Travel Blog

The rise of Al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula
15th December 2020

The rise of Al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula (Hispania)

In the year 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.

The rapid advance of the Muslims throughout the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain & Portugal) was impressive. By 720 almost all the territory was under their control, with the exception of a thin strip along the north coast, roughly equivalent to Asturias and Cantabria.

Whether the Muslims 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 channeling the energies of the recently conquered and converted Berbers of the Maghreb (Northwest Africa) with the promise of booty, slaves and lands.

Run by governors acting for the Umayyad Caliph in Damascus (Syria), the peninsula’s fortunes were initially tied to the interests of the Middle East. . After the conquest of the peninsula, governors followed thick and fast, the first being Musa’s son, Abd al-Aziz,  soon decapitated in Seville  accused of trying  to usurp power and declare himself ruler.

 

The Arabs brought with them tribal quarrels inherited from the Middle East while the Berbers felt 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 resulted in a civil war.

At this moment, the history of Al-Andalus or Muslim Spain witnessed an important event, the arrival of Abd al-Rahman

 

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 independence of the Caliphate of Baghdad.

 

Abd al-Rahman I: Emir of Al-Andalus 756-788

Abd al-Rahman ruled for 32 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 northwest, thanks to Christian resistance.

Abd al-Rahman’s determination to impose his rule was constantly challenged by these local rulers, and also by Abbasid support from Baghdad. However, he gradually put down revolts one by one, and when the occasion merited it was not above coming to terms with Christian opposition.  By the early 770s, Abd al-Rahman controlled all but the Ebro valley.

In 785 Abd al-Rahman build a great Masjid in Cordoba. It was a large and striking house of worship befitting both his illustrious heritage and his authority in al-Andalus.

The great Cordoba Mosque was a powerful statement to the still considerable Christian community -called the Mozarabs-, that Islam was there to stay. As a tribute to his lost home in Siria, Abd al-Rahman ordered to orientate the qibla wall -that always directs the faithful towards Mecca when praying- facing Damascus. This way when praying, he would symbolically be paying homage to his Umayyad heritage.

Another building was a more personal and nostalgic reminder of Abd al-Rahman’s Syrian past. It was the beautiful palace of Rusafa, built on the hillside overlooking the city (where today stands the Parador of Arruzafa).

T 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.

Abd al-Rahman died in Cordoba in 788, passing the reins of power to his designated heir, a younger son, Hisham.

SEE OUR PRIVATE TOURS