To thoroughly examine an event it is necessary to look at both the factors that caused it and the consequences that followed as a result of it. Only then can the historian witness the full essence and achieve a deeper understanding. “The rise of Islam and the creation of an Arab empire that stretched all the way from the Pyrenees to the Punjab during the course of the seventh and early eighth centuries transformed the political and the cultural geography of the Mediterranean and the Near East forever.
Agreeably they represent the most important developments in Europe and western Asia during the whole of the first millennium A. D” 1. Between 711 and 718 several incompletely co-ordinated expeditions, numbering no more than twenty-five thousand soldiers in all, managed with very few pitched battles to conquer all but the most mountainous north-western portions of the peninsula. In the course of this essay I will discuss this significant conquest of Spain with the goal of answering the question: Why was the Muslim conquest of Spain a success?
To begin I would like to examine the Kingdom known as Hispania before the arrival of Moslem forces. “After the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 AD) the Teutonic tribe of Visigoths ended up ruling the whole peninsula (during that time they pushed another Teutonic tribe out – the Vandals – and conquered another one – the Suevi)”2. It is frequently stated in historical sources that Spain was one of the former Roman provinces where the Latin language and culture grew deep roots. After the fall of the Empire the Visigoths continued the tradition by becoming probably the most Romanized of all Teutonic tribes.
However in saying that it is important to note the lack of administrative and political order and unity that existed there. For unlike the Spain of the late medieval age Kingship was elective, not hereditary. As a result “The Visgothic monarchy had for centuries been undermined by family rivalries. “3 In the year 710 King Roderic ascended to the throne. It would appear that his election proved divisive. “The absence of coinage in his name from Tarraconese and Narbonese mints suggests that his authority was challenged there. ” 4Another shortcoming was the fact Monarchy had never achieved complete religious or political unity in its kingdom. Politically speaking, neither Suevian resistance in Galicia nor Basque resistance in the Pyrenees, nor the independent spirit of the old Hispano-Roman towns in Andalusia and the Levant had ever been completely eliminated”5. The Hispano-Roman population had little national loyalty whilst the large number of Jews that existed there resented the discrimination they suffered at the hands of their Visgothic rulers. All these factors lead us to the conclusion that by the time the Moslems landed Hispania was in a very vulnerable state indeed.
Now that we understand the weakness that was present across the Iberian peninsula I will examine the conquest itself to further uncover why it was a success. On April 30th of 711, Berber leader Tarik ibn-Ziyad landed at Gibraltar with a force estimated at 10,000 men. He was sent by Musa ibn Nusayr The Arab Governor of North Africa. “6 Several historical sources state that the Islamic caliphate had not actually targeted Spain for conquest, but that political divisions in the Visigothic kingdom created an opportunity that Tarik and his army exploited successfully. 7However some sources suggest that the Arabs saw the Iberian peninsula as an extension of Africa and it was only a matter of time before efforts were made to conquer it. “King Roderic at the outset of his reign was in a vulnerable position. The opening of a new Kings rule was a particularly sensitive time where challenges to his authority might be expected. “8 When Tariq invaded Roderic was campaigning against the Basques in the North. He marched south to face this new threat to his power.
It is widely believed by historians that the King did not consider the Moslems a significant threat therefore it is unlikely that he had raised substantial levies from other parts of the peninsula. The two forces met in battle at the Guadalquivir valley and it is there that Roderic met his demise. Many historians make a point of mentioning the uncanny number of similarities between the Muslin conquest of Spain in 711 and the arrival of the Normans in Britain in 1066. Indeed both conquests have a lot in common.
In the case of Britain King Harold was in the north dealing with a Viking threat when the Normans invaded. Although he had superior numbers, the campaign and the long march left his army exhausted and they were defeated at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 leaving the rest of the country to fall into Norman rule. The main problem with Roderic’s rule of Hispania was the way most of his power was concentrated in the South “Merida was a stronghold of his partisans”9 Therefore any large and well organised invading force could take a foothold in the North with virtually no resistance.
Like a game of chess when the king was taken out of the equation the game was virtually over. With the absence of a son or any clear successor. Added to this Tarik quickly captured of Toledo which was “the only place where a King might legitimately be anointed. The Hispanics were left in disarray. Having made these first strategic, sniping blows the Moslems were gaining momentum on what was becoming a downhill run. This is when Tarik’s overlord Musa began to take interest. He saw Tarik’s achievements as both a threat and opportunity. The tribal democracy of Arabian society, reinforced by the egalitarianism of Islam, made it essential for any governor however appointed to take the lead in person of any major military undertaking, or risk being deposed by his own followers. “10 That is why in the year 711 he arrived with a large army determined to consolidate his power and bring the conquest to a conclusion. Quickly he captured Seville. The Kings former stronghold Merida held out much longer. After a year and a half of heavy siege it was finally taken. This completed “Musa continued North along the old Roman road to Salamanca.
He turned East before that city to encounter his subordinate Tarik coming from Toledo to meet him at Talavera”11. In 714 the two men continued their Northern thrust of conquest to Zaragoza and then divided. Musa took Soria and Palencia before reaching the Bay of Biscay at Gijon whilst Tarik marched trough Logorno to Lyon and Astorgo. To account for the rapidity of the conquest I will examine Hispania during and after the time of conquest. As I have already explained the Kingdom was in a State of disunity. Most of the population had no real feelings of loyalty to either King or state, although many had reason to oppose it.
When the Barbers arrived in Gibraltar they got different reactions from different factions of the population. To a large proportion of the population of Hispania King Roderic who was killed at Guadalete was in fact a usurper , and the North African invaders had come at the request of the partisans of the legitimate claimant Aquila. We are told that ” most of the Hispano-Roman rural and urban population felt neither the loyalty to a united monarchy nor the strong religious unity which might have created a type of national resistance to the Islamic invader. 12 Then there was the Jews who welcomed the newcomers who ended their persecution. I think one of the best moves by the North African invaders was the way they treated their new subjects. They did not try to force their religion or customs on them but instead let things continue as they were before. “The Hispano-Roman towns , even in relative decay, and the great agricultural estates of the Visgothic Nobility were more prosperous than those of the Maghrib. “13 supporters of the invasion retained their estates.
The property that the invaders took for themselves was not altered much and they “courted the local population by improving the conditions of share-cropping”14. An important figure which I believe merits special mention here is Theodemir. He was a Gothic count. The Moslems allowed him to keep his land and property and practice Christianity as long as he paid a special tax knows as Jixya. This is one of perhaps many deals and arrangements made by the Arabs in return for submission. It shows great diplomacy on the part of the invaders.
Religious tolerance for all “Peoples of the Book”15 was encouraged. All these things served the invaders in two ways. It significantly reduced the chance of opposition to their new rule, and it improved the levels of conversions to Islam greatly. The forty years after the conquest were obscure to say the least. Musa and Tarik were recalled to Damascus in the Winter of the years 714-15 by their master the Umayyad caliph Walid 1st where instead of being celebrated and praised for the magnitude of their achievements they were stripped of their property.
There is no mention of them in later histories and we can only imagine that they met their deaths. The Moslem invaders themselves were never a united force but were made up of a variety of different peoples. “Within the ruling group Arabs, Syrians and Egyptians were mutually suspicious, and none of them could be sure of the loyalty of their largely Berber troop”16. Between 732 and 735 no less than twenty three governors of Spain were named by the caliph. This is a laughable figure but it points to the deep social unrest that existed.
Once the united army had established itself in this new country it divided into factions each intent on claiming the best land or the most commanding positions for their particular group. However during this time things were never right in Hispania. A great famine in 750 sent thousands of Berber immigrants back to Spain. Although during this time there was never any hope that the conquerors would be overthrown there was a chance that the new regime would inherit the same problems that had plagued Visigoth rule I. e. isunity and administration problems. The event which indirectly saved it from such a fate was the “overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus, and its replacement by the rule of the Abbasids. “17 In the year 756 a surviving Umayyad prince arrived in Spain heralding in a new era and a more stable political system in Spain. He established the Emirate of Cordoba as his seat of power due to its central position in relation to the other cities of Spain. He was able to found a central administration that was to function in for two and a half centuries.