For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of living in Spain today is the Arabic influence that visibly permeates the language, cuisine, architecture and even the faces of the people. There are 4000 words in the Spanish language that come directly from Arabic and that’s hardly surprising given that the whole country, Christians included, spoke Arabic during the period of Muslim rule from 711 to 1085.
I decided to take a look back at Arabic Spain, to trace the path of this profound influence that continues to run so deep in the country today.
The Arab Arrival in Spain
Arabs arrived in Spain in AD 711, conquering Toledo and Cordoba. It took them just seven years to dominate the rest of the peninsula except for a small part in the north. Arabian Spain was called Al-Andalus, and Cordoba (which retains its name today) became its centre.
In spite of the safety guaranteed to Non-Arabs in Arabian Spain, many converted to Islam. Besides the cultural influence on the people, the Arabs also brought some really useful state-of-the-art know-how that developed Spain and put it on the European and world maps.
Raising the Spanish Standard
Arabs brought irrigation systems that made the fields fertile and raised agriculture to the highest standard in Europe at that time.
Plants were brought in, such as oranges from Persia, and their superior knowledge boosted the Spanish economy as they exported leather, ceramic, paper and material, which had previously been luxury products in Europe. Science and innovation were applauded and the Arabs supported important Islamic and Non-Arabian scientists on the Iberian Peninsula.
The Great Arabian Defeat
Despite their labour, the development the Muslims brought to the Spain was destroyed by the reconquest. In 722, the Muslims suffered their first defeat to the Christians, in Covadonga, which is widely considered to have signalled the beginning of the end.
Further Christian realms were formed, and expanded towards the south. Discrepancies among the Muslims were the nail in the coffin, providing the Christians with their chance for reconquest. In AD 1085 the Christians took Toledo back, heralding an enormous defeat for the Muslims, who had to start handing land back left, right and centre.
After years of war, the Muslims had to surrender Granada in 1492, which was the end of the end. With the defeat of the Islamic rule the high scientific levels created by the Muslims couldn’t be maintained, which had disastrous consequences for Spain.
Over, and Out…
Arab Spain changed completely at the hands of the Christians. They were incapable of keeping the irrigation systems in good condition, let alone construct new irrigation canals, so the once fertile land became deserted. The Christian conquerors were also second-grade scientists compared to the Muslims: universities got run-down and cities impoverished, so that the country lost its attraction and lustre.
The Muslims were contractually assured free practice of their faith after the defeat of Granada. Unfortunately this proved to be merely theoretical and under Isabella and Ferdinand’s rule the Muslim population was forced to convert to Christianity. Arabic was banned as the colloquial language.
Muslim refusal to comply led to executions and the mosques being set on fire. The government reacted by setting a deadline, by which all Spanish Muslims either had to convert to Christianity or emigrate, leaving all their property to the church. Exiting didn’t come cheap as they also had to pay a certain sum to leave the country, and many found their choices limited to baptism… or death.