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G - 99 : An Emirate in Saint-Tropez?

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Was plotting the course for our second week of sailing and looking for quiet bays to stay overnight. Would be a lovely to anchor for one night in the harbor of Saint-Tropez. We could have dinner in the port, walk through the streets and enjoy the noisy summer crowd. People watching is always fun. Sadly, it is impossible. The harbor spots are booked for months in advance. Saint-Tropez is the place where owners of big yachts want to be seen.

Saint-Tropez was the Emirate of Fraxinet's Port from 889 to 975 AD

About 15 minutes south of Saint-Tropez lies the scenic village of Ramatuelle with a small bay - just opposite Cavalaire-sur-Mer. Anchoring there could work provided the wind won’t blow from the south. Looking for information on Ramatuelle, I accidentally came across a vivid controversy on the internet. Some people believe that Ramatuelle’s name is derived from Arabic “Ramat’Ullah” (divine providence) or “Rahmat Allah”(God’s grace) and dates back to the 9th and 10th century. At that time Arabs from Al-Andalus (today’s Spain) ruled the area from nearby Fraxinet. There is insufficient evidence to decide the name issue though thus it remains unresolved.

View of the Gulf of Saint-Tropez from the Air - Fraxinet in the Massif des Maures to the right

The question piqued my interest. What were soldiers from the Caliphate of Cordoba (Al-Andalus) doing near Saint-Tropez? Thanks to the Saudi Oil Major ARAMCO, who supports an Institute on Arab and Islamic cultures we now know a bit more. Using original Arab and Christian sources, two western scholars summarized what happened 1’200 years ago.

In 899 AD, the waning days of the Carolingian Empire, when Charlemagne’s heirs fought over the spoil of his Frankish Empire, a group of 20 young Andalusian Arabs landed on the shores opposite Saint-Tropez. They quickly ventured inland and captured the village of La Garde-Freinet (Fraxinet) in the Massif des Maures. There, they repaired an old Roman fort and made it their home.

The Andalusian Jihadists made the inaccessible Massif des Maures their home in 899 AD

After a few weeks they sent a messenger to Cordoba and asked for help. Within two months, another 100 soldiers arrived. The Frank nobility, busy with permanent family quarrels, did not respond. For them, the rocky territory of the Provence had little value. It was completely depopulated after long-distance trade came to an end with the Roman Empire (476 AD). As Monaco, Saint-Tropez had lost its raison d’être. Ships did not arrive any longer. It must have been a ghost town like Detroit after the big car manufacturers left.

The Warriors of the Emirate of Fraxinet controlled all Passes between France and Italy

For the young warriors from Al-Andalus, this was an opportunity not to miss. They came to wage holy war, conquer territory, raid and loot, develop commerce and trade, conclude alliances with the local population and nobles, build castles. Quickly, they were several thousand living in the emirate of Fraxinet – for fun I call it the Emirate of Saint-Tropez. The port was a colony of Fraxinet and did much trade with the Caliphate of Cordoba and Muslim North Africa. European historians generally call the Andalusians raiders or pirates. To an extend this is true. But raiding a depopulated area makes nobody rich.

Some of the Arab Splendour survived to this Day in Cordoba in Andalusia

Tried to figure out what Al-Andalus’ motifs were to send so many soldiers to the Provence. In the 10th century, the Caliphs of Cordoba were at the peak of their power. With 500’000 inhabitants, Cordoba rivalled Constantinople in size. It was a center of power, luxury and learning. The university of Cordoba had probably the richest library in the world, even surpassing Baghdad. The Arabs revolutionized Andalusia’s agriculture and made it a garden of Eden. New crops and new techniques were introduced. The revolution in productivity made Al-Andalus rich. Given how seldom Fraxinet is mentioned in official Arab documents, I guess sending soldiers to the Provence was an opportunistic foreign policy move. Under Charlemagne, the Frankish Empire was a real threat to the Caliphs and defeated them on several occasions. Keeping it weak and in turmoil gave the Caliphs of Cordoba free hand to do as they pleased without fear of interference.

On this Map of the Holy Roman Empire under Otto I,

the Emirate of Fraxinet does not even show

But how did the Jihadis from Al-Andalus make a living when raiding alone could not pay their bills? They had money given all the castles they built in the Alpine regions. So what did they possibly do?

  • Some were hired hands for the local Christian nobles and towns who fought each other for money and influence. Many paid them protection money so they could call them for support when attacked by their Christian neighbor

  • Some occupied the mountain passes – like Mont Cenis between France and Italy or the Grand St. Bernhard between Switzerland and Italy – and demanded turn-pike money. Nobody could pass without paying a fee. It was a good revenue stream given the large number of Christians pilgriming between France and Rome. We know this from complaints by Narbonne’s Bishop who could not return home from Rome in 911 AD.

Arab Light Cavalry - the Warriors from Fraxinet must

have looked very similar

  • Some developed commerce and reintroduced agriculture to the depopulated area. The goats of Provence are of north African origin, so is buckwheat which is still called “blé Sarrasin” in France, the art of making pine tar for chalking ships was introduced and how to use the bark of the cork tree for corking. They were also active timber traders. Spain and North Africa had little timber; the Provence has lots.

  • Some were mariners – most likely stationed in Saint-Tropez. It is said that the Caliphs of Cordoba kept a fleet here. Have no evidence though.

All the while, some of the Andalusian jihadists continued their raiding activities. Some made it as far as the lower Rhine, Lyon and even St Gall in Switzerland (939 AD). Their targets were monasteries, the only wealthy institutions in an otherwise impoverished landscape. I guess they were after the precious libraries. Cordoba was a learning center. We know that the monks made great efforts to hide their books. They knew they would be stolen. Interestingly, the raid on Saint-Gall in 939 AD is not mentioned in Swiss history books. There was a raid in 926 by Hungarian cavalry which is well documented. But from correspondence of the German King Otto I we know that the Arab (or Saracens) were in Disentis and Chur.

The Magnificent Baroque Library in the Monastery of

Saint-Gall (719 - 1805)

Today, physical evidence of the Emirate of Fraxinet has almost disappeared. Some castles and shards is all that survives. Fraxinet remained a Muslim frontier state where the Andalusian jihadists lived in their castles, not in palaces or towns. We know about them mostly from Christian chroniclers – Arab sources are few and rare.

The Fortress of Fraxinet, the Saracens main Place, fell in 975 after a short Siege

The end of the Emirate of Fraxinet came relatively quickly. As the German King Otto I consolidated his heritage into the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, he restored order in his realm. The opportunity to arbitrage between various Christian noble families disappeared. King Otto I also sent diplomatic missions to Cordoba and asked the Caliphs to stop supporting Fraxinet – something the Andalusian rulers obliged. A slow but steady retreat from the Provence and the Alpine passes followed. By 965, Grenoble was given up, in 972 the Great St Bernhard pass was lost.

The Grimaud Castle belonged until the 16th Century to the Grimaldi Family

When the Arabs made the mistake to take the Abbot of Cluny hostage, their fate was written on the wall. The Christian nobility rallied. By 975, the Arabs were defeated. The Fraxinet Castle taken. Their treasures distributed. Whilst the jihadists were executed, Count Williams of Arles, the Christian leader, spared the lives of Muslim colonists and merchants – they were baptized by force though. An interesting detail: Williams' second in command, Gibelin de Grimaldi from the noble Genovese family that later settled on the rock of Monaco, received Grimaud Castle as share of the loot. The ruins of the Grimaldi’s castle, built in Saracen style, still overlook the Gulf of Saint-Tropez.

20 Genovese Families rebuilt Saint-Tropez in the 15th

Century. In 1481 it became French. Plan is from 1648

History often takes unexpected turns. Had Otto I, call Otto the Great in Germany, not consolidated his Empire and the rulers of Al-Andalus not lost interest in their frontier state, events may have turned out differently. Saint-Tropez would be known by an Arab name today and its population would be Muslims. But the Pope crowned Otto I in 962 AD as the new Emperor, the Provence became French in 1481 and Brigit Bardot placed Saint-Tropez to the bucket list of the want-to-be famous people. History always takes unexpected turns.

The Monks of the Lérins Abbey close to Cannes had to fortify their Monastery during the Emirate of Fraxinet - we will visit the Lérins Islands during our second week

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