*** A Brief History of al-Andalus ***

From about 600 to about 1600

Index of this page


By the 6th century Roman Spain was "an invalid lapsing into terminal agony". The city of Rome in Italy had fallen to repeated onslaughts and the Roman Empire had moved to the far eastern edge of Europe in Byzantium, where the primary language was Greek, not Latin.

A caste system had been established by Emperor Diocletian 300 years before to impose "stability" by ordaining that the occupation of the father would be the occupation of his sons. While not enforced completely, it was used as desired, and continued to exert influence on the local culture.

The old Roman middle class had almost disappeared, and fine Roman engineering of roads, sewers, aquaducts, etc., had fallen into disrepair. Cities were packed with the unemployed who were entertained by "circuses", and on the dole - and if not, they rioted.

The small number of those who owned 25 acres of land or more paid most of the taxes.

The population was mixed culturally and religiously.

Prior to the arrival of the Romans, there were indigenous Spanish people, Iberian Celts, and Iberians of Phoenician descent. In fact, many of Spain's major ports and coastal cities even today were founded by the Phoenicians and were a part of the subsequent Punic culture, against which the Romans fought so viciously.

After the Jerusalem rebellion put down by the Romans (in the 1st c.?), but because Judaism was a religio licita, a legal religion, Jews were welcomed around the Empire. Over one million had settled in Roman Iberia.

Early in the 4th century, all Romans became officially Christian by royal fiat of Emperor Constantine I, called "the Great" (Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, b. 288, ruled 324-337), who also named Constantinople as the new capitol of Rome. The Church, however, never fully trusted the Roman aristocrats, whom they considered to have strong Pagan predilictions and persecution of suspected backsliders was fierce.

The Vandals, after whom the Arabs were to name Spain al-Andalus, came in via the Bel»aric islands and laid waste to the countryside around Cartegena in the early 5th century, until the Romans bribed them to go to the Maghrib in North Africa in 429. They eventually sacked Rome in 455, but lost out when the Goths sacked Rome and took over Italy in 470.

Later in the 5th century, the Germanic Suevi tribe "scorched the Galician earth in a 60 year terror" that ended when the Visigoths ousted them.

The Visigoths, the Western branch of the Goths, had a kingdom in France from 418-507. They had converted to Christianity half a century before they crossed the Pyrenees into Spain in 456, following the Arian heresy, which cast doubt on the divinity of Jesus and which considered the concept of the Trinity as a dilution of strict monotheism. Because of these powerful theological differences, there were intense hostilities between these invading followers of the doctrines of Bishop Arius and the orthodox Christians already in Spain.

Toledo was the Visigoth capital. Visigoth kings, "who succeeded one another with great rapidity", tried to establish order, but didn't get far, as they were faced by constant invasions or insurrections by hostile groups, including other Visigoths. When the Visigoths were defeated by the Muslims around 711, the Suevi came back to Galicia and Asturias.

In Roman Iberia, thousands of slaves might belong to one patron. By the dawn of the seventh century, those slaves, many of whom were Germanic, joined with their kin, who had become the real masters of Spain.


All the Spanish Christians, regardless of their sect, were unified in their intolerance of Jews. Many laws were passed restricting Jews. Although they were not always followed or enforced, new anti-Jewish laws made annually.

Since eventually every Visigoth king decided to stamp out Judaism, this period was a reign of terror for the Jews of Spain. However, there was one mitigating factor. The Visigoths fought among themselves over positions of power with great frequency. When one got power, he would banish or kill his predecessor's friends and followers. This often distracted them from their persecution of the Jews.

616 - King Sisebut, who began his reign in 612, declared that any Jew refusing baptism should get 100 lashes; if they still refused to convert, they were banished and all their property confiscated. By the end of the year, 90,000 Jews, thought to be a small percentage of all those in Spain, had accepted baptism, although many continued to live as secret Jews. During this time, some Jews left Spain for North Africa, while many just continued to live as they had.

680 - King Erwig proclaimed "Judaeorum pestis", "a plague of Jews", and called for their extermination. His decree, however, was not successful, although it caused great hardship to many Jews.

681 - Another decree proclaimed, this one saying that all Jews had to become Christians or leave the country.

694 - Understandably, after this sort of treatment, the Jews of Spain attempted to revolt. They formed an alliance with Jews in North Africa, many of whom had fled Jerusalem centuries before, then fled from the Visigoths and managed to convert some Berbers. The revolt, however, was betrayed by informers. Because of this, Jews were no longer just considered a religious effront, but also a political danger. It was then decreed that all Jewish sons at the age of 7 should be given to Christians as slaves and raised as Catholics. Fortunately, outside of Toledo this did not have much effect, since the Visigoth nobles were too busy fighting each other.

Meanwhile back in al-Islam

Islam began in the early 600's when Muhammad received various revelations from God, the word in Arabic being "Allah". He verbally taught them to his followers in Arabia. On his death in 632, as he had no sons, there was contention over who was to succeed him. Eventually Abu Bakr was chosen.

In 633, Bedouin tribes began to move out of Arabia, looking for booty. Within their first 10 years, they managed to conquer the mighty state of Persia and some parts of Byzantium. By 661 they had moved into North Africa from Egypt to Libya.

644 - When the second Caliph Omar, Muhammad's trusted friend, was stabbed, before his death he appointed the six remaining elders, who had also been the companions of Muhammad, to choose next Caliph. They in turn asked one man, who had taken himself out of the running to choose. He selected Othman. Othman was an early convert to Islam from the Ommayad or Umayyad family, related to the tribe of Muhammad.

Muslim extremists eventually assassinated Othman, because they considered the Umayyads to be insufficiently orthodox and too interested in the pleasures of this world. "Then the followers of the Prophet proceeded to tear one another apart. Clan fought clan and tribe fought tribe".

661 - Eventually, the Umayyads emerged on top, resuming their worldly ways. White was their dynastic color. They moved the capital from Arabia to Damascus in Syria, and proceeded to doubled the size of the empire.


[what follows is a standard history of the conquest of al-Andalus - apparently things weren't quite this smooth - i'll up date this after i do more reading]

Muslims had already invaded the Maghrib in the late 7th century. By 682 Musa ibn Nusair had defeated the Byzantines at Kairouan in what is now Morocco.

As the 8th century opened, Ceuta, the African pillar of Hercules, surrendered to the Umayyad Caliph of Damascus, and the "Romans" in Byzantium lost their last outpost in Africa. Julian, the Byzantine commander, managed to retain all his ranks and have some autonomy, as he was a good diplomat in both Berber and Visigothic politics. Many refugees from Spain, both Jewish and Visigoth, lived in Ceuta.

710 - In Spain, Visigoth Roderick became king. Julian was eager to attack the Visigoths, as his daughter had been raped by Roderick, but Musa was hesitant to go on a Spanish adventure. Tarif ibn Malluk crossed the Straits and had a minor success in the southern Spanish area now called Tarifa. Because of this, Musa ordered a full reconnaissance by the Governer of Tangier, the Berber Tarik ibn Ziyad, accompanied by Julian.

711, Spring (April or May) - 7,000 men were sent on a strictly reconnaissance mission, while Roderick was busy subduing Visigothic rebellions in the northern town of Pamplona. Tarik arrived in Spain at the Europan Pillar of Hercules, which was named Jubal Tarik, the Mountain of Tarik, after the victorious leader, now Gibraltar. Tarik took Carteya, which became port of Algeciras. Receiving the news of this, Roderick came south to Cordoba, at the time a small seedy town. Tarik dug in along the coast expecting a full Visigoth onslaught. He got reinforcements of 5,000 Berber infantrymen, so he had a total of 12,000 soldiers. Then allies began to flock to the camp, especially Jews, but also discontented Visigoths, including the Bishop of Sevilla. Roderick marched in, but his wings were commanded by men who envied or loathed the king and his rank-and-file consisted mainly of serfs and slaves, proxies for landowners, thus not soldiers and not eager to fight. Many abandoned their postitions and Roderick fled.

711, July 19 - The Muslims on the Barbate River met what was left of the Visigothic army and King Roderick was routed. Tarik was not sure what to do after this, as his was just supposed to be a recon mission. Should he return to Africa or continue on? The victories were so easy and the booty so great, that Tarik went on to Ecija, sending his lieutenant and 700 horsemen to Cordoba, which the Magribi took in October, 3 months later, with help from inside. Then Tarik marched on Toledo. When they got there, they met no resistance. At that point, Tarik decided not to chase fleeing Visigoths into the mountains as winter was coming. In less than half a year, Tarik had subdued over half of Spain.

Musa was NOT happy. After all, Tarik was only supposed to be doing reconnaissance, and HE, Musa, was supposed to have the glory of conquest.

712, June - Musa crossed to Spain with 18,000 troups and his son Abdul Aziz. He, too, did not meet much resistance, as Visigoth rulers fled and discontented Christians and Jews opened the remaining unpacified cities to the Muslims.

712 Winter through 713 Spring - The city of MerĂda, full of Visigoth nobles, resisted a long seige, but finally surrendered. The Christian Spanish were amazed when the Muslims took the palaces and treasuries, but didn't ravage and enslave the populace as the Christians usually did to each other.

The Muslims did institute taxes on the infidels. The rich were to pay 4 times the rate of the poor, while the middle-class paid 2 times. Women, children, the blind, the sick, monks, slaves, and beggars were all exempt. Never had the Jews known such tolerance since the Romans had "abandoned their pantheon". Churches were left intact, but half of each one had to given over to being a mosque. "Such cohabitation of faith seemed bizarre in a land where until recently Christian sectarians had self-righteously slaughtered each other." (p. 41)

714 - Musa and Tarik set out for Damascus, Syria, to explain to the Caliph why they had taken Spain without the Caliph's orders. They travelled slowly through North Africa to the Levant, displaying their richly dressed captive Christian princes to great acclaim.

715, February - Musa and Tarik arrived triumphantly in Damascus.Unfortunately, shortly afterward the old Caliph died and the new Caliph, jealous of their success, had Musa, now in his 80's, imprisoned. Taking a hint, Tarik retired elsewhere. Back in Spain, Musa's son Abdul Aziz married Roderick's widow Egilona, pronounced by the Muslims as Ailo. He held court in Sevilla.

716, March - Abdul Aziz was assassinated in a mosque in Spain and Spain became a province of the Caliphate of Damascus, with a governor, the emir, appointed by the Caliph.

Arab families who began feuding after the death of Mohammed in 632 continued to wage war against each other; both in North Africa and Spain Berbers given bad land fought Arabs given good land. The mullahs managed briefly to unite these warring forces by proclaiming a holy war and inciting the warriors to invade Bordeaux. From Spain they managed to get all the way to Tours on the Loire before being routed in 732 by Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne. Losses on both sides were horribly great.

Meanwhile back in the rest of al-Islam:
By 750 the Muslims had control of or at least great influence from Spain to Central Asia.

749 - However, "the [Umayyad] line ran out with Marwan II", who was too lightweight. On November 28 Abu al-Abbas raised the black flag of the Abbasid dynasty which was to last for 500 years. Marwan II fled but was murdered in Egypt. When al-Saffah, another leader of the Abbasids, declared amnesty for Umayyads, 80 gathered near Jaffa to receive pardons, and all were massacred. The remaining Umayyad family members fled.

Among them was 20-year-old Umayyad prince Abd al-Rachman, with light hair in long curls; his grandfather Hishamhad been a Caliph, and his mother Rab was a Berber captive. With great difficulty, he hid in the countryside of Mesopotamia [what is now Iraq] with close family members. Eventually he made his way to North Africa, where he wandered for 4 years from town to town, sheik to sheik, working his way toward the Maghrib, because as an Umayyad exile of the ruling Abbasid dynasty he was not exactly a welcome guest.

754, June - Badr, Abd al-Rachman's loyal family retainer, crossed into Spain, where Visigothic chaos had given way to Muslim chaos. At this time, the emir, or governor, of al-Andalus was Yusuf al-Fihri, who was merely a pawn of his chief adviser on military and civil matters, al-Sumail. Badr didn't approach al-Sumail immediately, but talked to kinsmen of his Umayyad master. The Umayyad politicians then approached al-Sumail who promised support. But when Badr and the Umayyads came back, al-Sumail said he would rather work with Yusuf; Abd-ar Rahman could come to Spain but he would never rise as high as he would like; and al-Sumail would crush him if he had ambitions. The Umayyads thanked him for his generous offer, sure to be accepted, then went off to conspire with wealthy out-of-favor Yemenites.

Badr returned to North Africa, got the prince who was with Berber relatives of his mother, and returned to Spain, establishing headquarters in Torrox, east of Malaga on the coast, while Yusuf and al-Sumail were fighting Christian Basques in Pamplona. They gave gifts to Abd al-Rachman and promised safety and Yusuf's daughter as wife if he'd abandon all claims to the emirate. Negotiations were not successful.

755, Spring - Abd al-Rachman marched up the Gualalquivir river to Cordoba and took the city; he did not allow the Yemenites to sack the city. Thus Abd al-Rachman became the emir of Spain and led prayers in the mosque on Friday in the name of the Abbasids in Damascus, even though they had murdered his family. Yusuf fled to Toledo and al-Sumail fled to Jaen.

Eventually Abd al-Rachman rounded up Yusuf and al-Sumail and returned triumphant to Cordoba. al-Sumail became one of his advisors. Yusuf fled to lead a rebellion from MerĂda. Abd al-Rachman and Yusuf's forces met at Sevilla and Yusuf lost. Not long after al-Sumail was found dead in his room back in the capital. Other revolts broke out. The worst was led by a Berber named Shakya, who was eventually killed by one of his own men.

Cordoba was the capital. As stability grew, Abd al-Rachman dropped the name of the Abbasids from the Friday prayer, but did not overtly declare independence from that dynasty.

Abd al-Rachman I ruled al-Andalus for 30 years as the "Immigrant Emir". He lavished money and attention on the arts, including architecture. This was the silver age of Andalusian culture and his line lasted nearly 300 years. But later in his rule he was confronted by many plots and revolts and became something of a tyrant to protect his throne.

Elsewhere in al-Islam:
762 - the Abbasids moved the capital from Damascus, home of the Umayyads, to Baghdad.

By the 8th century the Maghrib had become home to a number of Muslim "heresies", whose memebers had fled the Abbasids.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pyrenees in the 6th & 7th c.:
In the Languedoc, there were many Romanized Jews around Narbonne, Toulouse, and Marseille.

When the Franks changed from milder Arianism to a more virulent Catholicism in the 8th century, it meant bad times for the Jews, although not as bad as things had been for Spanish Jews under the Visigoths. Archbishop Julian of Toledo in the 7th c was outraged at the thought that the Jews of Narbonne were not only still living well, but converting Christians to Judaism. Julian owed his rank to the conversion to Christianity of both his parents, who had been born Jews. And Bishop Agobard of Lyons deplored the popularity of Jewish cooking among Christians.

So when the Muslims swept over the mountains in mid-century, they were welcomed by the Jews. The Franks beseiged Narbonne which was under seige for over 7 years, beginning (751) 4 years before Abd al-Rachman became emir. During the seige, Narbonne was ruled by a Muslim named Matrand with cooperation from local Jews and Goths.

When the Jews and Goths didn't like how things were going, they ended their cooperation and negotiated with Pepin the Short, grandfather of Carolus Magnus aka Charlemagne. Pepin lifted the seige in 759 giving Narbonne independence. A third of Narbonne was an autonomous principality headed by a Jewish Nasi, Hebrew for prince, with extensive lands around, owing no tribute to the Church or a lord but only to the king of the Franks. After all, Pepin fancied himself in David's line as well as Caesar's. When he was crowned, he was annointed according to the ancient Hebrew royal ritual. In fact, many young Franks at this time celebrated the Sabbath at synagogues because they fancied the rabbinical style of sermon. Some Christians even converted to Judaism.

Pepin requested that the Caliph in Baghdad send him a Jew of the line of David, and Makhir arrived. While legend has it that the first prince was named Natronai, some people think Natronai and Makhir are the same person.

As evidence of the Jewish influence in the region, noble escutcheons are inscribed in both Hebrew and Latin and bear lions and 6-pointed stars. Known Jewish troubadours, such as the celebrated Bűfilh, created numerous chansons de geste celebrating the lineage of the families of Makhir and others. For almost 400 years the Jews of southern France would defy their enemies by invoking the hallowed pledges of Carolingian kings, including with Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, in the 9th c.


[Hisham, his middle son was successor of Abd al-Rachman I]
[Abd al-Rachman II]
[things weaken in al-Andalus]


Abd ar-Rachman III - with his red hair and blue eyes, typical of many Andalusian rulers - reunited al-Andalus in a golden age and declared himself Caliph, a daring move, no longer under the rule, however nominal, of Baghdad

In fact, quite a few Andalusian "Moors" had red and blond hair and blue eyes, since Spain had been populated by Visigoths, Vandals, and other Germanic tribes before the Arab and Berber invasions and subsequent conversion to Islam.

His capital was Cordoba, a city of up to one million inhabitants, 150 miles from the port of Algeciras. He was a great patron of architecture. In time, he built his own fabulous capital, al-Zafra, just outside Cordoba. Descriptions written by visitors describe its splendor. Unfortunately very little of it remains, for it was destroyed by [?al-Mansur?] in his attempt to affirm his power.

"high fashion was set in the workshops of Almería and Sevilla"
Men and women dressed pretty much alike.
White was worn in summer and winter, and colors at other times of year
Men went bare-headed or wore a close fitting felt cap. The turban generally signified a judge or lawyer, although a few others wore it as mark of fashion
Women were not veiled, but did "wrap their hair in kerchiefs"

Glass was fashionable for hanging lamps, pitches, ewers, beakers, bowls...
Linen paper was becoming popular - although parchment was still used.
Not just sacred texts, but literature and scientific essays were popular among Andalusian readers, and large libraries, sometimes headed by women, were established.

Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a Jewish prince, physician, poet, and diplomat, was a favorite of the Caliph
Among his accompishments, he worked with the Christian monk Nicolas on a translation from Greek into Arabic of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, a copy of which had been a gift from Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos

Under the Muslims, most slaves were war captives, and included Africans, Slavs, and Germans, among others. Muslims are not supposed to have Muslim slaves, so their slaves were usually Christians, Jews, and Pagans. Captured Jews were generally ransomed by Jewish community. "Christians are continuously being embarrassed by the flood of Christian slaves who flee [to al-Andalus] from their Christian masters in the north" (p. 23)

Both Jews and Christians, who were "People of the Book" were treated well, aside from taxes, and allowed to worship freely, with a few restrictions - the Christians were not to ring their church bells. Muslims, Christians, and Jews all dressed similarly, and the Muslims often attended Christian celebrations. These Christians who lived in many ways like the Muslims were known as Mozarabs, from the Arabic word musta'rib, meaning Arabizer.

Elementary education was common in tenth century Spain and most boys and girls learned to read, to write, and to recite the Qur'an. The Great Mosque of Cordoba also became a University, where students could learn poetry, natural sciences, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, law, and diplomacy. Europeans would sometimes disguise themselves so they could study there.

By the end of the reign of Abd al-Rachman III, the king of Leon, the queen of Navarre, and the counts of Castile and Barcelona, all Christians, acknowledged him as their overlord and sent him annual tribute.

After the death of Abd al-Rachman III, Hisham II, a boy of thirteen, ascended to the throne. The real ruler was Ibn abi Amir, a great general known as al-Mansur, The Victorious, who continued to lead al-Andalus with military might.

A story was told in al-Andalus during this golden age:

When Allah was furnishing the empty shell of the world, al-Andalus petitioned for five blessings:
  • clear skies,
  • a beautiful sea bountifully stocked with fish,
  • trees hung with fruit,
  • fair women,
  • and a just government.
Allah granted all but the last wish, reasoning that if all the others were given a proper government, al-Andalus might rival Paradise.


The death of al-Mansur marked the end of the Ummayad dynasty and Muslim Spain succumbed to civil strife. In 1031 the great Caliphate was ended and al-Andalus split into a multitude of small kingdoms.

The many small kingdoms, ruled by the ta'ifs, were not politically strong. Nonetheless, the arts flourished throughout Andalusia, and Muslim Spain was a center for music, poetry, literature, and the sciences.

The notable dynasty of the Almoravids (1062-1147) began in southern Morocco and moved into al-Andalus. The Berber Almoravids were harsh, puritanical, orthodox Muslims, critical of the grandeur of the Ummayads which they considered decadent.

The Almohads (1147-1258) displaced them, another strict Muslim regime, and by 1159 briefly united the Maghrib all the way from al-Andalus in Iberia to Ifriqya (Libya).

However, Spanish Christians outside al-Andalus, with help from other European Christians, launched the Reconquista to retake Spain from the Muslims. Over time they made inroads against the Muslims who were all too often fighting with each other. In 1085, the Spanish retook Toledo, in the north of al-Andalus. For another 125 years the Christian Spanish made no great inroads into al-Andalus.

Then the Maghribi army of the declining Almohad Empire suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Spanish at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. 1236 saw the fall of C¤rdoba, and by 1250 Almohad power completely collapsed, and the Maghrib and al-Andalus were plunged into bitter civil wars between various Arab and Berber factions. All that remained of the independent Muslim state was the Kingdom of Granada, a small section of southern Spain on the Mediterranean.

Even as the Spanish retook Muslim areas, they continued to make use of the fine Muslim craftsmen in their territories. The traditional Muslim Andalusi styles under Spanish Christian rule in architecture, gardening, music, and most textile crafts is known as "mudŞjar". Buildings were built that looked just like their Muslim predecessors, save for the inclusion of Spanish Christian arms within the otherwise Muslim decorative scheme.

One Muslim kingdom remained strong. Ruled by the Nasrid dynasty beginning in 1232, Granada was a thriving state, rich with trade, particularly silk, and the arts. The magnificent fortress and palace called al-Hamra was begun in 1248 and completed about one hundred years later. Now known as the Alhambra, it is the oldest Islamic palace in the world to survive in a good state of preservation.

Granada survived because the Christian Spanish states of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon, who had defeated the Muslims at C¤rdoba, spent a couple hundred years fighting each other. But there were still areas in which the Christians asserted themselves and persecuted Muslims and Jews.

In 1287, a large number of Jews, expelled from Bel»aric Islands by the Alphonso of Aragon, arrived in the Maghrib.

In 1391 another large group of Jews arrived in the Maghrib, expelled from the Majorcas by the Spanish Christians.


In 1469 two of the major kingdoms of Spain were united when Isabella of Castile married Ferdinando of Aragon. Isabella was infuriated when Granda refused to pay her tribute and she set her mind to driving the last of the Muslims from Spain. Her war against Granada began in 1481. She brought in German and Italian artillery to destroy the protective outposts on the hills surrounding Granada.

In 1492 the Reconquista was at last successful, and, with the fall of Granada, the Christians took control of all of Spain, essentially marking the end of al-Andalus. With this victory came the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, whose task was to seek out heretics and non-Christians, beginning again a reign of terror for the Jews who had been well integrated into the Muslim world for several hundred years.

Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or flee Spain. But many "Conversos" were executed anyway, as "Maranos", suspected "secret" Jews. Those who refused to convert became known as the Sephardim, Jews formerly Spanish who fled around the Mediterranean, many to North Africa, some eventually going as far as the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey - many still speaking a form of medieval Spanish known as Ladino.

A massive number of Jews expelled by the Reconquista crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to the Maghrib, followed by a smaller wave of Muslims fleeing from the fall of Granada.

In 1502 thousands of Andalusian Muslims fled Spain for the Maghrib after decrees of expulsion.

During the 16th century more people of Jewish or Moorish background were expelled from Spain or fled persecution there, and settled in Morocco. Many of them had converted from Islam and Judaism to Catholicism, but were suspected of continuing to practice their previous religions secretly.

As late as 1609 to 1614 thousands more "Moriscos" fled Spain, arriving in the Maghrib. Again, they were those whose families had converted to Catholicism under Ferdinando and Isabella, but whose families continued to be persecuted by the Spanish for over a century.

The Sephardic Jews lived well enough in the Maghrib until the coming of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, which began persecuting and restricting them.

While the Reconquista signaled the end of al-Andalus, none the less, Andalusian culture continued to survive in small pockets for well over one century and it has exerted an undeniable influence on Spanish culture to this day.

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