Spanish Empire—Moorish Spain

711 to 1492
Battle of Guadalete to Fall of Granada

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Moorish Spain

The Moors of Spain—In 623 the followers of Mohammed began a campaign of conquest, and within sixty years were masters of Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Persia, Egypt, and all of North Africa. In many of these formerly Christian regions the people converted to Islam, and the Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus, held sway.

By 710, when Roderic came to the throne as the result of a civil war between rival Visigoth nobles, the region of North Africa directly across from Spain was held by Musa bin Nusair, an Arab general. Several Visigoth and Jewish refugees who had fled to North Africa, asked Musa to help them overthrow Roderic, so he sent an army under Tariq ibn Ziyad. A great battle was fought at the Guadalete River, and the Moors won an overwhelming victory against the divided Visigoths. Although several towns held out against the Moors, there was almost no organized resistance, and within a few years the invaders had taken almost all the Iberian Peninsula and were making their way into Gaul. Their advance was checked by the Franks at the battle of Tours.

The only region of the Spanish peninsula that held off the Moslem hordes was a mountainous region in the Northwest formerly unders the sway of the Franks. The Kingdom of Asturias was founded by Pelayo, a Visigoth noble, but its population consisted of a collection of Roman Spaniards, Visigoths, Franks, and Suevis who fled from the Moslem persecutions.

Forty years after the establishment of the Moorish empire in Spain there was a great civil war involving the leadership of the Caliphate of Damascus. In the east, the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad, but an Umayyad Prince, Abderrahman I, escaped the massacre and fled to Spain. He was declared emir of Hispania, and governed independently from the Syrian Abbasid dynasty. He made his capital in Cordoba and for over two hundred years that city was a leading center of commerce and culture. These were the golden years of Moorish Spain, and although there was some division and infighting among the royal family, the outward show of unity was largely preserved.

The Christian state of Asturias also grew during this period, and split into the kingdoms of Leon, Aragon, and Castile. For the first three hundred years of Moorish rule, however, they lived in relative peace. There were a great many Christians and Jews living under Moorish rule during this time, and although non-Moslems were excluded from power and made to pay special taxes, there was a reasonable degree of toleration between Christians, Jews and Moslems in the early years of the Caliphate of Cordova. This was because the Umayyad caliphate was relatively cultured, cosmopolitan and commerce oriented. Later Moslem Caliphates, that originated in Western Africa rather than the Middle East, we more fanatical and barbarous.

Almanzor, Almoravids, and Almohads —As the authority of the Caliphate waned over the centuries, due largely to a series of decadent and irresponsible Caliphs, a great Moorish general by the name of Almanzor He consolidated Moslem influence and pressed the borders of the kingdoms in the north back to the Pyrenees. During his period of influence, from 970 to 1002 A. D., the extent of Moorish power reached its greatest extent. Because of the common threat, the Christian kingdoms united and successfully opposed him at the battle of Calatanazor. When Almanzor died without anyone to succeed him in influence, Moslem unity, which had been strained by his usurpation of power, broke down altogether. The eleventh century, therefore, was an era during which the Christian kingdoms made significant gains in territory. The Umayyad caliphate of Cordova collapsed in 1031, and in the following generation, the Christians took the great city of Toledo.

In the mid-eleventh century, especially during the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile, the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain won such great victories against the Moors that some of the Moorish princes called upon the Almoravid dynasty in North Africa to help them resist their Christian enemies. Great armies of Berbers crossed the strait of Gibraltar, and resisted the Christian incursions, but they never really unified the Moslem princes under their dominion. During this period Christian vs. Moslem wars were common, but so were palace insurrections and civil war, so the intrigues of various factions are difficult to follow. Rival claimants to power in both Christian and Moslem kingdoms would frequently align themselves with the infidel enemies of their king in hopes of improving their own situation. Overall, however, the tide was in favor of the Christians. It was during this era that the great Christian hero El Cid lived, and his conquest of Valencia, one of the great Moslem cities on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, was one of the turning points in the struggle.

The twelveth and thirteenth centuries saw even more dramatic losses in Moorish territory to the Christians. The Almohads replaced the Almoravids as the ruling dynasty, and they set up their capital in Seville, but never succeeded in uniting the Moorish kingdoms or opposing the Christian powers. The Almohads brought in an enormous army of over 500,000 Berbers from Africa, but were utterly routed on the plain of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. After this disaster the Moors were everywhere on the defensive, and in the years following, the Christians gained nearly the whole Peninsula.

The Fall of Granada —In the early 13th century the kingdom of Granada, along the southern coast of Spain, became a vassal state of Castile. In 1236 a Moslem prince, Mohammed Alhamar, came to power and founded a dynasty that was to remain the last stronghold of Moorish Spain for the next two hundred and fifty years. Although within a few generations the ruling family of Granada became divided, the political situation in Castile was even worse, and all of Europe suffered under the Black Plague. These disruptions delayed the fall of Granada for several hundred years, and during this period, Moorish culture continued to thrive. It was not until after Castile and Aragon were integrated under Isabel of Castile and and Ferdinand of Aragon, that the Spaniards were united enough to tackle the fortified kingdom of Granada. Once Ferdinand and Isabella had committed to driving the last vestige of Moors from Spain, however, they approached their task systematically, and in 1492 Boabdil, the last king of Granada, surrendered the city to the Spanish monarchs.

Characters—Moorish Spain

Character/Date Short Biography

Moorish Conquest

Musa bin Nusair
Umayyad governor of North Africa who organized and directed the Moslem invasion of the Iberian peninsula.
Tariq ibn Ziyad
d. 720
Berber general who defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Gaudalete.
~ 711
Christian wife of Visigoth king Roderick who later married son of Moorish governor
Abdul Aziz
d. 716
Son of Umayyad governor Musa. Ruled in Andalusia until murdered for marrying Exilona.
Charles Martel
Frankish King who defeated the Moors at the Battle of Tours.
First Holy Roman Emperor. Unified most of Western Europe into a Frankish Empire.

Cordoba Caliphate

Abderrahman I
Last surviving Umayyad prince, escaped to Spain, became Emir of Cordova
Abderrahman III
Powerful, long serving Emir who declared himself Caliph of Cordova.
Renowned Moorish general. Leader of Moorish Spain at the height of its power near 1000 A.D.

Almoravids and Almohads

d. 1184
Almohad Caliph of Africa who invaded Moorish spain and set up a kingdom in Seville.


Mohammed Alhamar
Founder of the Nasrid dynasty in Granada. Agreed to make Granada a vassal state of Castile.
Muley Abdul Hussan
Last Sultan of Granada. Fierce opponent of Christians, but lost control of Granada.
Briefly replaced his father on the throne of Granada before surrending to Ferdinand.
Aben Humeya
Moorish prince who escaped from Granada, led the Morisco Revolt, and continued to fight until his death.

Timeline—Moorish Spain

AD YearEvent
711 The Saracens, under Tariq ibn Ziyad, overthrow the Visigoth kingdom at the Battle of Guadalete.
718 Pelayo founded Christian kingdom of Asturias following the Battle of Covadonga.
721 Odo of Aquitaine drives the Moorish army out of France at the Battle of Toulouse.
732 The Saracens defeated at Tours by Charles Martel; retreat of Moors to southern Spain.
755 Caliphate of Cordova established by Abderrahman I, last surviving Umayyad prince.
778 First Frankish raid into Moorish Spain by Charlemagne and his Frankish knights.
800 Charlemagne returns to Spain. Franks gain control of Barcelona, later Catalonia.
824 Franks defeated at by treachery at Roncevalles Pass, subject of Song of Roland .
859 Eulogius, Perfectus and other Martyrs of Cordoba executed for professing Christian faith.
912 Abderrahman III becomes Caliph of Cordoba, leads Moorish armies against Christians.
939 Ramiro II of Leon defeats Abderrahman III, gained Moorish territory in Castile at Battle of Simancas.
976 First conquest of Almanzor, who mastered nearly all of Spain; ruled until 1002.
1002 Death of Almanzor at the Battle of Calatanazor.
1010 Beginning of Civil War between rival claimants to the Caliphate of Cordova.
1031 After 20 years of war, the Moorish empire breaks up into "tarifs" (Taifas).
1085 Alfonso VI of Castile captures Toledo, gains much Moorish territory in Central Spain.
1086 Almoravid Berbers arrive in Spain and prevail against the Christians at Battle of Zalaka.
1094 Almoravides defeat Moorish princes, consolidate power and set up a dynasty at Cordova.
1095 El Cid captures Valencia; rules over both Moorish, Christian subjects.
1139 Afonso Henriques defeats Yussef at Battle of Ourique, establishes kingdom of Portugal.
1147 Moors lose Lisbon to Afonso of Portugal; Fall of the Almoravide dynasty in Africa.
1184 Almohads defeat last of the Almoravids, make their capital at Seville.
1212 Decisive victory of the Christians at Las Navas de Tolosa decides the fate of Spain.
1236 St. Ferdinand captures Cordova. It stays permanently in Christian hands.
1248 St. Ferdinand captures Seville; Fall of the Almohads of Iberia.
1238 Kingdom of Granada established by Mohammed Alhamar; pays tribute to king of Castile.
1340 Army of Spaniards defeats invading army of African Moors at the Battle of Rio Salado.
1482 Ferdinand of Aragon commences a war against Granada. Conquers key city of Alhama.
1492 Moorish capital of Granada captured; Boabdil gives up the city to Isabel of Castile and Ferdinad.

Recommended Reading—Moorish Spain

Read chapters from "core" texts before reviewing study questions.

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Ober - Spain: A History for Young Readers   The Invasion from Africa to Decline of the Moors (4)
Horne - Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain   Spain Under the Moors (1)
Bonner - A Child's History of Spain   The Moorish Conquest to The Great Vizier (8)

Supplemental Recommendations

Abbott - The Romance of Spanish History   The Moorish Invasion to The Moors and Christians (4)
Morris - Historical Tales: Spanish   The Battle of Guadalete to Adventures of a Fugitive Prince (7)
Florian - A History of the Moors in Spain    entire book
Irving - Irving's Alhambra    entire book

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate