Al-Andalus. 8th Century. Consolidation.

Al-Andalus: 8th Century. Consolidation.

In 711 Muslim forces, following the orders of the governor of Africa, Musa ibn Nusayr, and under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad, crossed the straits of Gibraltar and defeated the army of the Visigothic king Roderic somewhere inland from Tarifa.  In the following year, Musa himself led an army across the straits and took over command of the conquest.

Al-Andalus in 720. Correctly speaking, it was an emirate from 756 to 921, when Abd al-Rahman III declared himself caliph. Click to enlarge.

The rapid advance of the Moors (the general term for the invaders) throughout Hispania (i.e. the Iberian Peninsula) was impressive. By 720 all Hispania was under their control, with the exception of a thin strip along the north coast, roughly equivalent to modern day Asturias and Cantabria. Whether the Moors intended to stay is not clear, but undoubtedly the large fertile areas they saw were a significant factor in their decision to remain. In addition, the invasion was a useful means of channelling the energies of the recently conquered and converted Berbers of the Maghreb (North West Africa) with promise of booty, slaves and land.

Run by governors acting for the Umayyad caliph in Damascus (Syria), the peninsula’s fortunes were initially tied to the interests of and events in the Middle East. After the conquest of the peninsula, governors followed thick and fast, the first being Musa’s son, Abd al-Aziz.  Abd al-Aziz was soon decapitated in Seville in 715 and his head dispatched to Damascus.  His crime? He tried to usurp power and declare himself ruler. Other sources state that, having married Rodrigo’s widow, al-Aziz was viewed as too lenient to the Christians.  It was even rumoured that he became a Christian himself!

Whatever the case, Abd al-Aziz’s fate seems to have set the tone for the next forty years in that it was a period of political volatility and internal feuds. The instability was reflected in a rapid turnover of governors: twenty came and went, some killed in expeditions into France, others deposed or assassinated in the course of the feuds.

Much of the volatility arose from quarrels within the Arab military minority –the guiding force behind the invasion—and dissatisfaction amongst the Berbers, who made up the majority of the invaders. The Arabs brought with them tribal quarrels inherited from the Middle East while the Berbers felt themselves treated as second-class citizens by the Arabs. The Berber grievances were not without cause. When land was confiscated from those who had opposed the invading armies, the Arabs amassed the best property, e.g. along the Guadalquivir, Guadiana and Ebro river valleys, and the fertile coastal areas. The Berbers had to make do with the rest, mainly mountainous areas around Granada, the hostile Duero valley and damp Galicia in the north west, and the Pyrenees in the north east. A Berber rebellion in 740 –on the heels of another a year earlier in the Maghreb, where Berbers had been subjected to a land tax by Arab authorities– was the fruit of their frustration, and resulted in a civil war. At this moment, the history of al-Andalus  (i.e. Muslim Spain) witnessed an important event, the arrival of a young individual whose imprint was going to be felt in Spanish history for generations. His name was Abd al-Rahman. But to understand the circumstances of his arrival, we have to take a side trip to the Middle East, where Islam was experiencing a major crisis.

Upheavals in the Muslim community started immediately after Muhammad died suddenly in 632 AD without designating an heir. Out of the ensuing feuds over who should be caliph (i.e. successor to Muhammad), members of the Umayyad clan eventually took control and established their dynastic capital in Damascus in 661. The matter was far from settled, however, and by 750, a rival dynasty, the Abbasids (who claimed descent from the Prophet via his daughter Fátima and his murdered son-in-law Ali), succeeded in overthrowing the Umayyads and shortly after removed the caliphate to Baghdad. The whole process was a bloody affair and the Umayyad royal family decimated in the purge. Only one member, 20-year old Abd al-Rahman, escaped. He made his way across North Africa, eventually arriving in Spain in 756. Quickly he gathered support from among the pro-Umayyad factions there, and within a few months had deposed the governor of al-Andalus, entrenched himself in Córdoba and declared himself emir. The Umayyads may have lost everything in the Middle East, but under Abd al-Rahman, a new Umayyad dynasty was born in Spain that would largely set its own political agenda independent of the Caliphate of Baghdad.

Abd al-Rahman I (ruled al-Andalus 756-788).
Abd al-Rahman ruled for thirty two years, spending much of the time putting down revolts within his realm and consolidating his power. When he arrived in 756, Muslim control had already contracted from the heady days of the invasion, especially in the north west, thanks to Christian resistance. As early as 718 (or 722), rebels from the mountains of Asturias defeated a Moorish army**, initiating what later became known as the “Reconquista.”

**In fact, the battle may have been no more
than a skirmish, but soon took on legendary
proportions as the birth of the Reconquista.

From then on, frequent sorties by Christians from the security of their mountain hideouts, and Berber discontent with their lot resulted in a withdrawal of Moorish garrisons from Galicia and the Duero valley by 750. The Moors eventually created more permanent garrisons in an arc running roughly from Badajoz, Mérida, and Toledo to Zaragoza.  Between the northern borders controlled by these towns and the emerging Christian kingdoms to the north, there existed a large and very fluid no-man’s land, constantly crisscrossed by raiding parties from both sides. During the volatile period following the conquest, the Moorish leaders of these regions were left largely to their own devices, and enjoyed considerable autonomy.

The map on the upper left gives a good idea of the extent of al-Andalus by 750. The no-man’s land ran on both sides of the border line between Asturias and al-Andalus.

Abd al-Rahman’s determination to impose his rule was constantly challenged by these local rulers, and also by Abbasid support from Baghdad (e.g. in 763, 777). Gradually, however, Abd al-Rahman put down revolts one by one, and when the occasion merited it was not above coming to terms with Christian opposition.  Unlike his predecessors, however, Abd al-Rahman was dealing from a position of strength and his demands were substantially greater than those made, for example, by Abd al-Aziz of Theodemir of Murcia in the early days of the invasion. In 759, for Instance, the following peace treaty was reached: This is a truce document of the great king Abd al-Rahman on behalf of the Patriarchs, monks, notables and Spanish (Andalusian) Christians of Qashtala (Castile?), and those from other regions who adhere to them.  A document granting security and peace: he has attested in person that his covenant will not be revoked so long as they pay ten thousand ounces of gold, ten thousand pounds of silver, ten thousand of the best horses and likewise of mules, one thousand coats of mail and likewise of spears, every year for five years.  Written in the city of Cordova on 3 Safar (5 June 759) (Smith III #77 p 23). Such demands undoubtedly went a long way to subsidise Abd al-Rahman’s campaigns for control of al-Andalus.

By the early 770s, Abd al-Rahman controlled all but the Ebro valley. From Zaragoza down to Barcelona, the Muslim rulers turned –in 778– to a surprising source for military support: the Christian king of the Franks, Charlemagne. Possibly tempted by the opportunity to expand his empire southwards, Charlemagne responded by crossing the Pyrenees.  He himself led one army through the western Pyrenees, another crossed at the eastern end.  Both armies met at Zaragoza, only to find that the Moorish leaders had undergone a change of heart, and instead of cooperation, the Franks faced resistance. The course of history might have changed considerably had Charlemagne decided to lay siege to Zaragoza, but as it happens rebellion in Saxony (northern Germany) forced him back to France.

The return trip was a disaster for Charlemagne: his rearguard was decimated by Basque marauders as it crossed through the pass of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees. The episode was later converted into a majestic battle against Muslim forces in the famous French epic, the Chanson de Roland.

The main beneficiary of Charlemagne’s return to France was Abd al-Rahman. He captured Zaragoza in 779, and quickly extended his control over the rest of the Ebro valley. With this victory, Abd al-Rahman became the first emir of all al-Andalus, although his authority was still sometimes tested (e.g. an Abbasid challenge in 781).

No better indicator of Abd al-Rahman`s sense of achievement and security than his decision in 785 to build a mosque in Córdoba. It was no ordinary mosque, but a Friday mosque (i.e. where the whole community prays together on Friday)s. It was a large and striking house of worship befitting both his illustrious heritage and his authority in al-Andalus. It was at the same time a challenge to his Abbasid enemies in the Middle East and a definitive declaration of independence from Baghdad. Abd al-Rahman, however, did not go so far as to adopt the title of “caliph” (i.e. successor to Muhammad). As “emir” he was the temporal ruler of the Muslims, but by building a large Friday Mosque he was to all intents and purposes divorcing al-Andalus from Baghdad’s spiritual leadership (to underline the break, at the Friday prayers, the Abbasid caliph’s name was not evoked, as was normally the case). At the same time, the Great Mosque was a powerful statement to the still considerable Christian community (Mozarabs) living in Cordoba that Islam was there to stay (a message undoubtedly underlined by the solid walls of the mosque that give it a military flavour).

As an exile from his homeland of Syria and last survivor of his family, Abd al-Rahman’s decision to build the Great Mosque may also have been prompted by memories of his birthplace, and home to the Umayyad dynasty, the city of Damascus. Córdoba`s mosque was no imitation of the Great Mosque of Damascus, but its construction and purpose suggested a yearning to recapture something of the lost glory of the Umayyads. Even the qibla wall (that always directs the faithful towards Mecca when praying) in this instance faces Damascus, so that whenever Abd al-Rahman knelt in prayer, he would symbolically at least be paying homage to his Umayyad heritage.

The Great Mosque was a religious monument, but another building was a more personal and nostalgic reminder of Abd al-Rahman’s Syrian past. It was the beautiful palace of Rusafa, the name of which suggests that it was modeled on his grandfather’s palace in Rusafa, Syria. Built on the hillside overlooking the city (where the state-run hotel, Parador de la Arruzafa, now enjoys the panoramic view), the palace was surrounded by a beautiful garden.  Here Abd al-Rahman spent most of his last years tending his plants and especially his palm trees, planted so it is believed by the emir himself. A short poem, written by Abd al-Rahman is a poignant summary of his nostalgia:
A palm tree stands in the middle of Rusafa,/ Born in the West, far from the land of palms./ I said to it: How like me you are, far away and in exile,/ In long separation from family and friends./ You have sprung from the soil in which you are a stranger;/ And I, like you, am far from home. (Monacal 61).

Abd al-Rahman died in Cordoba in 788, passing the reins of power to his designated heir, a younger son, Hisham, who ruled for 8 years. A man noted for his piety and learning, who visited the sick and who dressed simply, Hisham also had a tough streak that enabled him to put down a rebellion by his older brothers, and also lead forays into disputed territory against Christians.

Hisham’s death in 796 effectively closes a tumultuous century, which saw not just another invasion but the implantation of an alien language, religion and culture on an already rich and varied heritage.

Collins, Roger  Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity 400-1000  London 1995
Constable, Olivia R. ed.  Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources  Philadelphia 1997
Fletcher, Richard   Moorish Spain  London 1992
Lomax, Derek   The Reconquest of Spain London 1978
Monacal, Maria R   The Ornament of the World  Boston 2002
Smith, Colin  Christians and Moors in Spain Vol III Arab Sources 711-1501 Warminster, England 1992
First map is from:
Second map from: