Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Muslim Iberia

In the 8th century, nearly all the Iberian peninsula was quickly conquered (711–718), by mainly Berber Muslims (see Moors), who had crossed over from North Africa. Visigothic Spain was the last of a series of lands conquered by the Islamically inspired armies of the Umayyad empire. Indeed, they continued northwards until they were defeated in central France at the Battle of Tours, 732. Only three small Christian counties in the mountains of northern Spain managed to cling to their independence: Asturias, Navarra and Aragon, which were eventually to become kingdoms.
Interior of the Mezquita in Córdoba, a Muslim mosque until the Reconquest, after which it became a Christian cathedral.
Interior of the Mezquita in Córdoba, a Muslim mosque until the Reconquest, after which it became a Christian cathedral.

Under Islam Christians and Jews were recognised as "peoples of the book", and so given dhimmi status. Christians and Jews were free to practise their religion, but faced certain discriminations and financial burdens. Conversion to Islam proceeded at a steadily increasing pace, as it offered social and economic and political advantages. By the 11th century Muslims are believed to have outnumbered Christians in Al-Andalus.

The Muslim community in Spain was itself diverse and beset by social tensions. The Berber people of North Africa had provided the bulk of the armies, clashed with the Arab leadership from the Middle East. The Berbers soon gave up attempting to settle the harsh lands in the north of the Meseta Central handed to them by the Arab rulers. Over time the relatively tiny number of Moors gradually increased with immigration and inter-marriage. Large Moorish populations grew, most notably in the south, especially in the Guadalquivir River valley, and on the Mediterranean coastal plain of Valencia. Towards the end of their reign they became concentrated in the mountains around Granada.

Cordoba, Muslim Spain's capital, was the richest and most sophisticated city of medieval Europe. It was not until the 12th century that western medieval Christendom began reaching comparable levels of sophistication, and this was due in no small part to the stimulus coming from Muslim Spain. Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished. Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa. Muslim and Jewish scholars played a major part in reviving and contributing to the tradition of classical Greek philosophy, mathematics and science in Western Europe. New crops and techniques led to a remarkable expansion of agriculture. Magnificent mosques, palaces, and other monuments were constructed. Outside the cities, the mixture of large estates and small farms that existed in Roman times remained largely intact because Muslim leaders rarely dispossessed landowners.

The relative social peace broke down with the later, stricter Muslim ruling sects of Almoravids and Almohads.

Roman, Jewish, and Muslim culture interacted in complex ways, giving Spanish culture — religion, literature, music, art and architecture, and writing systems — a rich and distinctive heritage. However, as the 11th century drew to a close most of the north and centre of Spain was back under Christian control.


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