Islamic Occupation of Hispania

Islamic Occupation of Hispania

In 711 the cultural identity of the Iberian Peninsula was to change forever, as it heralded the commencement of the Islamic occupation of Hispania, or Spain. On 29 April, under the leadership of Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad, Moorish forces made the short trip across the Strait of Gibraltar, signaling the start of the Islamic conquest of Spain, and initiating the demise of the Visigoth Kingdom that had governed the region for the best part of 300 years.

Since its foundation in the early 7th century, Islam had spread rapidly. Under the rule of Walid I, the powerful Damascus-based Umayyad Emirate was expanding at a considerable rate, and by 711 had brought much of North Africa under its control. An expansion northwards across the Mediterranean, into what the Muslims referred to as Al-Andalus, was the next logical step.

The timing of the invasion was crucial. Tariq ibn-Ziyad was aware that political intrigue within the Visigoth Kingdom meant that their leader, Roderic, was occupied in the northern region of the peninsula, attempting to repress challenges to his authority. This ensured that ibn-Ziyad’s invasion force, though small, met with only limited resistance on the southern coast, and was quickly able to quell the Visigoth opposition.

Buoyed by the ease with which they had established a foothold in Spain, more and more Muslim troops crossed the Mediterranean. They were primarily Berbers, indigenous to northwest Africa, and Arabs, who had traveled westwards from Yemen and Syria. Roderic attempted to repel the Islamic invasion, but his efforts came too late. In a decisive battle in July 711, the Visigoth king was slain, and the well-organised invaders ruthlessly exploited the power vacuum that emerged.

With remarkable swiftness, the invading forces overran the Visigoth structures of power, eclipsing Christian ascendancy. One by one the most important cities on the Iberian Peninsula fell into Muslim hands, and within a few years, all but a small part in the north had been absorbed into the newly founded Emirate of Cordoba. It proved to be the beginning of a period of Islamic rule in the region that would last, under several different guises, until 1492, when it was finally usurped by Roman Catholicism.

Today, one of the most evident, and indeed most celebrated legacies of the Islamic conquest of Spain, is found in the art and architecture that the Muslims brought with them. Throughout the region, the Muslim conquerors transformed the cultural landscape, introducing shapes and trends that borrowed heavily from the heritage of the Middle East. Countless mosques, palaces and civic buildings were constructed, using designs that mimicked those found in traditional centres of Islam, such as Damascus and Mecca. It was the Muslims who introduced fountains and the familiar “keyhole” (or Moorish) arches to Spain, and the vogue for decorating buildings with tiles and mosaics. Among the pinnacles of Muslim design were the great mosques and palaces built in Cordoba and Granada. Masterpieces of Islamic design, these buildings are among the most visited landmarks in modern-day Spain, and serve as a reminder of the central role that Islam played in Spain’s history.

Credit: © PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy
Caption: Tariq ibn-Ziyad strikes down Roderic the Visigoth.