Most, if not all Americans, will be familiar with at least one event from the year 1492. In this year, Columbus embarked on his first voyage to the New World, beginning a period of discovery and conquest that forever changed the way Europe interacted with the world. One year before his landmark journey ushered in a new era, however, another had ended.
In 1491, the royal couple Ferdinand and Isabella completed the centuries-long project of the Spanish Reconquista–the effort by Christian powers to expel Muslim polities from the Iberian peninsula. The mingling of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures which had characterised Spain throughout the majority of the mediaeval period was likewise brought to a close.
If the end of the Reconquista–the Reconquest–is clear to us, however, its beginning is not. The initial conquest of Spain, which unfolded in fits and starts throughout the 8th century, persists in the historical record as a tangle of fact, legend, and prophetic re-imagining.
Some of our sources are relatively reliable. One, the Chronicle of 754, wrote an account of events only two generations after the initial campaign of 711. The story it tells is one of turmoil in Visigothic Spain, as rivals for the crown allowed their disunity to interfere with the defense against the new movement of Islam. The Chronicle tells how the Spanish king Roderic headed for the mountains to fight a Muslim army under the commander Tariq ibn Ziyad:
‘…in that battle,’ it reads, ‘the entire army of the Goths, which had come with him fradulently and in rivalry out of ambition for the kingship, fled, and he [Roderic] was killed. Thus Roderic wretchedly lost not only his rule but his homeland, his rivals also being killed….’
Following the victory, the Muslim army–accompanied by a few opportunistic Visigoths–took control of Toledo, the capital, and moved the seat of government to Cordoba. They also began the task of exporting the wealth of Spain (visible in this Visigothic crown) back to the centre of the Islamic caliphate in Damascus. They took ‘gold and silver, assayed with zeal by the bankers; a large quantity of valuable ornaments, precious stones, and pearls,’ not to mention a rather unusual set of ‘ointments to kindle women’s desire.’
From these and other remarks in the Chronicle, the beginning of the Islamic conquest of Spain appears as a set of opportunistic choices, made to take advantage of the peninsula’s wealth at a time of military expansion and political unrest.
By the time the first Arabic accounts of the conquest to survive were written, however, the narrative had changed. In the 9th century history of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, for example, Roderic had become a lecherous king who dealt poorly with his nobles, and the Muslims were recast as the foreordained rulers of al-Andalus–the Arabic name for Spain. According to al-Hakam:
‘…there was a house of many locks in al-Andalus, and no king could hold power over them [the Spanish] unless he added a lock of his own, until there came the king who was attacked by the Muslims [Roderick]’
His people urged him to do the same, thus ensuring his rule, but the king instead had the locks open so he could look inside.
‘In it were drawn pictures of the Arabs, and also there was writing, which said “When this door is opened, these people will conquer this country.’
It is an interesting story, and it demonstrates the sense of divine favour with which later Muslim historians approached the narrative of conquest. At the same time, the kernel of responsibility for the calamity still rests soundly with the Visigoths–although this time it is royal hubris, rather than rivalry, which is blamed.
In keeping with these legendary motifs, al-Hakam also declares that the conquerors recovered several biblical treasures, including the crown and table of King Solomon himself. Covered with ‘gold and gems such as had never been seen before’, the table was avidly coveted by various commanders and was even displayed before the Caliph himself. A fabulous object, the table (whether real or mythical) served to tie the Muslims to a great figure of the past and symbolised their division of their new territories of Spain.
Through a comparison of these two texts, then, we can see that the narrative of the Muslim conquest of Spain evolved, incorporating legendary elements into an already confusing tale of political disunity and military vulnerability. Central to both renditions, however, was the wealth of Spain and the dominance it signified. The Iberian peninsula, with a cultural legacy stretching back to Roman times, was a rich prize that remained a vivid and cosmopolitan–if often conflicted–part of mediaeval Europe for centuries after the initial conquest by Islamic armies.