Al-Andalus: History of Islamic Spain
12 Jan 23 · 12 mins read
Al-Andalus: History of Islamic Spain
In 711 CE, Muslim forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal), ruling portions of the region for over 700 years. In that time, the Muslims here, known as the Moors, created a society so rich and powerful it was the envy of the known world. Known as Al-Andalus, the region contained extensive libraries, schools, and public baths, and contributed impressive literature, poetry, and architecture to European culture. All the while, people of all faiths lived together in relative harmony.
Al-Andalus reached its peak during the 10th-century Cordoba-based Umayyad caliphate, controlling almost all the Iberian Peninsula. After 1086, the Moors were then driven south, but continued their rule of southern Spain, holding out in several kingdoms for a further 400 years. Their final demise came in 1492, when the last Muslim territory, Granada, fell to the Catholic Monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.
What followed was a complete ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Spain. Over the following centuries, the Spanish authorities persecuted and expelled over 300,000 Muslims and burned over one million Arabic books. The Islamic civilization that had flourished in Spain for over 700 years had come to an end. Nevertheless, the remains of Spain’s rich Muslim past remains in its enduring cultural influences.
This article explores the history of Muslim rule in Al-Andalus. Much of the information is sourced from the documentary Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain. The article is intended as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s 17-day Moors in Spain Tour for mature and senior travellers. This small group tour discovers and traces the art, architecture, culture and religious reign of the Moors in Spain, visiting their key cities of Madrid, Toledo, Seville and other cities of Andalusia. Read on to discover more about Islamic Spain!
The Muslim conquest of Spain occurred as part of the wider conquests of the Umayyad Caliphate in the 7th and 8th century. Within just decades of the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, conquering Arab armies had reached as far east as Persia, while in the west they had conquered Egypt, Jordan, and much of North Africa, bringing them to the verge of Europe. The continent at this period was in the midst of the Dark Ages. After the fall of Rome, it had been left in a power vacuum, with rival tribes squabbling for territories. It lay unprotected and vulnerable.
Islamic forces soon fixed their eyes on the susceptible continent. By the beginning of the 8th century, the Arabs had converted Berber troops at the tip of Africa and gathered troops on the coast. In July 711, 7000 Berber tribesmen, headed by General Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād, stormed across the Straits of Gibraltar and invaded Europe. The invasion was the result of both the Muslim drive to enlarge their territory, as well as a plea for help by one of the Visigothic factions, the Wittizans, against the tyrannical Visigoth ruler of Spain, Roderick.
After easily defeating the Visigoth army, and killing Roderick in a decisive battle, the Muslims marched on to conquer most of Spain and Portugal with little difficulty or resistance. By 714, the majority of the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim control, except for a narrow strip along the north coast. Their expansion they continued north of the Pyrenees Mountains, causing havoc in southern Gaul (today the south of France). They were only halted in Poitiers by the Franks under leadership of Charles Martel. Forced back, Islamic control from this point forward focused on the Iberian Peninsula south of the Pyrenees.
The period between 711 and 756 is known as the dependent emirate, in which Muslin Spain, or Al-Andalus, remained dependent on the Umayyad caliph based in Damascus. In many places the Muslim newcomers were welcomed with open arms as saviours of the tyranny and harsh conditions imposed by the previous Visigoth rulers. The Muslims brought several generous surrender terms, including a less onerous tax burden, and Serfs who converted to Islam were granted the category of freedmen. Most members of the Visigothic nobility also converted to Muslim, retaining their privileged position in the new society.
Nevertheless, the establishment of a coherent Muslim state was not simple, with the ruling Islamic forces made up of various different nationalities. There lacked a strong overall leadership, with Spain falling under the control of various bands of Muslims. As such hostilities continued amongst the different Arab fractions and various social groups during this period.
The Umayyad Dynasty
Stability in Spain came with the establishment of an independent kingdom (the Emirate of Cordoba) under the Umayyad dynasty. It was founded in 756 by Abd al Rahman, an Umayyad prince who had fled to Spain after the rest of his family had been overthrown and massacred in a political coup in the capital of the Muslim World, Damascus (present-day Syria). Abd al Rahman would unite the various Muslim groups in Spain under one rule, forging a dynasty that would last over 250 years until the year 1031.
When Abd al Rahman arrived in Cordoba, the city was in disarray, and so immediately he set out to rebuild the city. With him he brought cutting edge technology for irrigation, transforming the landscape by planting palm trees, lemon and olive groves, artichokes, avocados, and pomegranates. He also introduced a new trade system so that the agriculture could generate great wealth.
With the new riches, he built one of the greatest cities in the world. Cordoba was a cosmopolitan city with a population of over 100,000 – at the time the largest settlement in Europe. Culture and learning were transported form the Islamic world, the city home to 70 libraries, 700 mosques, and over 3000 public baths. Accounts tell of houses with running water and paved streets illuminated by oil lanterns.
The greatest achievement was the great mosque of Cordoba. With a floor space the size of four football pitches, it is the largest mosque in the western Islam world. A forest of 600 marble columns, arches balancing on top of one another, disappears into the distance, creating a mesmeric infinity effect. In a shell shape overall, the acoustics are extraordinary.
Overall, Cordoba was a thriving metropolis – Europe’s largest, richest, and cleanest city. It had an extensive central government, medical centres, an organised legal system, and libraries full of academics and scientists working on ideas far advanced than anything else in Europe at the time. Literature, poetry, astronomy, mathematics, art, and architecture all flourished, with scholars from around the Mediterranean travelling here to visit and study.
The Muslim population of Spain also grew quickly during this period, with the Indigenous population converting to Islam in droves. Almost everywhere the people were Arabised and Islamised. There is no evidence of forced conversion; rather people chose to convert due to the cultural and religious values and way of living of what seemed to be a civilisation with many advantages. Indeed, the religion offered people wealth, social standing, and intellectual power.
Even so, the Muslim rulers did recognise that the Jews and Christians of the Iberian Peninsula were necessary for a productive society. In many ways they were treated better than other conquered peoples of the time. Provided they acknowledges Islamic superiority and power, obeyed certain rules, and paid certain taxes, these religious groups were able to retain some freedom. They were allowed to follow their faith, and they were not kept as slaves, nor forced into ghettos, nor prevented from doing any work. The result was a central bureaucracy staffed by elites from all three religions.
Cordoba would reach even greater heights in 929, after Abd al-Rahman III (ruled 912-61) declared himself a caliph (a successor to the Prophet Muhammad). With this, he elevated himself to the same level as the ruler of Baghdad, the other great Muslim capital, and made Cordoba the great capital of his caliphate. This effectively cut any last ties Spain and with Baghdad, establishing Al-Andalus’s complete religious and political sovereignty. The period of the caliphate would be one of expansive trade and culture and witness the construction of Al-Andalusian architectural masterpieces.
However, with so much invested into art and culture, Abd al-Rahman III paid little attention to the military. There were no generals at court and citizens didn’t have to serve in the army. This means more and more foreigners had to be recruited effectively as mercenaries. This led to conflict and instability as different fractions began to vie for power. In the early 11th century, civil war broke out, eventually leading to the disintegration of the caliphate, fractured into a number of different independent Muslim kingdoms. Gradually, nearly two dozen vibrant Muslim city states arose scattered around the Iberian Peninsula, each vying to be the most powerful and cultured.
The disintegration of the Caliphate allowed for the Christian Reconquista to gradually erode away Islamic control of the Iberian Peninsula. The Reconquista was a long-lasting war, in which the Catholic kingdoms of the north of Spain eventually managed one by one to defeat and conquer the Muslim city states in Spain.
The first big Islamic city to be taken by the Catholic powers was Toledo in 1085. The Muslims replied with force, bringing in Almoravid troops from Morocco under General Yusuf ibn Tashfin. The Almoravids were fundamentalist Muslims, who had a fearsome fighting reputation. Riding light footed horses, and equipped with camels and elephants, they defeated the Catholics emphatically in 1086.
With this victory, Yusuf and the Almoravids were able to reunite much of Muslim Al-Andalus. However, they were shocked with what they found there, feeling they had to purify the people who had become too accustomed to civilisation, science, and mixing with Christians and Jews. They thus subjugated them to a fundamentalist Islamic rule from their capital, Marrakesh.
As such, the Muslim states found themselves crushed between barbaric Christians on one side and fundamentalist Muslims on the other. This led to several uprisings all over Al-Andalus against the Almoravid rule. However, these only served to weaken Muslim ability to resist the Catholic raids into their lands. Major rebellions in 1144 and 1145 then shattered Islamic unity again into independent statelets, leading once more to an appeal to the Maghreb for help.
Help arrived in 1145 in the form of the Almohads, setting in motion once more a process to unify what remained of Al-Andalus. The Almohads, however, were even more fundamental and intolerant of Christians and Jews than the Almoravids. They demanded conversion to Islam or expulsion from Al-Andalus; unsurprisingly, many abandoned Al-Andalus for the Catholic kingdoms of the north.
The Almohad dominance peaked in 1195, with Alfonso VIII of Castile resoundingly defeated at Alarcos. Alfonso, however, emerged as resolved as ever to rid Spain of the Muslims. Following his appeal, Pope Celestine III called for a crusade in Spain in 1197, which was then reiterated by his successor, Innocent III, in 1206. These calls added an ideological force behind the Reconquista, which had hitherto been a political struggle over land and power.
In response, a Catholic coalition of soldiers from across France, Italy, Aragon and Navarre aided the Castilians to decisively defeat the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. This initiated the downfall of the Almohads, who lost all the remaining lands of Al-Andalus to Catholic kingdoms in the following decades, including the cities of Valencia, Murcia, Badajoz, Mérida, and finally in 1248 Seville. By 1250, only the kingdom of Granada, a strip of about 100 km along the south coast of the Iberian Peninsula, remained Muslim.
Protected by mountains, watchtowers, and forts, the 70,000 Muslims of Granada managed to hold off attack for another 200 years. By this point, the rest of the country was divided between Castile in the west and Aragon in the east. In 1469, with an acute political mindset, Isabella (heir to the throne of Castile) married her second cousin, Ferdinand (heir to the throne of Aragon). Thus, when Ferdinand II succeeded the throne of Aragon in 1479, Aragon and Castile were united. Now only Granada was blocking Isabella I’s vision of a unified Spain.
The Catholic Monarchs laid siege to Granada for a year before it finally surrendered. On the 1st of January 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella dressed in elaborate Moorish outfits entered the Alhambra Palace and took keys to the city. The last of the Islamic forces had finally been defeated in Spain, putting an end to an incredible society.
After the Reconquista
During the Reconquista, the Catholic kingdoms had been more assimilative rather than destructive towards Muslims. Alfonso X of Castile (reigned 1221-1284), for example, styled himself as King of the Three Religions and saw over a massive translation enterprise, in which classical Arabic texts on botany, philosophy, law, and medicine were transmitted across a Europe awakening to the Renaissance. Indeed, Jews, Muslims, and Christians continued to live side by side, intermarrying, and expanding the art and knowledge of each other’s culture.
However, following the Reconquista, attitudes hardened against religious tolerance. With Granada falling and Spain united under one monarchy, the idea of one religion became the order of the day. In 1492 and 1502, the Catholic Monarchs issued royal decrees, which gave their Jewish and Muslim subjects a stark choice: convert to Catholicism, leave the country, or face harsh consequences. In this way, hundreds of thousands were forcefully converted. Over one million Arabic books were also burned.
However, many continued to practice their faith in secret. Those that did often fell victim to the Spanish Inquisition. Operating not only in Spain, but also the Spanish territories and colonies, the Inquisition’s purpose was to identify and eliminate heretics among those who had converted to Catholicism. Those found guilty of heresy were forced to repent their sins. Some were burnt at the stake, while most had their homes and livelihoods stripped from them.
King Phillip II went even further in 1567, definitively banning the use of the Arabic language and forbidding the Islamic religion, dress, and customs. This was followed by King Phillip III’s order to remove all Muslims from Spain in 1609. The Spanish Empire at this point felt pressed by many directions. They were afraid of the Ottoman Turks who were raiding North Africa off the southern cost of Spain, plus they were occupied by wars in the Americas. The Muslims were one internal problem they simply couldn’t deal with any longer.
Over the next 10 years, 250,000 Muslims were expelled from Spain, forbidden to take any possessions with them. Most took refuge in North Africa. With this, the ethnic cleansing in Spain was complete. What makes the mass expulsions ever so devastating was that the huge majority being expelled were as Iberian as their Christian cousins kicking them out. They were not Arabs or Berbers, but those native to the insular who had originally converted to Islam – in many ways the same people with the same culture as the Christian Kings.
Despite the mass conversions and expulsions, today Spain is full of remains of its Moorish past. Its there in the many Spanish words with Arabic origins, in the flavours of the food, and in several grand monuments, such as la Giralda, the Mezquita of Cordoba, and the Alhambra Palace in Granada. For even once the Muslims were gone, Christian fascination with the legacy of Al-Andalus remained, with much of the culture kept alive.
Moors in Spain Tour
Join Odyssey Traveller on our 17-day Moors in Spain Tour exploring Southern Spain’s Moorish past. Together, led by your tour director, we will discover the traces of the Moorish religious reign, culture, art, and architecture. We begin by visiting their former strongholds in the Spanish capital of Madrid , before moving further south to Toledo in Castilla-La Mancha and several cities in the charming region of Andalusia, filled with spectacular landscapes.
Despite their fall and expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista (Christian Reconquest) in the 15th century, the Moors in Spain have a long and riveting history. Their enduring influence on this Spain tour can be seen from the ruins of their citadels still standing on hilltops and the old towns of cities, to the grand bazaars that continue to lend colour and life to the Iberian Peninsula. All will provide us valuable insights about modern-day Spain as we head from central to Southern Spain and the Mediterranean.
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.
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