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Useful Notes / Moorish Spain

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The Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba, neatly summing up the matter.

Moorish Spain, also known by its Arabic name Al-Andalus, is a medieval civilisation spanning much of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and lasting up to eight centuries. It is often thought to be a great culture, bringing great peace and prosperity within their domain and most importantly being an oft-cited example of a culture where adherents of all three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) coexist in relative harmony. The civil accomplishments of the civilisation is believed by some as the first Renaissance in continental Europe, and in spite of its later downfall with the Spanish Reconquista, its advances left lasting marks on the Spain we know today.

More Than a Little Help: Muslim Conquest of Visigothic Hispania

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Germanic Visigoths quickly took to the former Roman domain of Hispania. Their rule, however, was plagued by infighting between rival factions, weakening their grip on power throughout the centuries. In contrast, by the beginning of the 8th century, Muslim powers to the east were spreading their reach. The Ummayad Caliphate, a Sunni empire based in Damascus, loomed over the Mediterranean, conquering North Africa and converting its inhabitantsnote  along the way. In 711, supporters of the assassinated Visigothic king Wittiza were impressed by the rising power and asked for the Ummayad’s help against the pretender Roderic. The Caliphate went on to launch a small expedition into the peninsula, mostly consisting of Berbers and led by Moroccan Arabized-Berber commander Tariq ibn Ziyad.note  note 

Seeing the Visigoths weakened and crumbling, the Muslims saw the opportunity to make good upon their words, along with quite a bit more. With the rulers offering insignificant resistance and the populace effectively welcoming them with open arms, the Muslims rapidly subjugated Hispania’s south in a series of raids. Roderic’s death in battle in 712 further weakened the kingdom, and the strongholds of Cordoba, Seville and Toledo fell with ease. Three years after their arrival, the Muslims had their grip upon former centres of Roman rule and turned surrounding regions into obedient client states. A small proportion of Hispania’s Christian population fled northward, waging border warfare for the next two centuries.

Al-Andalus, the Emirate, the Caliphate and the Shining City

After the Visigoth’s downfall, the Muslims centred their new domain in Cordoba. The first government of Al-Andalus was Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa, who took Roderic’s widow and was assassinated by rivals not long after his rise to power. His successor largely failed to fare better in the midst of diverse Muslim groups, many of them having only turned to Islam few decades earlier and understandably less than happy at the prospect of serving an Arab empire. The ethnic tensions between the ruling Arabs and the oppressed Berbers had previously placed the latter at the vanguard of the Muslim expansion with lesser shares of the spoil, and the Berber revolts of 740 - 743 compelled a garrison in Galicia to abandon their post to attempt a takeover against the numerically inferior Arabs, allowing the Kingdom of Asturias to claim the region for good. Things took a different turn in 756, when the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads and took Damascus. The exiled Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman ibn Muawiyah took over Al-Andalus and declared an Emirate of Cordoba. By a number of accounts, Abd al-Rahman acted as somewhat of a strongman figure, crushing internal oppositions as well as annihilating an Abbasid invasion of Portugal, for once bringing the Muslims together.

Spain is generally agreed to have prospered throughout the Emirate period. Muslim scholars helped introduce artifacts of Greek philosophy to Western Europe and helped agriculture through Persian and Nabataean agricultural techniques and land reform. This, along with inventions such as new industrial mills and dams, drove Mediterranean fruits, rice, olive and grains to flourish. The urban area in particular enjoyed a lavish amount of technological development, skilled labour and education, fuelling an unprecedented economic growth. In 929, Abd al-Rahman’s successor Abd al-Rahman III declared a Caliphate of Cordoba, marking the civilisation’s cultural summit.

Worthy of note is Cordoba’s status as the centre of Muslim Spain. Cordoba was effectively the Shining City of The Middle Ages, and thanks to the aforementioned advances, one of the world’s foremost centres of civilisation in the 10th century. It was too remarkable among its contemporaries for its sophisticated plumbing system. One author wrote of Cordoba:

”There were half a million inhabitants, living in 113,000 houses. There were 700 mosques and 300 public baths spread throughout the city and its twenty-one suburbs. The streets were paved and lit ... there were bookshops and more than seventy libraries”

Impacts of the Muslim rule can be seen today within the local architecture, ethnography and in particular the massive Cordoba Mosque (Mezquita). Scottish scholar Michael Scot would later bring the teachings of Ibn Rushd (“Averroes”) and Ibn Sina (“Avicenna”) to Italy, helping spark the European Renaissance.

I Am, You Are, We Are Andalusians: Cultural Relations in Muslim Spain

The legacies of the Muslim rule are undeniably expansive, to some degree altering Spanish architecture in particular, resulting in well-known architectural marvels such as the aforementioned Cordoba Mosque, the Giralda of Seville, and the Alhambra of Granada. The occupiers were at first entirely male and intercultural marriages were quick to occur. But particularly noteworthy is the relationship between the occupying Muslims, the Christians and the Jews. While the romanticisation of the period has sparked some debate between historians, Al-Andalus is generally agreed to be a much better place to live in as a religious minority than most of its contemporary civilisations. There were certainly rules and regulations that have no place in a modern democracy: for instance, non-Muslim men could not marry Muslim women while the opposite was true, preaching other religions to Muslims was strictly forbidden and capable non-Muslim men were to pay an annual jizya tax, along with increases on other taxes. All of this is in accordance with then-contemporary understanding of Muslim scripture, which also accorded non-Muslim citizens were the status of ahl al-dhimma (those to be protected), and generally enjoyed far more freedom than minorities did elsewhere; the flipside of the "higher taxes" bit was that non-Muslims were forbidden from joining the army (but not from owning weapons; indeed, Jews were frequently employed as police), which seems (and seemed) to be a pretty good deal. Some of the remnants of the civilisation still lasting today are actually churches and synagogues! With the aforementioned limitation, intermarriages did happen, businesses were conducted between adherents of all three religions, and representatives of all cultures took posts in all but the highest hierarchies of the government. Being effectively second-class citizens, non-Muslims often had to work rough jobs such as butchers and tanners, yet a substantial number also dealt in the tertiary sector quite successfully; according to some accounts, Andalusian Jews were among the most prosperous within the Diaspora.

It should also be noted that partly due to the jizya system, native Christians converted to Islam in large scales, with up to 80% of Spain being Muslim in 1100. Native converts were termed muwalladun, and a good number of faithful Christians came to adopt Arabic and Islamic ways and customs, earning the term Mozarabs (from the Arabic Musta`rab, "one who has become Arab"). It is generally agreed upon that with the Muslims' initial numerical inferiority, an attempt to forcefully convert or otherwise oppress the populace would have been grossly impractical. Some historians have also suggested previous internal conflicts within the Muslim ranks as a cause, which is likely to have caused Abd al-Rahman to set up the non-Muslims as political counterweights against his Muslim adversaries.

Having said that, there were downsides to this system: a Muslim testimony was valued more than that of a Christian or Jew in court. Some offenses were harshly punished when a Jew or Christian was the perpetrator against a Muslim even if the offenses were permitted when the perpetrator was a Muslim and the victim a non-Muslim, which means religious discrimination was open and records of minority persecution exist even as early as the Caliphate of Córdoba which is considered the more tolerant one in Moorish Spain. Of course, this varied from ruler to ruler - some could be more liberal, others more repressive (the Almoravid dynasty for example) - and while Christian Europe in general was not better, it's naive to assume Al-Andalus was an ideal society.

Nobody Expected the Spanish Christianisation: Downfall of the Cordoba Caliphate

Like all good things, of course, the amiable state had to come to an end. As the Caliphate grew rife with infighting, its grip on power eventually slipped away, and it effectively collapsed between 1009 and 1013. Its former domain was split between numerous independent states called ta’ifas, largely little more than mere shadows of the empire growing more and more vulnerable to the Catholic kingdoms to the north. The apparent pressure on Islamic rule brought religious minorities to suffer worsening treatment: religious paraphernalia were banned in public, and those perceived as being opposed to Islamic rule were to suffer harshly. Perhaps the most well-known incident of the era is the Granada pogrom, a 1066 incident in which Granada Jews were killed en masse. This, of course, did little to oppose the Catholics, who launched a Reconquista (reconquest) campaign and took Toledo in 1085.

In 1086, the Iberian ta’ifas requested help from Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the king of the Moroccan Almoravids. His forces managed to decisively defeat those of Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile in the Battle of Sagrajas. Harbouring contempt for the incompetence of ta’ifa princes and enjoying the support of their oppressed populace, Yusuf went on to annex most of the ta’ifas and put a stop to the Christian reconquest. After decades of Almoravid rule, Muslim Spain was again invaded in 1119 and 1121, with the Aragonese enjoying French support this time. In 1147, the western city of Lisbon returned to Christian rule: more specifically, the rising Kingdom of Portugal which had declared independence a few years earlier.

However, the Almoravids defeat did not came by the Christians themselves, but by a North African movement known as the Almohads (al-Muwaḥḥidūn aka "monotheists" or "unifiers") started by Ibn Tumart, a religious leader who argued that Muslims had strayed from their religion and there was need for purification. Despite the Almoravids being very conservative on their own right, Tumart believed they were "insufficiently Islamic" because of certain practices they adopted (Almoravid men tended to be veiled purely for combat reasons while women were not, and its alleged that Tumart assaulted an Almoravid emir's sister for being uncovered) and launched a jihad against their rule. While he died during the campaign, Tumart's successors managed to topple the Almoravids and firmly gain a foothold in the Iberian penisula.

The Almohads were viewed as extremists even by their own contemporaries - one of the most well-known figures of this time period was Averroes, a Islamic scholar who is today considered a big influence in Western philosophy, was accused of blasphemy and exiled from the court by the Almohads, since they opposed anything they considered "innovation" or "blasphemous" by destroying precious and valuable books that disagreed with their dogmas. The tolerance for minorities also took a nose dive during their rule: the dhimmi system was abolished with Christians and Jews having their freedoms stripped and conversion or death being the norm. This was completely unprecedented with previous rulers, since not even the Almoravids, as conservative and puritanical as they were, did this to their subjects. It's believed that the Almohads were paranoid that their subjects were covertly aiding the Christian kingdoms and aimed to spread their jihad even further against "unbelievers" by converting as many as they could to increase their ranks. Unfortunately for them, not everyone was committed to their goals since many of the new converts did it under duress and didn't appreciate their new condition. In response, the Almohads imposed discriminatory rules in the converts like forcing them to dress in a identifying clothes since they knew they weren't sincere in their faith which made unity worse.

The persecution became so unbearable that between dying or converting and still being treated like crap, the surviving Jews fled to more tolerant Muslim lands while the Christians fled north to their co-religionists, which helped fuel the Reconquista. When they were defeated in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, the Almohads' advance north was halted and they went into decline. Their fundamentalist doctrine was abandoned by the following rulers in a favor of a more conventional one, but by this point, it was too late. The Christians kingdoms in the north were no longer disorganized and represented a very serious threat to them.

Córdoba fell to Christian Castile in 1236, while Granada saved itself by becoming Castile's vassal and even helped the Castilians conquer Seville in 1248, ending up as the last remaining Muslim state in the Iberian peninsula. Castile profited handsomely by exploiting Granada's access to the trans-Saharan trade in Africa, but with the eventual discovery of new ocean routes to tropical Africa, Granada was conquered in 1492, thereby ending Muslim rule of Spain for good.

Moorish Spain in fiction


Live-Action TV

  • The final season of Vikings features the historical raid on Seville which was part of the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba with the Vikings looting, pillaging and taking slaves from the Moors.


Video Games
  • Crusader Kings is set right in the middle of the Reconquista. Both Muslim and Christian rulers are playable.
    • Europa Universalis, following on from Crusader Kings, starts off close to the end of the Reconquista (how close depends on the game and expansion). Usually Granada gets conquered when Castile gets around to it, but a skilful player can turn things around for the Moors.
  • In Age of Empires II, it was the setting of the El Cid campaign. In African Kingdoms the Berbers were introduced, and you get to play as Tariq ibn Ziyad.