Al-Andalus. 8th Century Invasion.

Birth of Al-Andalus. 8th Century:

In 711, the history of the Iberian Peninsula (or Hispania or Spania as it was called then) took a radical turn.  What had previously been predominantly Christian lands ruled by Visigoths –and populated also by descendants of other Gothic tribes, Hispano-Romans, Basques, and Jews—became Muslim territory almost overnight.

Islam remained a potent force in the Iberian Peninsula for approximately the next 800 years, and the history of al-Andalus (as the Muslims called the land they controlled), makes compelling reading, especially in the light of interest in Islam nowadays.

Extremist Muslims, among them Osama bin Laden, often express the wish to see Spain return to Islam. Indeed, the Madrid bombers of March 11, 2004, partially justified their actions on the loss of al-Andalus.  And during court proceedings in the USA, Zacarias Moussaoui, the French citizen of Moroccan origin and so-called 20th hijacker in the September 11 attacks, prayed to Allah for the return of al-Andalus.

What do we know with certainty about the events surrounding the invasion and conquest of Hispania?  Little in fact.  There are plenty of Arab and Latin (i.e. Christian) texts dealing with the topic.  Unfortunately, however, most were written quite a bit –even centuries– after the events, and regularly obeyed contemporary political needs, or were intended to explain or justify events or arguments relevant to the time they were composed.

For example,  Christian texts explained the invasion as divine punishment for the treachery and depravity into which the Visigoths had sunk; on the Arab side, it was divinely sanctioned. So, a great deal of what these later texts say is slanted, contradictory and conjectural, and a lot reads more like legend than fact.

Mixing fact and fiction, the following tales are some of those that surfaced later as instances of the immorality and treachery that caused the fall of the Visigoths: a certain Count Julian, the Visigothic governor of Ceuta (on the African side of the straits of Gibraltar), sought vengeance for the alleged rape or seduction of his daughter, Florinda, in Toledo. 

The man responsible was Roderic (Rodrigo), the last king of the Visigoths. The disaffected governor invited the expansionist Muslim forces to invade his country to punish Roderic.

According to another source, however, the rapist/ seducer was not Roderic, but Witiza (r. 702-710), the king whom Roderic succeeded.  Muddying the waters even more, another version attributes the invasion and its success to the “sons of Witiza” who sought help from the Muslims in their struggle with Roderic. Ostensibly loyal to Roderic, they abandoned him during the battle with the Muslim forces, under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad.

But what was it that prompted the invasion of 711?  We don’t really know. Was it part of a natural expansionist tendency in Islam, which had only recently swept across the north of Africa? There had been some raids across the straits of Gibraltar before 711; did these suggest that a more permanent presence would meet with little opposition? 

Perhaps it was a means of keeping the recently converted Berbers happy with booty? Or were the Moors (the all-embracing name commonly given to the newcomers) indeed invited by the disaffected “sons of Witiza?”  We don’t know. We do know that the invasion was headed by Tariq, but we don’t how many soldiers accompanied him.

Tariq and his forces are said to have landed
near Gibraltar, the etymology of which is
Jabal Tariq, the mountain of Tariq.

There was a decisive battle against Roderic, but we don’t know exactly where. It’s almost certain that Roderic was not the undisputed king of the Visigoths, since contemporary gold coins dug up in the north east of the peninsula bear the name of a King Achila, while the few bearing Roderic’s name are from the centre and south west 

The evidence of contemporary coins bearing the name of two different kings does seem to confirm, however, a state of civil war in the peninsula around 711.  And the possibility that Achila was one of Witiza’s sons (as some sources suggest) increases the chances that members of Witiza’s family sought help from across the straits of Gibraltar.

(Mozarabic) Chronicle of 754 (Mozarab: Christian living in al-Andalus)

The closest source we have that mentions the invasion is an anonymous Latin prose work known as the (Mozarabic) Chronicle of 754 (after the date of the last event recorded in it). It says that after raids that had gone on for a while, the Arab governor of North Africa –Musa ibn Nusayr– sent over an invading army under Tariq (ibn Ziyad) in 711.

In the meantime Roderic –who had rebelliously usurped the Visigothic throne in 711— was fighting a civil war with his Visigothic enemies.  At news of Tariq’s landing, Roderic gathered his followers and engaged the invaders at an unidentified spot called the “Transductine promontories” (behind Tarifa, around Medina Sidonia, along the banks of the Guadalete river have all been suggested). Roderic was killed in the ensuing battle.

Musa himself then crossed into the peninsula and moved on Toledo, destroying everything as he went. After beheading a number of noblemen, with the connivance of Oppa (Witiza’s brother), Musa continued northward as far as Zaragoza, burning, torturing and killing as he went. After this, the Moors set up their capital in Córdoba.

Recalled to Damascus by the caliph, Musa took with him captives and large quantities of booty. On his departure, he left the country under the command of his son, Abd al-Aziz, who managed, during his three years in power, to extend control over virtually all the peninsula.  Abd al-Aziz married Roderic’s widow, but was assassinated in 715 by his own men, suspicious that he planned to set up an independent kingdom in Spain.
Despite the expressions of horror at the invasion, what is perhaps surprising is that the chronicler’s attitude to the Moors is generally even handed.  Musa and one or two others are heavily criticised as “pitiless” and “deceitful”, but others are praised for bringing peace to the land. 

Perhaps this is because the chronicler does not evaluate the leaders in religious terms, but according to their contribution to political life.  Nor does he question their legitimacy as governors. The chronicler also refrains from talking about the invaders’ religion, and does not call them Muslims, or infidels or pagans; rather he refers to them in ethnic terms: Arabs (Arabes), Moors (Mauri), Saracens (Saraceni).

By 720, the chronicler adds, all the lands of the Visigoths had fallen under Muslim rule and the Moors had crossed the Pyrenees into the south of France.

The chronicler’s general sentiment is one of profound regret for the fall of Hispania which he equates with the demise of Troy, Jerusalem or Rome. He does not blame the Moors; his anger is directed at internal rivalries amongst Visigothic nobles some of whom also collaborated with the invaders.  Others, like Bishop Sindered of Toledo, shamefully fled abandoning their flock.

The earliest Arabic sources dealing with the conquest date from the second half of the 9th century. Although not the oldest, the best known account is that of Ibn Abd al-Hakam (d. 871).  In it, Count Julian, governor of Ceuta, seeks revenge on Roderic for leaving his daughter pregnant. Julian offers Tariq ships to cross the straits (of Gibraltar).  Tariq’s forces head for Cordoba, killing as they go.  Upon hearing this, Roderic marches out of Toledo and engages the Muslims in battle on the banks of an unidentified river.  Roderic and all those with him are killed.


Al-Andalus 720. It was not yet a caliphate. In 756, Córdoba was confirmed as capital. From 756 to 929, al-Andalus is more properly called an emirate. In 929, it became a self governing caliphate until its break up in 1031.

The speed with which the Moors advanced northwards was remarkable. All the peninsula, with the exception of a thin strip along the north coast (roughly modern Asturias and Cantabria) was under Moorish control by 720.

Dissension amongst the Visigoths undoubtedly made the task easier. And, unlike the Romans who had had to fight or come to terms with numerous different tribes, the Moors, once they had defeated Roderic, had eliminated a major component of Visigothic resistance. After that, they faced no sustained opposition. There was some resistance in Toledo, Mérida, Córdoba, Zaragoza– which cost their inhabitants dearly, and was probably a deterrent to others from following suit. But more productive and less demanding –since it did not require the establishment of garrisons– was a peaceful agreement between conquerors and conquered.

A widely quoted example is a treaty between a certain Theodemir, a Visigothic chief from the south east (roughly between Murcia and Alicante), and Abd al-Aziz. In return for submission, Theodemir retained his leadership and he and his subjects were free to follow their Christian practices. On their part, they were required to refrain from helping deserters or enemies, and were obliged to pay individually an annual tribute of money and goods (specific amounts of wheat, barley, unfermented grape juice, vinegar, honey and olive oil).

 The peace treaty states: “We will not set special conditions for him (Theodemir) or for his men, nor harass him nor remove him from power.  His followers will not be killed or taken prisoner, nor will they be separated from their women and children.  They will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned, nor will sacred objects be taken from the realm, [so long as] he (Theodemir) remains sincere and fulfills the [following] conditions… He will not give shelter to fugitives, nor to our enemies, nor encourage any protected person to fear us, nor conceal news of our enemies.”  The rest stipulates the annual tributes. From Dodds, 16.

By 721, the Moors had crossed the Pyrenees into France, where –after defeating a remnant Visigothic kingdom and establishing themselves in Narbonne—they undertook sorties throughout the south west.

Defeat at Toulouse in 721 and Poitiers in 732 or 733 were major setbacks, but not yet the end. Avignon and Arles were taken in 734, and raids along the Rhone river demonstrated the resilience of the Moors.  It wasn’t until 738 that Charles Martel (the Hammer, and conqueror at Poitiers) was able to retake Avignon and the surrounding area, and 751 before Narbonne finally fell. 

The Moors might have been able to establish themselves more permanently in the south of France, but that required more manpower. Factional dissension and Berber revolt in al-Andalus precluded that, however, and effectively put an end to further expansion.


Christys, Ann  “The Transformation  of Hispania after 711,” in Regna and Gentes: The Relationship between Late Antique and Early Medieval Peoples in the Transformation of the Roman World pp. 219-42. Eds. Goetz H, Jarnut J and Pohl W, Leiden 2003
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
Dodds, Jerrylin, Monacal Maria R, Balbale, Abigail K   The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture New Haven, London 2008
Fletcher, Richard   Moorish Spain  London 1992
Lomax, Derek The Reconquest of Spain London 1978
Smith, Colin  Christians and Moors in Spain Vol I 711-1150 Warminster, England 1988
Wolf, Kenneth B Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain Liverpool 2nd ed. 1999
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