Al-Andalus: History of Islamic Spain

The Moors feature in the history of Spain. This article explains the contribution of Islam to the its history. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

12 Jan 23 · 9 mins read

Al-Andalus: History of Islamic Spain

In 711 CE, Muslim forces conquered the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal), establishing a rule that lasted for over seven centuries. The Moors, as the Muslims were known, developed Al-Andalus, a society renowned for its prosperity and influence, boasting extensive libraries, schools, and public baths. They made significant contributions to European culture through literature, poetry, and architecture, fostering a harmonious coexistence among people of different faiths.

The pinnacle of Al-Andalus was reached during the 10th century under the Umayyad caliphate based in Cordoba, holding sway over most of the Iberian Peninsula. Subsequently, following setbacks in 1086, the Moors retreated south but maintained control over southern Spain, ruling from various kingdoms for another four centuries. Their ultimate defeat came in 1492 with the fall of Granada, to the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.

The aftermath witnessed a systematic expulsion of Muslims from Spain, marked by persecution and the destruction of numerous Arabic texts. The illustrious Islamic civilization that thrived in Spain for centuries met its demise. Despite this, the enduring cultural legacy of Spain’s Muslim past continues to shape its heritage.

This article delves into the history of Muslim governance in Al-Andalus, drawing insights from the documentary Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain. It serves as preparatory material for Odyssey Traveller’s Moors in Spain Tour, offering a comprehensive exploration of the art, architecture, culture, and religious influence of the Moors in Spain. Participants of this tour will visit key cities such as Madrid, Toledo, and Seville, among others in Andalusia, to unravel the captivating narrative of Islamic Spain. Explore further to uncover the enthralling history of this remarkable era.

Spain Square (Plaza de Espana). Seville, Spain.

Muslim Conquest

The Muslim conquest of Spain was a pivotal part of the broader expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate during the 7th and 8th centuries. In the aftermath of Prophet Muhammad’s passing in 632, Arab armies swiftly advanced east into Persia and west into Egypt, Jordan, and North Africa, nearing the borders of Europe. This era coincided with Europe’s Dark Ages, following the decline of Rome and leaving the continent fragmented and defenceless amid tribal conflicts.

The Islamic forces strategically targeted the vulnerable European territories, converting Berber troops in North Africa and amassing troops along the coast by the early 8th century. In a bold move in July 711, General Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād led 7000 Berber tribesmen across the Straits of Gibraltar, initiating the invasion of Europe. Motivated by territorial expansion and a plea for assistance from the Wittizans, a Visigothic faction in Spain, against their oppressive ruler Roderick, the Muslims swiftly overpowered the Visigoth army, culminating in the fall of Roderick and the conquest of most of Spain and Portugal by 714.

Al-Andalus territory

The Muslim expansion extended north of the Pyrenees Mountains, disrupting southern Gaul, until the Franks, led by Charles Martel, halted their advancement in Poitiers. Subsequently, Islamic dominance focused on the Iberian Peninsula south of the Pyrenees. The period from 711 to 756 was characterized as the dependent emirate, with Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, remaining under the influence of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus.

The Muslims were often embraced as liberators from Visigothic oppression, offering lenient surrender terms and beneficial conditions to encourage conversion to Islam, even granting elevated status to those who converted. Despite these efforts, establishing a unified Muslim state proved challenging, given the diverse nationalities within the ruling Islamic factions, leading to internal strife and social tensions during this period.

The Umayyad Dynasty

Stability in Spain began with the establishment of an independent kingdom, the Emirate of Cordoba, under the Umayyad dynasty in 756 by Abd al Rahman. He, an Umayyad prince who sought refuge in Spain after his family’s overthrow and massacre in Damascus, revolutionized the city of Cordoba upon his arrival. Introducing advanced irrigation techniques and a new trade system, Abd al Rahman transformed the landscape with crops like palm trees, lemons, olives, artichokes, avocados, and pomegranates, paving the way for prosperity.

Under his rule, Cordoba blossomed into a cosmopolitan hub with a population exceeding 100,000, making it the largest settlement in Europe at the time. The city became a beacon of culture and knowledge, boasting an impressive array of 70 libraries, 700 mosques, and over 3000 public baths. Remarkably, Cordoba featured houses with running water, illuminated by oil lanterns, showcasing an advanced civilization.

The crowning glory of Cordoba was the grand mosque, a magnificent architectural feat with a vast floor space equivalent to four football pitches. Adorned with a forest of 600 marble columns and mesmerizing arches creating an infinity effect, the mosque’s acoustics were exceptional. Cordoba evolved into Europe’s most flourishing and hygienic city, equipped with a robust central administration, medical facilities, a well-structured legal system, and a plethora of scholars pioneering advancements in various fields like literature, poetry, astronomy, mathematics, art, and architecture.

Mosque Cathedral of Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain

The period also witnessed rapid growth in the Muslim population of Spain, with indigenous inhabitants embracing Islam willingly due to the perceived benefits it offered in terms of wealth, social status, and intellectual growth. While Islamization was prevalent, the Muslim rulers recognized the importance of the Jewish and Christian communities for a harmonious society. These religious groups were treated relatively well, given they acknowledged Islamic authority, adhered to certain regulations, and paid specified taxes, fostering a diverse and cooperative environment.

In 929, Abd al-Rahman III elevated Cordoba’s status by declaring himself a caliph, positioning the city as a significant player alongside Baghdad. This decision escalated Cordoba’s cultural and trade influence, leading to the construction of architectural wonders across Al-Andalus. However, the focus on cultural development overshadowed military concerns, resulting in recruitment of foreign mercenaries and internal power struggles, culminating in civil strife and the eventual fragmentation of the caliphate into several independent Muslim realms by the early 11th century.

As a consequence, multiple vibrant Muslim city-states emerged in the Iberian Peninsula, each striving for supremacy and cultural eminence, signifying a period of transition and diversification in Al-Andalus’s political landscape.

The Reconquista

The collapse of the Caliphate facilitated the Christian Reconquista’s gradual encroachment on Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula. This protracted conflict saw the northern Catholic kingdoms of Spain systematically overcome and subjugate the Muslim city-states in the region.

In a pivotal turn of events, the Catholic powers seized the significant Islamic stronghold of Toledo in 1085. In response, the Muslims, bolstered by Almoravid forces from Morocco under General Yusuf ibn Tashfin, retaliated fiercely. The Almoravids, known for their militant Islamic fervor and formidable military prowess, decisively defeated the Catholics in 1086, leveraging their cavalry comprising swift horses, camels, and even elephants.

Toledo cityscape with Alcantara bridge (Puente de Alcantara) over Targus river. Spain

Following their victory, Yusuf and the Almoravids reasserted Muslim control over much of Al-Andalus. However, upon their arrival, they were appalled by what they perceived as cultural decadence among the populace, prompting them to impose a strict fundamentalist Islamic regime from Marrakesh, aiming to purify a society they deemed too influenced by civilization, science, and interactions with Christians and Jews.

Consequently, the Muslim states found themselves caught between aggressive Christian adversaries and oppressive fundamentalist Muslim rulers. This predicament triggered numerous uprisings across Al-Andalus against Almoravid rule, leading to internal strife that weakened their capacity to fend off Catholic incursions. Substantial rebellions in 1144 and 1145 fractured Islamic unity, resulting in the emergence of independent statelets and a renewed plea for assistance from the Maghreb.

In response to the turmoil, the Almohads intervened in 1145, embarking on a quest to reestablish unity in Al-Andalus. However, their rule proved even more rigid and intolerant towards Christians and Jews than that of the Almoravids, advocating for forced conversion to Islam or expulsion from Al-Andalus, prompting an exodus towards the Catholic realms to the north.

The zenith of Almohad supremacy came in 1195 with the resounding defeat of Alfonso VIII of Castile at Alarcos. Nevertheless, this defeat only fueled Alfonso’s determination to expel Muslims from Spain, culminating in the papal endorsement of a crusade in Spain by Celestine III in 1197 and later reinforced by Innocent III in 1206. These religious proclamations injected an ideological fervor into the Reconquista, transforming it from a mere territorial and power struggle into a religiously charged campaign.

In retaliation, a coalition of Catholic forces from France, Italy, Aragon, and Navarre allied with Castile to decisively vanquish the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. This marked the beginning of the end for the Almohads, who gradually lost control of Al-Andalus to the advancing Catholic kingdoms in the ensuing decades, surrendering key cities like Valencia, Murcia, Badajoz, Mérida, and ultimately, Seville in 1248. By 1250, only the kingdom of Granada, guarding a narrow strip along the southern Iberian coast, remained under Muslim rule.

The Battle of las Navas de Tolosa

Despite being besieged by Castilian and Aragonese forces, the fortified Muslim stronghold of Granada managed to withstand attacks for over two centuries. The political astuteness of Isabella, heiress to Castile, and her marriage to Ferdinand, heir to Aragon’s throne, led to the eventual unification of both kingdoms in 1479. With the conquest of Granada being the final obstacle to a unified Spain, the Catholic Monarchs meticulously laid siege to the city until its surrender in 1492.

On the historic 1st of January 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella, adorned in elaborate Moorish attire, ceremoniously entered the Alhambra Palace and claimed the keys to the city, signaling the defeat of the last Islamic stronghold in Spain. This significant event marked the conclusion of a remarkable chapter in history, symbolizing the end of an era in Spanish society.

After the Reconquista

During the Reconquista, the Catholic kingdoms embraced a more inclusive approach towards Muslims, exemplified by Alfonso X of Castile, who proclaimed himself as the King of the Three Religions. This era saw a significant translation movement, where classical Arabic works on various subjects like botany, philosophy, law, and medicine were disseminated throughout a burgeoning Renaissance Europe. Amid this intellectual exchange, Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexisted, intertwining their cultures through intermarriage and mutual enrichment of art and knowledge.

Post-Reconquista, there was a shift towards religious intolerance as Granada fell and Spain consolidated under a unified monarchy. The Catholic Monarchs, in 1492 and 1502, issued decrees offering their Jewish and Muslim subjects a stark ultimatum: embrace Catholicism, leave the country, or face severe consequences. Subsequently, a significant number were forcibly converted, and a substantial quantity of Arabic manuscripts were destroyed.

Despite the oppressive measures, some individuals practiced their faith clandestinely, risking persecution by the Spanish Inquisition. Operating not only within Spain but also in its territories and colonies, the Inquisition aimed to identify and eradicate heresy among converted Catholics. Punishments varied from public repentance to execution by burning, with many losing their homes and livelihoods.

In 1567, King Phillip II escalated the suppression by banning the use of the Arabic language and prohibiting Islamic practices, attire, and customs. This intensified when King Phillip III ordered the expulsion of all Muslims from Spain in 1609. Pressured by external threats like Ottoman raids in North Africa and internal conflicts, the Spanish Empire opted for a systematic removal of Muslims from the land, culminating in the expulsion of 250,000 individuals within a decade, directing them to North Africa. Noteworthy is that the majority expelled were indigenous Iberians, akin to their Christian compatriots, who had embraced Islam, emphasizing a shared cultural history.

Despite these mass conversions and expulsions, Spain’s Moorish heritage endures in its linguistic traces, culinary delights, and architectural marvels like la Giralda, the Mezquita of Cordoba, and the Alhambra Palace in Granada, serving as poignant reminders of Al-Andalus’ legacy. The Christian fascination with this cultural legacy persisted even after the Muslims were expelled, preserving much of the rich heritage alive in Spanish culture till today.

The Alhambra in Granada southern of Spain

Moors in Spain Tour

Explore the enchanting Moorish past of Southern Spain on Odyssey Traveller’s exclusive 17-day Moors in Spain Tour . Delve into the rich legacy of the Moors in Spain, led by your knowledgeable tour director, as we unravel the remnants of their religious rule, vibrant culture, exquisite art, and captivating architecture. Commencing our journey in the vibrant Spanish capital of Madrid, we will then venture southwards to Toledo in Castilla-La Mancha and various cities in the picturesque Andalusia region, renowned for its breathtaking landscapes.

Despite their eventual downfall and expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula during the 15th-century Reconquista, the Moors in Spain left an indelible mark on the country’s history. Their profound influence on our Spain tour is evident in the enduring citadel ruins perched atop hills, the ancient quarters of cities, and the bustling bazaars that continue to infuse vibrancy into the Iberian Peninsula. These sites offer invaluable insights into modern-day Spain as we traverse from central to Southern Spain and the scenic Mediterranean region.

This small group tour will be escorted by an Odyssey Program Leader, the tour director and a local tour guide who will impart their knowledge about the places we will visit. Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983, conducting educational tours with small groups of mature and senior travellers. Group size is typically between 6 to 12 people who are couples and solo travellers. The cost of the tour is inclusive of all entrances, tipping, and majority of the meals. On this tour we will dine in local restaurants and go on a wine tour to enjoy Spain’s regional cuisines and rich wine culture.

This tour is only one of many Spain and Portugal tours for mature and senior travellers offered by Odyssey Traveller. Our other popular tours of the Iberian Peninsula include our:

For more information about our tours, click here, and you can head to this page to make a booking.

Malaga, Spain cityscape at the Cathedral, City Hall and Alcazaba citadel of Malaga.

Articles by Odyssey Traveller to help prepare for Spain Small Group Tour for Seniors

The following list of articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of Spain when visiting;

External articles to assist you on your visit to Spain

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