Moors and Christians

medina azaharaA few kilometres west of Córdoba lie the ruins of Medina Azahara, “city of the flower.” Named to honour the caliph’s favourite wife, this royal residence ranked among the most sumptuous in history. Shimmering white against the dark hills of the Sierra Morena, it was described by an Arab poet as “a concubine in the arms of a black eunuch.” But, like the caliphate itself, Medina Azahara’s glories were short-lived. Rampaging Berbers destroyed the palatial city in 1010, and it lay buried and forgotten for nine centuries.

Strolling around today, visitors need a vivid imagination to summon up images of former magnificence. Built during the reign of Abd-er-Rahman III, the project consumed about a third of the royal budget and employed ten-thousand workmen. Only the finest materials were used: ivory, carved cedar, ebony, onyx, and alabaster, mosaic tiles and marble columns. The caliph’s rooms alone numbered 400; among them was one with walls sheathed in gold and a pearl the size of a dove’s egg hanging from the ceiling. Thousands lived in or around the palace: servants, pages, musicians, and four-thousand Slavonian eunuchs. Women in the harem numbered 6,000 - enough for any man.

Despite these amenities, Al Mansur preferred his own residence, and Medina Azahara fell into disrepair. During the crisis in the years following his sudden death (1002), rebellious Berber mercenaries pulled down the palace. Fired by religious zeal, they even used hammers to smash large pieces into smaller bits. Today tens of thousands of stone and plaster pieces are laid out neatly on the floor as if awaiting re-assembly in the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle. Black burn marks clearly show where the intense heat of bonfires seared the marble floor.

The fires of anarchy and destruction consumed more than a palace. During the first three decades of the new millennium, Moorish Spain slipped from the pinnacle of wealth, culture, and military power - capped by Mansur’s victorious march on Santiago - into a mire of bloody strife. Wrote the poet, “Weep for the splendour of Córdoba, for disaster has overtaken her, then bid her goodbye, and let her go in peace since depart she must.”

The effete Caliph Hisham II, who customarily wore a veil and makeup, did not produce an heir. Instead, he named Mansur’s son Sanchuelo, a drinking and debauching partner, to succeed to the throne. Revolt followed revolt and by 1031, the year the caliphate ceased to exist, six more caliphs had followed. With their failure, Al-Andalus fractured into about 20 tajfas, or “party kingdoms,” as geographical and racial feuds (essentially Berbers battling Arabs) triumphed over unified rule. The Moors remained formidable, however, controlling about two-thirds of the peninsula. The most powerful taifa kingdoms were Sevilla and Granada, followed by Córdoba, Almeria, Zaragoza, Badajoz, and Toledo. But religion alone did not define the political map; as a matter of course the petty kingdoms often fought and betrayed one another, even if it meant allying with Christians.

One infamous Sevillan ruler was Motadid, who boasted a harem of 800 women and used human skulls for flowerpots around his palace. For amusement, he kept the heads of defeated rivals in leather cases, taking them out occasionally to admire like precious jewels. Motadid’s son, on the other hand, had his virtues: when one wife longed for the sight of snow, he planted thousands of almond trees on a nearby slope so that each winter she could enjoy a white sea of blossoms. Such were the Moors.

As often happens in times of political decline, the decades following the caliphate’s collapse witnessed a brief cultural flowering. Each king tried to surpass his neighbours in the number and quality of books in his library or poets under his patronage. It became a point of royal honour to write in the most refined manner on the finest parchment, using rhymed verses and intricate metaphors to score literary points.

The earthly temptations of AndalucIa were hard to resist, and Moorish poets wrote of wine and women (or boys), dancing and song. The ceaseless search for poetic extravagance could lead to abominably bad verse. One bard wrote: “Such was my kissing, such my sucking of his mouth, that he was almost made toothless.” Pleasure seeking became an end in itself, and the Moors’ love of wine often degenerated into drunken orgies. These former sons of the desert began to lose their warrior virtues and employ mercenaries (even Christians) to do their fighting.

For centuries Moorish raiding parties had swept into Christian lands, cutting down trees, burning crops, sacking towns, and lopping off a few heads before returning south across a wide “no man’s land.” There was no serious effort to conquer or hold land beyond natural barriers such as the Duero and Ebro rivers. Nor did the Moors lust for unconquered parts of “Spain” because no such place existed. The frontier between Christian and Moor was far from being a well-defined and sealed border. It ebbed and flowed like the tide, depending on shady alliances and who was stronger or more able to pay bribes. You can trace some outposts of this centuries-long struggle in border towns with the words de la frontera tacked on, such as Arcos de la Frontera in Cádiz province.

While Al-Andalus was falling from omnipotence to impotence, the northern kingdoms underwent the opposite experience. As Christian-held territory expanded, kings encouraged resettlement by granting municipal rights called fueros, which led to a spirit of independence. Local liberties led in turn to popular representation in cortes (parliaments) a hundred years before anything similar in England. (1163 in Aragon and 1188 in Leon compared with 1295 in England.) These early rights and institutions offered more liberty than the feudal servitude found in most of Europe, but the fueros would come back to haunt Spain time and again throughout history

The Moorish-Christian frontier was like an early-day version of the Wild West and attracted adventurous types from the peninsula and beyond, especially after the pope called for a crusade. Slowly Christians gained the spirit that created La Reconquista (the Reconquest), the most distinctive factor of medieval Spanish history. War was a fact of life, though armies of the day were tiny by modern standards and would often agree in advance on the time and place of a battle. Sieges were often painfully long, and the attackers would build their own town nearby and try to outlast the enemy.

Christian progress was slow for several reasons. The central meseta's rugged topography and harsh climate, not to mention the threat of Moorish reprisals, discouraged settlers. In addition, every time a Christian king died he divided his domains among his sons, which led to the splintering of power built up over years of struggle. The Moors’ tribute system was eagerly adopted by Christians and resulted in a northward flow of gold. Unlike developing areas of Italy or Flanders, where wealth sprang from industry and commerce, in Christian Spain it came from war or the threat of war. Compounding the problem, money was used to buy land or more weapons rather than economic development.

The kingdom of Leon championed the Reconquest until the blows struck by Al Mansur. Navarra then moved to the fore under Sancho III, called “the Great” (1005-1035). He married the sister of the Castiian ruler and, in the confusion following the murder of his brother-in-law, gained control of Castilla and placed his son in charge. Fernando (Ferdinand) I in turn occupied Leon and assumed the title “emperor of the Spains.” Castilla had truly become a kingdom in its own right - and one destined for greatness.

Meanwhile other peninsular powers were forming; in the lands that became Aragon a strong tradition of limited monarchy developed. To the east, the future region of Catalonia had remained largely unoccupied by the Moors, and in the 11th century Ramon Berenguer I, count of Barcelona, became the first ruler of a completely independent entity

Fernando I of Castilla (Sancho’s son) became a leading figure in the Reconquest, capturing territory from Valencia to Portugal. But when he died, this emerging Christian power was again partitioned among his own sons, and outright war soon erupted between Alfonso of Leon and Sancho of Castilla. At the time Sancho was served by a young knight who became one of the most exalted figures in Spanish history - Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid Campeador. (The name Cid comes from the Arabic seyyid, or lord, while campeador is from the Latin campi ductor, leader in the field.)

The amazing Cid achieved lasting fame through the first great epic poem of Spanish literature, El Cantar del Mio Cid (1140), as well as in countless biographies and a Hollywood epic. But historians have long struggled to separate legend from fact, and some believe the Cid may be a composite of at least two individuals. In the epic he is a grave but majestic figure, who can subdue lions at a glance and wears his beard in a net to prevent the dishonour of having it tweaked, a mortal insult at the time. (The Cid once yanked out a handflil of a defeated rival’s beard to further humiliate him.) From historical accounts, we know that he was exiled by Alfonso VI and fought in the service of the Moors. Indeed, El Cid embodies the confusion of loyalties between Christian and Moor at the time.

Nonetheless, Christian Spain adopted El Cid as a national hero, and historians now feel that the epic might be close to the truth. Rodrigo was born in Vivar, a backward village a few kilometres from Burgos. He learned the soldier’s profession early and rose rapidly in the service of Sancho. In an event that became the stuff of legend, the Cid’s lord was murdered by a treacherous aide one dark (and probably stormy) night, and his brother fell under suspicion. Rodrigo personally made Alfonso swear an oath that he had no part in the crime. In a famous ceremony at Burgos, the Cid repeated three times, “If you are lying, please God that a traitor and a vassal kills you.” This did not endear him to Alfonso, ruler of a reunited Castilla and Leon, and following a quarrel a few years later, the king sent the Cid into exile. He proceeded to fight in the service of the potentate of Zaragoza, a Moorish city in vassalage to Alfonso, then slipped briefly from the scene.

Alfonso himself became a major military figure. His armies penetrated deep into Andalucfa and even reached Gibraltar, where he rode into the Mediterranean and exclaimed: “Here is the uttermost limit of Spain. I have touched it.” In addition, Alfonso is remembered for replacing the centuries-old Mozarabic rite for the Mass with the Latin rite of the Roman church. Today, the only place in the world to see a Mozarabic Mass is a tiny chapel in Toledo’s cathedral, where it has survived in an odd time-warp of the kind found only in Spain.

In 1085, Alfonso’s army recaptured Toledo in the first crucial victory of the Reconquest. It was a huge strategic step as well as a boost to morale, bringing Christians to the old Visigoth capital and into the heart of the meseta, the part called New Castilla. Shock waves flashed through Al-Andalus at the news of Toledo’s fall. A Moorish poet wrote: “Take to your horses, men of Andalucla! To remain is pure folly. Garments begin to unravel by fraying at the edges, but our kingdom has ripped down the centre.”

Yet Christian elation was premature; the Moors were not going to roll over just yet. The kingdom of Sevilla, heretofore a Christian vassal, issued calls for help to Muslim Africa. The Almoravids were dark-skinned nomads from the Sahara - ancestors of the modern Tauregs - who had converted to Islam and swept north to conquer Morocco. Yusuf ibn-Tashufin founded Marrakesh and governed lands stretching from Senegal to Algeria. This warlike sect, whose name means “vowed to God,” consisted of religous fantatics sworn to root out anyone who slipped from Muslim orthodoxy.

Alarmed by Alfonso’s victories, Mutamid of Sevilla petitioned Yusuf for help, remarking “If I have to choose, I would rather tend camels for the Almoravids than pasture swine under the Christians.” His words were prophetic; as, like so many others, the invaders would choose to stay. The party was soon over for the “party kings.”

An Almoravid army landed at Algeciras and marched to meet Alfonso near Badajoz. The Christians were used to fighting man-to-man style, by which a collection of individual triumphs brought overall victory. In the invaders they faced a compact force of infantry supported by lines of archers, which moved to the command of thunderous drums. Muslim victory was assured when Yusuf called in his Negro guard, equipped with rapiers and shields of hippo hide, and after the battle carts laden with severed heads rumbled off for display as war trophies. Alfonso himself barely escaped, and panic reigned throughout Christian Spain. In Galicia, one group even tried to gain protection by transferring its sovereignty to William the Conqueror, who had completed his conquest of England twenty years before.

After this crushing defeat, Alfonso was forced to turn again to the Cid. The enigmatic hero had meanwhile gained control of Valencia, but despite his nominal loyalty to the king, emerged as an independent ruler. The Muslims stood in awe of the Cid, who seemed to be fulfilling an old prophecy: “If a Roderick it was who lost Spain (a reference to the last Visigoth king), another Roderick (Rodrigo) will restore it.”

Unfortunately, the Cid died suddenly in 1099. According to the epic, his corpse was clad in armour, lashed to his charger, and led out in front of the Christian army, causing a panicked retreat by the Moors. In reality, his followers gamely held Valencia another three years, then surrendered. During the next few years, the Almoravids controlled most of southern Iberia from their capital at Marrakesh.

Almoravid Spain was very different from the tolerant society of the caliphate and taifas. Driven by strict religious fundamentalism, they began to persecute Christians and Jews, whom they regarded as hopelessly corrupt. Wrote one chronicler: “Muslim women must be forbidden to defile themselves by entering a Christian church, since the priests are libertines, fornicators, and sodomites.”

The persecuted fled north. The Muslim revival in fact helped consolidate the main Christian kingdoms and goad them into joint action. Alfonso I of Aragon, “El Batallador” (the Fighter), led the counterattack by retaking Zaragoza (1118), thus providing the young kingdom with its historic capital. When he died without an heir his brother Ramiro, living quietly as a monk, was lured out of his cell long enough to sire a daughter, the infanta Petronilla. She in turn was married off to Count Ramon Berenguer IV of the Catalan ruling family, thereby uniting Aragon and Catalonia. Ramiro returned to his monastery; unaware that his brief escapade had created a union of monumental consequence for Spanish history; The Kingdom of Aragon was a misnomer because real power lay in Catalonia and its capital city of Barcelona. During the 12th and 13th centuries, this kingdom prospered as a wealthy trading power. “Not a fish dared show itself in the Mediterranean without having the bars of Aragon on its tail,” wrote one historian.

Meanwhile, another major peninsular force was born in the west - the kingdom of Portugal. Alfonso VI had two daughters: one married Raymond of Burgundy and their son reigned as Alfonso VII of Castilla. The younger daughter married Henry of Burgundy and the couple ended up with the county of Portugual as part of the dowry. Their son founded an independent Portugal in 1139, and so it remained, with the exception of one 80-year period centuries later. It has been said that Portugal just managed to gain independence while Catalonia, later united with Castilla, just failed.

Among these Christian kingdoms Castilla overshadowed its neighbours because it was larger, more populous, and was to become standard-bearer of the Reconquest. Wrote one historian: “Castilla was born to war and suckled on war, and it was in war that she forged her warrior temperament, her will to command, and her ambition to achieve a great destiny.” During the crucial centuries when the Spanish identity and character were formed, the “land of castles” was the centre of peninsular gravity.

Castilla’s role as linchpin of a new nation spread far beyond mere military leadership. Called Romance in the Middle Ages, the Castilian language originated in the north around Burgos. The oldest written example is a manuscript penned in 964 by the monks of San Millán de la Cogolla (La Rioja), now regarded as the “cradle of Castilian.” That was nearly two centuries before the finely wrought poetry of Gonzalo de Berceo and the Cid epic. Castilian (known to the world as Spanish) would emerge as the dominant peninsular tongue despite the ongoing presence of Catalan, Basque, Galician, and Portuguese. And, as every English speaker knows, language is a potent weapon to have on your side.

Athough Christian resentment against the Muslim intruders had smouldered since 711, the idealised concept of a “holy war” to eliminate them only took hold in this period. The Moors were henceforth considered usurpers of Spanish soil and enemies of the Catholic faith. Castilians in particular began to look upon themselves as God’s chosen race. Their soldiers fought for all Christendom, not just for their own kingdom.

Fundamental to Reconquest mythology was the legend of Santiago El Matamoros, St. James the Moor Slayer, and his shrine at Compostela. In the decades following Mansur’s destruction of the old church, the faithful began to rebuild. The magnificent Romanesque cathedral of today was embellished over centuries, including the incredible portico de la gloria by Master Mateo, perhaps the finest example of medieval carving in existence. Christian pilgrims once again flocked to Santiago de Compostela along a famous route sprinkled with Benedictine monasteries. The faithful carried cockleshells - part of their penance involved swallowing a raw scallop - and camped out along the way or enjoyed the hospitality of monks. The Road to Compostela became the greatest pilgrimage of the middle ages (Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” made it), and the site began to rival Jersualem and Rome for importance. There was even the occasional anti-pope from Compostela, usually a local bishop who had decided that St. James ranked above St. Peter in church hierarchy.

Another Christian icon was the Holy Grail, a gold-and-sardonyx chalice reputedly used by Jesus at the Last Supper. According to legend, it was brought to Spain in the 4th century and later became the proudest possession of the Aragonese monarchy. (The cup can be seen in Valencia’s cathedral.)

But religion was just one of many motives driving the war wagons of the Reconquest; gold and glory spurred on many a knight-errant. The fusion of faith and warfare is best seen in the armies of monastic knights, the famous orders of Calatrava, Alcántara, and Santiago, the romantic heroes of song and story. The knights of St. James (Santiago), for example, wore white mantles emblazoned with a red cross, swore perpetual war on the infidel, and devoted themselves to the service of “God and the ladies.”

For these Christian warriors, victory in battle meant more than the remission of sins. Nobles and the more successful knights received huge land grants in the conquered territories, which survived as the hated latifundios. Many of Spain’s noble families trace their lineage to the Reconquest and the lands granted to their ancestors. At the top of the pyramid were the grandes and beneath them the lesser-nobility or hidalgos, an arrangement corresponding roughly to English barons and knights. (The word hidalgo comes from hijo de algo, son of some substance.) Hidalgos lived by a strict code that glorified land ownership and discouraged business activities and manual labour.

When warfare waned, the rank-and-file tended vast herds of sheep and cattle. Spain became the original home of the cattle ranch, an institution later taken to the Americas, especially Argentina and Mexico. The mounted Spanish vaqueros were direct ancestors of the immortal cowboys of the American West, and likewise served as vanguard for an expanding society For gentlemen, raising livestock was considered superior to digging in the earth, and large sections of Castilla and Andalucla became pastures. After the introduction of the merino breed of sheep a bit later, demand soared for Spanish wool, the mainstay of the economy for centuries. Wool that was exported to the burgeoning factories of other countries.

After the conquest of Toledo, the problem arose of how to incorporate two alien, and in many ways superior, cultures. It came to be accepted that the proper order of society consisted of Christian herders, warriors and priests, Muslim cultivators and artisans, and Jewish technicians and traders. The extreme form of this attitude held that all physical work was for Muslims and Jews, while the proper Christian job was to rule.

Wbile Christian Spain continued to evolve, the Moors chafed under the yoke of their Almoravid rulers and began to rebel. ‘What really sealed the fate of the Almoravids, however, was the rise of another fanatical sect in Morocco, the Almohades. Around the year 1126 the son of a mosque lamplighter from the Atlas Mountains claimed inspiration from Allah and took the title of mahdi. Berber followers rallied to calls for a holy war to stamp out Almoravid “heresy.” Coming from the mountains and foothills, the Almohades (which means “unitarians”) were natural enemies of the desert-dwelling Almoravids. First they conquered Marrakesh, then invaded Iberia, encouraged by reports of local sympathy. Before long Al-Andalus was again united under one Muslim reign.

The Almohades were as intolerant as they were bellicose. Abd al-Mumin ordered all churches and synagoges razed, and Christians and Jews swarmed across the northern frontier. Friction with the north stepped up a notch, culminating in a stunning Christian defeat at Alarcos (between Toledo and Córdoba) in 1195. The flower of young Spanish knights fell, and the Castilian king himself narrowly escaped capture.

Despite their fanaticism, the Almohades ushered in a period of great cultural achievement for Moorish Spain, the brightest era between the caliphate and the glories of Granada centuries later. Interest revived in philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and literature, and the proto-sciences of astrology and alchemy. Architecture flourished with construction of the soaring minaret of the Seville mosque, today called La Giralda. This splendid tower was built with a wide ramp inside so that the sultan could ride his horse to the top. It is just one of a nearly identical trio by the same architect; the others are the Koutoubia of Marrakesh and Rabat’s Hassan Tower. Another Almohad remnant in Sevilla is the Tower of Gold, once covered with gilded tiles.

Arab poetry too enjoyed a renascence of sorts during the 12th century. Every ruler worth his salt composed verse, and even scientific works were embellished with the appropriate lyrical flourish. Yet much of the poetry is tired and jejune. Princes are always lions or suns; women are gazelles or doves; the lightning in the rainstorm is like “the fire of the poet’s love amidst his tears.” This poetry was crafted for recital and song, and its lyric forms inspired the first ballads of European troubadors and, quite possibly, the soul-stirring adagios of cante jondo flamenco. At the end of each stanza of a recitation, Moors cried out wa-allah (Oh God!), just as today the flamenco singer’s refrain is greeted with shouts of "Ole!"

The philospher Averroes, born at Córdoba in 1126, is often cited as the pinnacle of Moorish learning and influence. He translated into Arabic the works of Aristotle, which had been virtually forgotten in the West, and when his commentary appeared in Latin, it caused an intellectual upheaval among Christian theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas. (One theory holds that Averroes was really a Mozarab, that is, a Christian.)

Another son of Córdoba was the Jew Maimonides (1135-1204), who left Al-Andalus under cloudy circumstances and spent his life wandering the Mediterranean world. He was a renowned doctor who served as personal physician to the sultan of Cairo, and he wrote many medical treatises, including one on sexuality. Maimonides’ chief fame rests with his philosophical works such as Guide to the Perplexed a summary of medieval religious thought. A body of traditional Jewish Mysticism called the Cabala, which developed from Hellenistic roots, was compiled in the text of Sefer ha-Zohar (“The Book of Splendour”). Cabalism has been compared to Christian mysticism such as Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, with elements of alchemy (the forerunner of chemistry) and even astrology.

During much of the early Reconquest, Christian rulers were more concerned with fighting each other than the Moors. But after the debacle at Alarcos, they decided to cooperate, especially when the pope called for a new crusade against the Almohades. In June of 1212 - a year as famous in Spain as 1066 is in England - soldiers from throughout Spain and Europe gathered at Toledo, then marched south bound for the Sierra Morena. There they were helped by a mysterious shepherd who led the army through a pass marked by a cow’s skull. (The young man was dubbed cabeza de vaca, and his descendants later gained fame in the Americas.) The Moors could have easily ambushed the Christian forces in the mountain passes, but they made a huge tactical error by awaiting them on the rolling plains of Las Navas de Tolosa. Here the Almohad forces were annihilated - 60,000 killed compared to only 50 Christian deaths, according to chroniclers. After the battle hundreds of thousands of Moors fled to North Africa, and the defeated Moorish commander promptly drank himself to death.

While these reports may be suspicious, the battle did mark the beginning of the end for Muslim Spain; the 13th century would bring many more Christian victories. Portugal was the first to follow up, expelling the Moors in 1249, and Aragon retook Valencia and the Balearic Islands. But once again Castilla gained the most after Las Navas, adding the lions share of AndalucIa to its rule. Fernando (Ferdinand) III, later proclaimed a saint for his martial skills, captured Córdoba and re-consecrated the Great Mosque as a cathedral. With poetic justice, he sent captured Muslims to Santiago with the same bells Al-Mansur made Christians lug to Córdoba two centuries earlier. 

The writing was on the wall and the ruler of Granada, one Mohammed-ibn-Alhamar, saw it dearly. Turban in hand, he approached Fernando and proposed an alliance. The price for cooperation in the conquest of Muslim Sevilla was Granada’s independence as a Castilian vassal. Fernando was startled by Mohammed’s grovelling performance, but agreed and took Sevilla with his help. Upon returning to Granada and shouts of victory, the embarrassed Moor uttered ironically, “There is no victor but Allah.” The words were later inscribed a thousand times throughout the Alhambra palace.

When Fernando died four years later, a hundred knights from Granada carried torches at his wake. With his passing the Reconquest seemed to die as well, though his son led a handful of mop-up victories. But Mohammed’s deal endured; for another two centuries the kingdom of Granada remained a Castiian vassal and the Moors’ final bastion.

At some point one must sum up the Moors’ legacy in Spain. Even a cursory look at the dates reveals that “the Arabs” did not; as is commonly stated, rule Spain for 800 years. In actual fact, the mostly Berber-Hispanic Muslims inhabited two-thirds of the peninsula for 375 years, about half of it for another 160 years, and the tiny kingdom of Granada - present-day Malaga, Almeria, and Granada provinces - for a final 244 years.

Along with the faulty chronology comes a whirlwind of praise for the earthly paradise the Moors supposedly created, the rose-tinted version found in Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra. For many romantics Al-Andalus will always be the epitome of chivalry and culture. In truth, the Moors did have a profound effect on the peninsula for good and bad.

During their heyday they led Europe in many endeavours, such as alchemy and medicine. Surgeons at Córdoba dissected corpses and were familiar with anesthesia. Doctors even used music for the treatment of mental disorders. The Moors introduced an advanced system of specialised hospitals for lepers (they were burned in France), the insane, and wounded soldiers. Muslim scholarship also excelled in astronomy, botany, and geography. Al-Idrisi, who ranks as the greatest medieval geographer, insisted that the earth was round; and it’s said that Columbus later got most of his ideas from Arabic translations of classical works. The Moors brought Arabic numerals, replacing the clumsy Roman system, as well as algebra and other forms of higher mathematics.

The word algebra itself is Arabic in origin, as are thousands of others in modern Spanish. Among them are alcázar (castle), arroz (rice), aduana (customs), alcalde (mayor), naranja (orange), azucar (sugar), and limón (lemon). Spanish-English cognates from the same Arabic source include alcohol, alchemy, alkali, camphor, elixir, syrup, talc, nadir, zenith, almanac, zero, coffee, jasmine, saffron, and sesame.

Following Roman examples, agriculture and irrigation were Moorish strengths, seen in the splendidly cultivated vegas of Andalucla and Valencia. The Moors are also credited with bringing technology for the manufacture of paper and gunpowder to Europe. They can also claim many things thought of as typically Spanish, such as the guitar (developed from their lute), certain aspects of flamenco music, the tiled patio with its gurgling fountain, and even gazpacho, a cold soup of raw vegetables.

Moorish art was a fusion of east and west, using materials and techniques from the Romans, Goths, and Byzantines. When the Moors conquered Spain, they were an uncultured, nomadic people, but came to be imitators and transmitters of more developed civilizations. To this they added their own light, unmistakable touch whose ultimate expression is the Alhambra. Moorish Spain survives most visibly in its buildings, in which we see those typical touches - the horseshoe arch, superb carving in wood and plaster, imaginative use of textiles and tiles. The Moors definitely had a weakness for florid detail, and it lives on in Spanish artesania.

But there is another side to the Moorish story. For every building they put up, they tore down another with equal fervour. When the Almoravids took Segovia, for example, they pointlessly destroyed 36 arches of the magnificent Roman aqueduct. No better metaphor is needed for the triumph of ignorant barbarism over civilization.

The Moors profoundly changed the course of Spanish history. In 711, the peninsula was at least as developed as the rest of Europe and might have become a powerful, unified state. Instead, Iberia’s destiny was to bear the brunt of the Muslim invasions and deflect its national energies at a critical time. The old Roman-Gothic quest for unity was overturned by the Muslim fondness for anarchy, disunion, and separatism. The struggle between these two polar tendencies has haunted Spanish history ever since. The Moors’ obsession with warfare and bloodshed, their lust for booty and gold, their fondness for torture and cutting off heads - all these spilled over into Christian Spain. Their constant raiding, cutting down trees and burning vegetation, helped make a desert of La Mancha and other areas, which even today are desolate and underpopulated.

Many Muslim attitudes crept into Spanish thought. Among them was the treatment of women, whom the Moors jealously veiled and guarded. Similarly, for centuries Spaniards kept their women behind rejas (iron grating on the windows). Christian kings readily adopted the Arab custom of taking foreign concubines; Alfonso VI had five wives, including the daughter of Motamid, ruler of Sevilla.

Finally, there was the Reconquest itself. If the holy crusade brought fueros, it also meant an economy based on tribute, plunder, and sheep-herding, all-powerful military orders, and a strong, agressive aristocracy and church. This fusion of religious and military ideals became the driving force of society, and Christianity was equated with the good and the right. Even today, Spaniards often regard political issues as moral questions on which there is no possibility of concession or compromise. In a constant state of alert, Spaniards developed a siege mentality that degenerated into an almost paranoid fear of foreign doctrines and influences. The Moorish occupation was at best a mixed blessing for Spain.

One of the many paradoxes of medieval Spain became evident after the virtual fall of Andalusia around 1250. While Islam was the great enemy for Christians, it was also the source of a culture in many ways superior to their own. Typical of this cultural confusion is the tomb of Fernando III in Sevilla’s Cathedral. Here, a massive silver casket sits beneath an altar flanked by perpetually burning candles; three times a year it is opened and the monarch-saint’s eerily preserved body exposed to public view. But his epitaph is written in four languages: Latin, Castilian, Hebrew, and Arabic.

The fall of the Almohades after Las Navas de Tolosa did not, as might be imagined, unleash a reign of intolerance and reprisals against Moors. In fact, Spain seemed to return for a few remarkable decades to an open, tri-cultural society. Every town had its prosperous Jewish quarter (juderia). In Toledo, the Church of Santa Maria La Blanca was used for worship by all three religions: Muslims on Fridays, Jews on Saturdays, and Christians on Sundays.

Fernando was succeeded by one of the bright lights among Spain’s innumerable monarchs - his son Alfonso X, called “The Learned.” This scholar-king oversaw an epoch of enlightened tolerance for Jews and Moors (he called himself King of Three Religions), but also recognized the unifying cultural role of Christian Castilla. Alfonso was fertile in mind and body; he fathered eight children with his wife and at least four others on the sly, wrote bawdy love poems, and denounced his enemies in rhyme. He authored a history of Spain and a treatise on chess complete with diagrams. He also edited one of Spain’s literary treasures, the Cantigas de Santa Maria. This compilation of music, poetry, and about 1,300 illustrations opens a fascinating window on medieval life.

Alfonso helped build a bridge between medieval Europe and antiquity. Arab and Hebrew scholarship had survived the Reconquest in Toledo, and the king realised the possibilties by expanding the existing school of translators. Persian literature, Greek philosophy, Arabic medicine, and other wisdom were cast into Latin here. By 1251, Aristotle was being taught at the university of Paris, a profound step in the history of philosophy. Another work that arrived via Toledo was the Canon of lbn Sina, Europe’s standard medical textbook for the next five centuries.

Long after the fall of Rome, Latin continued as the universal language of commerce, diplomacy; and the church. The peninsula’s Romance languages developed slowly, almost imperceptibly. Alfonso had many translations made from the orignal into Castilian, not Latin, which was an astonishing departure from scholarly norms. It was another major step toward the evolution of the “Castilian mystique.” Castilian swallowed up both the Leonese and Aragonese dialects early on, whereas Galician continued as both a spoken and literary language. But even the stubborn Basques adopted Castilian as their written language until modern times. Catalan was another case altogether. More akin to medieval Provençal than to Castilian, it is considered by linguists as a separate Romance language. Valencian and Mallorcan are dialects of Catalan.

The growing prominence of Castilian led to an emerging national literature. Among the earliest forms were epics about the Reconquest, medieval legends comparable with the Arthurian stories of England. They often revealed much about the formation of national traits; in Las Mocedades del Cid Guillen de Castro writes:

‘Always endeavour to attain
what is honourable and important;
but if you have made a mistake
defend it and don’t correct it.”

Another classic was The Book of Good Love (1335) byJuan Ruiz (the Archpriest of Rita), a surprisingly ribald gem comparable to The Canterbury Tales.

The then backwater island of Mallorca produced an outstanding mind in Ramon LIull (1235-1315), who wrote in Arabic and Latin as well as Catalan. In an age when a person could still know all there was to know, Llull was a poet, philosopher, and mystic, and he wrote on every conceivable subject. Tragically, he was stoned to death by Muslim fanatics while visiting Tunis.

The two centuries following the reign of Alfonso X witnessed an architectural flowering. WIth the passing of the solid but stodgy Romanesque came the lofty, refined Gothic style, the splendid cathedrals of Toledo, Burgos, and Leon - all soaring spires, stained-glass windows, and flying buttresses. When Sevillans met to plan their cathedral they remarked, “Let us put up a building so immense that the rest of the world will think us mad.” Such was the spirit of the age.

The decline of the Moorish kingdoms left many areas of Spain - especially in Aragon, Valencia, and Andalucla - with Muslim majorities. These mudejars (from the Arabic “permitted to remain”) presented no real threat because they were largely glad to be rid of their Moroccan overlords. They created an innovative architectural style known as mudejar, based on traditional Moorish skills at working in plaster and wood, fabric and tile. Bare walis of no great consequence were transformed into works of art. The horseshoe arch, florid detail, and other Moorish motifs were adapted to Christian and secular buildings, such as Toledo’s Church of Cristo de la Vega. Two other mudejar masterpieces are the castles of Coca (Segovia) and Sevilla. Mudejar remained in vogue until the Renaissance style took over late in the 15th century, at a time when anything Muslim was considered inferior. But its themes and techniques survived and later turned up in buildings both in Spain and Spanish America.

Throughout Castilla’s history the pendulum has swung between short creative outpourings and succeeding stages of profound malaise, unrest, and the inability to achieve a stable society; Such was the case in the years following the glorious era of Alfonso the Learned. Political turmoil bubbled over between the monarchy and aristocracy, the latter’s power being virtually unchecked by the kind of strong middle class found in Catalonia. Castilla’s dark days began when the nobility forced Alfonso to abdicate to his son Sancho. When they turned on the young heir like a pack of wolves, only the queen, Maria de Molina, held the kingdom together. Sancho died prematurely some years later, and she stepped in again to save the throne for her infant grandson. In a rough and wild age dominated by men, this exemplary woman managed to defeat the crown’s enemies and was later immortalized in a play by Tirso de Molina called La Prudencia en Ia Mujer.

As if there were not enough problems, the Almohades had been replaced in Morocco by another belligerant dynasty; the Marinids. Encouraged by the chaos in Castilla, they captured Gibraltar, Algeciras, and Tarifa with the treacherous aid of the king’s own brother, Juan. The siege of Tarifa witnessed one of the more famous incidents in Spanish history, the defense of its castle by Perez de Guzman. When he refused to surrender, the attackers threatened to murder his son, but Guzman, henceforth known as “El Bueno,” replied in true Iberian fashion. He threw out his knife and shouted, “Here is the weapon to do it, but I will never surrender.” (No one is quite sure what happened to the son.) The Marinids were crushed at the battle of Rio Salado (1340), in which artillery was used for the first time in Europe. Four years later Alfonso XI, with the help of Chaucer’s “knight” in The Canterbury Tales, recaptured Algeciras.

While Castilla watched the Strait of Gibraltar, Aragon had set sail on a very different course by turning outward to the Mediterranean like the prosperous Italian republics of Genoa and Venice. This was the era of Catalonia’s famous maritime code, Llibre del Consulat de Mar. With Catalonia ever leading, Aragon managed to annex Sardinia and Sicily into its loose-knit empire, and they would remain in Spanish hands for centuries. In the early 1300s the feared Catalan army (the almogavars) was sent from Sicily to battle the Ottoman Turks. Somehow along the way they established a duchy in Athens, and Catalan became the official language for sixty years! The great figure of Aragon’s medieval empire was King Pedro (Peter) IV, “The Ceremonious.” During the century Barcelona was Spain’s greatest city and the largest shipbuilder in the Mediterranean, and Catalan sailors ranged freely from the Black Sea to the coast of Senegal. 

Aragon’s commercial class likewise enjoyed a good deal of political independence, based on the concept of a contract with the monarchy. The rights of the ruled were protected through a strong parliament and by a unique individual called the justicia, a kind of watchdog of the king. Compared with Castilla and its vast estates, the nobility was economically weak, but together with the middle class they were a feisty lot. Parliament’s oath of allegiance to the king read: “We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you accept all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.” This was delivered by the seated justicia while he crowned the kneeling king. Later Spanish rulers, from Felipe II to Franco, would have to deal with this kind of spirit. 

One bizarre figure from this period was Pedro de Luna, cardinal of Aragon, who was elected as Pope Benedict XIII during the Great Schism that wracked Christianity at century’s end. Pontificating from Avignon in France, he refused to abdicate even after being branded an anti-pope in 1409, and he withdrew to the stronghold of Peniscola north of Valencia. Here he waited for a call to return that never came and died in obscurity.

While Aragon was creating a Mediterranean empire, Castilla had wet its own commercial feet by developing the ports of Cartagena and Sevilla. Merchants from Genoa made inroads into this virgin market and controlled Castilian commerce for two centuries. (Hence, it was entirely appropriate that Columbus came from Genoa.) But by the end of the middle ages, Castilians had developed a “sheepherder’s mentality”; commerce and industry were considered “things of the Jews and Moors.” Thanks to the powerful Mesta, an organization of wealthy livestock owners, the rights of herders took precedence and agriculture suffered accordingly. (There were three principal sheep runs, each about 70 metres wide, between Old Castilla and Extremadura.)

The crown, perennially in debt, took its cut of the wool profits. Castilla’s monarchs also turned for finance to the old Jewish money lenders, long after they had been replaced by a new breed of capitalist banks in Italy, France, and even Catalonia. Jews prevailed as royal financiers right down to the days of Fernando and Isabel (Ferdinand and Isabella), when they were summarily expelled.

Cracks in Spain’s traditional tolerance, the old society of three religions, began to appear after 1300. Muslims were required to wear certain clothes and hair styles, and Jews were blamed for various troubles, especially economic crises, as they were in Visigothic days. Persecution increased proportionately with society’s ills, though it must be said that Spain at the time was still less anti-Semitic than other countries. During the same years when Spanish Jews held positions of power and married freely into the aristocracy, their French and English co-religionists were having property confiscated and being expelled en masse.

But the Jews’ plight in Spain worsened with time. By some form of twisted logic, they were commonly blamed for the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe in the 1340s. (The name came from the large black blotches on the skin of the afflicted.) The severity of the bubonic plague is often overlooked, but as much as one-third of the continent’s population perished in a few years, causing the virtual breakdown of civilization in many areas. Parts of Iberia were hard hit, especially Aragon.

Anti-Semitism heated up during the rule of Pedro (Peter) the Cruel (1350-69) after he surrounded himself with Jewish financial advisers and tax collectors. One of them was Samuel Ha-levi, best remembered as the builder of Toledo’s El Tránsito Synagogue. Among the Christian clergy and their flocks, Jews came to represent the hated regime itself.

The diabolical state of Castilian politics is summed up in the story of Pedro the Cruel. After he inherited the throne at age 15, the eldest of five illegitimate brothers, a ruthless struggle commenced. It is generally accepted that Pedro murdered an archbishop, several cousins, brothers, and friends, not to mention, in all probability, his own French queen. Pedro lived in his alcazar in Sevilla, and there he murdered the Red King of Granada with 37 of his courtiers. According to the story, the Muslim ruler arrived wearing a priceless ruby in his turban that Peter immediately coveted. He invited the group for a banquet, and as soon as they were seated his guards leapt out and murdered them one by one.

Some historians claim these stories were invented later to excuse Pedro’s own murder by his half-brother, Enrique (Henry) of Trastamara (also known as Henry the Bastard). In fact, Pedro’s own followers never called him “The Cruel” (at least publicly), but used the accolade “The Dispenser of Justice.” There may have been more than sibling rivalry involved. When Enrique tried to depose his brother, it was the climax of years of struggle between Pedro and the Castilian nobility. Not one to take things lying down, the king appealed for help to Edward, England’s famous Black Prince. In response, France sent mercenary Bertrand du Guesclin, head of the White Companies to support Enrique.

Edward dealt the rebels a shattering defeat, and Enrique fled briefly to Aragon, leaving the humiliated Guesdin behind as prisoner. In gratitude, Pedro presented his famous stolen ruby to the wife of the Black Prince, who shortly after returned to England. (The gem now adorns the imperial crown in the Tower of London.) To finish the sordid story, there was a notorious fight between the two half-brothers, not on a glorious battlefield but in a wretched tent. Enrique stabbed the king with his own hand as he shouted “You Jew bastard!” He would soon be crowned Enrique II, bringing the House of Trastamara to power in Castila (and later Aragon) until the coming of the Austrian Habsburgs in 1516.

The 15th century opened with the peninsula’s political map - the kingdoms of Castilla, Aragon, Navarra, Portugal, and Granada - little changed since 1250. What transpired over the next few decades was by no means foredestined. Individual decisions and pure chance would prove more decisive than historical forces in the creation of modern Spain, and in its phenomenal rise to world power.

The weak and cowardly Juan II ruled Castilla for nearly half a century (1406-1454). He soon fell under the influence of a court “favourite” named Alvaro de Luna, and before long the king’s sole function was to sign whatever his minister put in front of him. After many years of enduring Alvaro, bitterly jealous courtiers accused him of some trumped-up charge and gained the king’s ear. After a sham trial Alvaro was beheaded and his mutilated body put on display. But the vacillating king came to regret his action and died a broken man, wishing he “had been born son of a workman rather than king of Castilla.”

Faced with ineffective kings until the coming of Fernando and Isabel, the Castilian nobility prospered as never before. Leonor de Alburquerque, for example, could travel the entire breadth of Castilla without setting foot outside her estates. Meanwhile, in Aragon, the death of Martin I brought an end to the dynasty begun with the marriage of Berenguer and Petronilla. Lacking other suitable candidates, Fernando (Ferdinand) of Antequera, from a junior branch of the Trastamaras, was awarded the crown. Even though Castilla and Aragon remained separate, they were brought immeasurably closer by this sharing of the same ruling house.

Suspicious Aragon rather than Castile strongly backed this Compromise of Caspe (1412) for reasons of political survival. These were hard years for Aragon: reeling from a severe manpower shortage caused by the plague, the previously booming economy began to badly falter. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was a severe blow to Catalan shipping interests, and a dynastic struggle and civil war added to the woes.

Things were not much better in Castilla. Juan was succeeded by his son Enrique, physically repellent and morally perverted. Enrique IV was incompetent and impotent, a deadly combination in a monarch. Some claimed his youthfiil debaucheries had impaired his sexual vigour, but tongues also wagged about his Moorish guards and a court “full of Jews in bright shirts.” Whatever the reason, when his second wife gave birth to a daughter, it was assumed she was the offspring of the queen’s affair with the dashing Beltran de Ia Cueva. Juana, the dubious heiress, was dubbed La Beltraneja - roughly translated as “Beltran’s bastard girl.” However, many claim this was all just vicious propaganda invented by her rivals, namely Isabel, Enrique’s younger half-sister. 

Born in 1451 at Madrigal de las Altas Torres (Avila), the future queen Isabel was plump, with a fair complexion, chestnut hair, greenish-blue eyes, and the round face of a peasant girl. In the right light she could be attractive, and Enrique tried to use his sister to cement marriage alliances favourable to Castilla. Isabel had many suitors, but soon the choice boiled down to King Alfonso V of Portugal and Fernando, heir to the throne of Aragon. Enrique favoured Alfonso, a man twice Isabel’s age. Fernando, on the other hand, was handsome, athletic, and shrewd - what the Spanish call listo. Isabel’s choice would decide if Castilla would unite with Portugal or Aragon. In other words, the very composition of modern Spain.

To the eternal delight of romantics everywhere, the princess chose Fernando, and envoys were sent to arrange the marriage. Her decision aroused so much opposition, however, that the Aragonese heir chose to travel incognito to Castilla. Disguised as a servant, he waited on the others in his group whenever they stopped en route. Upon reaching Valladolid, Fernando and Isabel finally met, and the attraction was mutual. Nevertheless, objections persisted in some quarters. For one thing, the couple was so closely related by blood (first cousins) that a papal dispensation was required. This was obtained in short order, but it later proved to be a forgery concocted by the king of Aragon, the archbishop of Toledo, and Fernando himself. But nothing could stop the marriage of 19-year-old Isabel and Fernando, a year younger. At a ceremony in the fairytale castle of Segovia, the bride was clad head to foot in white brocade and ermine; the groom wore a majestic golden robe lined with sable. On October 19, 1469, the two teenage heirs were married.

But before Fernando and Isabel could make their rendezvous with immortality, they had other business to attend to. Their storybook marriage had brought no unity to the peninsula, legal or otherwise. King Enrique for one was irate at the prospect of a union with Aragon and declared that his daughter Juana, not Isabel, was his rightful successor. Adding insult, the pope excommunicated the couple when he found out about Fernando’s forgery, To the church they would later champion, they were living in sin.

Enrique’s death in 1474 launched a succession crisis that soon led to outright civil war in Castilla. Parliament proclaimed Isabel queen, and she was easily persuaded that her young niece was illigitimate and her supporters traitors. (Though the Duke of Alba reminded her, “If we are defeated, we shall be the traitors.”) The supporters of Juana were led by the previously spurned Alfonso of Portugal, who announced his intention to use force to put her on the throne. This was another era, and Fernando challenged the Portuguese king to a duel. The aging Alfonso wisely declined, and two armies met instead at Toro, where Juaná’s supporters were routed. Alfonso returned to Portugal, and Juana La Beltraneja was packed off to a convent. The treaty of Alcacobaca (1479) confirmed Isabel’s inheritance and with it Spain’s future: Castilla was wedded to Aragon, not Portugal.

In that same year Fernando’s father finally passed away, leaving him king and the two medieval giants united by the vows of marriage, if little else. It was an interesting match of monarchs as well as kingdoms. Isabel could be painfully pious at times, certain she was right by virtue of divine guidance. Fernando survived more on personal charm than willpower or intelligence, yet he could be cool and crafty in diplomatic haggling. But he knew his limitations and was usually quite willing to follow his wife’s lead. Wrote the royal secretary: “He was given to taking advice, especially that of the queen.”

In the beginning Fernando intended to reign as an equal. By law his power in Castilla derived solely from his spouse, but he demanded joint exercise of royal authority, He succeeded in winning all the trappings of power: both names on royal appointments, seals, and coins, and a motto that read Tanto Monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando, roughly “He counts for as much as she does; she counts for as much as he does.” Later, in the spirit of unity, he resigned himself to a secondary role.

Yet there was no real fusion of the two crowns, and they remained rather strange bedfellows. Despite its wars, Castilla was stronger and more dynamic than Aragon, with five times the population. The centre was growing and expanding while the east, notably Barcelona, had experienced a sharp decline since its halcyon days a century earlier. Even after the marriage, Catalans were treated as foreigners in Castilla, where their arch-enemies, the Genoese, had a grip on banking and commerce. Economically, Castilians looked north to market their wool, while Aragon traded with the Mediterranean.

The two kingdoms were quite different politically as well. The Castilian cortes (parliament) was weak and the nobility kept at bay by the crown, although they had recently been flexing their aristocratic muscles. In Aragon, the nobles had triumphed in terms of real power, and Catalonia and Valencia each had its own parliament and rights. Despite the marriage of the century Spain was still - to borrow a phrase - a mere “geographical expression.”