing the conquered territories and incorporating the still unconquered towns. However, he was short of military forces, so, as much as possible, he opted for the diplomatic route. He acted in two directions: one towards the west, with Huelva as the objective, and the other towards the east with the region of Murcia (which covered more than it does today, as it also included what is now approximately the province of Alicante) as the field of operations. The lord of those lands was named Theodemir, Tudmir to the Muslims.

Theodemir was a noble who likely served as a governor. It is known that someone by that name – probably him – had repelled a Byzantine invasion attempt, possibly in the context of the fleet sent by Emperor Leontius between the years 697 and 698 to try to reconquer Carthage, although it might have been another one at the end of the reign of Witiza, to try to recover old imperial enclaves such as Tangier and Ceuta. The facts and dates are unclear, but Theodemir was still there when the Muslims arrived.

Ruins of the Visigothic castle of Orihuela
Ruins of the Visigothic castle of Orihuela. Credit: Zarateman / Wikimedia Commons

Faced with the collapse of the Visigothic kingdom, the nobles living far from the court found themselves alone against the new danger and unable to resist. Therefore, they had no choice but to negotiate with the invaders a status that would allow them to safeguard their properties, social position, and way of life as much as possible, offering in return vassalage and tribute. Of course, to do this, they had to convince the enemy that it would not be easy to subdue them, hence the legend that says Theodemir deceived him by ordering all the women to go up to the battlements dressed in chainmail and armor, so that the number of defenders would appear greater than it really was.

We are talking about the defense of Orcelis, an Alicante city that King Suintila had taken from the Byzantines in 625, renaming it Auriola, and which we now know as Orihuela. The Hispano-Roman population never willingly accepted Visigothic rule, missing the imperial administration and with it the Latin language (as opposed to the Germanic language) and the Catholic religion (it was four centuries before the Great Schism established Orthodox faith in the Byzantine Empire, while the Visigoths were still seen as Arian heretics despite the conversion decreed by Leovigild a few decades earlier).

The fact is that, on April 5, 713, Theodemir and Abdelaziz reached the sulh agreement that has gone down in history under the name of the former (or, as we recall, the Treaty of Orihuela). In it, the holder was recognized as the lord of that region (which the Muslims referred to as the cora – province – of Tudmir), with his and his subjects’ properties respected, and the Christian faith admitted, in exchange for submitting to the supreme authority of the caliphate and paying an annual jizya (per capita tax) in cash and a kharaj (land tax) in kind.

Cities included in the Theodemir Pact
Cities included in the Theodemir Pact. Credit: Enrique Íñiguez Rodríguez / Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the pact implied committing not to collaborate with any enemy of Islam, and its importance was emphasized by the fact that Theodemir had to travel to Damascus for the caliph to endorse the agreement. There are no further direct written references to him, so historians must resort to context: he probably died before 743 because from then on another Visigothic noble, Atanagildo, was designated as the lord of Tudmir. It is unknown if he was his offspring, although some experts believe he had no male descendants because it is only known that he married off a daughter to a notable Muslim.

Furthermore, it was that year when Abu al-Khattar al-Husam ibn Darar al-Kalbi, the new Umayyad wali of Al-Andalus, entered Tudmir with his troops and stationed them there, imposing on Atanagildo a hefty tribute of twenty-seven thousand sueldos (about one hundred twenty-two kilos of gold) as back payments. Thus, it is deduced that the Treaty of Orihuela was considered terminated with the death of the signatory. Or signatories, since Abdelaziz had died much earlier, in 716, assassinated by two of his cousins following orders from Caliph Suleiman, fearing he would convert to Christianity and proclaim himself king influenced by his wife; at least that’s what the Chronicle of Pacense says.

The original document of the treaty is not preserved, but three later copies exist, one from the 11th century, another from the 12th, and the third from the 13th, each made by an Andalusian scholar: the geographer Al-Udri, the historian Al-Dabbi, and the traveler Al-Gharnati respectively. The only difference each version presents is the different way of naming the included cities, which in some cases makes their identification difficult, as is the case with Iyyih, Bqsra, and Blntla, for example, although others are known for certain: Orihuela, Alicante, Lorca, Mula, and La Alcudia of Elche. Cartagena, the old capital of Byzantine Spania, does not appear because it had been destroyed by Suintila a century earlier.

This is the transcription of the text:

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Edict of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Musa ibn Nusair to Tudmir ibn Abdush (Theodemir, son of the Goths). The latter obtains peace and receives the promise, under the guarantee of God and his prophet, that his situation and that of his people will not be altered; that his subjects will not be killed, or taken prisoner, or separated from their wives and children; that they will not be prevented from practicing their religion, and that their churches will not be burned or deprived of the objects of worship that are in them; all this as long as they fulfill the obligations we impose on them. Peace is granted to him with the delivery of the following cities: Uryula [Orihuela], Baltana, Laqant [Alicante], Mula, Villena, Lurqa [Lorca], and Ello. Moreover, he must not give asylum to anyone who flees from us or is our enemy; nor cause harm to anyone who enjoys our amnesty; nor conceal any information about our enemies that may come to his knowledge. He and his subjects will pay an annual tribute, each person, of one dinar in cash, four measures of wheat, barley, grape juice, and vinegar, two of honey, and two of olive oil; for the servants, only one measure. Given in the month of Rajab, year 94 of the Hijra [713]. As witnesses, ‘Uthman ibn Abi ‘Abda, Habib ibn Abi ‘Ubaida, Idris ibn Maisara, and Abu l-Qasim al-Mazali.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 20, 2024: Pacto de Teodomiro, el tratado por el que un gobernador visigodo salvó a sus ciudades y habitantes durante la conquista musulmana

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