Islamic Spain and the Reconquista

Hover the mouse cursor over the cities, castles, and battles on the map for more information
Select a Time Period:
756 AD
940 AD
1036 AD
1162 AD
1212 AD
1265 AD
1492 AD
Islamic Spain and the Reconquista


The Muslim Conquest of Spain

    The Iberian Peninsula had been one of the wealthiest parts of the vanquished Roman Empire until it was overrun by Germanic tribes in the 5th Century AD. The Germanic tribe that came to dominate Iberia was the Visigoths, but their reign would be short. In 711 AD, the Arabs began an invasion of Iberia under the leadership of Tariq Ibn Ziyad. Tariq landed at Gibraltar (in fact Gibraltar is a corruption of the Arabic 'Gibr Tariq': the rock of Tariq) and conquered virtually the entire peninsula in a 7 year campaign. The Arabs called Iberia "Al-Andalus", which is the origin of the name of the modern Spanish province of Andalucia. Al-Andalus became the westernmost part of the immense Islamic Empire ruled by the Umayyad Caliphs from Damascus in Syria.

The Islamic 'Golden Age'

    In 750 AD, the Umayyad Dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasids in a bloody coup. The Abbasids had invited 80 prominent Umayyad leaders to a dinner in Damascus and had them clubbed to death before the first course. The only one to escape was Abd Al-Rahman I, the 19 year old grandson of the tenth Umayyad Caliph, he jumped out of a window, swam across the Euphrates River, and fled in disguise. Abd Al-Rahman I spent the next 5 years on the run from the Abbasids, in 755 AD he arrived in Spain and was able to gain enough political support to establish a new Umayyad Caliphate in Spain to rival the Abbasids in the Middle East (see map 1 - 756 AD). Abd Al-Rahman I established his capital at Kurtuba (modern Cordoba), which became the largest and most wealthy city of Western Europe, rivaling Constantinople and Baghdad in the East. According to some scholars, the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba was not only a wealthy civilization, but also extremely enlightened in comparison to it's contemporaries in Christian Europe. M.R. Menocal attests in her book, 'Ornament of the World', that whilst Islam was the ruling religion of Islamic Spain, Christianity and Judaism were tolerated faiths, and Christian and Jewish scholars, doctors, and architects all flourished under the Umayyad rulers. The Umayyads were not only tolerant of other faiths, but also held a relatively enlightened attitude towards women, who were permitted to learn reading and caligraphy and become scribes at the court. However, there was a limit to religious tolerance even during this Golden Age. The penalty for blasphemy was death, and any Muslims who tried to leave Islam were also executed. (Source)

    The height of Umayyad power in Spain is considered to be during the 10th Century AD, specifically during the reign of Abd Al-Rahman III (see map 2 - 940 AD). Abd-Al-Rahman III was known to have fair hair and blue eyes due to the long practice of the Umayyad Caliphs taking Basque and Frankish wives. Abd Al-Rahman III was a patron of the arts, most notably architecture, he commissioned major building projects, he expanded the Cordoba library and built a magnificent palace complex on the outskirts of Cordoba called Madinat Al-Zahra dedicated to his favorite wife, which was described by Christian travelers as a dazzling series of palaces full of treasures never seen before. (Source)

The Christian Reconquest

    In the 11th Century AD, the power of the Umayyad Caliphs began to wane, the Caliphate disintegrated into a series of separate Islamic Kingdoms known as 'Taifas' (see map 3 - 1036 AD). In the same period, the Christians, who had managed to hold on to a slither of territory in the northernmost part of the peninsula began to get their act together, both culturally and militarily: the Christians recaptured much of central Castile (Toledo, Madrid, and Gudalajara all fell to the Christians in the late 1080s AD), and the start of construction of the Romanesque cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in 1075 AD marks the beginning of large scale Christian building projects to rival that of the great palaces and mosques of Islamic Spain. However the Christian reconquest, or 'reconquista' did not gather real momentum until the 13th century, mainly due to infighting between the various Christian kingdoms. The most famous Christian hero of the so-called 'reconquista', El Cid, actually spent much of his career fighting for one Christian kingdom against another, and even spent some time under the employment of Islamic rulers, fighting against the Christians.

Islamic Spain
This 13th Century Drawing from Islamic Spain shows a mixed sex group drinking wine and listening to music. The men are without beards and the women are without hijab. All of these activities were considered "un-Islamic" to the Orthodox Almohads who came from North Africa to impose traditional Islamic law in the peninsula.
    Nevertheless, the Moors in Spain were feeling threatened by the resurgence of Christianity, many blamed Islamic losses on corrupt leadership and lax observation of Islamic laws. The Islamic rulers invited the Almoravids into Spain to help them defend their territories from the Christians. The Almoravids were a tribe of North African warriors who believed in a strict interpretation of the Koran, they believed that the Islamic rulers in Spain were not true Muslims and had begun adopting Christian lifestyles. With considerable public support, the Almoravids were able to wrestle power from the Islamic rulers in Spain whom they had originally come to assist. The Almoravid grasp on power was short-lived however, as an even more radical Islamic movement began to take hold in North Africa: the Almohads, a movement so conservative that it made the Almoravids seem like freethinking moderates. The founder of the Almohad movement had even assaulted the sister of the ruling Almoravid Emir for not wearing the veil in public. The Almohads were able to take advantage of religious zeal amongst the populace of North Arica and take over virtually the entire empire of the Almoravids. When the Almohads arrived in Spain, they outlawed the production of wine and violently forced many Jewish and Christian communities to convert to Islam, most fled to the Christian Kingdoms of the north who were at this time considerably more tolerant of religious minorities(source).

    Not all Muslims in Spain welcomed the strict orthodox preaching of the Almohads. Ibn Mardanis, known as "El Rey Lobo" (the wolf king) to the Christians, led the resistance movement against the Almohads amongst the Muslims of Spain. By allying with the Christian Kingdom of Castile, he had several military successes against the Almohads and was able to create an independent Islamic Taifa with its capital at Murcia. (see map 4 - 1162 AD) When Ibn Mardanis died, his sons surrendered to the Almohads who now controlled all of Islamic Spain (see map 5 -1212 AD). But the Christian Kingdoms were by this time united in their desire to drive the Muslims out of Spain once and for all and the Almohads proved to be no match for them in the long run. The turning point in the reconquista was the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212 AD), which saw a combined army of Castile, Aragon, and Navarre, along with volunteers from Leon and France, defeat the Almohads. Shortly after Valencia, Cordoba, Seville, and the Balearic Islands all fell to the Christians. Only a tiny Islamic Kingdom ruled by a new Islamic dynasty, the Nasrids, around the city of Granada survived. (See map 6 - 1265 AD)

1492 - The Beginnings of a New Spanish Golden Age

    Meanwhile, the separate Christian kingdoms began to merge into what would eventually become the Kingdom of Spain. Castile and Leon were united in 1230 AD, and then the Kingdom of Aragon was added by the dynastic union of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in 1474. The forces of Ferdinand and Isabella finally conquered the last Islamic Kingdom of Granada in 1492, ending 700 years of Islamic rule in Spain. (see map 7 -1492 AD) In the same year Ferdinand and Isabella signed the Alhambra Decree, requiring all Jews to convert to Christianity or face expulsion from Spain. In subsequent years, the Muslim minorities would face the same fate. Later that same year (1492), Ferdinand and Isabella commissioned Christopher Columbus to set sail across the Atlantic. From this point on the Christians of Spain would continue their expansion and conquests, but this time westwards, in the New World.

Recommended Reading:


Unless otherwise stated, all maps on this site are © ExploreTheMed