Long before Sultan Mehmed II terrified Europe after seizing Constantinople, the western edge of the continent fell under Muslim control when the Moors landed on the Iberian Peninsula. Tariq ibn-Ziyad, at the head of a 10,000-strong army from North Africa, began the conquest on April 29, 711AD at Gibraltar — a strip of land jutting into the Mediterranean Sea he named after himself. For nearly 500 years the Umayyad Dynasty reigned in Spain, leading to a flowering of culture while the rest of Europe languished in the Dark Ages.
In the centuries following the disintegration of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths marched southwest out of France into the Iberian Peninsula. By the middle of the 500s, the new capital of Toledo was the center of a kingdom headed by Liuvigild that covered all but a sliver of northern and western Spain. Unlike the heart of Europe, where the Ostrogoths, Franks, Burgundians, and others were disassembling the cultural institutions which gave Rome its distinct influence, the Visigoths maintained a similar social structure.
For the next 150 years, the monarchy fostered a feudal system, linking the classic Roman estates together with promises of mutual protection under the king’s armies in exchange for providing a few dozen soldiers. Most people worked under the thumb of a Visigoth overlord, creating a peasant class of Iberians with little connection to their rulers. Indeed, according to legend, the opening for ibn-Ziyad and his men was created by a disgruntled Iberian nobleman traveling across the narrow strait to Tangier to speak with Umayyad general Musa bin Nusayr in search of relief from the oppressive Visigothic rule.
Much of what happened leading up to ibn-Ziyad’s invasion is shrouded in mystery. Due to a dearth of literature dating to the period from either side, researchers are left to guess about the motivations of the Muslim advance. Some believe the Iberian visitor, if he existed at all, might have been on the losing end of a civil war and appealing for help with the promise of expanded markets for North African goods. Others claim the purpose to be related to a planned invasion — the Umayyads had, after all, been aggressively seizing territory after taking control of the caliphate in 661 AD.
Regardless, ibn-Ziyad and his men arrived on April 29, 711AD and changed the course of Spanish and Portuguese history. Pleased with himself for a successful journey from Ceuta, ibn-Ziyad named the nearby Rock of Calpe “Jabal-i-Tariq” — “Tariq’s mountain” — giving the area its distinctive moniker. (“Gibraltar” is a mispronunciation of this.)
Over the next three months, bin Nusayr’s 18,000 Arab and Berber soldiers landed in Seville with designs on connecting with ibn-Ziyad and his men in Toledo. At roughly the same time, Visigoth king Roderic gathered thousands of troops to meet this first wave of invaders on the field at the Battle of Guadalete. Somewhere along a river or lake in southern Iberia — the exact location has not survived — Christian and Arab-Berber armies clashed for the first time perhaps, some 300-plus years before the First Crusade. By the end of the day, possibly in late July, Roderic and much of the Visigoth nobility had been put to the sword, not to mention thousands of Christian soldiers. The Iberian Peninsula was now essentially a territory waiting for bin Nusayr to claim it.
As of 718 AD, the Moors had gained control of all of modern Spain and Portugal, as well as a chunk of southwestern France. Calling the new territory al-Andalus, the Muslims continued to push to the north in the hopes of rolling over the Franks. Only the efforts of Charles Martel — using the Pyrenees Mountains to his advantage in 732 AD — would stop the Umayyad advance.
For more than 750 years, Iberia was under Muslim control. A center of intellectual and artistic pursuits, al-Andalus had a tremendous literacy rate when compared with its European neighbors — a fact attested to by one of the largest libraries in the world being located at Cordoba. Known for tolerance of all viewpoints, it became a haven for Jewish philosophers, as well as a noted location for the study of medicine and astronomy.
Also On This Day:
1429 – Joan of Arc reinforces beleaguered French soldiers and citizens the Siege of Orleans, soon to be her first major victory.
1587 – A raid on the Bay of Cadiz led by Francis Drake sinks 23 ships of the Spanish fleet.
1862 – Admiral David Farragut claims New Orleans for Union forces.
1945 – The concentration camp at Dachau is liberated
1975 – The United States begins to evacuate Americans from Saigon as the North Vietnamese army nears the capture of the South Vietnamese capital.