The Pirates of St. Tropez

by Robert W. Lebling, Jr.

Under cover of darkness, they beached their small, lateen-rigged sailing vessel on the rocky shore and began the slow, silent climb to the manor house on the hill. Storm clouds shrouded the moon, darkening the coastal Mediterranean landscape; sporadic rain and gusting winds concealed the sailors' approach. They were 20 men, armed with daggers and short swords, and clad in the fighting tunics of al-Andalus -- Islamic Spain.

They climbed carefully, avoiding the brambles that covered the slopes to their left and right. A few lights still burned in the manor house. The Provençal nobleman and his family had finished their last meal of the day. After listening to the songs of a visiting troubadour, they were preparing to sleep. But it would not be long before the evening serenity of that coastal villa would be shattered by screams and chaos.

The Provence coast

This was the opening act in an 85-year drama played out along the southern coast of France in the ninth and 10th centuries of our era. It has been called the second Arab invasion of France. The first invasion, launched almost two centuries before, is the one most of us know about: Conducted from al-Andalus by an army on horseback, it was thwarted by Eudes of Aquitaine at Toulouse in 721 and by Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732.

The second invasion, much less well known, began as a freebooters' adventure along the beautiful stretch of coastline now known as the French Riviera. A small-scale raid expanded into something much more ambitious, giving the Arabs of Spain, for a moment in history, effective control of the coastal plain linking France and Italy and of the mountain passes into Switzerland -- some of Europe's most vital trade and communication routes.

Arab chroniclers of the period -- that is, those whose works have come down to us -- are generally silent about what one Western historian called this "strange Islamic State encapsulated within a wholly Christian land." Perhaps they did not regard it as sufficiently important, compared with the momentous events then taking place in the Iberian Peninsula.

At that time, the Umayyad dynasty of al-Andalus, which had ruled Spain for scarcely a century, was being challenged from all directions. Revolts were underway in scores of Spanish cities, some led by Arabs, some by North African Berbers, and others by muwalladun, or Muslims of Spanish stock. The Umayyad ruler Abdullah, an educated, pious man who lacked political skills, struggled desperately to maintain his realm, but by 912 the amirate had virtually disintegrated, and Abdullah controlled little beyond the walls of his capital, Cordoba.

In that year, he was succeeded by his talented grandson Abdul Rahman III, who was destined to become one of the greatest leaders in the history of Islamic Spain. Over the coming years Abdul Rahman would end the rebellions, establish a caliphate in al-Andalus, and preside over a "golden age" of prosperity that saw Cordoba become the leading intellectual and political center of Europe.

All this occurred while Andalusi Muslims, building on a minor raid in Provence, were gradually extending their control into neighboring areas of France, northern Italy and even Switzerland. But if Muslim historians are silent, the Europeans whose lives were so disrupted by these events left records of the original incursion and its aftershocks, and from them we can reconstruct the story.

One of the most detailed accounts comes from Liudprand of Cremona, a 10th-century Italian bishop and diplomat. He described the 20 men who launched the second Arab invasion of France as "Saracen pirates"; they might have described themselves as adventurers. Their identities are lost to history. They may have belonged to a Spanish Muslim faction that had lost an internecine power struggle in al-Andalus, and were looking for unclaimed lands to conquer. Or they may have had a formal link with the Umayyad government at Cordoba, operating under the Muslim equivalent of a letter of marque, with official authority to raid Frankish lands. Liudprand suggests the latter when he informs us that the base they eventually established in southern France operated under the protection of Abdul Rahman III and in fact paid tribute to him.

The raiders were attracted to a region with great natural appeal. The French coast from Marseilles to Italy, with its rocky headlands and lush, wooded coves, studded with palm trees and brilliantly colored flowers, must have been as alluring to Muslim adventurers of the ninth century as it is to travelers today. Indeed, according to the 17th-century Arab historian al-Maqqari, some Muslim authors of earlier times believed that the French would be barred from Paradise, because they had already been blessed by their Creator with a paradise on earth: fertile lands abounding in fig, chestnut and pistachio trees, amid other natural bounties.

The raiders arrived in Provence in about 889, at a time of great confusion and misery. Just 30 years earlier, France's southern coast had been plundered and pillaged by Norse pirates. Entire towns were leveled, and many local inhabitants were put to the sword. Duke Boso of Lyons, a usurper related by marriage to France's ruling Carolingian dynasty, took advantage of the chaos and, with the support of local counts and bishops, set up his own breakaway kingdom in Provence in 879. The Carolingian kings could not evict him. When Boso died in 887, his son and heir, Louis, was too young to rule effectively; local lords and princes began asserting their independence and challenging one another. The Carolingian empire was splitting into western and eastern Frankish kingdoms. There was no central authority along the southern French coast, and Provence was ripe for the plucking.

Arab freebooters struck often along these shores. Just as in later centuries British privateers -- pirates -- often worked hand-in-glove with the Royal Navy, so Andalusi corsairs plied the western Mediterranean in the sympathetic shadow of a large Muslim naval fleet, built up by the Umayyad government only a few decades before in response to the Norse raids that also struck the coasts of al-Andalus.

The 20 Muslim corsairs set sail from a Spanish port, intent on raiding an unknown target to the east. Stormy weather forced them to retreat --"unwillingly," Liudprand says -- into the Gulf of St. Tropez, where they beached the craft without being spotted. The gulf opens toward the east; the present-day fishing port of St. Tropez, fashionable vacation spot of artists, film stars and the well-to-do, is situated on the southern shore. The pirates landed northwest of there, and, drawn by the torch lights of the manor house, headed up the mountain ridge known as the Massif des Maures. Some say the ridge takes its name from the invading Arabs, who were also known as Moors; others claim it derives from a Provençal corruption of the Greek word amauros, meaning dark or gloomy -- an apt description of the mountain's thick forests of cork oak and chestnut.

Before sunrise, the pirates attacked and captured the manor house and secured the surrounding area. When dawn finally broke they could see, from the heights of the massif, towering Alpine peaks to the north, undefended but thickly forested slopes below, and the broad blue expanse of the Mediterranean to the south.

The raiders decided to stay. They began building stone fortifications on the surrounding heights. As further defense against Frankish attack, Liudprand says, the Arabs encouraged the growth of particularly fierce bramble bushes that proliferated in the area, "even taller and thicker than before, so that now if anyone stumbled against a branch it ran him through like a sharp sword." Only "one very narrow path" offered access to the corsairs' fortifications. "If anyone gets into this entanglement, he is so impeded by the winding brambles, and so stabbed by the sharp points of the thorns, that he finds it a task of the greatest difficulty either to advance or to retreat," the cleric wrote in his history, titled Antapodosis, or Tit for Tat.

Their defenses secured, the adventurers began launching raids into the countryside. They sent messengers back to al-Andalus with word of their conquests, praising the lands of Provence and making light of the military ability of the local inhabitants. As a result, a new band of about 100 Andalusi fighters, certainly including cavalrymen and their mounts, soon arrived to bolster the original 20.

Many more followed as the Muslims' military victories mounted. Administrators and supplies arrived from Cordoba. In time, the Muslim presence along the Riviera grew to such an extent that military expeditions sometimes involved thousands of troops. The Gulf of St. Tropez became a regular port of call for Muslim naval and cargo ships in the western Mediterranean.


The Muslims called their base Fraxinet (in Arabic, Farakhshanit), after the local village of Fraxinetum, named in Roman times for the ash trees (fraxini) then common in surrounding forests. Today, this village survives as La-Garde-Freinet, a picturesque, unspoiled settlement tucked amid forests of cork oak and chestnut some 1300 feet (400 meters) up in the Massif des Maures, between the Argens Plain and the Gulf of St. Tropez. About a half-hour's hike up from the village are the ruins of a stone fortress said to be the one built by the Arab pirates. Other high points in the area were also fortified by the Muslims, but local authorities state that nothing remains of those structures.

Gradually local Frankish lords, seeking to take advantage of the new political and military realities, sought the aid of the Andalusis in settling their private quarrels. The strategy backfired, according to Liudprand: "The people of Provence close by, swayed by envy and mutual jealousy, began to cut one another's throats, plunder each other's substance, and do every sort of conceivable mischief.... They called in the help of the aforesaid Saracens ... and in company with them proceeded to crush their neighbors.... The Saracens, who in themselves were of insignificant strength, after crushing one faction with the help of the other, increased their own numbers by continual reinforcements from Spain, and soon were attacking everywhere those whom at first they seemed to defend. In the fury of their onslaughts ... all the neighborhood began to tremble."

Fréjus aqueduct

European chroniclers claim that the Arabs laid waste the coastal territory around Fraxinet, today called the Côte des Maures, and then moved into neighboring areas in search of plunder. First, pressing eastward, they "visited the county of Fréjus with fire and sword, and sacked the chief town," according to historian E. Levi-Provençal, a 19th-century expert on al-Andalus. The town of Fréjus, a major seaport founded by Julius Caesar in 49 BC and given the name Forum Julii, was reportedly razed and its entire population driven off.

The raiders drove on, hitting one town after another along the Côte d'Azur. Eventually the Muslim forces looped back to the west, raided Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence, then headed up the Rhône Valley and into the Alps and Piedmont. North African Berber soldiers experienced in mountain warfare were probably used extensively in the Alpine operations, historians believe. By 906, Andalusi forces had seized the mountain passes of the Dauphiné, crossed Mont Cénis and occupied the valley of the Suse on the Piedmontese frontier. The Arabs erected stone fortresses in areas they conquered -- in the Dauphiné, Savoy and Piedmont -- often naming them Fraxinet, after their base. The name survives to this day in these areas, in various forms like Fraissinet or Frainet.

It did not take much longer before direct communications between France and Italy were virtually severed by the Arab expansion. Pilgrims bound for Rome through such Alpine valleys as the Doire, Stura and Chisone were forced to turn back or risk falling victim to Arab raiding parties. In 911, the bishop of Narbonne, who had been in Rome on urgent church business, was unable to return to France because the Muslims controlled all the passes in the Alps. By about 933, says Levi-Provençal, "light columns, very mobile, held -- at least during the summer -- all the country under a reign of terror, while the bulk of the Muslim forces was entrenched in the mountainous canton of Fraxinetum, in the immediate vicinity of the sea."

As for the "reign of terror," another 19th-century historian, J. T. Reinaud, observes: "One saw ample evidence forthcoming for the oft-repeated saying that one Muslim was enough to put a thousand [Franks] to flight." But an element of cultural bias colors the existing chronicles: Not all Provençals feared the Andalusis of Fraxinet. Some formed alliances with them. "There are ... reasons to believe that a number of Christians made common cause with the Muslims and took part in their attacks," Reinaud notes in his Invasions des Sarrazins en France, et de France en Savoie, en Piémont et en Suisse. If the villagers and townsfolk of Provence and neighboring regions feared the Muslims as much as contemporary chroniclers claim, they somehow managed nonetheless to cooperate with them in a wide range of social, economic and artistic fields.

Cork oak stripped of bark

The Arabs of Fraxinet were not simply warriors; careful reading of the chronicles reveals that many Muslim colonists settled peacefully in the villages of Provence. They taught the Franks how to make corks for bottles by stripping the bark every seven years from the cork oaks that proliferate in the forests of the Massif des Maures. Today, the cork industry is the area's chief local enterprise. The Muslims also showed the Provençals how to produce pine tar from the resin of the maritime pine, and to use the product for caulking boats. Reinaud believes the Muslims kept a naval fleet permanently based in the Gulf of St. Tropez, in part to facilitate communications throughout the western Mediterranean. The tar of Fraxinet would have been used by those sailors. Today in France, pine tar is called goudron, from the Arabic qitran, with the same meaning.

The Muslims also taught the villagers medical skills and introduced both ceramic tiles and the tambourine to the area, and Reinaud believes the second Arab invasion of France had a "considerable influence" on the development of local agriculture. Some French scholars believe the Muslims 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). Furthermore, strong similarities have been noted between the poetry of the Provençal troubadours and that of Andalusi poets, but this particular case of cross-fertilization may have occurred even earlier than the Arab capture of Fraxinet.

We know little of the individuals who directed or took part in this Muslim enterprise in France. Rarely are Muslims of Fraxinet mentioned by name in the European chronicles of this period. Liudprand tells of one Arab military commander with the Latinized name Sagittus (perhaps Sa'id) who led an Andalusi fighting force from Fraxinet to Acqui, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of Genoa. But about all we learn of Sagittus is that he died in battle at Acqui in about 935.

A leader of Fraxinet itself, Nasr ibn Ahmad, is mentioned in the Muqtabis of Ibn Hayyan of Cordoba, the greatest historian of medieval Spain. According to that 11th-century chronicle, Abdul Rahman III made peace in 939-40 with a number of Frankish rulers and sent copies of the peace treaty to Nasr ibn Ahmad, described as "commander" of Farakhshanit, as well as to the Arab governors of the Balearic Islands and the seaports of al-Andalus -- all of them subject to the Umayyad caliphate. Nothing else is known about the Fraxinet commander.

The first serious effort to expel the Muslims from Fraxinet was made by Hugh of Arles, king of Italy, in about 931. Hugh enlisted the aid of Byzantine warships on loan from his brother-in-law Leo Porphyrogenitus, emperor of Constantinople. The warships, hurling "Greek fire," attacked and destroyed a Muslim fleet in the Gulf of St. Tropez. Meanwhile, in a coordinated land assault, Hugh's army besieged the fortress at Fraxinet and succeeded in breaching its defenses. The Muslim defenders were forced to withdraw to neighboring heights. But just when the end of Muslim power in France seemed inevitable, local politics intervened.

Hugh received word that his rival Béranger, then in Germany, was planning a return to France in a bid to capture the throne. The king, desperate for allies, sent the Greek fleet back to Constantinople and formed a hasty alliance with the Muslims he had just sought to expel. He signed a treaty conceding control of Fraxinet and other areas to the Muslims and stipulating that Arab forces should occupy the Alpine heights -- from Mont Genèvre Pass in the west to the Septimer Pass in the east -- and block any attempt by Béranger to cross into France. Liudprand was outraged by Hugh's actions; in the midst of his chronicles, the historian chides the king: "How strange, indeed, is the manner in which thou defendest thy dominions!... Thou allowest them to escape who are without doubt criminals, and fit to be put to death."

After seizing the Great St. Bernard and other key Alpine passes, the Andalusi forces spread out into the surrounding valleys. Grenoble and the lush valley of the Graisivaudun were captured in about 945.

About 10 years later, Otto I, king of Germany and later Holy Roman Emperor, perhaps fearing the Muslims would invade his realm, sent an envoy to the caliph at Cordoba, Abdul Rahman III, urging an end to raids by the Arabs of Fraxinet. The caliph's response to the appeal is not known.

In the early to mid-960's, the Muslims began a slow but steady withdrawal from the Alpine regions. To some extent this was due to growing Frankish military pressure, and perhaps to the diplomatic initiatives of Otto I. But one modern scholar, Middle East specialist Manfred W. Wenner, suggests the withdrawal may have been prompted by a foreign-policy change in Cordoba. Abdul Rahman III died in 961 and was succeeded by his son Hakam II, a peaceful man who did not share his father's enthusiasm for military operations in southern France and the Alpine regions. Wenner believes Hakam may have "withheld permission for reinforcements to leave for Fraxinetum from Spanish ports," making it increasingly difficult for the colony to maintain a military presence in the Alps, particularly in the face of ongoing local resistance.

By 965, the Andalusis had evacuated Grenoble and the valley of the Graisivaudun under continuing Frankish pressure. The fertile farmlands and prosperous villages they relinquished were divided up among the Frankish troops who replaced them, in proportion to each soldier's valor and service. According to Reinaud, writing in about 1836, "even today such families of Dauphiné as the Aynards and Montaynards trace the turn of their fortune to this struggle with the Muslims."

As late as 972, the Muslims still controlled the Great St. Bernard Pass. In that year, they captured and held for ransom the famed French cleric St. Maiolus, abbot of Cluny, who was traveling through the pass on his return from Rome. The ransom for Maiolus and his large entourage was set at 1000 pounds of silver -- one pound for each Andalusi soldier involved in the operation. The ransom was eventually paid through the sale of abbey holdings, and Maiolus and his party were released. The incident provoked outrage throughout Christian Europe and sparked further efforts to dislodge the Fraxinet colony and its satellites.


Shortly after 972, the Muslims were driven from the heights around the Great St. Bernard. One of the leaders of the opposing forces in this hard-fought battle was Bernard of Menthone, for whom the mountain pass was later named. (Its name at the time was Mons Jovis, Latin for "Mount Jupiter" -- a term the Arabs of that era incorporated into their name for the entire Alpine region, Jabal Munjaws.)

St. Bernard, of course, later founded the well-known hospice for travelers in the heights of the Great St. Bernard that exists to this day. Some scholars believe the St. Maiolus incident furnished the impetus for building that refuge. Bernard's name, incidentally, was also given to the celebrated dogs trained there to rescue travelers trapped in the winter snows.

Along the Riviera itself, local lords gradually overcame their differences and, in about 975, they united under Count William of Arles, later marquis of Provence, in a bid to drive the Muslims out of France for good. William was a popular leader, and managed to persuade warriors from Provence, the lower Dauphiné and the county of Nice to join his cause against the Muslims.

The Andalusis consolidated their forces at Fraxinet and "came down from their mountainous resort in serried ranks," as Reinaud says, to encounter the Christian forces at Tourtour, near Draguignan, about 33 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of Fraxinet. The Muslims were driven back to their mountain stronghold, and the Franks laid siege to the fortress. The Andalusis, realizing their fate was sealed, abandoned the castle in the dark of night and fled into the surrounding woods. Most were either killed or captured by Count William's forces, according to contemporary accounts, and those who laid down their arms were spared. It is said that the Frankish army also spared the lives of those Muslim colonists living peacefully in neighboring villages; most of these were made serfs, subject to local landlords.

Fraxinet had served as the administrative capital of all Muslim colonies in France, northern Italy and Switzerland, and its castle is believed to have held vast quantities of treasure. All the booty from Count William's conquest was said to have been distributed among his officers and men. His second-in-command, Gibelin de Grimaldi of Genoa -- an ancestor of Prince Ranier III, who rules present-day Monaco -- received the area where the hillside village of Grimaud stands today, overlooking the port of St. Tropez. Ruins of Grimaldi's feudal castle, built in the Saracen style, still crown the village.

Thus ended the Muslim colonization of southern France. Andalusis made later attempts to establish footholds along that coast: They raided Antibes in 1003, Narbonne and Maguelone in 1019, and the Lérins Islands off Cannes in 1047. But never again were the Muslims able to repeat the stunning success of Fraxinet.

A mountain town behind St. Tropez

The mountainous regions of inland Provence are dotted with hundreds of old fortified hill villages, like Grimaud, whose very existence is a reminder of the "Saracen period." These villages were first built for protection against Muslim raids, and later served to protect the villagers from marauders of their own faith. The peasants lived within their walls, venturing out to work their fields by day. By the 19th century, however, with the establishment of durable peace and order, peasants began leaving the hill villages and moving down into the valleys. Today, some of these villages lie wholly or partially abandoned, but many are being restored, their old stone structures converted into weekend or summer homes for the affluent, or housing small colonies of artists and craftsmen.

Old mines and remnants of forges at Tende in the Maritime Alps northeast of Monaco and at La Ferrière, near Barcelonnette, have been identified as sites where Muslims extracted iron ore and manufactured weapons.

Another surviving echo of the Fraxinet period are the old round towers erected for defense and as watchposts not only by the Muslims but also by local Christians. The Frankish towers mimic the style of Arab ones. Ruins of what are called "Saracen towers" are found all along the coast, as well as in nearby Alpine valleys.

These are the remaining physical traces of the Arabs of Fraxinet: courses of cut stone, jutting from the underbrush, as fragmentary and mysterious as the tale that underlies them. Beyond this, the pirates of St. Tropez and their cohorts live on as part of the folk memory of Provence, remembered as conquerors, teachers and agents of change in a dark and troubled era.

Quotations from Reinaud are taken from the English translation of his work, Muslim Colonies in France, Northern Italy & Switzerland, translated by Haroon Khan Sherwani and published in Lahore in 1955 by Sh. Muhammad Ashraf. Excerpts from the Antapodosis are from The Works of Liudprand of Cremona, translated by F. A. Wright and published in London in 1930 by George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.

Chronology of the Arab Presence in France

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