The Reconquista

Almost as soon as the Muslim caliphate conquered Spain in 718 AD, Christian Europe began plotting to win the peninsula back. It took almost 800 years of sporadic war but the reconquista (reconquest) was ultimately successful in 1492, when the last stronghold of Moorish control on the peninsula, the great fortress of Granada, fell to the forces of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. But the Moors, as Spain’s Muslims were called, left a strong cultural legacy to the modern nations of Spain and Portugal. During the eight centuries of Moorish rule, the Iberian Peninsula was known as al-Andalus. The caliphate was the only extended period of Islamic rule in otherwise Christian Western Europe. Muslim Spain was, by many measures, a stunning success. The architectural marvels built by the caliphs rivaled their Christian counterparts at the time.

Christian Europe was both fascinated and terrified by the Moors in their backyard. Retaking Iberia became a key goal for medieval Christians and a rallying cry for the Church. Charlemagne, among other European rulers, sent his troops to fight the Moors. The Crusades, though aimed at Muslim held territories in the Middle East, were influenced by the friction between Christians and Muslims generated by Moorish control of Spain.

The cities under Moorish control began to fall to Christian armies after 1100 AD. Christians captured Zaragossa in 1118. Lisbon, the capital of modern-day Portugal, fell in 1147. The great Moorish capital, Córdoba, was captured in 1236. The fall of Granada in 1492 completed the reconquista. The conquering Christians were not nearly as tolerant as the Moors. A few months after the fall of Granada, Jews were expelled from Spain. A few years later, the remaining Muslims on the peninsula were ordered to either convert or leave Iberia. The once-thriving caliphate had vanished, but Spain and Portugal, two countries that were soon to become major players on the world stage, had emerged from the ruins.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. In 1294, with the boundaries between Portugal and Spain still unsettled, Portugal signed a treaty of alliance with England. It is the oldest treaty in the world still in force.
  2. One of the most famous warriors of the reconquista period was a Christian general named El Cid, who actually fought for both Christians and Muslims.
  3. The Quran forbade depicting human figures in mosques, which lead to a reliance on geometric forms and patterns. This distinctive architectural style remains visible in many Spanish towns where mosques were converted into Catholic churches after the reconquista
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