Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Conquest of Spain by the Arabs

The Conquests of Abu Bekr

Abu Bekr was filled with as great a zeal for the faith as had been Mohammed, and with an even greater lust for gold and power. So the triumphant march of the Moslems, or Saracens as they came to be called, through the world began. With sword in one hand and Book of God in the other they set out to conquer and convert the whole world. To all prisoners of war they offered but one choice—death or the Koran.

Thus a new terror was born into the world, a new danger made all Europe tremble, and for many ages the cry of Allah, Allah! was to blanche the cheek and wake fear in the hearts of all who heard it.

The Moslem soldiers were as fearless as they were feared. Death to them had no terrors. It was but the gateway into a new and glorious life; for they believed that if they died fighting for their faith they would at once enter into a paradise of endless delights. If they hesitated, only the pains of hell awaited them.

So with fanatic zeal and lust of blood and of gold burning in them, the dark-faced horde swept onward. All Persia fell before them, from the Caspian Sea to the Indus. Syria the Holy Land, Armenia, were torn from the Empire. Egypt, too, bowed to the yoke. Yet Constantinople stood firm, and again and yet again the ravening host was rolled back from its walls discomfited.

But through the Golden Gate of Constantinople was not the only way of reaching Europe. The Mediterranean lay open to the Moslem ships, and soon the trade routes of the world were in their hands. Throughout the length and breadth of the inland sea they sailed at will. They overran the north of Africa, and the kingdom of the Vandals, which Justinian had reconquered for the Eastern Empire, became another jewel in the caliph's crown. Through Africa the conquering Arab marched until he reached the shores of the Atlantic. There, like some new Alexander, he stood, sighing for more worlds to conquer. Westward lay the barren Outer Sea, the great double continent which lay across its wide waters still unknown and unguessed at. Southward lay the trackless desert. Northward then to Europe the conqueror's eyes were turned.

Across the narrrow Straits lay Spain. Since the days when Ataulphus the son of the Wolf had led his followers there (see Chapter I) the power of the Visigoths had spread until at length they held sway over the whole of what is now Spain, and over a great part of southern Gaul as well. For nearly three centuries foreign foes had scarcely touched their borders. Yet the Goths did not prosper. For they were a turbulent people, and the kingdom was nearly always in a state of unrest. Many of their kings died by murder, many were deposed, revolutions were frequent and bloody.

Roderick and Tarick

Now, instead of uniting against the Moslem danger, they still quarrelled among themselves. A noble named Roderick had usurped the throne. But there were many who hated him, among them the sons of the late king, and a certain Julian, to whom he had done a deadly wrong. The Jews, too, of whom there were many in the land, were ready to revolt, for they were cruelly persecuted.

The Arab love of plunder was well known, and it seemed to all these malcontents that it would be well to have their help to depose the hated king, Roderick. The Arabs would come, thought the Visigoths, defeat and depose their king, and, having plundered him to their heart's content, would depart again to their own land.

So Count Julian went to the Arab leader and offered to help him if he would but come and free the country from the yoke of the usurper. The Moslems were willing enough, and a young and skilful officer named Tarick was sent to depose King Roderick. He landed at the rocky south-western corner of Europe which, after him, was called Jebal-Tarick, or the rock of Tarick. It is still called by that name, Gibraltar, although the last syllable has fallen away.

Upon landing, Tarick fortified his camp, and thus more than twelve hundred years ago began the military history of one of the most famous fortresses of the world. King Roderick hastened to meet Tarick, and not far from the town of Xeres a great fight took place But when the armies drew near to each other, we are told, "the Gothic princes began to spin the web of treason." They, with their followers, deserted and joined the Saracen ranks, and soon the rest of the Gothic army broke and fled in disorder.

King Roderick had entered the battle as if he were going to a play, so disdainful was he of the heathen invader. Clad in flowing silken robes, with a jewelled diadem about his brow, he reclined in an ivory car, drawn by milk-white mules. But when he saw the day lost and his soldiers fleeing in rout, he sprang from the car, and leaping upon his fleetest horse, joined the rout. He fled from battle, however, only to meet death in another fashion. For in trying to cross a river, which flowed near the battlefield, he was drowned.

The Saracen victory was complete. But instead of being content with their triumph and plunder, as Count Julian and his fellow-conspirators had imagined, the victorious troops marched further and further into Spain. Everywhere towns opened their gates to them. Hardly anywhere did they meet with the slightest resistance, and in a few months the Visigothic kingdom was wiped from the map of Europe. It vanished even as the Ostrogothic kingdom had vanished, and the whole of Spain, save a little strip in the north-west, became a province of the great Mohammedan Empire.

But the conquerors were not content with Spain only. They swept on over the Pyrenees, and before long all the south of Gaul was in their hands. Nothing, it seemed, could stay their conquering march. In less than a century and a half the Arabs had built up almost the greatest empire the world has ever seen. Now it appeared as if all Europe might bow the knee to Allah, and pay tribute to the caliph.

Arab Rule in Spain

Yet it is well to remember that where the conquering Arab passed he did not destroy as the Hun and the Goth destroyed. Beneath the onslaught of the Christian, but more than half barbaric Teutons, the art and learning of Rome to a great extent disappeared, and Italy especially was left forlorn and desolate.

It was not so much that the Teutons deliberately set themselves to destroy the splendid monuments of Roman art and learning, as we are taught to imagine by the modern use of Goth and Vandal. Indeed, many of the chief Teutonic leaders had been trained in the school of Rome, and desired to preserve all that was best of Roman tradition. But even so, the genius of the two peoples was so diverse that much that was Roman was bound to disappear. Besides, although some of the leaders were more or less civilized, their followers were still brutishly ignorant.

War was the only art known to the mass of the Teutons when they invaded the Empire. For a long time after their invasion war was the rule rather than the exception, and people who live in a constant state of war cannot well cultivate the arts of peace.

With the Arabs it was different. At the time of their irruption into Europe they were already advanced in arts and learning. They brought their learning with them and implanted it in the conquered countries. And for many generations Spain owed her advance in the arts of peace to the domination of the Arabs.