By 700AD the Visigothic kingdom was disintegrating totally and with Toledo, its main city, being ravished by famine, disease and internal disputes the scenario was perfect for the Muslim invasion which ensued.
By 711, the Arabs and Berbers had converted to the Islamic religion which was dominating the rest of northern Africa. A speculative raiding party of 10,000 soldiers, led by Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and defeated the Visigothic army of King Roderic at the Battle of Guadalete. Roderic himself was thought to have drowned whilst trying to escape the scene.
The forces here were swiftly followed by reinforcements so that, within 7 years, the Muslim conquerors, who came to be known as The Moors, were in control of most of the peninsula – a situation that was to remain more or less intact for the next 400 years – but, in some parts, for the next 700.
Initially, Islamic Spain – known as Al-Andalus – formed a part of the North African province controlled by Damascus, the capital of the Islamic world. In effect this meant that the caliphs, or leaders, in Spain were little more than puppets. At this time the leading cities in Al-Andalus were Córdoba in the south and Valladolid (meaning the city of Al-Walid) further north.
Internal divisions within the ruling Umayyad family, however, led to Abd-al-Rahman fleeing Syria in 756 and establishing an independent emirate in Córdoba. This led to a dynasty that united Muslim Spain, centralised the power in Córdoba and resulted in Córdoba becoming one of the biggest and most important cities in Europe. Astronomy, medicine, mathematics and one of the largest Muslim libraries in the world all flourished.
During the 10th century the Córdoban general, Al-Mansour, terrorized much of Christian northern Spain – notably by raiding Barcelona and also destroying the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in 997, when he forced defeated Christians to carry the doors and bells from the ruins all the way to Córdoba, where they were incorporated into the mosque there. By 1031, though, the Caliphate of Córdoba broke into dozens of separate smaller kingdoms known as taifas. The most powerful of these were Seville, Granada, Toledo and Zaragoza. The Taifa kings competed against each other not only in war but also in culture and the arts, which continued to prosper, but gradually they lost ground to the Christian kingdoms from the north. Toledo was defeated in 1085, which led to a North African sponsored invasion to try to re-establish the empire. This in turn led to a far more fundamentalist attitude from the Muslims towards the remaining Jews and Christians in the taifas, whereas previously they had been places of religious tolerance. Consequently, many of the Jews and Christians migrated to the cities further north.
After Seville fell to the Christians in 1248, the only Muslim territory remaining was the Emirate of Granada, which consisted of about half of modern Andalucía. Granada was thus the site of Moorish Spain’s final, flamboyant cultural flowering, helped by the refugees fleeing from former Muslim strongholds. Muslims maintained control of Granada until 1492, when the northern kingdoms of Castile, Aragón, León, Navarra and Asturias united and conquered the kingdom – ending centuries of Muslim rule in Spain.
The Muslims, though, left a lasting legacy for Spain – they did not simply occupy the country; as Washington Irving wrote in his ‘Tales of the Alhambra’, they were not ‘invaders and usurpers’’ but ‘rediscoverers of the Greek reservoir of knowledge’ and helped plant the roots of the European Renaissance. Obviously the great palaces, castle and mosques of Moorish times are amongst Spain’s greatest tourist attractions – and rightly so – but also, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, aubergines, artichokes, cumin, coriander, bananas, almonds, saffron, sugar-cane, cotton, rice, figs, grapes, peaches and apricots were all introduced by the Moors. So too were the irrigation systems that enabled the dry plains to be efficiently farmed, the narrow, labyrinthine street plans of many of the old towns and even the flamenco itself has clear Islamic origins. The Spanish language is similarly full of words of Arabic origin – arroz (rice), alcalde (mayor), naranja (orange), azúcar (sugar) being just simple examples.
Architecturally, there is evidence of the Muslim influence throughout much of Spain. Horseshoe-shaped arches, the decorative use of tiles, the design of peaceful inner courtyards, complex stucco work and almost stalactite-type ceiling embellishments are all part of the Moorish tradition. The best places to visit for examples are obviously Córdoba, where there were once 1600 mosques and where the Mezquita is guaranteed to enthral you, Granada, with the Alhambra, surely one of the world’s most beautiful places, Seville, in particular the minaret known as the Giralda and the Alcázar – a masterpiece of Islamic architecture built, ironically, for a Christian king, Pedro I and, in the north, the Palace of the Alijafería in Zaragoza.
Finally, let us illustrate Muslim culture by a few lines from the historian James Burke about Córdoba in the 9th Century – ‘At a time when London was a tiny mud-hut village that could not boast of a single street lamp, in Córdoba there were half a million inhabitants, living in 113,000 houses. There were 700 mosques and 300 public baths spread throughout the city. The streets were paved and lit. The houses had marble balconies for summer and hot-air ducts under the mosaic floors for winter. They were adorned with gardens with artificial fountains and orchards. Paper, a material still unknown to the west, was everywhere. There were bookshops and more than seventy libraries.’
It’s amazing how much of what we consider to be ‘ the real Spain’ is part of Spain’s Moorish legacy.