The Saracens in the Alps

Robin Fedden takes us on a visit to snowy Alpine passes where, for three quarters of a century, at the end of the Dark Ages, Saracen forces dominated the chief land routes between Italy and France.

From the plain of Lombardy the Alps seem an impassable rampart that shuts off northern Europe. In their central section, where the summits from Mont Blanc to Monte Rosa tower over Italy, there is only one pass below nine thousand feet.

Belloc compared these snow peaks, seen at a distance, to an array of glittering spears and shields, “the armour of the invincible armies of heaven.” Yet these defences have offered, curiously enough, a feeble barrier to the passage of men, and even of troops, from comparatively early times.

Hercules, driving the oxen of Geryon from Spain to Greece, was the first alpine traveller, though legend does not record the pass he used. No less uncertainty, though more dispute, attaches to the pass that Hannibal with army and elephants crossed in 218 B.C. Two centuries later there is firmer ground.

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