Ribats - Fortified Islamic Monasteries

photo gRibat (or Rabat) is the name given to Islamic fortified monasteries, built to house the ‘Murabitun’ or warrior monks, who took part in the ‘Jihad’ or holy war when Muslims were advancing their territories against the infidel – usually Christians.

These buildings were not castles, even in the liberal interpretation of the term used in this website, but Ribats are included here as the Muslim equivalent of the fortified structures of the Christian Military Orders, that are considered to be castles.

Ribats were found throughout the Islamic world and a few Middle Eastern and North African ones, some of great antiquity, can still be found in use and of considerable interest.

In medieval times Ribats were constructed at the head of newly gained territories or on the frontier of disputed lands.

There are only two known examples of Ribats within the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, one in Spain and one in Portugal. The remains at both sites have recently been discovered buried under the ground as ruins, and both in coastal locations.photo arrifana portugal

The Portuguese Ribat is situated on a dramatic cliff top location on the western Atlantic coast at Arrifana, within modern day Algarve. Of 12th century date this Almohad period structure has not yet been fully excavated but enough has been done to reveal buildings such as Mosques, minarets and the warrior monks cells, all contained within a defensive enclosure. The remains of weapons, domestic utensils and other interesting items including a prayer offering of inscribed lead sheets tightly rolled in the form of a votive deposit.

photo arrifana portugalThe military aspect of the Ribat at Arrifana are revealed in finds of arrow heads and crossbow bolt tips, spear heads, daggers and axe heads and rings from coats of mail.

The only Spanish Ribat so far discovered was the first of the two examples in the peninsula to be uncovered. It is situated amongst the gently sloping, now wooded, sand dunes at Guardamar del Segura on the eastern Mediterrean coast, 25 Km south of Alicante.

The Murabitun, unlike their Christian counterparts, did not join a brotherhood for life, leaving their normal worldly existence for ever, but joined for a set period or campaign. A Murabitun would join the brotherhood for a year or two, fighting the jihad and living a religious life during this period and then, if he survived the battles, would return to his normal family life afterwards.

photo guardamar inscriptionThe Murabitun, also unlike their Christian counterparts in the Military Orders, would live in individual cells, each with its own ‘Mihrab’ or prayer niche facing Mecca, but still eating and fighting communally.

The Ribat at Guardamar shows very clearly the monks cells and Mihrab. That so very few Ribats survive anywhere from the large number that were built (there are numerous references in the written sources to Ribats), is something of an enigma. Within Spain there may have been a determined removal of them as the Reconquest progressed, being as they were, a symbol of Muslim occupation and advancement, and a reminder of jihad and Islamic religious fervour.

The one or two scant remains of Ribats so far discovered within the peninsula are remarkable for their rarity and for the glimpse they provide into the Muslim world of early medieval Spain.



Photos on this page: From top. Guardamar del Segura, excavations; Arrifana, Algarve, Portugal; Arrifana; Guardamar, Arabic inscription found on site.