Tag: Orreaga

August 15, 778: The Battle of Orreaga

On August 15, 778 the rearguard section of Charlemagne’s retreating army was ambushed and annihilated by a Basque force at the Orreaga Pass in Navarre. The event has gone down in history as Charlemagne’s only defeat in an otherwise successful military career as well as being, interestingly, the source of two great epic poems: the eleventh-century La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) in French–the oldest surviving work of French literature–and the sixteenth-century Orlando Furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando) in Italian.


Monument commemorating the Battle of Orreaga. Photo by Cruccone, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Muslim rulers of the northern Iberian areas of Zaragoza and Huesca had risen up against Abd ar-Rahman I, the Emir of Cordoba in southern and central Iberia, and appealed to Charlemagne–King of the Franks and later crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800–for support in return for submitting to his rule. Sensing an opportunity to extend Frankish rule into the Iberian Peninsula, Charlemagne duly accepted the offer, mustered up as large a force as he could, and marched across the Pyrenees in 778. On arriving in Zaragoza, however, the Muslim leaders changed their mind and engaged in battle with Charlemagne’s force instead. The Franks lay siege to the city and captured key prisoners.

But the siege dragged on and Charlemagne, wary of getting stuck in a futile struggle, accepted a tribute of gold from the Muslim rulers, returned the prisoners, and decided to retreat from Iberia, leading his forces away from Zaragoza back toward the the Pyrenees via Navarre. On his way back, though, his forces sacked Pamplona-Iruñea, destroying the Basque city as well as several nearby towns, brutally subduing the local population. Part of the reasons for doing so may have been because many Pagan Basques had proven to be a constant thorn in the side of the Christian Frankish Kingdom south of the Garonne River. Whatever the case, as Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees at Orreaga (Roncesvalles in Spanish; Roncevaux in French) in northern Navarre, the Basques took their revenge.


The death of Roland. illustration by Jean Fouquet, Tours, c. 1455-1460, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the evening of August 15, 778, a surprise attack caught the rearguard of Charlemagne’s forces by surprise. This part of the army was cut off and isolated from the main body of the army. Though not as well armed, the Basques knew the terrain much better and used this local knowledge to their advantage. The entire rearguard, including Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and several other Frankish lords, was massacred. The Basques then disappeared into the night, leaving no trace for the Franks to follow the next day.

According to Philippe Veyrin in The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre (pp.119-20):

This episode had an unprecedented echo; the memory of it endured long enough to inspire, three centuries later, a prodigious flowering of legends, of a luxuriance quite out of proportion to the event itself. In it, the Basques appear, quite misleadingly, as Saracens. Despite a host of other anachronisms, the local topography of the Chanson de Roland is in some respects quite accurate. The old epic poet and several of his imitators had certainly gained a precise knowledge of the places involved, and were able to turn them into a grandiose setting. Nonetheless, most historians agree that the real site of the defeat was on the Roman road, on the wooded sides of the Astobizkar, rather than on the open plain of Orreaga (Roncesvalles/Roncevaux) where, following the rules of chivalry, most of the legendary epic victoriously unfolds.

Interestingly, the Spanish name for Luzaide, near the site of these events, is Valcarlos, “the valley of Charles” or Charlemagne.




Basterretxea’s Orreaga Reinstalled at the New Library

Photo Nov 05, 9 02 51 AM (1)

Nestor Basterretxea’s Orreaga, recently installed in the Matthewson-IGT Knowledge directly downstairs from the Center!

On February 11, 1985 a ceremony attended by over 200 persons was held in the foyer of UNR’s Getchell University Library that inaugurated the exhibition of two Basque sculptures now on display at the University of Nevada: Orreaga by Nestor Basterretxea (1924-2014) and Gaztelu by Remigio Mendiburu (1931-1990).

Both sculptures were generously loaned to the University by Jose Ramon Cengotitabengoa and Gemma Egaña.

Basterretxea, right, at the dedication of the Monument to the Basque Sheepher in Rancho San Rafael. With Carmelo Urza

Basterretxea, right, at the dedication of the Monument to the Basque Sheepher in Rancho San Rafael. With Carmelo Urza

Basterretxea worked as a sculptor, painter, designer, and film producer. He had many individual exhibitions and participated in more than 150 collective ones, mainly in Europe. Eleven of his largest works adorn public buildings and urban spaces in the Basque Country, and his Solitude, the National Monument to the Basque Sheepherder, stands in Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno. Mendiburu was a leading Basque sculptor dedicated to the expression of traditional Basque culture through the medium of contemporary visual arts. His works have been exhibited widely in Europe. Gaztelu–a massive wooden motif to depict both the diversity and continuity of the seven traditional Basque regions with a single taproot of Basque culture–was taken to Elko where it stayed until 2008 when, following Jose Ramon´s wishes,  it was brought back to UNR for the inauguration of the new Center for Basque Studies at the new library.

In the meantime Orreaga stayed in the old Getchell Library until is was transported to the Center, cleaned, and placed in a crate waiting for its re-installment at the new library. Orreaga is the Basque term for Roncesvalles (Spanish) or Ronceveaux (French), a town that commemorates the famous battle at the mountain pass in the Pyrenees during which Basques attacked the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne’s rearguard. The emperor’s commander Roland was killed, giving rise to the famous epic poem La chanson du Roland (The Song of Roland), one of the oldest works in French literature. The base piece of the sculpture is seated within a U-shaped wooden framework which represents the canyon in which Charlemagne’s imperial forces were attacked. The base piece depicts Charlemagne’s trapped army with its anguished cries rising to the heavens. From above, descending upon them is the bird of death in the form of the avenging Basque forces.

Orreaga is installed at the northern main entrance on the main floor of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, hanging from the wall next to the rotunda. It can be seen from the Center´s entrance floor as well, where Gaztelu is exhibited, thus establishing a dialogue between the two iconic pieces of two of the greatest postwar Basque artists.

Orreaga was officially installed during the November 3rd ceremony to rename the Center as the William A. Douglas Center for Basque Studies and the Basque Library collection as the Jon Bilbao Basque Library.