Al Andalus: Moorish Spain

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Transcript

If you think of Spain, you probably think of a predominantly catholic country with major cathedrals and churches in every village.

However, most of the Iberian peninsula for almost 800 years was under Muslim control. The legacy of the Moorish occupation can still be seen in the names of places and some of Spain’s most historic buildings. 

Learn more about Al Andalus, the area of Muslim-controlled Spain, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

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This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.

When you visit Spain, you aren’t just going to see Spanish culture.  Spain has layers of history that you can explore. You can find modern architecture in Valencia at the City of Arts and Sciences, renaissance architecture at the Cathedral of Seville, Moorish architecture in Granada, and Roman architecture in Merida. 

You can even find hundreds of examples of rock art from the dawn of humanity all along the Mediterranean coast.

You can start researching your dream trip to Spain today by visiting Spain.info where you can get everything you need to know to plan your Spanish experience.

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The rise of Islam as a political force was one of the fastest expanding empires in all of human history. 


Within a century of the death of the prophet Mohammed, the Umayyad Caliphate had spread from a small group in the Arabian Peninsula to conquering much of the middle east, central Asia, and North Africa. 

In the early 8th century, the Iberian peninsula was mostly populated by the Visigoths, who were a Germanic people who entered and populated the Iberian peninsula after the collapse of the Roman Empire. 

During the reign of Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid I, General Tariq ibn-Ziyad led Moorish forces across the Mediterranean and landed in Gibraltar on April 30, 711. 

This began a seven-year campaign where the Moors brought most of the Iberian peninsula under Islamic control.

The term Moor should probably be explained as I’ve used it here and in a few previous episodes. 

There really are no people called Moors. The term Moor war a term used by Europeans to describe Muslim inhabitants from North Africa. It included people of different ethnicities including Berbers and Arabs.

The term isn’t too dissimilar from the term Franks which was used by Muslims in the Middle East to describe all Europeans.


The term comes from the Roman province of Mauritania which is where modern-day Morocco is located. 

This invasion began a period where Muslim rulers controlled at least part of the Iberian peninsula for almost 800 years. 

The Moors never completely conquered the peninsula. Even at its greatest extent, just 8 years after the invasion, there was still a part of the peninsula that remained under Christian control. In the far north, the Kingdom of Asturias remained independent and was never conquered. 

That being said, one of the reasons why they had such an easy time is because they gave very generous terms to the people they conquered. One example of this is Theodemir, the Visigoth chief of Murcia. He agreed to terms where he could still continue to be the leader of his people and practice Christianity. All they had to do was pay an annual tribute.

The entire region of Iberian Muslim rule was known in Arabic as Al Andalus. 

The Muslim invasion of Spain terrified most of the Christian kingdoms in Europe. Until this point, all of the Muslim conquests had been outside of Europe. The Byzantines had lost significant territory, but they served as a bulwark preventing Muslim expansion in the East. 

The Moors didn’t stop in Spain, they kept going into France. They were looking invincible. 

However, they eventually reached their limit at the Battle of Tours in 732. The Battle of Tours was unquestionably one of the most significant battles in history, and I’ll leave that story for a future episode. 


Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne the Great, stopped the Muslim advance at Tours, and that was as far as the Moors ever got in Western Europe.

The Iberian Peninsula is naturally defensible. It is surrounded on three sides by water, and the other side is blocked by the Pyrenees Mountains.  

The Muslims settled in on the peninsula for several hundred years. 

I’m really oversimplifying here. The subject of Islamic Spain is a massive topic. I could literally start a brand new show and talk about this subject for years. There are people who have devoted their entire academic careers to the topic. 

The Moors eventually established their capital in the city of Cordova, evolved into the Caliphate of Cordoba from 929 to 1031, which was independent and separate from other parts of the Muslim world. 

During the height of the Cordova Caliphate, Cordova was the largest and most advanced city in Europe. 

However, the Cordova Caliphate only lasted a century. After that, Al Andalus devolved into a handful of Islamic Kingdoms that competed with each other. 

In addition to competing with each other, they were also competing with the various Christian kingdoms. 

Unlike many of the other Christian areas which the Muslims conquered such as Syria and Eastern Turkey, most of the population in Spain never converted to Islam. Some did, but the vast majority did not. 

However, almost as soon as the Moorish invasion began in 711, Christians began planning and dreaming of retaking the lost territory. 

By the 9th century, they began talking of a reconquest, or as it was known, the Reconquista. 

Over the centuries, the Christian kingdoms slowly began retaking territory. 

By the 15th century, the Muslim lands were mostly confined to the southern part of Spain. It is not a coincidence that the province of Andalucia sounds very similar to Al Andalus. 

By the 15th century, the only Moorish part of Spain remaining was the Emirate of Granada. 

Meanwhile, the rest of Spain was being united under the rule of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They finished the Reconquista on January 2, 1492, when the Emirate of Granada finally surrendered. 

Later, the remaining Muslims were expelled and they were one of the targets of the Spanish Inquisition. 

800 years of occupation will leave an impact anywhere. Spain is no exception. 

The language we call Spanish, also called Castillian, was developed during the Moorish occupation. 

As a result, Spanish was heavily influenced by Arabic. There are literally thousands of words in Spanish that come from Arabic. 

Azúcar, trabajo, ciudad, azur, limon, and many other words all come from Arabic. 

It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that Spanish is a romance language heavily influenced by Arabic in the same way that English is a germanic language, heavily influenced by French.

Many place names in Spain also have Arab origins. In addition to the obvious Andalucia, Algeciras, Ubeda, Guadalajara, Gibraltar, and Almería all come from Arabic.

There is also a very strict geographical division in Spain where you will find Arabic place names. There are almost none in the north, and there are lots of them in the south. 

You can find evidence of Moorish Spain all over if you look carefully enough. 

Probably the preeminent piece of Islamic architecture in Spain is the Alhambra in Granada. It was the former palace for the Sultan of Granada, and it is really exquisite. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site really one of the top attractions in the country. 

The other great architectural landmark would be the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba. It is world-famous for its white and orange arches which were built during its time as a mosque. Originally constructed in the 8th century, in the 13th century, it was captured by Christians and converted into a cathedral.  

In almost every city in southern Spain, you can find some examples of Arabic writing in stone and Moorish architecture. 

The history of Spain can’t really even be understood without understanding Moorish Spain. It was the Moorish conquest that was directly responsible for the creation of modern Spain and the modern Spanish language. The Moorish occupation of Spain is what makes Spain unique amongst all European countries.