13 October 2008

Expansion & Invasion: Conquest of Spain

By Lisa Yarde

In the seventh century, Arabian invaders swept westward and captured North Africa in a bold bid for Islamic control of the Mediterranean. In 711, an army led the Berber general Tarik ibn Ziyad amassed on the shores of North Africa and looked toward a prize looming across the Mediterranean: Spain.

Map of Islamic expansion into Spain

Spain at the time was a decaying country under the fractured Visigoths. After the sudden death of the Visigoth King Wittiza, a rebellious, powerful chieftain called Roderick seized the throne and proclaimed himself king. Roderick's cruel suppression of regions that did not support him sealed his fate and doomed his kingdom to collapse. The sons of the late King Wittiza conspired against him, in addition to a Visigoth nobleman named Julian, who allegedly hated Roderick for the rape of Julian's daughter. The Visigoth rebels appealed to the Muslims of North Africa for assistance against Roderick. The governor of North Africa, Musa ibn Nusair had other plans for Roderick’s beleaguered kingdom.

In the year 710, Musa appointed a Berber leader Tarik ibn Ziyad, as his general. Tarik's goal was to sail for southern Spain. When he landed on a rocky outcrop on the coast, he gave his name to the region as "Jabal Tarik", the mount of Tarik, known by its modern name of Gibraltar. Under Tarik, the Muslim army crossed to Gibraltar in 711 and easily overran Roderick's crumbling Visigoth kingdom, moving quickly up from the coast to Cordoba and Toledo. They met with little resistance as they established control over the coastline. Many non-Muslims, especially the enemies of Roderick Jewish residents of Spain, welcomed the newcomers as allies rather than conquerors and aided them willingly.

Gibraltar, site of Tarik's landing

The Visigoths were caught by surprise. Roderick quickly went to the south with a small band of men. They were easily overwhelmed and defeated in an ambush and Tariq's men killed Roderick on July 19, 711. In the following year, Tarik's lord, Musa, joined the attack, launching a three-month siege at Seville before he moved on to areas now in modern-day Portugal. In the north, combined armies of Musa and Tarik took the provinces of Leon and Castile, reaching as far as the Bay of Biscay. For his victories, Tarik initially became the governor of conquered Spain. Within seven years, the conquest of the peninsula was complete. The Muslims renamed the new land "al-Andalus" from which the modern name for the southern region of Andalusia derives. Under Islamic rule, Christians and Jews were called "peoples of the book" which meant they were free to practice their religion. But, the Muslim rulers imposed financial penalties and sometimes persecuted their non-Muslim citizens, which meant mass conversions to Islam.

The Cordoban mosque

Determined to expand further in Christian Europe, the Muslims crossed into France and in a decisive battle at Tours in 732, King Charles Martel halted the northern advance. But Spain flourished as one of the centers of Islamic civilization, and remained in part under Muslim control until 1492 when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella completed the Reconquista.