Daily Archives: 3 October 2007

A Visit to al-Andaluz


A person, a place or even a country is always an expression of their very own life story. The country of Spain is no different thanks to its rich history. 

The Iberian Peninsula was inhabited by Iberians, Celts and Basque people before the Romans occupied what they then called Hispania. The Romans lasted until perhaps the 5th century, when their Empire decayed. After that, Germanic barbarians crossed the Pyrenees and Visigoths and Vandals settled here in quick succession. They were followed by the Arabs and Muslims of the Islamic Umayyad caliphate who first arrived in Iberia in 711, mainly hailing from North Africa, and commonly called Moors.

The Moors brought the entire Iberian peninsula, except for Galicia and Asturias in the far north, under Islamic control (see map below); however, frontiers with the Christian north were constantly in flux. The new Islamic territories, referred to as al-Andaluz by the Muslims, were administered by a provincial government established in the name of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and centered in Córdoba.

Within a century, the Islamic, or Moorish civilization in Iberia was widely considered to have been the most advanced in Western Europe. The period of al-Andaluz was a prosperous time for Spain. The Muslim invaders brought with them a cultural influence which greatly enriched the Iberian life in all aspects of arts and architecture, music and literature, food and agriculture.

The period of the Caliphate (from 929) is seen by Islamic writers as the golden age of al-Andaluz. Crops produced using irrigation, along with food imported from North Africa, provided the area around Córdoba and some other al-Andaluz cities with an agricultural economic sector which became by far the most advanced in Europe. Among European cities, Córdoba under the Caliphate, with a population of perhaps 500,000, eventually overtook Constantinople as the largest and most prosperous city in Europe. 



Within the Islamic world, Córdoba soon developed into one of the leading cultural centres. The work of its most important philosophers and scientists (notably Abulcasis and Averroes) had a major influence on the intellectual life of medieval Europe.

The society of al-Andaluz was made up of three main groups: Christians, Muslims and Jews. The Muslims, though united on the religious level, had several ethnic divisions, the principal one being the distinction between Arabs and Berbers. Mozarabs were Christians that had long lived under Muslim domination and thus had adopted many Arabic customs, art and words, while still maintaining their Christian rituals and their own Latin-derived languages. Each of these communities inhabited a separate part of the cities of al-Andaluz.

But history is a funny business. Today, Spain is not so sure about its Moorish past. Whilst everybody is proud of Muslim remnants in Spain, such as the Alhambra in Granada or the Great Mosque in Córdoba (now integral part of the Cathedral in Córdoba), Spain seems much happier about its own history beginning in 1492 with the Americas being discovered for the Spanish Crown.

Over the last ten years or so, Spain has seen an enormous influx of immigrants, including a large number of Arabs from Morocco. In Mallorca, where I live, these immigrants are called Moros (moors) in quite a derogatory way. Some locals are worried about a rebirth of al-Andaluz, especially now that al-Qaeda’s second-in-charge has begun to verbally claim the historic al-Andaluz for the Islamic world.

Watch this space.