History of Moorish Spain

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From 711 to 997 …

The word Moors derives from the Latin mauri, a name for the Berber tribes living in Roman Mauretania (modern day Algeria and Morocco).  It has no ethnographic meaning but can be used to refer to all Muslims, Berber or Arab, who conquered the Iberian Peninsula. These Moors, who were religious fanatics, arrived in Spain in the year 711 and thus began a period of history which would shape Iberia differently than the rest of Europe as the land adapted to a new religion, language and culture.  Hispania became a part of the caliph of Damascus which was the capital of the Muslim world.

This Moorish land was known as Al-Andalus and included all of the Iberian Peninsula except for the extreme north-west from where the Christian Reconquest would originate.

Alhambra Palace Granada

Alhambra Palace (Granada)

Cordoba Mezquita

Mezquits (Cordoba)

Internal divisions within Moorish rule largely explain why the Moors didn’t conquer the whole peninsula in those early days.  Had they done so Spain may well have remained a Muslim state until today.  Instead an Asturian mountaineer called Pelayo led a band of Christians to the first victory over the Moors at Covadonga in 718.  The reconquest had begun.

Strangely Moorish Spain wasn’t really ruled by Arabs.  It is true that many high positions were taken by Arabs but most of the Moors were Berbers.  Later Muwallads (converted Christians) together with the offspring of the first invaders became dominant in Moorish Spain.  The invaders brought no women so the second generation of Moors were already half Hispanic!

The first 40 years of Moorish rule was volatile and Al-Andalus needed order and unity which came in the form of Abd-er-Rahman who arrived in Almuñecar on the coast of Granada in 755.  Within a year he became Emir of Al-Andalus and during his 32 year reign he would transform this land into an independent state which was the cultural light of Europe.

In Cordoba Abd-er-Rahman I founded the Mezquita in 785 when he purchased the Christian section of the San Vicente Church, a place the two faiths had shared for 50 years.  The Mosque was expanded to its final glory over the next two centuries.  This became the second most important place of worship in the Muslim world after Mecca.

The Moors expanded and improved Roman irrigation systems to help develop a strong agricultural sector.  They introduced many new crops including the orange, lemon, peach, apricot, fig and pomegranate as well as saffron, sugar cane, cotton, silk and rice which remain some of Spain’s main products today.

The frontier in the north between the Moors and the Christians was constantly on a war footing and in St James (Santiago de Compostela), the Christians found their own inspiration to match the Koran-inspired fanaticism of the Moors.  Santiago became known as “Matamoros” (the Moor slayer) and to this day is Spain’s patron saint.

However, there was still a long way to go before the Reconquest would succeed.  In the mid-10th century Al-Mansur appeared on the scene.  He led many expeditions into Christian territory over a period of 20 years and in 997 his army captured Santiago de Compostela.  They destroyed the shrine and prisoners took the basilica doors and bells to Cordoba where they would be placed in the Mezquita.

Centuries of painstaking Christian advance had been destroyed by Al-Mansur’s daring raid.

From 1010 to 1195 …

Al Mansur died in 1010 which led to the crisis in which Medina Azahara, the city palace of Abd ar-Rahman III, was destroyed by rampaging Berbers.  Moorish Spain deteriorated rapidly into violent turmoil.  The caliphate ceased to exist and Al Andaluz broke up into 20 taifas and unified rule came to an end.  Seville and Granada were the most powerful of these small kingdoms followed by Cordoba, Almeria, Zaragoza, Badajoz and Toledo.  The Moorish warriors were no more as life degenerated into drunken orgies and mercenaries, including Christians, were employed to do the fighting.

Along the Moorish/Christian frontier castles had been built to protect against Arab attack leading to the area being named Castile.  The kingdom of Leon had lead the reconquest until Al-Mansur’s raid on Santiago then Navarra under Sancho III became the key force.  Sancho gained control of Castile through marriage and placed his son Fernando on the throne.  Fernando then occupied Leon and became emperor of the Spains.  Castile would now dominate the reconquest.

When Fernando I died after taking lands from Valencia to Portugal, power was split between his sons, Alfonso in Leon and Sancho in Castile.  Sancho was served by a young knight who would become known as El Cid Campeador.  Sancho was murdered and his brother was suspected so El Cid made Alfonso swear under oath that he had no part in the murder.  Alfonso became ruler of a united Castile and Leon and a few years later sent El Cid into exile after a dispute.  In 1085 Alfonso’s army recaptured Toledo in the first crucial victory of the Reconquest.

This news didn’t go down well in Muslim north Africa and an army of Almoravids (fanatical Muslim nomads from the Sahara) was invited by the taifa of Seville to reassert the balance of power.  They arrived in 1086 and annihilated Alfonso’s army.  Fernando again turned to El Cid for assistance.  In 1099 El Cid died and for a few years the Almoravids controlled southern Iberia from Marrakesh.

The tolerant society of the caliphate and the taifas disappeared as the Almoravids persecuted Christians and Jews.  Another fanatical group, the Almohades, came from the Atlas mountains of Morocco and were natural enemies of the Almoravid desert tribes.  They conquered Marrakesh then invaded Al-Andalus to again unite the region under one Muslim regime.  These Almohades ordered the destruction of all churches and synagogues forcing Christians and Jews to swarm to the north.

In spite of this fanaticism, a period of great cultural achievement occurred under the Almohades which was the brightest period between the caliphate and the glories of Granada centuries later.  The minaret of the Seville mosque, La Giralda, was built during this period with wide ramps all the way up the tower which allowed the sultan to ride his horse to the top.

During the early reconquest the Christians spent too much time fighting amongst themselves.  In 1195 the Christians were heavily defeated at Alarcos and from then on decided to cooperate against the Almohades, even more so when the pope called for a crusade against these invaders.

From 1212 to 1492 …

In 1212 a united army of Spanish and European soldiers utterly destroyed the Almohad army at Navas de Tolosa, an event which marked the beginning of the end for Moorish Spain.

Fernando III (‘the saint’) captured Cordoba in 1236 and reconsecrated the mosque as the cathedral of Cordoba.  He then made captured Muslims carry the bells, stolen by Al-Mansur two centuries earlier, back to the cathedral in Santiago.

The ruler of Granada, Mohammed ibn-Alhamar, saw what was happening and approached Fernando to propose that in return for cooperating in the conquest of Muslim Seville, Granada would be granted independence as a subject of Castile.  Fernando agreed and took Seville.  On returning to Granada the embarrassed ibn-Alhamar announced “there is no victor but Allah” which can be seen inscribed all over the Alhambra palace.

Many writers refer to Moorish rule over Spain spanning the 800 years from 711 to 1492 yet this is a misconception.  The reality is that the Berber-Hispanic Muslims inhabited two-thirds of the peninsula for 375 years, about half of it for another 160 years and finally the kingdom of Granada for the remaining 244 years.

When Fernando III died the reconquest seemed to die with him and the deal struck over Granada would last for another two centuries.  In 1479 the merger of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon under Los Reyes Católicos (Fernando and Isabella) would soon lead to the fall of the kingdom of Granada and the end of Moorish rule in Spain.

The town of Santa Fe lies just outside Granada on the road to Malaga.  It was set up in 1491 as a base camp from where to conduct the final conquest of Moorish Spain.  The town represents the birthplace of modern Spain and it was here that Columbus received permission to begin his great voyage.

The kingdom of Granada included modern day Granada, Almeria and Malaga.  Its rulers, the Nasrid dynasty, had retired to a pleasure seeking existence within the confines of the Alhambra palace.  Jealousies stemming from the harem were the source of instability of Moorish Spain and would ultimately be influential in the fall of Granada.

Within the harem various sons could be born to different mothers each with equal rights to the throne.  Granada was split between the supporters of Mulay’s wife, Aixa, and her son Boabdil on one side and a beautiful Christian prisoner called Soraya on the other.  Civil war ensued when the sultan chose Soraya over Aixa and her son.  Los Reyes Católicos couldn’t believe their luck as Granada slowly self-destructed.  Aixa’s followers gained the upper hand and Mulay fled to the protection of his brother who was governor of Malaga.

Boabdil was captured and made a deal with Fernando whereby he promised to surrender Granada once his father and uncle were vanquished.  Malaga fell in 1487 and shortly after Almeria was captured but Boabdil refused to surrender Granada setting the stage for a final invasion.

Rather than attack, Fernando chose to blockade Granada.  After months of stalemate and negotiations Boabdil surrendered, in return for 30,000 gold coins, part of the Alpujarras mountains to the south of Granada and political and religious freedom for his subjects.  On January 2nd 1492 Los Reyes Católicos marched into Granada and the last stronghold of Moorish Spain came to an end.

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