Omar Ben Hafsun – mysterious rebel of Andalucía

When the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 it had already been part of the tormentous waves of history for thousands of years, with the indigenous Iberians being joined successively by Phoenician, Jewish, Greek, Roman, Celtic and Germanic civilisations and gene pools. By the time Islamic warriors crossed the Straits in the early 8th century, therefore, the Germanic Visigoths had succeeded the Romans as rulers of Iberia, and whereas the Mediterranean Romans mingled with the local population to form the Hispano-Roman identity that was later to form the basis for the Spanish and Portuguese nations, the Visigoths remained a small military ruling elite not much loved by the populace.

This is one of the reasons why the Moors encountered so little resistance on their way up to the Pyrenees, and maybe also why many Christians in the region succumbed to pressure to convert to Islam, for by the 8th century there was little unity or cohesion within the peninsula. The Arab-Berber elites brought larger numbers of settlers, particularly to the southern region we now know as Andalucía, and through a combination of pressure, taxes and discrimination – as well as occasional violence – accomplished a good number of conversions among the local population. Among them were the ancestors of a certain Omar Ben Hafsun, a rebellious youngster who grew up in the village of Parauta, in the mountains between Marbella and Ronda, during the middle of the 9th century.

The first Bandolero?

Hafsun got into trouble at a young age, became involved with bandits and eventually had to escape to Morocco, but several years later he returned clandestinely to Andalucía and joined the roving bands of rebels, most of whom were Christians revolting against hardhanded Arab rule. Hafsun also found out that his ancestors were not Muslims of Arab ancestry but Christians of Hispano-Roman origin, and this strengthened his already rebellious spirit. Eventually he would become a leader of the movement, successfully raiding Muslim carriages, castles and outposts in a guerrilla campaign, to ultimately become the unofficial ruler of sizable tracts of land – castles and villages included – up in the hills of the Axarquia region east of Málaga.

Before long he and his allies held sections of land scattered across Andalucía and the pressure upon him mounted as the Muslim rulers took the threat increasingly seriously. By 891 he had retreated to the mountain stronghold of Bobastro, where he and his followers built a citadel and village. The natural reservoir atop the mountain gave them independence, as did the land they farmed and the fact that this massive outcrop was virtually unassailable. Having converted back to Christianity some years before, he lived until 917, dying undefeated at Bobastro, though by 928 it fell and his sons, their families and followers were captured. Hafsun’s body was exhumed and posthumously crucified, but the first step in the Andalusian Reconquista had been made, and perhaps the first Bandolero born.

Today it is possible to visit the spectacular views and remains of Bobastro in the mountains near Málaga, and as well as enjoying the beautiful natural surroundings, contemplate the distant history of this fascinating region.