Modern Monuments and Medieval Mythologies: The Statue of Avengalvón in Burgos

While exploring the beautiful town of Burgos in northern Spain, the traveler will be struck by the many medieval sites, including the monumental Cathedral and the ruins of the fortress. In addition to the remnants of actual structure from the medieval periods, many plaques, street names, pamphlets, and books that one encounters throughout Burgos celebrates the medieval history of the town, with particular attention to the deeds of its past kings, nobles, and prominent citizens.



(Catedral de Santa María in Burgos, constructed between the early 13th and 16th centuries . Source)


(Interior of the Cathedral of Burgos. Source)


(Castle of Burgos, originally built in the early Middle Ages. Source)

The perceptive visitor will not fail to note that one name tends to stand apart and above all the rest: Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (d. 1099), known as El Cid, the famous nobleman and itinerant knight that fought for both Christian and Muslim lords, and who was slowly transformed into a Spanish national hero over the centuries. Considering that his legend was closely tied to Burgos from early on (his body believed to be interred in the city’s cathedral), the emphasis on El Cid is unsurprising. The city’s proud embrace of one of its most famous sons (who was born in Vivar, about six miles north of Burgos) is most clear from a major equestrian statue of El Cid located in the (appropriately named) Plaza del Mio Cid, a city square famous for its rather busy traffic (so please make sure to look both ways before rushing across the street to take a selfie!).


(Equestrian Statue of El Cid, Burgos. Source)


A few feet from the equestrian statue of El Cid is the Bridge of San Pablo (Puente de San Pablo), which links the opposite banks of the Arlanzón river. Rather than simply treating it as a river crossing, the visitor owes it to themselves to give it a closer look. This bridge itself is an immensely significant part of the memorialization of El Cid in Burgos. It is flanked on each side by monuments of key figures that played a prominent role in the Poem of the Cid. These include Doña Jimena (d. ~1116), the wife of El Cid; Diego Rodríguez (d. 1097), El Cid’s son who died at the Battle of Consuegra; Sisebuto of Cardeña (d. 1086), abbot of the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña; Álvar Fáñez (d. 1114), a nobleman and one of El Cid’s most loyal lieutenants; and Martín Muñoz, the count of Coímbra.



diego rodriguez

alvar fanez




These statues, like the equestrian monument of El Cid, were all completed between 1953 and 1955 by the sculptor Joaquín Lucarini (1905-1969). The monuments were partly inspired by the wave of “Romanticism” that swept across most of Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement valorized concepts such as national unity, bravery, loyalty, masculinity, chivalry, and individual liberty, values which were associated (despite the many anachronisms and contradictions) with a highly idealized perception of the Middle Ages. For proponents of mid-century Spanish nationalism (and Francoism in particular) figures such as El Cid became the focal point of a particular ideological vision of the medieval Castilian past. At the very center of this nationalist worldview lay the notion of “Reconquista,” the myth that the defining characteristic of medieval Iberia was an 800-year struggle to eradicate Islam, its institutions and its followers from the Iberian peninsula in order to establish a unitary Spanish state. It adopts a teleological view of medieval Iberian history in which a direct line is drawn between the Arab-Berber conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711 and the triumph of the Catholic Monarchs at Granada in 1492. The long and rich history of al-Andalus is reduced to a centuries-long interlude and obstacle that interrupted the “proper course” of Spanish national history. While many scholars have now rejected these ideas as anachronistic, ideologically-driven and insufficient for understanding the complicated history of medieval Iberia, they nonetheless continue to animate the popular imagination, and influence the manner in which medieval Iberian history is written. Each of the monuments in Burgos are an embodiment of this “Reconquista” ethos, that construct a triumphalist narrative which establishes militarism and Christianity as twin pillars upon which Spanish national identity rests.

This brings me to the main subject of this post. Alongside the aforementioned statues is a monument to another figure, identified only as “Ben Galbón, Lord of Molina.” Who was this figure, immediately distinguished from the other statues by his untriumphant posture and attire?

Ibn Ghalbun

(Ben Galbón, Lord of Molina. Source)



Anyone familiar with the Poem of the Cid will recognize this figure as Avengalvón or Ibn Ghalbūn, an Andalusi Muslim military commander who is identified within the poem as the friend and ally of El Cid. This individual belonged to the Banū Ghalbūn clan of the Ghomāra Amazigh/“Berber” confederation that had settled in Iberia/al-Andalus during the early Middle Ages, and who continued to be active in the religious, social and military life of Islamic Spain during the 11th century. The importance of the Banū Ghalbūn in the region is also indicated by the name of the town of Benagalbón, located in the municipality of Rincón de la Victoria in Málaga. This particular Ibn Ghalbūn appears to have been a minor lord on the frontier in northeastern Iberia who allied with El Cid, at least according to the Poem of the Cid.




Friendship, of course, is a tricky concept to unpack in the context of medieval history, particularly in interfaith relations and when thinking about the sociological and political dimensions of lord-vassal relations. The posture, sheathed sword and outreached hand bearing the key to a fortress (probably Molina) is intended to leave little doubt that his status was that of a vassal, and not an equal, of El Cid. The picture provided in the Poem of El Cid, however, is far more complicated.




(The Poem of the Cid: A Bilingual Edition with Parallel Text [London: Penguin Books, 1975], translated by Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry, pp. 160-163)


In the poem, Ibn Ghalbūn is presented as the embodiment of virtue, a noble warrior and loyal vassal who keeps faith and to whom El Cid entrusts the protection of his own daughters. The bond between El Cid and Ibn Ghalbūn are described in terms of amicitia (friendship) and amor (love), concepts that were often employed in the context of Muslim-Christian alliances, which so heavily shaped the political and military history of Iberia during the Middle Ages. Far from reinforcing the notion of “Reconquista” that dominated Spanish nationalist writing about El Cid since the 19th century, the passages in question call into question the validity of this reading of the medieval Iberian past. Not only is Ibn Ghalbūn explicitly identified as a Muslim (moro), but he is associated with a number of other virtues (loyalty, bravery, military prowess, honesty, generosity) that many medieval Castilians would have seen as synonymous with the traits of the ideal nobleman. Indeed, it is the Christian noblemen known as the Infantes de Carrión, Fernando and Diego González, who emerge as the villains in the story, with Ibn Ghalbūn himself referring to them as “evildoers and traitors” (malos e traidores).



Significantly, the entire backdrop of the tale is El Cid’s conquest of the Andalusi taifa/kingdom of Valencia. The history of 11th-century Islamic Spain, a period of immense political fragmentation, was dominated by various coalitions of Muslim-Christian knights warring against one another for local control of territory and resources. Both El Cid and Ibn Ghalbūn were important actors in this broader context, and far from being holy warriors (let alone as champions of protonational entities) found common cause with one another. El Cid, for example, fought for a variety of lords (both Muslim and Christian) before carving out his own independent principality in Valencia in the 1090s. While, in certain respects, the medieval Poem of the Cid reflects an understanding of this complex political reality, the message communicated by the monument on the Bridge of San Pablo in Burgos is less subtle: Ibn Ghalbūn, eyes downcast and clad in stereotypical “Saracen” garb, was an Andalusi Muslim foe, whose submission to El Cid was an illustration of the triumph of the latter (an embodiment of Castilian chivalric virtue and knighthood) over the former (who stands in for the defeated and foreign Muslim enemy as constructed by “Reconquista” mythology).

Alongside these triumphalist connotations, it is also important to acknowledge the significance of the decision to include Ibn Ghalbūn among only a handful of figures associated with El Cid. It not only demonstrates an appreciation for the distinct role played by Ibn Ghalbūn in the Poem of the Cid, but it also indicates a heightened consciousness of the Andalusi past in mid-20th century, and an attempt to integrate a particular understanding of the peninsula’s Islamic history into a broader narrative about medieval Iberia.  As recently demonstrated by Eric Calderwood in his brilliant new book, many Spanish nationalist ideologues between the 1930s and 1960s were quite comfortable instrumentalizing notions of Christian-Muslim coexistence, particularly its militaristic dimensions, even as they continued to propagate and emphasize ideas about an 800-year long war against Islam in the Middle Ages as the nation’s foundational principle. (This highly-ideological battle over the medieval past and Spanish national identity, of course, continues into the present).

Statues such as those encountered on the Bridge of San Pablo in Burgos invite us to inquire about the construction of these myths and think critically about how the modern representation of the Middle Ages continues to inform popular understanding of the past. They can also serve as entry points for closely considering both modern ideologies and medieval history. In fact, it was my encounter with the monument of Ibn Ghalbūn on a sunny weekend afternoon in Burgos about a decade ago that first prompted my curiosity in this figure. Since then, I have carefully researched the question of Muslim-Christian military and political alliances in medieval Iberian and Mediterranean history. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that my crossing the Bridge of San Pablo led me down a path of research that immersed me in the world of the Poem of the Cid, a text that continues to shape my understanding of the multifaceted and fascinating world of medieval Iberia.


(Oldest surviving copy of the Poem of the Cid on display in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. Photo taken in 2012)


Ibn Ghalbun

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s