Spanish history really is amazing. As someone from the United States, who has spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East, I tend to focus on British and ancient history. Last year my family took a trip to Spain and Morocco and I really got a sense of what I’m missing. Spain has its roots in a fascinating conflict and mixture between Roman, Medieval Christian, and Islamic cultures. The Crusades focusing on Jerusalem, a much more transitory affair, get a lot more press. Which seems nuts. You’ve got to go back to 1961 and the surprisingly woke, and gloriously bloated, Charlton Heston film El Cid to find a treatment of the Spanish Reconquista in popular culture.
This is a shame, because it’s an incredibly epic story. You’ve got Medieval culture clash that literally ends the SAME YEAR, 1492, as a new and even more momentous clash between continental civilizations. The Crusades don’t have the conquest of a continent as their aftermath. The lack of coverage may have something to do with the fact that Spanish history, and Latin American history hasn’t always been the happiest. Here’s hoping that that changes in future years. I’m definitely excited to do some more work on the topic, and I am super excited to be covering it in this week’s video…
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. In the last installment of this series we dealt with the fall of Constantinople, a great crime committed against Christianity, supposedly by Muslims, but actually by Christians. Today we’ll deal with the fall of Muslim Spain, a great crime committed against Islam, supposedly by Christians, but actually by fanatical Muslims.
Al-Andalus, which included much of the territory of Modern Spain, has a complicated history. It’s golden age under the Caliphate of Cordoba is even more distant in time than the golden age of Constantinople, though the last pocket of Muslim rule in Spain was stamped out at around the same time as the remnants of that city. Cordoba around the year 1000 was richer than all of Western European Christendom combined. It was also more tolerant than any other domain at the time, Muslim or Christian. Muslim Spain is remembered as one of the three great post-biblical golden ages for Jewish life. The still standing great mosque of Cordoba remains so beautiful I was compelled to make a video about it when I visited last year.
Lately there’s been a lot of push back on this story of tolerance and civilization. People tend to hyperventilate over things that are actually not at all shocking, like the fact that Caliphs would execute Jews and Christians who publicly insulted Islam. This whole genre of historical revisionism relies on a high degree of ignorance. Folks who praise Al-Andalus never claimed that it was an amazingly tolerant place by the standards of today. It was just miraculously better than the savagely brutal, murderous dirt farm that the rest of Europe, and most of the rest of the world was at the time. Next door, in what was becoming France, at around the same time Christians were massacring hundreds of thousands of Christians for getting the details wrong. In Muslim Spain you could practice a religion different from the folks in charge, and as long as you paid some special taxes and kept your mouth shut about Islam you could survive, and even prosper. By the standards of the year 1000 or 1200 or even 1600 that was amazing. We should not be judging Medieval kingdoms by the standards of modern Switzerland. Anyway, digression over.
Europe remembers the reconquest of Spain as a glorious story of the triumph of Christianity, while the Islamic world remembers it as a sort of theft. The loss of the glories of Cordoba is seen as a tragedy by Muslims, and it is. It’s an interesting mirror image to the way that Christians see the loss of Constantinople. And just like that story, what really happened is a lot more complicated than infidels being mean.
Constantinople’s fall really happened 250 years earlier than we are told, and the end of Islam’s golden age in Spain came almost 500 years before the final expulsion of the Muslims in 1492. The Christian kingdoms of Aragon and Castile did the mopping up, but it was the Muslims themselves that ended the golden age. As these things tend to do, the Caliphate of Cordoba fell because of a child king and some greedy advisors. Over 50 or so years from the 980s to the 1030s it all fell apart. The Muslim areas of Spain broke up into a bunch of smaller units known as the Taifa kingdoms. Some of them preserved Cordoba’s tradition of sophistication and tolerance, and some of them didn’t. And they became easier targets for the Christian states to the North.
And that’s when one Taifa king in particular made Al-Andalus’s greatest mistake. In 1086 he invited the Almoravids of North Africa to come and save him from the Christians. In the immediate term this worked. The Almoravids crushed the Christians at the battle of Sagrajas. But then they turned on the Taifa kingdoms themselves. Swallowing most of them up by 1094. In the words of Maria Rosa Menocal:
“These Fanatics considered the Andalusian Muslims intolerably weak, with their diplomatic relations with Christian States, not to mention their promotion of Jews in virtually every corner of their government and society”.
Muslim Spain then began a century long decline as a province of primarily African Empires. The Almoravids were exactly the sort of Jihadis that Islam haters worry about. They’re the sorts of fanatics that ISIS and the Saudis idolize. They were also huge losers. Religious fanaticism can yield some easy early victories, but it doesn’t have much staying power. The Almoravids were overthrown by the even more fanatical Almohad Caliphate in 1147. The Almohads destroyed what was left of the tolerant culture of Muslim Spain. Christians and Jews fled their fanaticism in droves. And the Almohads didn’t last that long either. In 1212 the Almohads lost the Battle of Las Navas De Tolosa to four Christian kings. This battle broke Muslim power in Spain for all time. The Emirate of Granada survived for another 250 years but only by paying tribute to the Christian kingdom of Castile. The Fanatics took a little more than one hundred years to destroy what more moderate Muslims had been building for four centuries.
So once again, we see a religious golden age, destroyed by that religion’s own extremists. Al-Andalus and Constantinople should occupy honored positions in the histories of their respective religions. They were extraordinary places, and extraordinary times. But we should let go of the religiously bigoted legends of their fall. They don’t help anybody, and they’re not, you know, accurate.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe and many thanks to the Producers and Patrons that make this work possible. With this video I’ve now completed two of the four things I promised in that thank you video six months ago. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask that you consider joining the Patrons over here. We’ve only got six months left to hit this year’s fundraising goal, and donations have really slowed down over the past month. I know I’m falling behind on the book I promised. Turns out writing a book is hard. I’m about a third of a way there, you can follow my progress on twitter, and if you sign up on Patreon you can get a peek at some of the early chapters. Thanks so much.