A Wall of the Faithful: Spatial Analysis of Military Order Architecture on Medieval Iberia’s Religious Frontier

Abstract: In most historical maps depicting the Christian reconquest of Muslim Iberia, the frontier where most hostile contact between the two religions took place amounts to the thickness of a single line. While it is impossible to map the wide, constantly shifting frontier at any given moment in the history of the reconquest, there is value in identifying the strategic points whose job it was to advance and protect Christian colonization on the frontier. The units that best fit this description were the fortresses held by military-religious orders in the 12th through 14th centuries. By limiting my study to these structures, and the identities of those who occupied and built them, my dissertation seeks to explain the unique practical and ideological concerns of Christian Iberia’s sparsely populated, militant, yet adaptive front-line.

Since most traditional means of representing the Christian-Muslim frontier are incapable of visualizing a sufficient breadth of space, time and architectural influence, this project applies new visual and analytical technologies. This effort began with a GIS (Global Information System) database populated with over 700 architectural possessions of military orders in the 12th through 15th centuries, and continues with a 3D graphic reconstruction of a sample fortress-monastery located on the border with Islam during the early 14th century. These projects are intended to be a tandem: a wide view of the reconquest on the one hand, and a more nuanced impression of a representative frontier fortification on the other.

Below, an interactive stream graph depicting the total number of square meters of Iberian landscape that were visible for each military order over time. The “years of crisis and survival” between the battle of Alarcos in 1195 and the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 are dramatically represented by this graph. Click here to view full screen.

Above: A compressed timeline visualizing changes in occupation at the fortresses and towns held by military orders, (red, green, yellow etc.) Christian nobles (black) and various Muslim dynasties (orange) from 1150 to 1350.

Above: A screen capture of the transparent reconstructed model of the fortress-monastery of Montesa on top of the dense photogrammetric mesh of extant foundations.

Above: A visualization of aggregated virtual views within a reconstructed model of the fortress-monastery of Montesa.