In the Middle Ages, acolytes of the new religion of Islam swept across the Middle East and North Africa, then pushed into Christian Europe, besieging Vienna as late as 1683. But only on the Iberian Peninsula did it establish power for centuries – and its lasting legacy in Spain became one important reason why in comparison to the rest of Europe, as the old Spanish tourism tagline used to put it, “Spain is different”, historically and culturally. And in 2018, that legacy draws millions of visitors to this country – especially Andalusia in it south – to experience the extraordinary grandeur that was Islamic Al-Andalus.
By the dawn of the 8th century, northern European tribes collectively known as the Visigoths had dominated Iberia for more than 200 years after the collapse of Roman Empire rule, and it was during one of their internecine conflicts that in 711 a small force from the Umayyad Caliphate which then ruled the Muslim world landed at Gibraltar and over the next few years proceeded to sweep through most of the Visigothic realms of Iberia, even reaching up into southern France. They established their capital in Córdoba and ushered in a society that of course was mostly Islamic, but actually became hybridised with existing Christian and Jewish populations in a way not seen before or since.
These conquests obviously involved plenty of brutality – in the way that most conquests in history do – yet the Al-Andalus that evolved from it became in many ways Europe’s most advanced, tolerant, and literate society, with Muslims on top but allowing their Christian and Jewish subjects autonomy to practice their religions and go about their lives relatively unmolested except for payment of a special tax. And it’s misleading to romanticise and idealise this “golden age” too much, because along the way there were certainly also periods of repression under some emirs and sultans, including pogroms, massacres, and forced conversions to Islam.
Nonetheless, during these centuries Córdoba did become Europe’s largest and most advanced urb, and some of today’s most distinguished cities of Andalusia in particular – such as Seville and Granada – saw tremendous growth during the nearly eight centuries of rule by the Moors, as Iberian Muslims came to be known. Learning was greatly prized throughout Al-Andalus, leading to groundbreaking advances in maths, medicine, and agricultural practices, among many other fields (along with a flowering of Jewish culture perhaps unmatched in history). And not a few of these achievements – as well as quite a few products and commodities we today take for granted, and translations of the knowledge of the ancient world largely lost during the Dark Ages – filtered up north of the Pyrenees Mountains into the rest of Europe.
Even after the last Moors were finally defeated and expelled in 1492, Moorish Spain left its mark on modern Spain in countless ways, large and small, including language, art, music, cuisine, architecture, and ways of thinking. But these days, what most delights Spaniards and visitors alike is the splendid monuments it left behind, most notably the sumptuous palaces of Granada, the Alhambra (top) and the Generalife, as well as Córdoba’s grand mosque, the Mezquita (above), its picturesque Judería (Jewish Quarter), and Medina Azahara palace complex. But castles, baths, and other lesser remnants are scattered all across Spain, even as far north as Zaragoza and Majorca (for our coverage of the top eight cities with significant Moorish sites, click here)
In short, Spain wouldn’t be Spain without Al-Andalus, and we in 2018 couldn’t marvel at wonders that exist nowhere else in Europe. Come experience them for yourself.
This is the fourth in an occasional series of Love2Fly posts talking about key aspects of Spain’s long and complex history, to provide at least a bit of context for Iberia’s travel, food, and culture posts, as well as simply to help their non-Spanish passengers and friends learn more about our fascinating country. Also in the series: