The coming of the Moors
In the seventy years after the death of Mohammed in 632, the Arab Muslims conquered an empire that stretched from the borders of India in the East to the Atlantic coast of North Africa in the West. In 711, an Arab general, Tariq, was sent into Spain with a force of unruly North African Berbers (from the Roman word for barbarians). Tariq, after whom the Rock of Gibraltar was named (from Jebel Tariq, the Rock of Tariq), decisively defeated the Visigoth king Roderic in 712, after which the Moors, as the Arab-led Berbers were called, overran the rest of the peninsula by 720.
Several factors aided the rapid Muslim conquest of Spain. First, despite the hilly and fragmented nature of Spain’s geography, the Romans had succeeded in creating a tightly knit and romanized province (both politically and culturally). Rome’s Visigothic successors carried on these traditions, thus giving the Moors a fairly unified state whose government largely fell into their hands after one decisive battle, much as England fell to the Normans after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. A very different, but complementary factor was the de-centralized nature of Roman (and Visigothic) rule, where local nobles who copied Roman culture and showed loyalty to the empire, were allowed to run their cities or regions for Rome. There is evidence the Moors avoided prolonged sieges by confirming these local officials in their positions in return for their loyalty. Therefore, there was often little more than a change of management at the top that many people might not have even noticed.
By the same token, the Moorish conquest and its aftermath to c.800 seem to have been a fairly destructive and chaotic period in Spanish history for several reasons. For one thing, there was some resistance by the king and his nobles who lost their lands to Tariq’s followers. Secondly, the Berbers who made up the bulk of the conquering army, were still unruly tribesmen and, for the most part, only superficially Muslim. Thus they often plundered and destroyed at will. Finally, although all Muslims were supposedly equal, the Arab rulers and officers treated the Berbers as second class citizens, taking the best lands and lions’ share of the plunder for themselves. This triggered a Berber revolt and period of turmoil (c.740-90).
This anarchy allowed the survival of the Christian states in the north, the most prominent of which would evolve into Portugal and Leon in the west, Castile in the middle, and Aragon in the east. Likewise, the Franks, who had turned back the Moors at Tours in 733, entered northern Spain in 778 under Charlemagne, supposedly to help the city of Sargasso. Although this expedition failed, Charlemagne’s son, Louis I established a more permanent Frankish presence and military frontier, the Spanish March, in the northeast. This helped knit strong cultural ties with Catalonia, centered around Barcelona, which has maintained its own Catalan culture and language (a mixture of French and Spanish) and still harbors designs for political independence, much like the Basques do in the north-west.
The Ummayad Caliphate of Cordoba (c.800- 1008)
During this time, Abd al-Rahman, the lone survivor of the Ummayad Dynasty in the East after the Abassid Dynasty’s bloody coup, had escaped to Spain and gradually extended his control there (756-88). The Ummayads always had trouble maintaining firm control of their frontier regions, which were remote, turbulent, less wealthy and sparsely populated. This forced them to give more freedom and power to their military governors so they could defend the frontiers against the constant raiding that created a virtual no-man’s-land between the Christian and Moorish realms.
However, under Abd al-Rahman III (912-61), al-Hakem II (961-76) and the viziers al-Mansur and his son Abd al-Malik ruling for the weak Hisham II (976-1009), the Ummayads established some degree of control over the frontiers and presided over the height of Muslim power in Spain. In 929, they even took the title of Caliph, spiritual and secular ruler of the Islamic world, most likely in reaction to the Shiite Fatimids in North Africa claiming that title by right of descent from Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima. The Ummayads also moved their capital from the old Visigothic center, Toledo, to Cordoba, where they built one of the Islamic world’s most splendid mosques and a magnificent palace complex. This palace had 140 Roman columns sent from Constantinople, a menagerie, extensive fishponds, and a room with a large shallow bowl of mercury that, upon shaking, reflected light wildly around the room like lightning in order to impress and terrify visitors. The court was also a flourishing center of culture, especially after the renowned Arab musician, Ziryab was attracted there from the East, bringing with him the latest in fashionable foods, clothing, and personal hygiene, most notably toothpaste. Cordoba was famous for its extensive library with 400,000 books and may have had a population of 100,000, making it one of the most splendid cities in the world at the time.
At this time, a growing number of Christians started coming from Northern Europe to absorb the growing body of knowledge stored in Cordoba, taking back such things as the abacus, astrolabe, Arab math and medicine, and translations of Aristotle. This transmission of Arab learning from Spain would be the basis for the revival of learning in Western Europe in the following centuries.
By 950, the population of Moorish Spain was largely Muslim, since as many as one million Berbers may have migrated to Spain and many Spanish Christians converted to Islam, either out of conviction, the influence of friends and family, or the improved opportunities such conversion might bring. Evidence for these conversions comes from the large number of Arab genealogies, which often show a point where Christian names are replaced by Arabic ones, indicating their conversion to Islam. Another source of converts was slaves, largely Slavs brought from Eastern Europe by Viking traders. These were often converted to Islam and trained as slave bureaucrats or bodyguards (although slaves with much higher status than the average subject). The caliphs in Cordoba had as many as 60,000 such recruits in their army, which largely freed them from dependence on unreliable Berber recruits.
Maintaining such a splendid court, capital, and army required a vibrant economy, which seems to have recovered in general across the Mediterranean after 750 and particularly in Spain after the turmoil of the 700s. Spain’s agriculture especially flourished, from such new crops as rice, hard wheat for pasta (which required less water and stored better as a result), sorghum, sugar cane, cotton, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, pomegranates, figs, watermelon, spinach, and artichokes. Figs, which were a Byzantine monopoly, supposedly reached Spain by smuggling seeds wrapped in a book past the customs agents. Making this “green revolution” possible were extensive irrigation and waterwheel systems copied from Syrian models, the largest being around Valencia. There were reportedly 5000 waterwheels along the Guadalquivir River alone by 1200.
Better agriculture produced a healthier and more numerous population, which allowed the government to lower tax rates, which in turn promoted more innovation, thus creating even better agriculture, and so on. This, of course, allowed and encouraged urban growth and more industries, such as metals, ceramics, glass, silk, ivory carving, paper and book making, woolens, and dying with dyes imported from as far away as India. One indication of Moorish Spain’s prosperity at this time was government revenue, which reached 6,500,000 gold dinars a year.
Fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba and rise of the Taifa, or “Party kings” (1008-c.1080)
After the death of the powerful vizier, Abd al-Malik, a period of civil wars and strife known as the Fitnahbroke out (1008-31). Various claimants to the throne had to rely on Berber mercenaries, who claimed lands and provinces for their services. As a result, a string of caliphs rapidly followed one another, one supposedly reigning for only forty-seven days. In 1013 Cordoba was sacked and its library destroyed by Berber troops who, resenting their inferior status under the Arabs, saw no reason to preserve their culture. While the government disintegrated at the center, Christian princes in the north raided and conquered Muslim lands or extorted tribute from local rulers.
This chaos led to a fragmentation of power into some three dozen city-states known as the Taifa(literally party or factional rulers, although our other meaning for party might also apply). Gradually, the smaller taifas were gobbled up by the larger ones, leaving six main ones: Seville and Granada in the south, Badajoz, Toledo, and Valencia in the middle, and Zaragoza in the northeast. Once affairs settled down and stabilized, there was a rapid revival of the economy and culture. However, rather than being concentrated at one central court, culture was dispersed and localized in a number of taifa states. Taifa rulers’ status, much like that of princes in Renaissance Italy, rested as much on which scholars and artists they could attract to their courts as it did on warfare and conquest.
The richest of the taifa states was Seville in the lower valley of the Guadalquivir River, specializing in its olive oil, crimson dye made from a beetle, sugarcane, and musical instruments. Its rulers, al-Mu’tadid (1042-69) and his grandson, al-Mu’tamid, took Seville to the height of its cultural prestige and political power (even recapturing Cordoba from the Christians in 1069), and were themselves accomplished poets.
Meanwhile, the Christian states of Aragon-Catalonia in the east, Castile-Leon in the middle, and Portugal in the west were attacking and extorting tribute from the various taifa states. Such tribute was a major, if not the main, source of revenue for these princes who, in turn, passed it on to their soldiers, nobles, churchmen, and merchants, making it a vital part of their economies. Joining in this were Muslim and Christian mercenaries who would fight for either side, depending on the pay and circumstances. The most famous of these was Rodrigo Diaz, known as El Cid (from the Arabic word for boss). During his very active career, Diaz served Castile (until he was exiled from there), the Muslim ruler of Zaragoza (fighting both Christians and Muslims), and Castile again until another falling out with its ruler. Having built up his own fortune, reputation and following, he fought, plundered, and extorted tribute from both Christians and Muslims until he took Valencia in 1094, where he ruled until his death in 1099.
Islamic resurgence from North Africa: the Amoravids & Almohads (1080-1250)
Just as the Moors had originally come from North Africa and constantly drawn upon its Berber tribesmen for settlers and soldiers, so they drew renewed strength from two more North African groups to stem the tide of Christian conquest. The first of these, the Almoravids, were led by ibn Yasin, who had founded a ribat, a frontier religious community with a strong military character since it must be able to defend itself, and spread Islam through preaching and charity. As ibn Yasin’s movement grew, it came to be called the Almoravids (from al-Murabitun, meaning people of the ribat). They founded Marrakech as a base in 1060 and took over Morocco by 1083.
They then turned toward the taifas in Spain which they saw paying tribute to non-Muslims, not recognizing the authority of the caliph in Baghdad, and failing to abide by the Muslim ban on drinking wine. In 1085 when the ruler of Castile took over Toledo, several alarmed taifas called the Almoravids into Spain for help. In 1086, the Almoravids crushed Castile’s forces and embarked on a series of campaigns (c.1100-1125) to recover lands recently lost to the Christians. If the Almoravids were intolerant of any breaches of Islamic law by fellow Muslims, they were even less tolerant of Jews and Christians. From this point on we see growing hostility between Christians and Muslims who used to tolerate each other. Add to this aggressive Christian princes desperate to recover the lost revenue from tributes cut off by the Almoravids and a Church reform movement that wanted to channel the military energies of Europe’s nobility into campaigns, such as the wars in Spain and the Crusades, to serve its own interests, and one can see a growing strain of intolerance that would plague Spain for centuries.
Arrogance toward other Muslims, growing indulgence in the very luxuries they had originally condemned, and the re-emergence of Berber tribal loyalties led to Almoravide decline after 1125. However, a new group of North African reformers emerged to take their place, the Almohads (from al-Muwahhidun, upholders of divine unity). Founded by Muhammed ibn Tumart, their career seemed to parallel that of the Almoravids, starting with a ribat and winning over the local tribes with their own brand of religious fervor. One major difference between the two movements was that the Almohads believed in a more mystical unity of God in which all of us are immersed. In 1121, ibn Tumart was declared the Mahdi (rightly guided one) by his followers to restore righteousness in the final days before the Last Judgment. At this time, the Christian princes were taking advantage of a new period of turmoil (sometimes referred to as The Second Fitnah) by conquering more lands. In 1146, Alfonso VII of Castile briefly took Cordoba before losing it again. The following year, Alfonso I of Portugal took Lisbon with the help of an English navy, marking the start of a long friendship between those two countries. Consequently, a Sufi leader, ibn Qasi, called in the Almohads who took over the Almoravids and attacked the Christian states, inflicting a crushing defeat on them at Alcaros in 1195. This served as a wakeup call to the Christian states, which united against the Almohads and stopped them decisively at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.
In the ensuing forty years (1212-52) nearly all the Iberian Peninsula came under the three Christian states of Portugal, Aragon, and Castile. Fernando III of Castile took Cordoba in 1236, and Seville fell to him in 1248 after a grueling siege. In the latter case, he ejected the surviving population and replaced it with Christians. A later elegy on the fall of Seville by the poet ar-Rundi seemed to bemoan the fate of Muslim Spain in general:
Ask Valencia what became of Murcia,
And where is Jativa, or where is Jaen?
Where is Cordoba, the seat of great learning,
And how many scholars of high repute remain there?
And where is Seville, the home of mirthful gatherings
On its great river, cooling and brimful with water?
These cities were the pillars of the country:
Can a building remain when the pillars are missing?
The white wells of ablution are weeping with sorrow,
As a lover does when torn from his beloved:
They weep over the remains of dwellings devoid of Muslims,
Despoiled of Islam, now peopled by infidels!
Those mosques have now been changed into churches,
Where the bells are ringing and crosses are standing.
Even the mihrabs weep, though made of cold stone,
Even the minbars sing dirges, though made of wood!
Oh heedless one, this is fate’s warning to you:
If you slumber, Fate always stays awake.
Nasrid Granada and the end of Moorish power in Spain (c.1250-1492)
By the mid thirteenth century, Moorish power in Spain was confined to a thin mountainous strip of land in the south that was never more than sixty miles wide. In the 1230s and 1240s, Muhammed ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr established a state centered around the city of Granada, thus giving his name to its ruling dynasty (Nasrid). Granada’s strength was undercut by two main factors. First of all, it suffered from a good deal of internal disunity caused by tribal divisions, the ever-troublesome Berber mercenaries from North Africa, and an influx of Muslim refugees from the north. Second, it had a weak economy caused by its poor soil, forcing it to import much of its food, while its trade was largely controlled by Genoese merchants. Also, heavy tribute to the Christian states in the north forced the amirs (rulers) of Granada to charge high taxes, which made them unpopular.
Granada’s survival depended on several factors: an excellent army consisting largely of Berber light cavalry, an extensive system of castles every five or six miles along its frontier and as many as 14,000 watchtowers scattered across the countryside, strong support from the Merinid dynasty in North Africa, generally capable rulers until the early 1400s, and some luck, such as the intervention of the Black Death (1349), Castilian involvement in the Hundred Years War in the 1300s, and turmoil both within and between the various Christian states.
Despite its problems, culture flourished in Nasrid Granada, especially in the fields of poetry, architecture, and art. The most remarkable example of this is the Alhambra, probably the best surviving example of a medieval Muslim palace. Much of its beauty lies in its elegant gardens, fountains, and courtyards that provided a serene setting for meditation, reading, or romance. The rooms of the palace itself show Islamic decorative art at its peak, with intricate geometric designs gracing the walls, doorways, and ceilings. According to the poet, Ibn Zamrak:
“…The Sabika hill sits like a garland on Granada’s brow,
In which the stars would be entwined,
And the Alhambra (God preserve it)
Is the ruby set above that garland.
Granada is a bride whose headdress is the Sabika, and whose adornments are its flowers.”
In the 1400s, Granada’s luck ran out in several ways. Genoese control of its trade tightened, which further aggravated resentment caused by the high tax rates (three times that paid by the people in Castile) to pay tribute to the Christians. The Merinids in North Africa went into decline and could no longer provide Granada their support. Tribal strife within Granada increased while the Christian states of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon resolved their own internal problems. In 1469, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married, thus uniting Spain into one powerful state when they ascended their respective thrones in 1474. The only missing piece of the puzzle, in their minds, was Granada, which they attacked in 1482. The war boiled down to a series of sieges, as one city after another fell to the Christian artillery. In 1492, after an eight-month siege, Granada fell to Ferdinand and Isabella, who accepted the surrender dressed in Moorish clothes. After nearly 800 years, Spain was again united under Christian rule.
For Spain’s Jewish and Moorish subjects, Christian rule was anything but pleasant. Almost immediately, the Jews were expelled from Spain, thus depriving it of some of its most productive population. Despite Ferdinand and Isabella’s promise to tolerate their religion, the Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity or leave Spain in 1502. Since emigration was so costly, most converted in name while secretly maintaining their own beliefs and practices. In 1568, Philip II, increasingly concerned about his image as a strict Catholic monarch and support the Moriscoes (Moors supposedly converted to Christianity) might give to the Ottoman Turks and his other Muslim enemies, tried to stamp out their Muslim customs, which triggered a revolt. After brutally suppressing this uprising Philip dispersed the Moriscoes across Spain. However, since they still refused to assimilate into Christian society, Philip III took the final step of expelling some 300,000 Moriscoes from Spain in 1609. Aside from the suffering it caused the Moriscoes, this also substantially hurt Spain, by ridding it of much of its most productive population just when its power and wealth in other quarters were going into decline. This only accelerated Spain’s decline into the rank of a second rate power by the mid 1600s.
Moorish Spain’s legacy
As discussed previously, many Christian scholars during the Middle Ages came to Spain to absorb its learning, helping trigger a revival of learning in Europe. Very simply, this was the single most important legacy of Moorish Spain to Europe. One of its most significant contributions came from the philosopher, ibn Rushd (known in Europe as Averroes), who devoted his life to reconciling faith and reason (in particular that of Aristotle). The Christian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, whose book, Summa Theologica, similarly reconciled faith and reason, quoted ibn Rushd no less than 503 times in his works. It was Aquinas’ work that laid the foundations for the Renaissance and the birth of Western science in the centuries to come, but in a very real sense, it was the work of an Arab scholar, ibn Rushd, that was the real foundation.