The Moorish Conquest of Spain
Created | Updated Sep 10, 2009
The History of Spain
First Inhabitants | The Roman Era | Visigoths | Moorish Conquest | Christian Reconquest | 1250 to 1450 | Fernando and Isabel
The Spanish Hapsburgs | The Spanish Civil War
Conquest: the very word suggests a series of pitched battles, the surrounding and taking of capitals, the subjugation of peoples; it implies struggle and toil, blood and sweat.
The Moorish conquest of Spain was nothing of the sort. The defeat of the Visigothic army in July 711 AD in Andalucía was the first and last major confrontation of the war. By the winter, Tariq, the Moorish governor of Tangier, was in the Visigothic capital of Toledo. In the summer of the following year his superior, Musa, joined him with a huge army to mop up the last Visigoth resistance at Mérida. Internal politics held up the Moorish advance, but even so they were only stopped at Poitiers in southern France. Their advance through alien country was incredibly swift.
There were a number of reasons for this. St Boniface, in the 11th century, blamed the Visigoth rulers' 'moral degeneracy and homosexual practices'. Other reasons were probably more important. The Moorish invaders could be extremely brutal, with the bulk of the army made up of fierce Berber warriors from the Moroccan mountains; and Tariq knew how to build a reputation. After the Battle of Guadalete, where he crushed the Visigoth army, Tariq ordered that some of the prisoners be hacked to pieces and boiled in cauldrons in front of their comrades. The rest were freed and, harrowed by the scene, spread the word of Moorish brutality. Fear is a powerful weapon.
Just as importantly, though, the Visigoths were unloved rulers. The old Hispano-Romans who made up their subjects despised the Visigoths. They were disdainful of their barbaric and decadent rule, and quite happy to see them deposed. Most believed the Moors would plunder and leave, and that the Hispano-Romans would then regain power. The Jews in particular aided the invasion. Since King Sisebut's anti-Semitic edict in 616, they had been forced to convert, leave or worship in secret, and anyone suspected of the latter was routinely lashed. Yet they were still hugely influential as merchants and traders and able to offer help disproportionate to their numbers. It would not be the last unlikely religious collaboration of the era.
It should be noted that the Moorish conquest and subsequent Re-conquest are often painted as simple battles of ideology: Christian against Muslim. Things were never quite so clear-cut. The Moors were more tolerant of religious differences than the Romans, who forced their Christianity on the locals. So it would take some time before the Spanish could work up a case for a religious war.
The Moorish era began a little incongruously, and probably had the locals rolling their eyes in memory of the Visigothic kings' escapades. First, the Berbers revolted against their leaders. After the revolt was put down, the two main Moorish factions started a virtual civil war against one another. Tariq was imprisoned, then released, then imprisoned again. Musa fell foul of the new caliph back in Damascus and was left to rot in a prison cell. His son declared himself governor of the new Moorish kingdom, but was beheaded in Seville; his head was shipped back to Damascus and put on show as a warning to other would-be upstarts.
It wasn't the best of beginnings, all told. The internal problems explain why the Moors never quite conquered the whole peninsula. If they had, it is conceivable the Re-conquest might never have got started. As it was, a small parcel of land in the north-west of Spain was able to resist. Elsewhere, in Asturias on the northern coast, the beginning of what would become an epic legend was being acted out by a group of 30 men in a cave.
The group's leader was a man called Pelayo, and there is probably more legend than truth in his story. He was the son of a Visigoth nobleman and exiled by King Witiza. Some versions of the tale say his sister was chosen by a Moorish leader for his harem. Whatever the truth, legend states that Pelayo's little troupe of mountaineers based themselves in a tiny cave at Covadonga and lived off honey, refusing to pay tribute to the Moors and harassing Moorish troops. In the end, the Moors gave up hunting them down and left them to it, saying: 'What harm can a group of 30 savage asses do to us?'
Sometime between 718 and 722, Pelayo and his men took on a Moorish army at the Battle of Covadonga. By rights, this should have been a massacre. After all, the Asturians were ridiculously outnumbered. The 30 men faced a veritable horde of 400,000 Moors, but refused to be cowed. They stood their ground as the Moors charged, raining down a storm of weapons on the merry band. Miraculously, all the Moorish weapons turned and flew back at them, and those that were not killed turned and fled. The Christian god had spoken, and all Islam knew he was not to be trifled with.
If you don't quite believe the details of the story, you are not alone. Historians actually tell of a simple skirmish where the men gathered an army of 300 around them to defeat a small Moorish patrol. The story, however, became legendary, and would inspire many a Crusader over the coming centuries. Even so, it was a small victory, now dubiously claimed as the first of the re-conquest.
Pelayo himself declared a small independent Kingdom of Asturias. Today, the heir to the Spanish throne takes a special title in honour of Pelayo and his men. He is known as the Prince of Asturias.
The new Moorish kingdom on the peninsula was known as Al-Andalus, derived from the Berber phrase Tamarus Wandalus, 'land of the Vandals'. It is said in Islamic legend that when Allah created the Earth each place was given five wishes. Al-Andalus asked for a clear sky, a sea full of fish, beautiful women and plentiful fruit. The final wish, for good government, was rejected on the grounds that it would have created Heaven on Earth. Many Spaniards wryly say little has changed.
Around 750, a young Syrian prince, the only member of his family to escape a massacre in Damascus, arrived in Al-Andalus. He had allies there, particularly among the Berbers. Indeed, his mother had been a Berber. As with survivors of coups generally, he had a healthy hatred of his new overlords. And he knew of the prophesy that said Al-Andalus would be conquered by a man with two dark curls of hair on his forehead, just as he had.
Abd-er-Rahman, 'the Wanderer', was one of those historical figures who pop up once in a while to terrify their contemporaries. Within a year, he had declared Al-Andalus a semi-autonomous state - with himself as emir, of course - and begun building a huge army that would number over 40,000. He did not suffer insurgents particularly well; he would behead them, fill the head with salt and myrrh, and send each, individually packed, back to the caliph in Damascus. On opening the boxes, the caliph apparently cried 'Allah be praised, that the sea divides us from this devil!'
Determined to have Al-Andalus under his power once again, the caliph paid the Frankish king Charlemagne to invade Al-Andalus. Charlemagne's nephew, Roland, failed in an attack on Zaragoza and was attacked on his retreat by the Basques, after sacking Pamplona for plunder instead. The episode inspired the poem The Song of Roland. It is interesting, not to say deeply symbolic of the age, that the Franks fought the Moors on behalf of Islam, not Christianity. The battle between Christian and Moor on religious grounds would take longer to develop.
The first emir of Al-Andalus began a dynasty that would survive for almost 800 years. It is not quite as simple as that, though. Three different groups would rule the Moorish areas, the borders would ebb and flow, and the last 250 years of Moorish occupation would cover just a small area around Granada.
The story of the Moors is not easy to tell because of its polarities. Washington Irving paints a romantic view in Tales of the Alhambra, his scenes full of dark princesses and gardens of paradise. Meanwhile, historical accounts tell of Hakam I's crucifixion of 300 suspected rebels near Seville around 800 AD. The Moors heroically and poetically recorded their own triumphs, while the Christians embellished every barbarism. The truth was probably somewhere in between, but there is no neutral source to describe it.
Certainly the romance and brutality are described in equal measure. Hakam I starred again when he beheaded potential rebels one by one, in their hundreds, in Toledo on the infamous Day of the Foss. He later explained this to his son: 'I have taken care that no rebel shall disturb your slumbers.' Yet also from this era comes the legend of the northern princess who married a Moor and pined for the snows of her Scandinavian home. The Moorish prince planted almond trees over every hillside in view so that she could see the white blossoms covering the ground when they fell. There are enough tales of both aspects of the Moorish occupation to make the assumption that the tellers were prone to extremes.
There are plenty of myths surrounding the Moors, some of which need to be clearly dissociated from the early Islamic rulers. One is of intolerance to other faiths. Spaniards who converted paid slightly less tax, but the Moors in general saw both Christians and Jews as 'people of the book' and allowed them to practice their religion so long as they observed Moorish law. Philosophy and artistry, regardless of religious bent, were also prized. Also, although Al-Andalus was ruled solely by Arabs, no women arrived with the invaders. Every Moorish child was therefore a product of a Moorish-Spanish relationship, and the blood line was quickly diluted.
Interestingly, the three religions developed differing roles in society. They gradually divided into a caste system, different from the class system in the rest of Europe. These were simply traditional roles that each faith naturally favoured, given importance according the Moors' view of them as economic priorities. The Moors were at the top, filling the roles of architects, engineers and artists. They were followed by the Christians, who were the farmers, fishermen and manual workers. Finally the Jews were the traders and pharmacists.
The economic roles were not set in stone, and the ease with which citizens could inter-marry or convert meant the social system was much more flexible than the 'sorted by birth' method developing in the rest of Europe. All inhabitants were considered to have the same status regardless of faith, and an individual's importance within society was defined by his or her occupation alone. Feudalism and the concepts of rights and responsibilities between rulers and subjects didn't develop.
The Umaiyid period which lasted until 1086 is perhaps the era that people most associate with the Moors. There were regular revolts, but it was generally internal intrigue; the average citizen would have witnessed a fairly peaceful and tolerant time. Perhaps the peak of the whole Moorish era came under the rule of Abd-er Rahman III in the 10th century, when Al-Andalus was declared a fully independent state with Rahman as its caliph and Córdoba its capital. Rahman's empire included huge swathes of north-west Africa, and his rule was classically Moorish. He lived in a state of constant war, had dozens of his generals executed for cowardice, yet built the incredible palaces of Medina Azahara and the Great Mosque of Córdoba.
But there were rumblings in the north. From humble beginnings in Asturias, the Christians set out to make a new capital at Léon. In 951, according to legend, Castilla was founded when a local king defaulted on a payment for a horse and a hawk until the debt grew to the size of a small kingdom. These localised kingdoms grew almost gently in power and influence, often relying on inter-marriage to survive. But by the turn of the 10th century they had control of a thick strip of the country stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Pyrenees.
The idea that Spain was a country to be re-conquered was taking hold. St James' grave had apparently been rediscovered at Santiago de Compestela, and he inspired the Christians to a famous win in Galicia. The legend of St James the Moor-slayer was born, pilgrims began to trickle to Santiago, and the idea of a re-conquest based on religious fervour began to take shape. St James is still Spain's patron saint.
Córdoba had noticed this. A charming young man called Al-Mansur was virtually running the court of caliph Hisham II and was not someone to be trifled with. He had one of his own sons whom he suspected of plotting against him whipped to death during dinner, and made a giant pyramid out of the heads of his enemies. Unfortunately for the fledgling kingdoms, he wasn't too fond of Christians either, and led three or four raiding parties into their territory each year.
Finally he struck at their heart. In 997, his army captured and sacked Compostela, and destroyed St James' shrine. The tomb was only spared when an old monk refused to abandon it and Al-Mansur, impressed by his bravery, ordered his troops to desist. Even so, the bells and doors of the church were carried off to Córdoba as trophies for the Great Mosque. The Christians had been dealt an early, and almost fatal, blow.