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History of Spain

Starting in May and continuing over the next months, we will take a casual look at the history of Spain from pre-history to the present times. Hopefully by its completion, you and I will know a lot more about our adoptive country and of the people and events which shaped it to what it is today.

I hope you get as much enjoyment reading this as I did in researching it.

-> Thanks to the editor of the Dream Scene, Mick Clifford, who kindly gave the permission for publishing this serie on this website

A History of Spain - Part 4 - The Early Moorish Period
The Chronicle of the Lord King Rodericc
Titlepage of La Crónica del rey don Rodrigo (The Chronicle of the Lord King Roderic) published by Juan Ferrer (1549), recounting the legendary deeds of Roderic [Juan Ferrer - Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, España]

Visigothic rule in Spain was a shambles and their contribution to Iberian culture, society, security, progress and wealth was negligible. Legend states that Count Julian of Cueta in North Africa helped the Moors to invade the peninsula in revenge for the rape of his daughter by King Roderick. However, in reality the Muslim invasion of the Iberian peninsula was the logical extension of a spectacular movement of conquest and expansion, which in the space of barely a century, after the death of the prophet Muhammas in 632, led to the creation of a vast Islamic empire. After they conquered North Africa, the peninsula was a natural progression.

Although there was a half-hearted attempt by the Moors to invade in 675 AD (they never got off the boats), Musa, the Muslim governor of North Africa, sent a force of 400 Moors in 710 AD to reconnoitre the south coast. They brought back valuable information, some booty and ‘women of rare beauty.’ In 711 AD, Musa ordered the Arab governor of Tangier, Tariq ibn Zihad, to cross the straits and invade southern Spain.

‘You must know how the Grecian maidens, as handsome as houris, their necks glittering with innumerable pearls and jewels, their bodies clothed with tunics of costly silks and sprinkled with gold, are awaiting your arrival, reclining on soft couches in the sumptuous palaces of crowned lords and princes.’ It was with these words that Tariq inspired his invading force of 10,000 no-doubt ‘horny’ men, mostly comprised of Berbers.

In April 711 they landed near the limestone mass they called jabal-tariq (Tariq’s rock), which is the origin of the name Gibraltar. King Roderick was in the far north when the invasion occurred and rushed south with an army of questionable loyalty to do battle with the Moors. Both forces met near the Guadalete River in southwestern Andaluciá. During the battle, a large number of Roderick’s army defected to the other side which now included the bishop of Sevilla, together with the supporters of Achila,the main Visigoth opposition to Roderick. Rapidly, Roderick and what remained of his army were annihilated. One of Roderick’s bodyguards, obviously not a very effective one, together with remnants of the mangled Visigothic army, managed to escape to Asturias in the north. His name was Pelayo and together with a handful of stragglers, they joined tough local defenders and formed the nucleus of the Christian Reconquest.

After his victory, Tariq gave orders that a large group of prisoners be cut to pieces and their flesh boiled in cauldrons. The remainder of the Visigoths were released and told to spread the word of Moorish methods.

As the Moors advanced, if they met any armed opposition from a town or city, all the men were slaughtered and the women and children were taken into slavery. If there was no opposition there were no killings. Some Visigoth notables sought to preserve their power and status by immediately coming to terms with the Muslims.

One such lord was Theodemir of Orihuela who was guaranteed safety and freedom of worship in return for a pledge of loyalty, an annual tribute of one dinar per head and quantities of wheat, barley, grape juice, vinegar, honey and oil. Initially the Moors allowed freedom of worship to both Jews and Christians considering them to be ‘People of the Book.’ The oppressed classes such as the Jews and the serfs were pleased with the demise of the Visigoths, the former having suffered terribly under several cruel regimes. Encouraged by the ease with which the conquest was proceeding, Musa himself invaded in 712 with another army and commented on the ‘effeminacy of the Goth princes.’ Thirty years later, St. Boniface blamed the Goths quick downfall on their ‘moral degeneracy and homosexual practices.’

After just two years, both Tariq and Musa returned to Damascus, then the power centre of the Muslim world, with phenomenal treasures and entourages of captured Spanish women. (The Moors brought no women with them from Africa.) However, bad timing was their undoing and after becoming unwittingly involved in a power struggle following the caliph’s death, they spent the remainder of their lives in a filthy Arab prison.

Most of the indigenous population believed that the Moors would load up with booty and depart back to Africa and the Middle East. However this was not the case. Surprising themselves, and historians subsequently, the Moors conquered most of Spain in just seven years, except for a small area in the north and north west.
Parallels are often drawn by historians between the rapid demise of the Visigoth kingdom and the equally dramatic fall of Anglo– Saxon England to the Normans in 1066. The Moors then crossed the Pyrenees, but were defeated by Charles Martel of the Franks near Poitiers in a number of battles around 733, finally returning to the peninsula in 759. The Moors now referred to their conquered areas in the peninsula as al-Andalus.

It would be a mistake to think that the Moors were a united or homogenous force. They consisted of a smaller Arab population and a much larger Berber element from the Maghreb, a large non-Arab region of North Africa.

The Arab element consisted of a number of rival tribes, with the two leading factions being the Yemenites and the Kaishites. However the Arabs treated their Muslim brothers - the Berbers, as second class citizens and the settlement of the peninsula was divided along tribal or ethnic lines. Whereas the Arab minority settled mainly in the major towns such as Córdoba, Seville and Zaragoza and in the richer agricultural lands, the Berbers were relegated to the central meseta and poorer regions. This would in due course lead to major conflict amongst the Moors. [Uploaded: 08 September 2016] Next month - Part 5 - The Birth of the Reconquest.
A History of Spain - Part 5 - The Birth of the Reconquest

If the Moors had concentrated on conquering the whole of the peninsula, and not been distracted by their quest for booty and glory beyond the Pyrenees in France, the Iberian Peninsula would still probably be Muslim today. Moorish troops were diverted from mopping-up to do battle with the Franks.

As we saw in Part 4, Pelayo, a bodyguard or sword-bearer for the deceased Visigothic King Roderic or Roderick, escaped to the north of Spain together with other Christians fleeing from Muslim rule in the south.

According to legend, Pelayo and 30 of his followers defeated an army of 40,000, some say 400,000! Moors in the valley of Covadonga in Asturias. One account states that the 400,000 Muslims were miraculously killed when all the weapons they hurled flew back at them! In reality it was probably just a skirmish, however Pelayo was referred to as ‘that savage ass’ by one Arab writer and he continued to be a thorn in the side of the Moors.

‘What harm can thirty savage asses, who live on honey like wild beasts, do to us?’, one Moorish general reported. Nevertheless, Pelayo’s constant harrying of the Moors wore them down and they eventually left the area. The Moors then put a number of military outposts manned by Berbers in Galicia and the north. However, following a disastrous famine in the north and a revolt in the south during 739 between the Berbers and their Arab masters, the Berbers vacated the garrisons in the north for the warmer climes of the south. Both the Arabs and the Berbers found the climate and remoteness of the north extremely inhospitable. Also they never conquered the Basque area believing that the Basques were wild animals.

Pelayo created a great dynasty when his daughter married a local chieftain named Alfonso, founder of the kingdom of Asturias. Alfonso 1 reigned for 18 years and won back extensive property. At the time of his death in 757 the Christians had re-occupied almost one-quarter of the peninsula. This was the beginning of what would later become known as the Reconquest or Reconquista.

Statue of Don Pelayo
Monument to Don Pelayo, sculpture by Gerardo Zaragoza (1965) in Covadonga (Asturias, Spain).

After several failed attempts by the Franks, Charlemagne’s son, Louis of Aquitaine, captured Barcelona in 801 and established a Frankish protectorate between the city and the Pyrenees, known as the Marcha Hispanica or ‘Spanish March.’ (Many Spanish now put down the stubborn and intransigent nature of the Catalonians to their French genes! Catalonian nationalists still believe that Rossellon in France should be part of Catalonia.)

Around 840, the Vikings appeared in the peninsula. First they raided Galicia in the north and then Lisbon in search of slaves and booty. They then sailed up the Guadalquiver to Sevilla where for one murderous week they held the city and indulged in a week long orgy of murder and pillage. However, an army of Moors soon put them to flight and the Vikings limped back to sea with less than half their fleet.

The Muslims moved their capital from the old Visigothic centre of Toledo much further south to Córdoba.

They felt much more secure closer to Africa from where there was a constant flow of slaves and gold, and of course soldiers. As with the Romans, slaves were an essential element of the Muslim civilisation. Many were forced to serve in the Moorish armies. One Moorish prince had a retinue of 5,000 boys for his (ahem) pleasure.
The harems of the Moors were also well stocked with beautiful women. They preferred the fair women of the north, probably Celts, particularly those from Galicia. During periods of Moorish dominance, the small Christian kingdoms were often obliged to pay an annual tribute of young virgins for the harems. The continued interbreeding between Christian and Moor diluted the Arab blood so much that in time, many Arab rulers had to dye their hair black so they could ‘look the part’. Eunuchs also played a vital role in regal affairs and often rose to high government posts in the Moorish world. Castrated males were considered safe and trustworthy.

Although castration is prohibited in the Koran, the Moors bought the ‘finished product’ from Jews and Christians. Many ‘fresh’ eunuchs were imported from the south of France and Lucena, south of Córdoba, had a thriving trade in castrations and eunuchs. Certainly not a place you would want to get lost in!

Compared to the natives, the Moors were renowned for their cleanliness. The Visigoths, not known for their personal hygiene had destroyed most of the Roman baths. The Moors built hundreds of public baths. Later many Christians associated dirtiness with goodness and especially for Spanish monks, physical dirt became a test of moral purity and faith. Some wore the same unwashed clothes for years to express their devotion.

There was a Moorish saying at the time: ‘Christians were sprinkled with water at birth and thus relieved from washing for the rest of their lives.’ [Uploaded: 23 October 2016] Next month - Part 6 - Moorish Consolidation. [Uploaded: 15 October 2016]
A History of Spain - Part 6 - Moorish Consolidation
Saint James the Just
Saint James the Just  - The picture originates from the days.ru open catalogue ([1])

After being defeated in France, the Moors relinquished their ambitions in the remainder of Europe and concentrated on al-Andaluz, the name they called the occupied four fifths of the Iberian peninsula. (This is not to be confused with modern day Andalusia, although it did encompass it.) The movement of their capital southwards to Córdoba and continual revolts among the Arabs themselves and with the Berber tribes, encouraged the leaders to take a ‘hands-on’approach, particularly in the southern half of the peninsula.

This gave a welcome breather to the Christian north and gave rise to a number of small kingdoms. These were Galicia, León and Asturias in the north/north-east, Castille and Navarre (Basque area) in the north and the Spanish Marches and Catalonia in the north-east. At this stage these minor kingdoms were as happy to fight each other as the Moors.
These Christian societies in the north were neither wealthy nor sophisticated. Their economies were based on subsistence agriculture and pastoral activities. Although royal centres such as Oviedo, León and Pamplona developed, they were little more than fortified settlements; trade was sluggish and based on barter; industry was non-existent until the tenth century. There were insufficient revenues to pay armies, warrior nobles (knights) being relied upon to fulfil this role. There was constant raiding for slaves by the Moors from the south and the Vikings continued to do, what they did best, and devastated much of coastal Galicia during the early 800’s.

Around 840, one of the pivotal events in Spanish history occurred. A shepherd, guided by a star, found in the mountains a marble coffin whose contents were believed by many to be the remains of the Apostle James, the brother of Jesus. A chapel was built on the site, and later a splendid cathedral. This became known as Santiago de Compostela - ‘St. James of the Field of the Star’ - and became an inspiration and a goal of Christian pilgrimage, which continues to this day. The sacred bones were invaluable in raising morale and funds for the holy war against the Moors. The battle cry of the Christian knights became ‘Santiago’ and St. James was made the patron saint of Spain.

The ecclesiastical hierarchy formed a second nobility, taking little notice of Rome. Political disunity was rife between the petty northern kingdoms. In 930, the knights of Castille refused to obey the kings of León or Asturias and formed their own independent state with its capital in Burgos. When the Christian kings did manage to unite some of the other kingdoms with their own - whether by marriage or by force - they inadvertently undid all their good work by dividing up the kingdom between their sons on their death. This ensured that the sons continued the tradition of internecine war amongst themselves and the other Christian kings. This happened twice following the deaths of Fernando 1 and Sancho the Great; the former dividing a united Christian kingdom between three sons and the latter between his four sons further fragmenting the kingdoms with endemic civil wars. All this merging, separating and merging again, made sure that the Reconquista continued at a snails pace.


Meanwhile al-Andalus developed both economically and culturally and became the envy of Europe. Under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate, particularly the vigorous leadership of ‘Abd al- Rahmán III, some unity was brought to the Muslims, even though the Berbers were still treated as ‘second class citizens’ by the Arabs. He also led a number of successful raids into the northern Christian states, not seeking to conquer them but to assert his authority, to gather slaves and such booty as there was, and to deter future Christian raids.

Thanks to a booming commercial sector, huge revenues in Moorish Spain were amassed from custom duties, levies on personal wealth and property, and with the taxes paid by all non-Muslims, these amounted to something in the región of six and a quarter million gold dinars a year, a huge amount. This enabled the caliph to recruit bigger and better armies, including large numbers of Berber and Christian mercenaries. This helped reduce his dependence on tribal levies and the resultant quid pro quos. He also reduced his dependence on the old families of al-Andalus by recruiting large number of Jews, Christians and muwallads (converts to Islam) to senior positions in the bureaucracy.

The agrarian wealth of the caliphate was transformed and revitalised in the 200 years since the invasion, with the Roman irrigation systems upgraded with Middle Eastern technologies. A whole range of new crops were introduced which included citrus fruits, bananas, artichokes, cotton, rice and sugar-cane. In the highland areas, vines, olive groves fig trees and cereals predominated although some wheat had to be imported from North Africa. The effects of this ‘green revolution’ caused populations to rise and the increased profits stimulated industrial and commercial activity.

The towns of al-Andaluz became important centres of industrial activity, producing textiles (particularly linens, cottons and silks), ceramics, glassware, metalwork, leather goods and paper. Urban centres, always the fulcrum of Islamic society and economy, began to expand. By far the greatest was Córdoba, which by the tenth century had become one of the great cities of the Mediterranean world with a population of around 100,000, while London had less than 8,000.
Córdoba was not merely the seat of the Umayyad government and administration, but also the cultural and religious epicentre of al-Andaluz. The Umayyad rulers were enthusiastic and generous patrons of the arts and sciences.

Important works in Astronomy, Mathematics and other sciences were published or translated from other languages such as Greek and Persian. Christian scholars and monks also visited Córdoba to study and translate, in what was acknowledged as the greatest repository of knowledge, cultural and scientific, in the western world. Superb mosques and palaces were also built, some of which remain to this day.

As the British historian, Richard Fletcher, stated in his compelling book, ‘Moorish Spain,’ ‘For nearly a century al-Andaluz had been the richest, the best-governed, the most powerful, the most renowned state in the western world. The tenth century was the pinnacle of Córdoba’s glory.’ [Uploaded: 04 December 2016] Next month - Part 7 - A Chink in the Moorish Armour.

History of Spain
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